One of the most persistent myths surrounding Abraham Lincoln and the War of Secession is that the Confederacy started the war by committing a naked act of aggression against the United States, namely by attacking Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. Those who followed Ron Paul’s campaign for President may remember David Shuster raising this point in defense of Lincoln when Dr. Paul appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program, back in December of 2007. At that time, Dr. Paul was under fire for having suggested that Lincoln should not have engaged the country in “a senseless civil war,” remarks he made during an interview with Tim Russert on “Meet the Press.”
And while it is true that the Confederacy did attack Sumter, most Americans are unaware of the circumstances that led to the attack, including Lincoln’s rather significant behind-the-scenes role in it. For that reason, I would like to take some time to share my research into those days in the hope that it may disperse the cobwebs in a particularly dark and neglected corner of Lincoln’s legacy. Some may wonder if this sort of discussion is even relevant to our modern political debate, but I would argue that it is, if for no other reason than because our federal government is currently operating in line with Lincoln’s ideology and our presidents trip over themselves to emulate his example. As far as the power-elite are concerned, there is but one god, the State, and Lincoln is its prophet. They will defend his legacy to the death because their power and the institutions upon which it rests, along with all that they yet hope to build, stands on the lanky shoulders of our sixteenth president and ideology behind his “people’s contest”.
If we wish to return America to its constitutional foundation, it is crucial for us to understand the truth about the man who so dramatically turned it away from that foundation, and the basis upon which he did so. It is, therefore, my hope that those who have unquestioningly accepted the traditional view of Lincoln's integrity might find reasons to reconsider him based on what they read here, and that any future independence movement in these United States will learn from the mistakes of the past rather than repeat them.
The following discussion is taken from part two of my book, One Nation Indivisible? A Study of Secession and the Constitution.
Charleston on the Eve of War
In 1860, Charleston harbor was guarded by three key military installations: Fort Moultrie, Castle Pinckney, and Fort Sumter, the latter of which was located on an artificial island in the midst of the harbor and was unoccupied at that time. Major Robert Anderson, a Kentuckian, was in charge of the harbor’s defenses, and both he and his garrison were stationed in Fort Moultrie. Anderson, whom Jefferson Davis later referred to as “a true soldier and a man of the finest sense of honor,” was sympathetic to the Southern states but felt that his duty required him to act first and foremost as an officer in the United States military. For that reason, Anderson was troubled when it became apparent that South Carolina would likely secede in the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency.
On November 28, 1860, Anderson wrote to his superiors in Washington and requested instructions. He was afraid that he and his garrison might come under attack if South Carolina seceded, and while he was “anxious…indeed, determined, so far as honor will permit-to avoid collision with the citizens of South Carolina,” he had also determined that he would not surrender his garrison without a direct order from Washington. Anderson also requested additional reinforcements and stated that he thought he could defend himself better if he were allowed to place troops in Fort Sumter.
On December 1, Adjutant-General Samuel Cooper responded to Anderson that he was, per the instructions of Secretary of War John B. Floyd, to defend himself if attacked, but otherwise to conduct himself in such a way “as to be free from the charge of initiating a collision”. These instructions were reiterated on December 11, when Anderson was visited by Don Carlos Buell, assistant to the Adjutant-General. Anderson’s orders from Buell were to “hold possession of the forts in the harbor” and to defend himself “to the last extremity” if attacked, but to “carefully” avoid “every act which would needlessly tend to provoke aggression.” He was authorized to occupy any of the forts if he was attacked or had reason to believe that he might be, but he was not “without evident and imminent necessity, to take up any position which could be construed into the assumption of a hostile attitude.” These orders were further reiterated in a personal letter from Secretary Floyd to Anderson on December 21, 1860, in which Anderson was ordered to “hold possession of the forts in the harbor of Charleston,” and to defend himself if attacked but to “exercise a sound military discretion” and to do nothing provocative.
South Carolina’s state convention unanimously voted to secede from the Union on December 20, 1860, one day prior to the follow-up communication from Secretary Floyd to Anderson; and the state immediately dispatched commissioners to Washington to negotiate for the peaceful transference of Charleston’s forts. At this time Anderson became especially vigilant regarding the attitude of South Carolinians toward his garrison, and grew more fearful of an impending attack with each passing day as the “Palmetto Republic” got underway. And while he was not certain what South Carolina’s intentions toward him and his garrison might be in the long run, he definitely knew that the state wished no change in the “military situation” in the harbor. Writing to his superiors on December 22, Anderson stated:
I have heard from several sources that last night and the night before a steamer was stationed between this island and Fort Sumter. That the authorities of South Carolina are determined to prevent, if possible, any troops from being placed in that fort…No one call tell what will be done. They may defer action until their commissioners return from Washington; or if apprised by the nature of the debates in Congress that their demands will not probably be acceded to, they may act without waiting for them.Clearly, Anderson understood that South Carolina would look negatively upon any attempt to move his garrison. Yet he was also responsible for defending the forts in the harbor and for protecting his men, a responsibility that led him to believe that he might have to violate South Carolina’s expectations, regardless of the political costs involved. Thus Anderson was caught in the unenviable position of having to exercise his discretion as to what constituted a threat against his command, and to act accordingly, while, at the same time, avoiding any actions that might be construed as provocative in the most highly charged political atmosphere in the history of the United States.
Finally, Anderson decided that he could wait no longer. He was convinced that he should abandon Fort Moultrie and place his garrison into Fort Sumter, where he thought South Carolina would “hardly be foolish enough to attack me” if negotiations did not go its way. With this in mind, Anderson transferred his garrison from Moultrie to Sumter after sundown on December 26, deceiving most of his men as to their intended destination, lest any of them should be inclined to warn South Carolina authorities. He then wrote his superiors to notify of them of the move, stating that it was, in his opinion, “necessary to prevent the effusion of blood”.
On the morning of December 27, the city of Charleston awoke to find a United States flag waving over Fort Sumter and smoke emanating from Fort Moultrie, as Anderson had ordered his men to destroy gun carriages and whatever ammunition could not be transported to Sumter. South Carolina authorities reacted to Anderson’s move by immediately taking possession of Castle Pinckney and Fort Moultrie and raising the Palmetto flag over those installations.
Anderson’s move created a flurry of activity. Newspapers, both North and South, accused the major of violating his orders and acting provocatively. South Carolina’s commissioners expressed their outrage to President James Buchanan, who advised that them that, while he understood that South Carolina believed Anderson had acted “not only without but against my orders,” he would not command Anderson to give up Sumter now that the state had seized the harbor’s remaining forts. Secretary of War Floyd was indignant, as he believed that Anderson had acted provocatively. When it became clear that Buchanan would not order Anderson to return to Moultrie, Floyd resigned.
In the final analysis, due to the fact that Anderson’s orders authorized him to hold the harbor, to occupy any fort necessary for accomplishing this directive, and to act based on his discretion in the matter, it must be said that he did not violate the “letter of the law” in moving to Fort Sumter. He did, however, violate the spirit of the law by knowingly taking action that would be viewed as provocative by the authorities at Charleston, and in the absence of any “evident and imminent necessity”. It is true that Anderson feared South Carolina authorities might assail him at Fort Moultrie at any time, but he had been in fear of this since November, and South Carolina had taken no such action in all that time. Nor had it made any moves against either Pinckney or Sumter, which it might have done quite easily, seeing as neither installation was garrisoned.
