Ward Hill Lamon, special agent to President Abraham Lincoln, had visited Charleston, South Carolina, and intimated to Governor Francis W. Pickens that Major Robert Anderson’s Federal garrison at Fort Sumter in the harbor would soon be evacuated. Pickens passed his message on to Brigadier-General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the harbor defenses.
On the 26th, Beauregard wrote to Anderson, his former instructor at West Point, regarding Lamon’s intimations. He also addressed the rumors that the Federals would destroy the fort and its armaments before evacuating. Beauregard assured Anderson since their countries were not at war, he would not require a formal Federal surrender. He added: “All that will be required of you on account of the public rumors… will be your word of honor as an officer and a gentleman, that the fort, all public property therein, its armament, &c., shall remain in their present condition, without any arrangements or preparation for their destruction or injury after you shall have left the fort.”
Anderson replied: “I am much obliged to his excellency the governor and yourself for the assurances you give me,” but regarding the idea of giving a pledge, “I feel deeply hurt at the intimation in your letter about the conditions which will be exacted of me…” Beauregard wrote back that he had no intention of hurting “the feelings of so gallant an officer by anything I may have written” in his original letter. He explained that he was merely responding to rumors, and since it was such a sensitive topic, “I regret now having referred to the subject.”
Beauregard forwarded this correspondence to Secretary of War Leroy P. Walker on the 27th, along with a covering letter: “It will be seen by Major Anderson’s answer, if there be any truth in man, that nothing like a doubtful course can be feared from him on the evacuation of Fort Sumter, which ought now to be decided upon in a few days, for this state of uncertainty ought not to last longer than is necessary to have all our preparations made to compel him to a surrender, should the United States Government not be willing to withdraw him peaceably.”
At Washington, President and Mrs. Lincoln hosted their first official state dinner at the White House on the 28th. Attendees included the cabinet and Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, who handed the president a memo he had written on the 15th. Scott had waited to give this to Lincoln in hopes that it would maximize its impact. The memo gave Lincoln such a “cold shock” that he called his cabinet into special session after the dinner and shared with them its contents.
As expected, Scott recommended the evacuation of Fort Sumter. A plan devised by Gustavus V. Fox to resupply Anderson with small vessels under cover of night was currently underway, but Scott argued that even if it succeeded, it would only buy time until more such missions would be needed to keep Anderson’s men supplied. Scott concluded: “An abandonment of the fort in a few weeks, sooner or later, would appear, therefore, to be a sure necessity, and if so, the sooner the more graceful on the part of the Government.”
The real shocker came with Scott’s recommendation to also abandon Fort Pickens, in Pensacola Harbor, Florida. Unlike Sumter, Pickens was aided by a U.S. warship and could be easily supplied. Also, the Federal garrison and the Floridians had a tacit agreement that the fort would not be disturbed as long as it was not reinforced. Scott had not recommended evacuating Fort Pickens before, but now he asserted:
“It is doubtful… whether the voluntary evacuation of Fort Sumter alone would have a decisive effect upon the States now wavering between adherence to the Union and secession… Our Southern friends… are clear that the evacuation of both the forts would instantly soothe and give confidence to the eight remaining slaveholding States, and render their cordial adherence to this Union perpetual.”
The other two forts in Florida, Jefferson and Taylor on the Florida Keys, should be retained at all costs, according to Scott, to serve as fueling stations between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic. Scott concluded with the desperate hope that appeasing the South by giving up Sumter and Pickens might “recover the State to which they geographically belong by the liberality of the act, besides retaining the eight doubtful States.”
Scott’s recommendations went against everything Lincoln was in the process of doing. Fox was in New York assembling a naval fleet to resupply Fort Sumter, and Lincoln had ordered the reinforcement of Fort Pickens. With his top military officer now opposing both of these plans, Lincoln called on his cabinet for advice.
Lincoln read the memo in an “agitated manner” as the advisors listened with “blank amazement.” Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, who had always been the one cabinet member strongly in favor of reinforcing Fort Sumter, announced: “Mr. President, you can now see that General Scott… is playing the part of a politician, not of a general.” Blair asserted that the Federal government had the upper hand militarily in regards to Fort Pickens, and that should not be given up. Lincoln asked each cabinet member to write out an opinion on the matter and bring it to a meeting at noon the next day.
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