President Abraham Lincoln assembled his cabinet officers at 12 p.m. on the 29th to hear their opinions on what should be done regarding Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, and Fort Pickens in Pensacola Harbor, Florida. Lincoln had directed naval expert Gustavus V. Fox to organize an expedition to resupply the Federal garrison at Sumter, and he had ordered the reinforcement of the garrison at Pickens. But Brevet Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, general-in-chief of the U.S. Army, had shocked the president by urging that both forts be abandoned. Lincoln had been weighing his options since his inauguration, but now, with the supplies at Sumter about to run out, it was time to make a decision.
Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, who had always supported keeping Sumter and Pickens, railed against Scott’s advice: “I have no confidence in his judgment on the questions of the day. His political views control his judgment, and his course as remarked on by the President shows that, whilst no one will question his patriotism, the results are the same as if he was in fact traitorous.” Abandoning Fort Sumter “will take us years of bloody strife to recover from… I am unwilling to share in the responsibility of such a policy.” Blair was ready to submit his resignation if Lincoln ordered Sumter’s evacuation.
Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase had always supported keeping Pickens, and now he was “just as clearly in favor of provisioning Fort Sumter.” He reasoned: “If war is to be the result I perceive no reason why it may not be best begun in consequence of military resistance to the efforts of the administration to sustain troops of the Union stationed under the authority of the government in a fort of the Union in the ordinary course of service.”
Navy Secretary Gideon Welles agreed with Chase. Attorney General Edward Bates vacillated, writing: “I think the time is come either to evacuate or relieve it (Sumter).” Secretary of War Simon Cameron was not present at the meeting and therefore offered no opinion.
Secretary of State William H. Seward and Interior Secretary Caleb B. Smith believed that Sumter should be abandoned, but Pickens should be reinforced. Seward argued: “The dispatch of an expedition to supply or re-enforce Sumter would provoke an attack and so involve a war at that point. The fact of preparation for such an expedition would inevitably transpire, and would therefore precipitate the war—and probably defeat the object. I do not think it wise to provoke a civil war beginning at Charleston and in rescue of an untenable position.” But regarding Pickens: “I would at once and at every cost prepare for a war at Pensacola… to be taken however only as a consequence of maintaining the possession and authority of the United States.”
Seward had ulterior motives. He had been secretly assuring Confederate emissaries that Fort Sumter would be abandoned in the hopes that it would appease the South enough to come back into the Union. If Lincoln decided to hold it, not only would his hopes be dashed, but he would be seen in the South as deceitful. Seward also had little respect for Lincoln’s abilities as president and hoped to be the power behind the throne.
The cabinet was unanimous in holding Fort Pickens. The final vote on Fort Sumter was three to two in favor of resupply, not counting Cameron or Bates. This marked a reversal of the five to two vote against resupply two weeks before. Seward’s influence among his fellow cabinet members was slipping. Lincoln may have anticipated this change, for he had been working with Fox to organize a Fort Sumter relief fleet in New York. Fox provided Lincoln with data on the amount of men, supplies, and equipment needed to reinforce the garrison. Fox said the fleet could leave for South Carolina within a week, and Lincoln told Fox to await further orders.
By the time the meeting ended, Lincoln had made up his mind. He issued an order to Cameron: “I desire than an expedition, to move by sea, be got ready to sail as early as the 6th of April next, the whole according to memorandum attached, and that you co-operate with the Secretary of the Navy for that object.” Fort Sumter would be resupplied.
Meanwhile, the Confederate envoys in Washington (Martin J. Crawford, John Forsyth, and A.B. Roman) received a telegram from South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens inquiring about the purpose of Ward Hill Lamon’s visit to Charleston and the Federal delay in evacuating Sumter. Supreme Court Justice John A. Campbell, acting as intermediary between the Seward and the envoys, brought the message to Seward’s attention.
Lincoln’s decision to reinforce Sumter threatened to expose Seward’s duplicity in negotiating with the Confederate envoys without presidential consent. It also violated Seward’s pledge of March 15 that the Federals would evacuate the fort. On March 20th, Seward had called any delay in the evacuation “accidental,” and when Campbell confronted him with this latest correspondence, Seward scheduled a meeting for April 1.
By the end of March, rumors swirled throughout Washington that Sumter would be evacuated. The Confederate envoys still believed that the Lincoln administration would abandon the fort based on their communications with Seward through Campbell. But Lincoln, unaware of these communications, had other ideas.
The Confederate government thought this might be the case, and as such, Adjutant General Samuel Cooper sent instructions to Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederates at Charleston: “The Secretary of War directs that you will allow no further communications between the Government of the United States and Fort Sumter, unless the written instructions of the intermediary are first submitted to your inspection, with satisfactory assurances that there are no verbal instructions inconsistent with those which are written.”
Time was becoming a critical factor. On the last day of the month, Major Robert Anderson, commanding the Federal garrison at Fort Sumter, reported to Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas that “our provisions are very nearly exhausted… The last barrel of flour was issued day before yesterday.” The relief mission would soon be on its way, but whether it would arrive in time (or at all) was very uncertain.
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), The Coming Fury. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1961.
- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. Kindle Edition 2008, 1889.
- Davis, William C., Brother Against Brother: The War Begins. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- 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.
- McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press (Kindle Edition), 1988.
- 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.
- United States War Department, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1 – Vol. 1. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1880-1902.