Indeed, the fact that South Carolina authorities were so completely taken by surprise by Anderson’s move, strongly indicates that they had no immediate intentions of assailing either Fort Sumter or Fort Moultrie. As it happened, it was not until after Anderson made his move that South Carolina made its move. Wondering whether the inhabitants of Charleston might not awake another morning to find a United States flotilla in the harbor, or some other such surprising state of affairs, state authorities seized control of the remaining forts and looked toward Washington with doubtful eyes. Ironically, Major Anderson had, by his actions in Charleston harbor, fostered a heightened attitude of suspicion and helped set the stage for the war that he himself wanted so very much to avoid.
The Star of the West
While South Carolina’s commissioners and President Buchanan were exchanging correspondence regarding the situation in Charleston harbor, Winfield Scott, hero of the Mexican War and General-In-Chief of the United States Army, was urging Buchanan to authorize a secret shipment of reinforcements, arms, and supplies to Fort Sumter. Buchanan, who found himself the subject of stinging accusations of spinelessness and disloyalty for failing take a hard line on South Carolina’s secession, already looked favorably on the idea, and had spent time discussing the matter with his cabinet. Buchanan suggested using the USS Brooklyn for the mission, but General Scott felt that the presence of a warship would be too provocative under the circumstances. Instead, he recommended using a merchant ship for the effort. Buchanan approved this plan and General Scott secured the services of the Star of the West, a merchant ship with a regular coastal run, to carry out the re-supply operation.
This sort of reinforcement and re-supply mission was exactly what South Carolina authorities were determined to prevent, thus great pains were taken to keep the Star’s mission a secret, as is evident in orders issued to Lieutenant Charles R. Woods – U.S. Ninth Infantry – by Assistant Adjutant-General Lorenzo Thomas on January 5, 1861. Woods was the officer placed in command of the reinforcements destined to arrive at Fort Sumter via the Star. “The duty upon which you are now placed by direction of the General-in-Chief,” wrote Thomas, “will require great care and energy on your part to execute it successfully”:
For it is important that all your movements be kept as secret as possible. Accordingly on approaching the Charleston bar, you will place below decks your entire force, in order that only the ordinary crew may be seen by persons from the shore or on boarding the vessel. Every precaution must be resorted to prevent being fired upon by batteries erected on either Sullivan’s or James Island.In spite of efforts to keep the mission a secret, however, details of the Star of the West expedition soon leaked to the newspapers, and readers in Charleston had an account of the operation a full day before the Star was scheduled to arrive. When she appeared in Charleston harbor early on the morning of January 9, with her contingent of reinforcements concealed below decks, alerted South Carolina batteries promptly opened fire and forced the Star to retreat.
Major Anderson, who had seen a newspaper account of the Star expedition, but had not received any official notice from Washington, refused to fire on the South Carolina batteries that morning for fear of inadvertently starting a war. He regretted that decision once he discovered that the Star had indeed been sent by the United States government to aid him, and immediately wrote to Governor Pickens, demanding an explanation and threatening to close Charleston Harbor:
I have the honor, therefore, respectfully to ask whether the above mentioned act…was committed in obedience to your instructions, and to notify you, if it be not disclaimed, that I must regard it as an act of war, and that I shall not, after a reasonable time for the return of my messenger, permit any vessels to pass within range of the guns of my fort.Pickens responded to Anderson by reiterating the fact of South Carolina’s secession, by stating that President Buchanan had been warned that any attempt to send troops into Charleston harbor would be regarded as “an act of hostility,” and by explaining that the Star had been fired upon only after disregarding warnings not to enter the harbor. Anderson communicated his exchange with Governor Pickens to the newly installed Secretary of War, Joseph Holt, who expressed regret that Anderson had not been informed of the Star’s mission and labeled South Carolina’s actions “an act of war”.
But while Secretary Holt accused South Carolina of committing an act of war, there was to be no war at this time. For the moment, Anderson remained at Fort Sumter with his small garrison, South Carolinians constructed various artillery batteries around the harbor perimeter, General Winfield Scott changed his mind about the wisdom of resupplying U.S. forts in Southern territory, and more states left the Union.
The Changing of the Guard
Beginning with Mississippi, five additional Southern states seceded during the month of January 1861. At the request of South Carolina, the seceded states met together in Montgomery, Alabama, on February 4, and set about forming a provisional, confederated government to unite their interests.
At the top of the new Confederate government’s list of priorities was the issue of peacefully settling all outstanding matters with the United States. To the furtherance of that end, Southern leaders commissioned three men: A.B. Roman, Martin J. Crawford, and John Forsyth, to travel to Washington and open negotiations with the United States government. These men had been prominent members of the three parties running in opposition to the Republican Party in the election of 1860, and they were chosen in the hope that their previous political affiliations would give them a broad appeal to the non-Republican members of the federal government, since Republicans had shown no interest in negotiations thus far.
At the same time as the Confederacy was organizing down South, the United States were preparing to inaugurate a new president; and millions of eyes, both Northern and Southern, turned to President-elect Lincoln to see what stance he would take on secession. Lincoln had been outspoken during his campaign, flatly denying any possibility of secession and intimating that he might deal with potential secessionists “as old John Brown has been dealt with”. Yet, during the months between his election and inauguration, Lincoln was mysteriously silent on the issue, a fact which was, by itself, a source of unease on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.
When the time for answers finally came on March 4, 1861, inauguration day, Lincoln unveiled a policy that was very simple and very hard-line in its implications. He considered secession impossible. The Union, he said, was “unbroken,” thus nothing in the relationship between the Southern states and the federal government had changed; and while he would not invade the seceded states, he promised to “hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government and to collect the duties and imposts,” as if secession had never taken place. If war came, Lincoln said, it would come only as a result of the seceded states preventing him from peacefully fulfilling his constitutional responsibilities:
In doing this there needs to be no bloodshed or violence, and there shall be none unless it be forced upon the national authority…beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere…Lincoln’s inaugural address stirred mixed reactions throughout the country. Republicans and Unionists in the North were emboldened by Lincoln’s words, as they felt this was their assurance that the President intended to stand firm against the South. Southern secessionists were enraged by Lincoln’s comments, as they felt he was ignoring their peace overtures. They had no intention of surrendering any of the former federal properties they now held in their possession, nor were they going to pay duties and imposts to Washington, a city they now considered as housing a foreign government. Under these conditions, if both sides held firm, war was inevitable, and secessionists viewed Lincoln’s statements as a de facto declaration of war against them. At Fort Sumter, Captain John Foster took note of how Lincoln’s speech was received in Charleston and wrote to the U.S. Army Engineer’s office on March 6 concerning it: “We have not yet received the inaugural address of President Lincoln,” Foster commented, “although it is reported from town that it is coercive in its character, and that much excitement prevails.”
