Secretary of State William H. Seward had pledged that Major Robert Anderson’s Federal garrison would evacuate Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, by the 18th. On the 20th, the Confederate commissioners in Washington seeking to negotiate a peaceful settlement of disputes over Federal property on Confederate soil (Martin J. Crawford, John Forsyth, and A.B. Roman) telegraphed Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard at Charleston: “Has Sumter been evacuated? Any action by Anderson indicating it?” Beauregard replied that the Federals were building defenses and showed no sign of evacuating.
The commissioners then contacted Confederate Secretary of State Robert Toombs: “You have not heard from us because there is no change. If there is faith in man we may rely on the assurances we have as to the status. Time is essential to a peaceful issue of this mission. In the present posture of affairs precipitation is war. We are all agreed.”
Supreme Court Justice John A. Campbell, intermediary between the Lincoln administration and the Confederate envoys, explained the Confederate concerns to Seward. The secretary assured both him and fellow Justice Samuel Nelson that the administration’s policy would be peaceful coexistence with the Confederacy, and any delay in evacuating the fort was unintentional. Seward did not reply to two notes written by Campbell accusing him of overreaching his authority and vacillating. Meanwhile, officials released some correspondence between Seward and the Confederate envoys to the press, which caused indignation in the North.
The next day, Federal special agent Gustavus V. Fox reached Charleston. Fox had been sent to inspect the defenses in the harbor to determine whether a relief expedition to Anderson’s garrison could be practical. South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens, skeptical of Fox’s mission but reluctant to spark a diplomatic issue by expelling him, permitted Fox to visit the Federal troops at Fort Sumter and notify Washington of their condition. Permission depended “expressly upon the pledge of ‘pacific purposes.’”
A Confederate steamer conveying Fox landed at Sumter’s wharf near sundown. Fox managed to elude his escort long enough to speak privately with Major Anderson about a potential relief mission. Anderson told Fox that such an effort would be too late, and if caught by the Confederates, it would be seen as an act of war. But Fox could hear unseen boats moving around the harbor, leading him to believe that he could slip the same kinds of vessels in to reinforce Anderson. Fox then took an inventory of Anderson’s supplies, and the men agreed that he only had enough to last until April 15. After that, there would be no choice but to evacuate.
Fox returned from his mission on the 24th, still convinced that Fort Sumter could be reinforced by sea. Despite his cabinet’s near-unanimous opposition to such a plan, President Abraham Lincoln approved it and authorized Fox to assemble a transport fleet in New York. Meanwhile, Seward again assured Campbell that the fort would be abandoned. This helped ease Confederate fears that the Federals may try reinforcing the garrison.
Lincoln dispatched two more agents to Charleston. Stephen A. Hurlbut, one of Lincoln’s former law partners, and Ward Hill Lamon, an old friend who served as Lincoln’s bodyguard, were sent to see if there was any Unionist sentiment that might be cultivated among the South Carolinians. While there, Hurlbut and Lamon met with various politicians and business leaders, including James L. Petigru, who called himself “the only man in the city of Charleston who avowedly adheres to the Union.”
Lamon met with Governor Pickens and, as if acting as a double agent, he conceded that reconciliation was impossible. Pickens said that “nothing can prevent war except the acquiescence of the President of the United States in secession and his unalterable resolve not to attempt any reinforcement of the Southern forts.” Lamon assured Pickens that he was authorized to arrange for Sumter’s evacuation. Pickens allowed Lamon to go to Fort Sumter, where he met with Anderson and, as Anderson later reported to the War Department, gave him the impression that “orders would soon be issued for my abandoning this work.”
Returning to Charleston, Lamon met with Pickens again and asked him if a Federal warship could come into the harbor to evacuate the Federal garrison. Pickens refused, asserting that permitting a foreign war vessel to enter the harbor could compromise his state’s sovereignty. The men agreed that the Federals could be evacuated aboard a regular steamship, which Lamon said that Anderson preferred anyway. The meeting ended with Lamon expressing hope that he could return in a few days to direct the evacuation, even though he had no authority to do so. Meanwhile, Fox continued assembling the naval fleet to reinforce Fort Sumter, despite Lamon’s pledge and Anderson’s strong urging to evacuate the fort.
In Washington, Republican Lyman Trumbull of Illinois introduced a resolution in the Senate declaring that “it is the duty of the President to use all means in his power to hold and protect the public property of the United States.” A Republican caucus met with Lincoln and warned him that surrendering Sumter would be disastrous for the new party.
As Lincoln continued consulting with advisors about the mounting crisis, Hurlbut returned from Charleston with a disheartening report: “Separate Nationality is a fixed fact… there is no attachment to the Union… positively nothing to appeal to—the sentiment of national patriotism, always feeble in Carolina, has been extinguished and over-ridden.” Charlestonians, Hurlbut said, “expect a golden era, when Charleston shall be a great commercial emporium and control for the South, as New York does for the North.”
Regarding Sumter, Hurlbut stated: “At present the garrison can be withdrawn without insult to them or their flag. In a week this may be impossible and probably will.” Hurlbut opined that any effort to resupply Fort Sumter would be considered an act of war; even “a ship known to contain only provisions for Sumpter (sic) would be stopped and refused admittance.” Reinforcing Hurlbut’s opinion, Governor Pickens notified delegates to the South Carolina Convention that 600 men were needed to defend the Charleston Harbor forts.
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- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. Kindle Edition 2008, 1889.
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- Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.
- Sears, Stephen W., Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, (Kindle Edition), 2017.