The war policy prevails

Gustavus V. Fox’s mission to resupply Major Robert Anderson’s Federal garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, was under way. Fox, a civilian given a captain’s rank to lead the expedition, assembled a naval fleet at New York that began heading south. On the morning of the 8th, the Federal revenue cutter Harriet Lane headed out, and that night, the Baltic did the same. These two ships would join the main relief fleet off Charleston.

In Washington, Secretary of State William H. Seward had a letter delivered to the Confederate envoys (Martin J. Crawford, John Forsyth, and A.B. Roman) that was back-dated to March 15. Seward wrote that neither he nor President Abraham Lincoln would meet with them because they did not represent “a rightful and accomplished revolution and an independent nation, with an established government,” but rather “a perversion of a temporary and partisan excitement to the inconsiderate purposes of an unjustifiable and unconstitutional aggression upon the rights and the authority vested in the federal government.”

Since the envoys represented a government that the Lincoln administration refused to recognize, Seward was not “at liberty to recognize them as diplomatic agents, or hold correspondence or other communication with them.” There was no mention of either the pledge that Seward had made on March 15 that Fort Sumter would be evacuated, or the pledge made the previous week that Sumter would not be resupplied without first notifying South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens.

Crawford wrote to Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding Confederate forces at Charleston: “Accounts are uncertain because of the constant vacillation of this Government. We were reassured yesterday that the status of Sumter would not be changed without previous notice to Governor Pickens, but we have no faith in them. The war policy prevails in the Cabinet at this hour.” The South Carolina Secession Convention readied for a conflict by approving an “ordinance to transfer to the Government of the Confederate States of America the use and occupancy of the forts, arsenals, navy-yards, custom-houses, and other public sites within the limits of this State.”

At Fort Sumter, Anderson received Secretary of War Simon Cameron’s letter informing him that Fox was headed his way with supplies. Anderson wrote to Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas: “I had the honor to receive by yesterday’s mail the letter of the honorable Secretary of War, dated April 4, and confess that what he there states surprises me greatly…” Anderson warned that any effort to resupply the fort, “when the South has been informed that none such will be attempted, would produce most disastrous results throughout the country.”

Anderson continued: “It is, of course, now too late for me to give any advice in reference to the proposed scheme of Captain Fox. I fear that its result cannot fail to be disastrous to all concerned…” He felt that he should have been given more notice; Fox had not directly mentioned any mission of this nature when he met with Anderson in March, and Ward Hill Lamon, Lincoln’s special agent who had met with both Anderson and Governor Pickens, clearly intimated that the fort would soon be evacuated.

Nevertheless, Anderson declared: “We shall strive to do our duty, though I frankly say that my heart is not in the war which I see is to be thus commenced. That God will still avert it, and cause us to resort to pacific measures to maintain our rights, is my ardent prayer.” Confederates intercepted this letter and forwarded it to President Jefferson Davis, a friend of Anderson’s, who saw that he was not part of the administration’s scheme to resupply the fort.

U.S. State Department clerk Robert Chew, accompanied by Captain Theodore Talbot, arrived at Charleston and delivered President Lincoln’s notice that Fort Sumter would be resupplied to Governor Pickens. Chew read the letter aloud, handed it to the governor, and headed back to Washington that night. Pickens forwarded the message to Beauregard, who telegraphed Secretary of War Leroy P. Walker in Montgomery: “An authorized messenger from President Lincoln just informed Governor Pickens and myself that provisions will be sent to Fort Sumter peaceably, or otherwise by force.”

Walker responded the next day: “Major Anderson’s mails must be stopped. The fort must be completely isolated.” Beauregard in turn notified Anderson that “from and after this day no mails will be allowed to go to or come from Fort Sumter until further instructions from the Confederate Government at Montgomery.” Beauregard placed all forts in the harbor on alert, and Confederate forces in Charleston began mobilizing for defense. An erroneous report in a city newspaper announced that war had begun.

On the 9th, Captain Fox boarded the steamer Baltic, which contained 20 landing boats and 200 Federal troops from Governor’s Island. The transport Illinois (carrying 500 muskets and 300 troops) and the steam-tug Freeborn accompanied the Baltic.

In Washington, the Confederate envoys informed Beauregard that they had learned about Fort Sumter being resupplied. Martin Crawford wrote the general: “Diplomacy has failed. The sword must now preserve our independence. Our gallant countrymen will do their duty.” The envoys prepared to leave the city and wrote a final letter to the Lincoln administration (with a copy forwarded to President Davis):

“Your refusal to entertain these overtures for a peaceful solution, the active naval and military preparations, and the formal notice… that the President intends to provision Fort Sumter by forcible means, if necessary… can only be received by the world as a declaration of war… The undersigned are not aware of any Constitutional power in the President of the United States to levy war, without the consent of Congress, upon a foreign People, much less upon any portion of the People of the United States…”

Meanwhile, Davis felt heavy pressure to stop the Federal vessels from reaching Sumter. If his administration allowed the Federals to resupply the Forts Sumter and Pickens, it would tacitly discredit the new nation’s sovereignty. The Charleston Mercury declared that provisioning Sumter meant war. A Mobile newspaper opined: “The spirit and even the patriotism of the people is oozing out under this do-nothing policy. If something is not done pretty soon… the whole country will become so disgusted with the sham of southern independence that the first chance the people get at a popular election they will turn the whole movement topsy-turvy.”

Davis held a cabinet meeting that night to discuss Lincoln’s message to Pickens and what course of action they should take. Most southerners favored attacking Fort Sumter, but this played right into Lincoln’s hands. He had declared in his inaugural address that there would be no conflict without the Confederates being the aggressors. If they fired the first shot over Sumter, they would be the aggressors, and Lincoln would gain the moral upper hand.

However, if the Confederacy was going to be an independent nation, it could not tolerate a foreign government stationing troops within its borders without its consent. Most of Davis’s advisors not only favored attack, but some argued that doing nothing or allowing South Carolina to act on its own would ruin the new government’s credibility. The final vote was five to one in favor of attack. The lone dissenter, Secretary of State Robert Toombs, warned Davis:

“The firing on that fort will inaugurate a civil war greater than any the world has yet seen, and I do not feel competent to advise you… Mr. President, at this time it is suicide, murder, and will lose us every friend at the North. You will wantonly strike a hornet’s nest which extends from mountain to ocean. Legions now quiet will swarm out and sting us to death. It is unnecessary. It puts us in the wrong. It is fatal.”

To Davis, Lincoln had caused this crisis because of his administration’s deceptive reversal on its initial pledge to evacuate Fort Sumter. He therefore decided the Confederates would attack.


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