In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to ‘preserve, protect, and defend it’.
Unionists in the South and border states were also somewhat dismayed by Lincoln’s address, as they readily recognized the threat of coercion that it contained. Such threats, they understood, reduced chances for peacefully restoring the seceded states to the Union, and also held tremendous potential for swaying more states, particularly Virginia, into the Confederacy.
Days of Development and Decision
In the days following his inauguration, Lincoln took in the situation in Charleston harbor with great interest, examining Major Anderson’s dispatches and inquiring of his staff for opinions as to how the matter should be handled. From his dispatches, it appeared that Anderson would be out of supplies within a few weeks. Lincoln realized that if Anderson ran out of supplies he would be forced to surrender his garrison, and the new President was determined to hold the fort at all costs, as he believed that abandoning Sumter would be a vindication of secession.
With this conviction in mind, Lincoln determined to find some way in which to re-supply Sumter, and the first person he turned to on the matter was General Winfield Scott. On March 15, Lincoln wrote to Scott concerning a re-supply plan proposed by one Gustavus Fox – a former navy officer whom Lincoln would eventually make Assistant Secretary of the Navy – and asked: “Assuming it to be possible to now provision Fort Sumter, under all the circumstances is it wise to attempt it? Please give me your opinion in writing on this question.”
Scott reviewed the President’s question and reluctantly concluded that, “it would be unwise now to make such an attempt”:
The proposition presented by Mr. Fox, so sincerely entertained and ably advocated, would be entitled to my favorable consideration if, with all the light before me and in the face of so many distinguished military authorities on the other side, I did not believe that the attempt to carry it into effect would initiate a bloody and protracted conflict…Scott went on to quote a letter from Major Anderson in which Anderson stated that it would take a force of no less than 20,000 “good and well-disciplined men” to seize control of Charleston harbor and effectively re-supply Fort Sumter. Scott also made it clear that the majority of his advisors concurred with Anderson’s opinion and advised against attempting such a mission. He then concluded his response to Lincoln with the following notation:
No practical benefit will result to the country or the Government by accepting the proposal alluded to, and I am therefore of opinion that the cause of humanity and the highest obligation to the public interest would be best promoted by adopting the counsels of those brave and experienced men whose suggestions I have laid before you.Another military advisor, Brigadier General Joseph G. Totten, Chief of Army Engineers, expressed agreement with Scott, informing Lincoln that, “This attempt like any other, will inevitably involve a collision.”
Lincoln was disappointed with the military appraisal of his plans and turned to his cabinet, only to be disappointed again when he found the majority were in agreement with General Scott. Secretary of State William H. Seward was of the firm belief that any attempt to resupply Sumter would “provoke combat, and probably initiate a civil war”. Attorney General Bates, while he believed that South Carolina had already “struck the first blow” was, nevertheless, reluctant to do anything “which may have the semblance…of beginning a civil war, the terrible consequences of which would, I think, find no parallel in modern times”. Only Postmaster Montgomery Blair felt differently, arguing that a re-supply effort would “vindicate the hardy courage of the North” and reaffirm the authority of the Union.
The presence of such strong opposition in the cabinet and the military forced Lincoln to hesitate and re-evaluate his options somewhat, and he decided to gather more information before making a final decision on the future of Sumter. As part of that process, Lincoln sent Gustavus Fox to visit Sumter and decide for himself whether his re-supply plan was actually feasible. Fox left Washington on March 19, visited Fort Sumter and conferred with Major Anderson, although he did not inform Anderson of his plans. Fox then reported back to Lincoln on March 25, that, after having viewed the situation in Charleston harbor first-hand, his re-supply plan seemed “very feasible”.
In addition to Fox, Lincoln also sent two other scouts to South Carolina. One of these was his Charleston-born friend, Stephen A. Hurlbut, whose mission was to confer with friends and acquaintances and report back on the strength of Union sentiment in South Carolina, particularly in the city of Charleston. Arriving back in Washington two days after Fox, Hurlbut reported to the President that, “separate Nationality” was “a fixed fact” in the South. The seven seceded states were “irrevocably gone,” he said, and, further, it was his opinion that any attempt to “fulfill the duties of the Executive Office in enforcing the laws and authority of the U.S. within their limits will be War”.
The second of Lincoln’s two scouts was also another personal friend, Ward Hill Lamon. Lamon took a different tack than Hurlbut, not only visiting Fort Sumter, but also speaking with South Carolina Governor Francis Pickens. Although he was very devoted to Lincoln – and would eventually serve as his bodyguard – Lamon favored the peace policies of Secretary of State Seward in the Sumter affair, and actually went so far as to inform Major Anderson and Governor Pickens that no relief expedition would be attempted for Sumter. When Lincoln heard of Lamon’s promises to Anderson and Pickens, he was outraged and declared that Lamon had never been given authority to make any such statements. Still, due to his stubborn refusal to communicate with representatives from the seceded states (who, as he knew, were in Washington seeking an audience with him even then), Lincoln made no attempt to correct Lamon’s misinformation. Governor Pickens, Major Anderson, and the Confederate States government proceeded under the assumption that Sumter would be given up, believing that they had the authority of a presidential representative to that effect. They also had other assurances to this effect, which we will see shortly.
Following the reports of his scouts, Lincoln hesitated yet again. He actually give some thought to abandoning Sumter, and seemed willing to do so if he were promised that Virginia would remain in the Union, as he felt that exchanging a state for a fort was “no bad business”. But Virginia’s adherence to the Union was fragile, and pressure was mounting on Lincoln to move forward with strong measures. Ardent Unionists were concerned that the United States government not appear weak and indecisive. Additionally, there were concerns about a growing peace movement in the North, as it was garnering some prominent support.
Chief Justice Roger Taney was known to be opposed to the use of force against the South. Former Constitutional Union Party Vice Presidential candidate, Edward Everett, declared that “to hold States in the Union by force is preposterous.” James S. Thayer, a New York Democrat, stated that the peaceful separation of North and South, though “painful and humiliating,” should be pursued “so that we may yet be left in a comparatively prosperous condition, in friendly relations with another Confederacy.” Fiery abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison had called for a convention of the free states to “organize an independent government upon free and just principles,” and hoped they would ‘say to the slave states – “Though you are without excuse for your treasonable conduct, depart in peace!’” New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley stated, “We hope never to live in a republic whereof one section is pinned to the residue by bayonets.” Talk of secession was cropping up in such places as New Jersey and California, and there was even some suggestion of turning New York City into a “free city”. Perhaps most alarming of all for Lincoln and his cabinet, however, was the revelation that General Winfield Scott was in favor of abandoning Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens, in order to stave off the threat of war.
By the end of March 1861, Lincoln’s cabinet had reversed its position and sided with the proposed re-supply mission for Sumter. Most still believed that such a mission was likely to result in war, but they now expressed opinions that the risk of war would be worthwhile, and if there was to be war, that it might as well start on their terms. Secretary Chase reflected this opinion when he remarked that, if war was to come: “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 authority of the Government, in a Fort of the Union, in the ordinary course of service.” Lincoln openly acknowledged the inevitability of conflict where his plan was concerned but, with his cabinet behind him, was determined to press forward with it in spite of the consequences. As Allan Nevins observes in his War for the Union: “To a friend he remarked that he was ‘in the dumps’ – for he knew that he must try to relieve Sumter, and relief meant war.”
