Learning Lincoln On-line

FROM-- SET ONE, CIVIL WAR STUDIES

Topics Fifty:  Abraham Lincoln  Commanding the War

FOR MORE FT. SUMTER INFORMATION VISIT THE FORT SUMTER READINGS PUZZLE

THE FIRST SHOTS AT FORT SUMTER

       As Lincoln assumed office an informal, uneasy truce had lasted for several months. Seven Deep South states had declared their secession, and the Union held, in the territory claimed by the new Confederate States of America, only Fort Sumter, Fort Pickens near Pensacola, Florida, and a couple of small forts in the Florida Keys. Any thoughts Lincoln might have had about using time to his advantage in addressing the crisis were shattered on March 5, the day after the inauguration, when he read a letter from Major Robert Anderson, the commander at Fort Sumter, stating that his troops would run out of provisions within four to six weeks.On March 3 General Scott had written to Seward suggesting that Fort Sumter be abandoned. Scott saw four options for the administration—a full-scale military operation to subdue the South, endorsement of the Crittenden Compromise to win back the seceded states, the closure of southern ports and the collection of duties from ships stationed outside the harbors, or directing the seven southern states that had declared secession to "depart in peace".

        Lincoln concentrated on the most immediate question of whether to maintain or abandon Fort Sumter. At a meeting on March 7, Scott and John G. Totten, the army's chief engineer, said that simply reinforcing the fort was not possible, although Welles and his top assistant Silas Stringham disagreed. Scott advised Lincoln that it would take a large fleet, 25,000 troops, and several months of training in order to defend the fort. On March 13 Montgomery Blair, the strongest proponent in the cabinet for standing firm at Fort Sumter, introduced Lincoln to his brother-in-law, Gustavus V. Fox. Fox presented a plan for a naval resupply and reinforcement of the fort. The plan had been approved by Scott during the last month of the previous administration, but Buchanan had rejected it. Scott had earlier advised Lincoln that it was too late for the plan to be successful, but the President was receptive to the proposed mission. The Fox proposal was discussed at a cabinet meeting, and Lincoln followed up on March 15 by asking each cabinet member to provide a written answer to the question, "Assuming it to be possible to now provision Fort-Sumpter [sic], under all circumstances, is it wise to attempt it?" Only Blair gave his unconditional approval to the plan. No decision was reached, although Lincoln told at least one congressman that if he were forced to surrender Sumter, holding Fort Pickens would still make a symbolic point. In the meantime Lincoln personally dispatched Fox to Charleston to talk to Anderson and independently assess the situation. Lincoln also sent Illinois friends Stephen A. Hurlbut and Ward Lamon to the city on a separate intelligence-gathering mission. The recommendations that came back were that reinforcement was both necessary, since secessionist feeling ran high and threatened the fort, and feasible, despite Anderson's misgivings. On March 28, however, Scott recommended that both Pickens and Sumter be abandoned, basing his decision more on political than military grounds.

       The next day a deeply agitated Lincoln presented Scott's proposal to the cabinet. Blair was now joined by Welles and Chase in supporting reinforcement. Bates was non-committal, Cameron was not in attendance, and Seward and Smith opposed resupply. Later that day Lincoln gave Fox the order to begin assembling a squadron to reinforce Fort Sumter. The actual dispatch of the squadron was complicated by the failure of Lincoln, Welles, Seward, and the men on the ground preparing the expedition to communicate effectively. Assets needed for the Fort Sumter expedition were mistakenly directed to a separate mission to Fort Pickens, a mission that was plagued by faulty communication between Washington and the forces already in Florida.  On April 6, with the Sumter mission ready to go, Lincoln sent State Department clerk Robert S. Chew to see South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens and read the following statement:

       I am directed by the President of the United States to notify you to expect an attempt will be made to supply Fort-Sumpter [sic] with provisions only; and that, if such attempt be not resisted, no effort to throw in men, arms, or ammunition, will be made, without further notice, or in case of an attack upon the Fort.

       The message was delivered to Pickens on April 8. The information was telegraphed that night to Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Richmond. The Confederate cabinet was already meeting to discuss the Sumter crisis, and on April 10 Davis decided to demand the surrender of the fort and bombard it if the demand was refused. The attack on the fort was initiated on April 12, and the fort surrendered the next day. The relief expedition sent by the Union arrived too late to intervene. The Civil War had begun.


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