When Major Anderson heard that a resupply fleet was on the way, he, too, knew what the end result must be, and wrote the following to his superiors:
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 very greatly…I trust that this matter will be at once put in a correct light, as a movement made now, when the South has been erroneously informed that none such will be attempted, would produce most disastrous results throughout our country. 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...Failed Negotiations
I ought to have been informed that this expedition was to come. Colonel Lamon’s remark convinced me that the idea, merely hinted at to me by Captain Fox, would not be carried out. 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.
As mentioned previously, Confederate peace emissaries were sent to Washington in the hope of beginning negotiations between the United States and Confederate States governments, and bearing an introductory letter from Confederate President Jefferson Davis to that effect. Martin J. Crawford, the first of three Confederate commissioners, arrived in Washington D.C. three days prior to the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln. Out-going U.S. President James Buchanan had evidently agreed to receive Crawford, or to at least refer him to the United States Congress; however, given the increasing stridence of Northern opinion against Buchanan’s administration, the President had come to fear for his own personal safety, as well as the safety of his home. Consequently, he refused to either see Crawford or refer him to the Senate.
Thus unable to meet with President Buchanan, and cognizant of the pressures under which the new administration would be assuming office, Crawford waited until the arrival of the second Confederate commissioner, John Forsyth, before attempting formal contact with the Lincoln administration. Of course, the Confederate commissioners knew of Lincoln’s position on secession through his inaugural address, and were aware that Lincoln might refuse to negotiate directly with them. However, they entertained hopes that the President might be willing to confer with them through the auspices of Secretary of State Seward, who was known to be the Lincoln administration’s foremost advocate of a peaceful resolution to the secession crisis.
With this hope, the Confederate commissioners attempted to contact Seward through the services of a series of intermediaries, starting with New York lobbyist Sam Ward, and Senators Gwin of California and Hunter of Virginia. Through these men, Seward requested a delay of twenty days in negotiations, a request the Confederate commissioners assented to on the condition that there be no change with regard to the existing military situation at Forts Sumter and Pickens. Although he had no authority to make such a promise, Seward nonetheless agreed to the terms. The Confederate commissioners then reported back to the Confederate capital on March 9, indicating that the Lincoln administration appeared to be readying itself to evacuate Fort Sumter, a view commonly held by those close to the administration at the time.
On March 12, the Confederate commissioners sent a formal introduction of themselves and their purpose to Secretary Seward through an intermediary, advising that “the President, Congress, and people of the Confederate States earnestly desire a peaceful solution…of all questions growing out of this political separation, upon such terms of amity and good-will as the respective interests, geographical contiguity, and future welfare of the two nations may render necessary”.
Seward drafted a response to the Confederate commissioners upon receiving their letter, but delayed sending it to them until April 8, as the commissioners had agreed to allow him twenty days to make his official response. In the meantime, and after supposedly consulting with Lincoln, Seward advised the commissioners that he could not communicate directly with them. For that reason, all future communications between Seward and the Confederate commissioners were conducted through the auspices of two members of the United States Supreme Court: Justice Campbell of Alabama, and Justice Nelson of New York. Campbell and Nelson met with Seward on several occasions throughout the Sumter crisis, and it was through their services that Seward communicated the information that gave the Confederacy false hopes regarding Sumter.
The first example of such an assurance from Seward came on March 15, 1861, the same day that Lincoln polled General Scott and his cabinet about Sumter. Seward told Judge Campbell that Jefferson Davis would find out “by telegram” – likely sometime within three days – that the order to abandon Sumter had been given. No doubt Seward thought Lincoln would cave under pressure from his cabinet and the military and quickly give the order for Sumter to be evacuated.
On March 20, five days following Seward’s assurance to Campbell, the Confederate commissioners learned that, not only had Fort Sumter not been evacuated, but Major Anderson was still actively working on its defenses. Justices Campbell and Nelson again approached Secretary Seward, and conducted two interviews with him on this new development. Seward assured them that the delay was “accidental,” that the evacuation would still take place, and that they would know as soon as any changes were made in the status of either Fort Sumter or Fort Pickens. This is interesting when you consider that, just one day prior to Seward’s renewed assurances, Gustavus Fox had left to survey the situation in Charleston harbor. Fox had left on his mission with the knowledge of General Winfield Scott, Secretary of War Cameron, and Postmaster Blair in addition to President Lincoln. Given the extent of his involvement in the administration, it is extremely implausible to believe that Seward was not aware of the mission as well. Yet, in spite of the fact that Lincoln had sent a scout to evaluate a re-supply effort, Seward continued to promise that the fort would be evacuated, even doing so in a “buoyant and sanguine” manner, as recounted by Campbell, and claiming that the delay was “accidental”. Given Seward’s mistaken assessment of his place in the administration, however, and his underestimation of Lincoln’s determination, it is likely that he thought he would ultimately have his way. This explanation might serve to excuse Seward from charges of duplicity in his dealings with the Confederate emissaries; however, it was not long before Seward knew of Lincoln’s intentions, leaving him without excuse for his continued assurances.
For its part, the Confederacy continued to wait based upon Seward’s word, as indicated by a letter sent from the three commissioners to Confederate Secretary of State, Robert Toombs, on March 20, 1861: “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.”
Not having heard anything from Ward Hill Lamon since his departure from South Carolina, Governor Pickens telegraphed the Confederate commissioners on March 30 (one day following Lincoln’s final cabinet meeting before approving the Fox mission), and requested to know why Fort Sumter had not yet been evacuated as promised. The commissioners turned this telegraph over to Justice Campbell, who met with Secretary Seward on April 1, 1861. Seward informed Campbell that Lamon had acted without authority in promising that Fort Sumter would be evacuated. This was the first time the Confederates were informed that Lamon’s assurances were worthless. Seward then advised Campbell that, “the Government will not undertake to supply Fort Sumter without giving notice to Governor Pickens,” an announcement that took Campbell by surprise given Seward’s previous assurances that the fort would, in fact, be evacuated. But when Campbell asked the secretary if there had been “a change in his former communications,” Seward’s reply was “None.”
At this point, the commissioners were nearly out of patience, and rumors concerning an expeditionary force planned for Charleston harbor (size and intent unknown) had already leaked to the public. Judge Campbell wrote to Secretary Seward again concerning the subject and, once again, received assurances that all was well. “Faith as to Sumter fully kept,” Seward famously replied. “Wait and see.”
This communication between Campbell and Seward took place on April 7. By this time, Seward undoubtedly knew that Lincoln had approved the Fox expedition (this had been done on March 30), and that the expedition was to set sail at any time. In fact, just the day before, April 6, Lincoln had dispatched Robert S. Chew, an employee of Seward’s State Department, to South Carolina with a message to Governor Pickens:
I am directed by the President of the United States to notify [you] to expect an attempt will be made to supply Fort Sumter with provisions only, and that if such attempt be not resisted, no effort to throw in provisions, arms, or ammunition will be made without further notice or in case of an attack upon the fort.Seward could not have been unaware of this, and it is rather telling that he changed his tune somewhat in communicating with Campbell, as he remarked that no attempt would be made to re-supply Fort Sumter, “without giving notice to Governor Pickens”. Obviously, Seward knew that the relief expedition was already in progress, and yet, he continued to provide assurances to the apparent contrary with, as historian Shelby Foote says, “the straight-faced solemnity of a man delivering an April fool pronouncement”.
By now Seward was in over his head. He had been passing false assurances along to the Confederate commissioners based on inaccurate assumptions of his own power in the Lincoln administration. Now that the cabinet had shifted in its viewpoint, events had moved beyond his control. This, combined with the fact that Seward had come under unwanted scrutiny for his peace policies (it was suspected that he was influencing General Scott to give up the forts), made the situation such that there was little he could do but attempt to cover his tracks and parse his statements so that he could not be accused of having outright lied to the commissioners. Still, no matter the situation, from his words it is quite evident that Seward intended the commissioners to believe that Sumter would be evacuated in accordance with his previous statements.
The Confederate commissioners were not entirely drawn in by Seward’s reassurances, however. News of the Fox expedition in the media, delays in Seward’s promised evacuation of Sumter, and particularly the sudden denial of Lamon’s assurances to Governor Pickens, had served to make them more than a little suspicious of the administration. Details concerning the makeup of the Fox expedition, including troop strength, were soon available to the public, to the dismay of the Lincoln administration and the consternation of Confederate authorities. Governor Pickens was not even permitted to reply to the message delivered by Chew stating that Sumter would be resupplied. When he asked to do so, Chew told Pickens that he was “not authorized to receive any communications from him in reply”.
Then, on April 8, the commissioners finally received Seward’s response to their introductory letter of March 12. In his letter, Seward informed the commissioners that he could not recognize the “so called Confederate States” as an entity with which “diplomatic relations ought to be established,” and, as a result, could not “recognize them as diplomatic agents, or hold correspondence or other communication with them.” Seward advised the commissioners that he had submitted his written reply to President Lincoln, who “sanctions the Secretary’s decision declining official intercourse” with the commissioners.
Having received Seward’s formal response to their letter, the Confederate commissioners sent a telegram to General P.G.T. Beauregard, who had assumed command of the Confederate forces in Charleston, to the effect that: “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 commissioners then sent a written response to Seward’s letter through Justice Campbell on April 9, 1861. In it, they argued that they did not ask the United States government to recognize Confederate independence, but “only asked audience to adjust, in a spirit of amity and peace, the new relations springing from a manifest and accomplished revolution in the Government of the late Federal Union”. The administration’s refusal to treat with the commissioners, while, at the same time, preparing “active naval and military” operations to forcefully re-supply Fort Sumter could, as the commissioners put it, only be treated as “a declaration of war against the Confederate States,” due to the fact that Lincoln understood that Sumter could not be resupplied without conflict.
Seward replied to this last communication on April 10, but only to the extent of referring to his former letter indicating that he could not hold official negotiations with the commissioners, and acknowledging receipt of their reply to that letter. Their efforts to obtain an audience with the administration thus frustrated, the commissioners left Washington on April 11, 1861, and reported back to the Confederate government at Montgomery, Alabama. “We never had a chance to make Lincoln an offer of any kind,” John Forsyth informed Jefferson Davis. “You can’t negotiate with a man who says you don’t exist.”
On April 12, with the Fox expedition known to be underway, with the expedition’s intent uncertain, and with negotiations having failed, Confederate batteries opened fire on Fort Sumter. On April 13, a frustrated Judge Campbell wrote to Secretary Seward to ask for an explanation as to why Seward had continued to assert that Sumter would be evacuated when he knew that a re-supply operation was already in the works. Campbell informed Seward that the Confederate commissioners, as well as their government, felt that they had been “abused” by Seward’s continued reassurances, and that the “proximate cause” of the outbreak of violence at Fort Sumter was due to “the equivocating conduct of the Administration.” Seward did not reply.
Much debate has taken place over the years as to exactly how much Abraham Lincoln knew about Secretary Seward’s informal negotiations with the Confederate commissioners, and what he might have approved. In his Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Jefferson Davis argues that Lincoln must have known about Seward’s dealings with the Confederate commissioners, dealings which took place over nearly a month’s time and were conducted through sitting justices of the Supreme Court. Indeed, Davis mentions one particular occasion where Judge Campbell reported that Seward excused himself in order to confer with Lincoln, and then returned with what he said was the President’s official word.
Further, Davis argues that Lincoln must have known and approved of Seward’s actions, if for no other reason, because he took no punitive steps against Seward once the background of the Sumter affair became public knowledge.
Yet the Secretary of State was not impeached and brought to trial for the grave offense of undertaking to conduct the most momentous and vital transactions that had been or could be brought before the government of the United States, without the knowledge and in opposition to the will of the President, and for having involved the government in dishonor, if not disaster.“Stand and Deliver”
While growing up, I was taught the story of Fort Sumter and how America’s bloodiest conflict was initiated by Southern guns in a contest for possession of that tiny island fortress; however, I never knew anything of the negotiation and manipulation that took place behind the scenes until I unearthed the information for myself. Up until that time, I had thought that, no matter whether the Southern states had the right to secede, the attack on Fort Sumter was a naked act of aggression. Given the information we have just reviewed, I have come to think differently on the matter.
The attack on Fort Sumter was certainly ill advised and unnecessary, and it played into Lincoln’s purpose. As we have seen, Lincoln, his military advisors and his cabinet, all knew very well that any effort to relieve Sumter would result in war. They had the precedent set by the Star of the West incident, which told them that the Confederates would open fire on any force that entered the harbor without permission; and, further, this time they knew that Major Anderson would return fire. With war made inevitable by his head-in-the-sand approach to secession, and by his refusal to negotiate with the Confederate commissioners, Lincoln’s challenge was to find a way in which to provoke Southerners into firing that first, fatal shot. Only then could he unite the reluctant factions of the Northern states on the basis of repelling Southern aggression.
Lincoln had laid the groundwork for this policy in his first inaugural address, in which he had indirectly threatened the Confederate states with his talk of “you can have no conflict without yourselves being the aggressors”. This is interesting when you consider that, during his presidential campaign, he had chided the South for using a very similar type of indirect threat. Speaking in reference to Southern threats to secede should he be elected President, Lincoln had said: “A highwayman holds a pistol to my head and mutters through his teeth, ‘Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you and then you will be a murderer.’” Then, having won the election, Lincoln informed Southerners that they would give him what he wanted or there would be war and it would be their fault: “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors.”
Translation: “Stand and deliver”.
Lincoln was advised to employ this tactic by his friend Senator Orville Browning of Illinois, among others, and for the very purpose of attempting to place the Southern states in the wrong, as illustrated by the following excerpt from one of Browning’s letters to Lincoln:
In any conflict…between the government and the seceding States, it is very important that the traitors shall be the aggressors, and that they be kept constantly and palpably in the wrong. The first attempt…to furnish supplies or reinforcements to [Fort] Sumter will induce aggression by South Carolina, and then the government will stand justified, before the entire country, in repelling that aggression, and retaking the forts.Writing to Orville Browning after the Confederacy attacked Fort Sumter, Lincoln stated: “The plan succeeded…They attacked Sumter – it fell, and thus, did more service than it otherwise could.” To Gustavus Fox, the architect of his re-supply plan, Lincoln wrote: “You and I both anticipated that the cause of the country would be advanced by making the attempt to provision Fort Sumpter, even if it should fail; and it is no small consolation now to feel that our anticipation is justified by the result.”
The question to ask here is how could Lincoln claim to be “justified” by the result of his plan when the result was war? Unless, of course, that was the plan. True to Browning’s advice, Lincoln had placed the Confederacy on the horns of a most unpleasant dilemma. If the Confederates allowed Fort Sumter to remain in Union hands, they would have essentially surrendered their claims to independence. They would also have been allowing a foreign government to retain control of a key defensive position in the midst of one of their few good ports. On the other hand, if they did strike out at the fort, they risked being labeled as aggressors, and, in the words of Browning, the United States government would “stand justified…in repelling that aggression, and retaking the forts”.
Either way, Lincoln won and he knew it. In the words of Shelby Foote, Lincoln’s plan was to “await an act of aggression by the South, exerting in the interim just enough pressure to provoke such an act, without exerting enough to justify it”. Historian James McPherson has referred to Lincoln’s strategy as “a stroke of genius,” remarking that, “in effect, he was telling Jefferson Davis, ‘heads I win, tails you lose’”.
Some in the South saw the inevitable consequences of an attack on the fort and counseled against it. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens – who had argued against secession in his home state of Georgia – favored delaying action on Sumter, as did Secretary of State Robert Toombs, who objected to the use of force in terms that proved to be prophetic:
The firing on that fort will inaugurate a civil war greater than any the world has ever seen. 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 mountains to ocean, and legions now quiet will swarm out and sting us to death. It is unnecessary; it puts us in the wrong; it is fatal.Yet there were others who felt that striking a blow at Sumter would ensure Confederate unity and probably bring indecisive border states into the fold, if they saw that the infant Southern republic was capable of sustaining itself. There were also defensive considerations. The port of Charleston was one of the South’s few good ports. If Major Anderson should decide to do so, he could effectively close the port by firing on any ship within range of his guns, as he had threatened to do after the Star of the West incident. There was also the fact that the true mission of the relief expedition was unknown. The Confederates suspected that Lincoln might be intending to retake all of the forts in Charleston harbor, or even to invade the city itself. For that reason, they decided to take control of Sumter before the fleet could arrive, lest they find themselves confronting the guns of a naval flotilla in combination those of Anderson. “A deadly weapon has been aimed at our heart,” Jefferson Davis said in summary of the Confederate position, “only a fool would wait until the shot has been fired.”
Still, despite all of this, it seems that Lincoln did at least make a goodfaith effort to reveal his intentions by sending that eleventh hour note to Governor Pickens, advising that he was going to send supplies to Sumter – and only supplies. Why then was this assurance not sufficient to prevent the Confederate attack? Jefferson Davis, writing in his Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, explains that the Southern government was not impressed with Lincoln’s assurances for a number of reasons.
First, Davis argues that there was no reason to believe Lincoln’s Assurances, given the Star of the West incident and the “deceptions practiced upon the Confederate commissioners in Washington”. Although Lincoln stated that the Confederates had been “expressly notified” that he intended to place only provisions in Sumter at that time, Davis points out that the Confederates had been “just as expressly notified”(by Lamon and Seward) that Sumter would be evacuated, and that “it would be as easy to violate the one pledge as it had been to break the other”. Secondly, Davis stated that the note to Governor Pickens was “a mere memorandum, without date, signature, or authentication of any kind”. In Davis’ opinion, the note seemed to be “carefully and purposedly divested of every attribute that could make it binding and valid,” in case Lincoln decided to deny that he had ever sent it.
Robert Toombs was correct when he argued that the attack on Sumter put the South in the wrong and would lose it friends in the North. In retrospect, the South should either have allowed the fort to be resupplied (since it was already in Union hands, it would not have been a loss to them), or it should have officially denied the re-supply fleet entrance to Charleston Harbor, thus putting the issue of force back into the Union’s corner. But the Confederates were angry, fearful, and out of patience. They had been ignored by Lincoln, led astray by Seward, misinformed by Lamon, and alarmed by news of an approaching fleet. Still fresh in their memory was Anderson’s surprise move to Sumter from Moultrie and Buchanan’s attempt to secretly land troops on Sumter. Again, the Confederates did not wish to confront the guns of a hostile fleet combined with those of Anderson, and there was no way for them to know what the fleet’s objective truly was at that time. The only assurances they had came from a government they by then – and not without good reason – believed to be dishonest and manipulative. They lashed out at Sumter, partially in anger, partially in panic, partially hoping that the border states would see their resolve and join them.
In fact, based on the evidence we have seen and how it points to Lincoln’s attempts to provoke the South into firing that first shot, it is not altogether unreasonable to wonder if Lincoln allowed Seward to provide the South with his false assurances that Sumter would be evacuated. As Jefferson Davis argued, Lincoln must have known what Seward was up to, and he must have realized that the Confederates would be confused and angry when it was revealed that Seward had misled them. Adopting such a tactic certainly increased the chance that the South would act preemptively, which is apparently what he wanted. Still, Lincoln’s defenders have argued that he really never intended to provoke the South into starting a war at all, and it is fitting that we should examine that perspective before concluding our discussion on this topic.
One of Lincoln’s defenders where this subject is concerned is his noted biographer David Donald. In his book Lincoln, Donald states that the “cryptic utterances” Lincoln made to Browning and Fox about the firing on Fort Sumter did not actually mean that his purpose was to provoke war with the Confederacy. Lincoln was in a “contradictory position,” Donald says, because he had vowed “not to be the first to shed fraternal blood. But he had also vowed not to surrender the forts”:
The only resolution of these contradictory positions was for the Confederates to fire the first shot. The attempt to relieve Fort Sumter provoked them to do just that.As you can see, Donald starts out by essentially saying that Lincoln did not really mean what he said, and then goes on to prove that Lincoln meant what he said after all. Donald states that Lincoln was in a contradictory position, and this much is certainly true. Lincoln could not peacefully hold the forts and collect the revenues from a group of people who felt that he had no authority over them. Ultimately, Lincoln would have been compelled to use force.
Donald is also correct in stating that Lincoln attempted to resolve “these contradictory positions” by provoking the Confederates to shoot first, which is astounding when you consider that he is saying this in an effort to argue that Lincoln did not want to provoke war. Donald completely contradicts himself here, arguing that Lincoln did not want to provoke war, and then immediately demonstrating why he did just that, and why he had every reason to do it. Despite his best effort to demonstrate otherwise, Donald merely reaffirms the fact that Lincoln actively sought to provoke the South into firing that first shot, setting him at liberty to dub Southerners “aggressors” and to “call out the war power of the government” against them. There is simply no way around the matter. In the above excerpt, Donald is forced to acknowledge the very thing he is attempting to disprove.
Beyond this point, however, Donald also claims that Lincoln made “repeated efforts to avoid collision in the months between his inauguration and the firing on Fort Sumter,” and I have to ask: what precisely did Lincoln do? In all of my considerable research into this subject, I have yet to find a single example of any act on Lincoln’s part that was genuinely designed to avoid conflict. How could he have worked for peace when he would not treat with the representatives of other side, not necessarily to the point of recognizing their political independence, but simply to the point of avoiding hostilities? As John Forsyth put it, Lincoln acted as if the Confederate commissioners did not even exist.
Also, Lincoln made no secret of the fact that his proclamation of rebellion was based on George Washington’s proclamation from the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion. But it was a well-known fact even in Lincoln’s day that, prior to issuing his proclamation calling forth the militia in that situation, President Washington sent emissaries to try and negotiate a peaceful end to the crisis. Why did Lincoln follow Washington’s overall pattern and yet omit this all-important step? Even his letter to Governor Pickens was a half-hearted, eleventh-hour effort at best, and was issued after he had already set his plans in motion, plans that he knew were certain to lead to war.
Lincoln did have opportunities to reach a peaceful resolution to the secession crisis, even apart from dealing with the Confederate commissioners, but he chose not to avail himself of them. Robert Johannsen, author of Stephen Douglas, illustrates one such instance for us in describing Lincoln’s refusal to help Douglas, his old political foe from Illinois and supporter during the war, to salvage the Virginia Peace Conference in February, 1861. “The task of the Peace Conference was not only formidable,” says Johannsen, “it was hopeless”:
The selection of delegates in some northern states was so manipulated by Republican governors and legislatures as to prevent an adjustment, and some delegates were instructed to resist compromise…Douglas appealed to Lincoln to intervene with the Republicans in order to save the conference, but his gesture was not successful.David Donald agrees with Johannsen’s assessment of the potential for peace in 1861. He states that Lincoln might have intervened in negotiations and brought about some type of reconciliation were it not for the fact that Lincoln “considered these compromise schemes bribes to the secessionists”. Others also commented on the Lincoln administration's inflexibility. The Louisville Journal condemned Republican leaders for what it called their “unconciliatory and defiant course,” and claimed that it was, “beyond dispute the principle cause of the fearful distrust of the North which now possesses and inflames the Southern breast.” Noah Brooks, a journalist and personal friend of Lincoln’s, wrote that Lincoln would not negotiate with the Confederates because he would not “permit himself to be seduced into recognizing any persons as ambassadors or emissaries sent from the so-called President Davis,” as Lincoln denied the legitimacy of the Confederate government. Beyond this point, however, Brooks went on to say that there was no reason for Lincoln to negotiate anyway because, “Negotiation implies that the rebellion was not without cause and that the Government stands ready to make just concessions; it argues governmental inability to conquer a peace”
Lincoln defenders have also cast doubt on the sincerity of the South’s attempts at negotiation, as Allan Nevins demonstrates for us here in this excerpt from his War for the Union:
But that the [Confederate] commissioners themselves attempted to delude and deceive Seward by tacitly encouraging his belief in eventual Southern return there is no doubt! [Martin] Crawford admitted as much when early in March he notified Toombs that he had acquiesced in Seward’s plea for delay, on condition that the existing status be rigidly preserved. “His reasons, and my own, it is proper to say, are as wide apart as the poles; he is fully persuaded that peace will bring about a reconstruction of the Union, whilst I feel confident it will build up and cement our Confederacy, and put us beyond the reach of either his arms or his diplomacy.” He did not tell Seward that!In answer to Nevins, I would first point out that Crawford was unable to tell Seward much at all because Seward would not speak with him! Clear communications between the two men were rendered virtually impossible by the Lincoln administration’s stubborn insistence on remaining deaf and dumb toward the South. Second, the Confederate commissioners were sent to Washington for the very purpose of facilitating peaceful separation, not for reunification. Seward was certainly not blind to that fact, nor was he blind to the fact that the Confederacy would continue to establish itself during the time he had requested for a delay. He could not have reasonably expected the Confederates to simply sit back and hold their breath for a month. The fact that Seward wanted peace in order to reconstruct the Union was well known to the commissioners; and the fact that the commissioners wanted peace in order to further construct the Confederacy and solidify its independence was not lost on Seward, as his ultimate response to them indicates. In granting his request for a delay, the commissioners did not entertain any false hopes that Seward might have had. Their purpose for being in Washington never changed, nor did they ever say that it had. The man Nevins calls “the wily Seward” certainly knew why they were there; his own correspondence with the commissioners proves that beyond question.
Lincoln’s Final Case for War
In the following excepts from his message to Congress in special session, July 4, 1861, Lincoln fabricated a case for war against the South based on the incident at Fort Sumter.
It is thus seen that the assault upon and reduction of Fort Sumter was in no sense a matter of self defense on the part of the assailants. They well knew that the garrison in the fort could by no possibility commit aggression upon them.As we have seen, all that Southerners knew for certain at the time was that a secret military expedition had been assembled and was being sent in their direction. Due to the vacillation and stubborn tactics of the administration in Washington, they could not be certain what mission the fleet was sent to accomplish. Also, as indicated earlier, Sumter was not defenseless. In his letter to Governor Pickens following the Star of the West incident, Major Anderson had clearly threatened to close Charleston harbor, as virtually any vessel entering the harbor would “pass within range of the guns of my fort”. Sumter’s location in the harbor had been chosen for precisely this purpose, so that it might deny entrance to enemy vessels attempting to attack Charleston. Anderson’s threat clearly demonstrated that Fort Sumter was, in fact, capable of “committing aggression” if its commander so ordered. And it must also be remembered that the Confederacy was dealing with the possible threat of having to contend with the guns of Fort Sumter in concert with a federal flotilla, if it turned out that Lincoln had decided to land troops in Charleston.
They knew – they had been expressly notified – that the giving of bread to the few brave and hungry men of the garrison was all which would on that occasion be attempted, unless themselves, by resisting so much, should provoke more.The Confederates believed they had been expressly notified of a number of things on a number of occasions; and, as Jefferson Davis asked, how could they be any more certain that the Lincoln government was sincere this time around? As to the matter of food, Anderson had no intention of starving his command to death in an effort to hold the fort.
On the afternoon of March 11, 1861, two of General Beauregard’s aids were dispatched to Anderson with a letter advising him that Beauregard had been ordered to take possession of Sumter. Anderson declined to surrender the garrison, but stated to Beauregard’s aids that if the Confederates did not “batter us to pieces” the garrison would be starved out in a few days anyway. Beauregard included this information along with Anderson’s written response in a transmission to the Confederate government, and received the following reply from Secretary of War Walker:
We do not desire needlessly to bombard Fort Sumter. If Major Anderson will state the time at which, as indicated by him, he will evacuate, and agree that in the mean time he will not use his guns against us, unless our should be employed against Fort Sumter, you are authorized thus to avoid the effusion of blood. If this or its equivalent be refused, reduce the fort as your judgment decides to be most practicable.Beauregard informed Anderson of Secretary Walker’s reply, and early on the morning of April 12, 1861, Anderson responded as follows:
GENERAL: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your second communication…and to state, in reply, that, cordially uniting with you in the desire to avoid the useless effusion of blood, I will, if provided with the proper and necessary means of transportation, evacuate Fort Sumter by noon on the 15th instant, should I not receive, prior to that time, controlling instructions from my Government, or additional supplies; and that I will not in the mean time, open my fire upon your forces unless compelled to do so by some hostile act against this fort, or the flag of my Government, by the forces under your command, or by some portion of them, or by the perpetration of some act showing a hostile intention on your part against this fort or the flag it bears.Jefferson Davis later stated that Beauregard could not accept Anderson’s terms due to the fact that the re-supply mission would arrive well before noon on April 15, as well as the fact that any confrontation with those ships entering the harbor would release Major Anderson from his agreement not to fire on the Confederates. For these reasons, Beauregard determined that he had no other choice but to open fire and “reduce” Fort Sumter before the re-supply fleet could arrive. The fleet did, in fact, arrive at Charleston harbor on the morning of April 12, but was unable to enter due unfavorable weather conditions.
Clearly, Anderson was not intent on starving his garrison in order to hold Sumter. On the contrary, he intended to evacuate the fort when his supplies ran out. Lincoln knew of the critical supply shortage, hence his urgent desire to re-supply the garrison; however, there was a more fundamental cause underlying his concern than that of “the giving of bread to the few brave and hungry men of the garrison,” as he stated in the following:
They knew that this Government desired to keep the garrison in the fort, not to assail them, but merely to maintain visible possession, and thus to preserve the Union from actual and immediate dissolution – trusting, as hereinbefore stated, to time, discussion, and the ballot-box, for final adjustment; and they assailed and reduced the fort for precisely the reverse object – to drive out the visible authority of the Federal Union, and then force it to immediate dissolution.Thus Lincoln once again confirms the political reasons behind Fox’s relief mission to Sumter: to hold the fort for the Union. Lincoln states that this was in order “to preserve the Union from actual and immediate dissolution,” but the entire Union was not facing dissolution simply because the Southern states were departing. The Northern states were still united under the Constitution and the government in Washington was still functional. The secessions of the Southern States would no more have destroyed the United States of America than the secession of the thirteen colonies had destroyed Great Britain. And surely the loss of one more fort could not have been as catastrophic to Washington as the loss of seven entire states! Nor was Sumter worth the inevitable loss of the border states or the loss of the hundreds of thousands who would die in the war.
Also, Lincoln’s comments about trusting “to time, discussion, and the ballot-box” are almost humorous. Lincoln was the one rushing pell-mell toward war; and who, precisely, was it that he intended should discuss the situation, since his administration would not confer with Southern representatives? A vote? He never called for a vote, or a convention of the states, or any action by Congress. In his inaugural, he suggested that the American people could do what they wished with the Union, but he certainly never tried to present the issue to them for a decision. He acted on his own.
Lastly, we see Lincoln refer back to the trap he had set for the Confederacy:
And having said to them in the inaugural address, “You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors,” he took pains not only to keep this declaration good but also to keep the case so free from the power of ingenious sophistry that the world should not be able to misunderstand it. By the affair at Fort Sumter, with its surrounding circumstances, that point was reached.
Then and thereby the assailants of the Government began the conflict of arms, without a gun in sight or in expectancy to return their fire, save only the few in the fort, sent to that harbor years before for their own protection, and still ready to give that protection in whatever was lawful. In this act, discarding all else, they have forced upon the country the distinct issue, “immediate dissolution or blood.”
The Simple Matter of a Choice
If Lincoln had no other choice but war in meeting the issue of secession, it was he who put himself in that position. There were other alternatives available, including negotiation. The South was certainly willing to negotiate. It actively tried to negotiate. It had nothing to lose, and everything to gain, from negotiation. Nor would holding negotiations with the Confederates have been equivalent to recognizing their independence or granting them some sort of legitimacy. Again, President Washington attempted negotiation during the Whiskey Rebellion in 1795 but, in doing so, he certainly did not recognize the legitimacy of the movement, nor did anyone believe that he had. Lincoln appealed to other precedents set by Washington at that time – why not this one as well?
In the final analysis, Lincoln made a very simple, informed choice concerning the matter of secession. He did have options other than war. He could have referred the matter to Congress, called for a constitutional conference, or suggested a special election to ascertain the will of the American people. He did none of these things. Instead, he determined that he would adopt one course and pursue it inflexibly. The facts of the situation and the opinions of his friends and advisors were before him; he understood the implications. He went forward, knowing what the result would be, and trying to color the circumstances so they would be as favorable to his cause as possible. But this was Lincoln’s way. It was an established part of his character. He portrayed himself almost as though he had no will of his own but could only act in an automatic, pre-programmed and unchangeable fashion.
An example of this comes from his second inaugural address: “Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.” Here Lincoln states that “one of them” (the South) “would make war,” and “the other” (Lincoln and the North) “would accept war…” In other words, the North had nothing to do with starting or conducting the war, it just participated out of necessity after the South made war against it. This despite the fact that almost any historian, regardless of ideological stripe, would be forced to admit that the Southern states fought on the defensive, and for the purpose of securing independence from the North, not conquering it. Yet, Lincoln spoke as though he had no hand in the matter, as if the war was an approaching thunderstorm that he could do nothing about except to watch and weather. The facts differ with that assessment.
Admittedly, the South should not have attacked Sumter. It should have waited, thus effectively calling Lincoln’s bluff, confirming its peaceful intentions, and handing the issue of force back to Lincoln while the peace movement continued to grow in the North. So, yes, the Confederates certainly share part of the blame here. They allowed themselves to be manipulated to their own detriment. But I hope this discussion has demonstrated that Lincoln did seek to anger them, did attempt to manipulate and provoke them, and does bear the primary blame for pursuing a course that he knew would lead to war when his opponent was sincerely trying to offer him other options. At the very least, I hope we have demonstrated that Lincoln was not an innocent, aggrieved party in the Sumter affair.
In concluding my analysis, I quote from Alexander Stephens. Stephens readily admitted that the fact that the Confederacy fired the first shot was, “a great truth that will live forever”. However:
You must allow me to say that in personal or national conflicts, it is not he who strikes the first blow, or fires the first gun that gurates or begins the conflict. Hallam has well said that “the aggressor in a war (that is, he who begins it,) is not the first who uses force, but the first who renders force necessary”.
Which side, according to that high authority…was the aggressor in this instance? Which side was it that provoked and rendered the first blow necessary? The true answer to that question will settle the fact as to which side began the war.
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Robert Hawes is the author of One Nation, Indivisible? A Study of Secession and the Constitution. This article, along with his past writings, can be found on his blog. He lives in South Carolina with his family, and is working on a career as a freelance writer.