This is the second part of a series about the events and decisions that led to the firing on Fort Sumter and the beginning of the Civil War. Part 1 is here.
Lincoln had a plan to handle the Sumter crisis—but did he have an administration to carry it out? One of the chief roadblocks was Secretary of State William Seward. Seward had been a front-runner for the Republican nomination for president in 1860. After losing the nomination, he gamely campaigned for Lincoln and then agreed to join the Cabinet.* But he had an exalted view of his own talents—which were considerable—and little confidence in Lincoln. His actions in the early weeks of the administration endangered the president’s plan for handling the Sumter crisis.
Without Lincoln’s knowledge, Seward had been sending messages to the three Confederate commissioners sent by Jefferson Davis that Sumter would be abandoned—even though Lincoln had not yet reached such a decision and was inclined in the other direction. If Lincoln did resupply the garrison at Fort Sumter, of course, Seward would be in a difficult position. So he tried to derail the plan.
At the same time, Seward was convinced that reinforcing Fort Pickens would be better than maintaining Sumter. On March 29, Seward brought Captain Montgomery C. Meigs with him to discuss Fort Pickens with Lincoln. The president learned that the Brooklyn had never landed its troops there and, in fact, had left the vicinity of Pickens and was now anchored off Key West. Perturbed, he asked Meigs to draft a plan to reinforce the Florida fort. Meigs returned with the plan on the 31st, and Lincoln approved it.
Meigs’s plan called for use of the U.S.S. Powhatan, the most powerful ship in the navy. That same ship had been part of the plan to resupply Sumter, however. Lincoln missed the detail—he often signed papers that Seward gave him without reading them—and Seward convinced him to have Meigs mount the Pickens expedition without informing the Navy Department. He argued that Confederate sympathizers there would notify the South of the plan, but the secrecy prevented anyone there from knowing that Powhatan was about to be snatched away.
Seward also did a bit of verbal tap-dancing with the Confederate commissioners. While he had been promising that Sumter would be abandoned, he sent a different message on April 1. The fort would not be resupplied, he said, without warning South Carolina governor Francis Pickens first. The commissioners were alarmed by what to them was an about-face.
That same day, Seward compounded all his secret dealings with a bit of foolish reasoning and unabashed cheek. On April 1, he showed up at the White House with a memorandum for Lincoln. He opened with a salvo: “We are at the end of a month’s Administration, and yet without a policy either domestic or foreign.”
Next, Seward pressed again the argument that Lincoln should abandon Sumter and reinforce Pickens, urging that (somehow) this would change the question at hand from slavery to Union. Seward’s fantasy analysis went further. He urged Lincoln to authorize him to send messages to the governments of Spain and France, seeking explanations for their activities in Santo Domingo and Mexico, respectively. If one of these explanations was unsatisfactory—as Seward expected—the United States could declare war on the offending nation. That would solve the secession crisis, Seward said, because the Southern states would flock back into the Union in a fit of patriotic enthusiasm.
Seward ended his memorandum provocatively. Whatever course is chosen, he said, “there must be an energetic prosecution of it. . . . Either the President must do it himself . . . or devolve it on some member of his Cabinet.” Lincoln fully understood which option his secretary of state preferred.
Lincoln, of course, rejected all Seward’s ideas. That he did not fire Seward over his foolish thinking and impertinent tone is a measure of his remarkable character. Interestingly, the two developed a friendly and effective working relationship.
Meanwhile, Seward’s meddling in the Sumter relief expedition caused problems. On April 4, Gustavus Fox received orders to mount the Sumter expedition, which included authorization from Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles to use the Powhatan. Lincoln also had a message sent to Major Robert Anderson, at Sumter, telling him that a relief expedition was on the way.
The next day, things began to unravel when both Fox and Meigs showed up at a New York pier with conflicting orders for the Powhatan. Meigs wired Seward, who was forced to reveal his actions to Welles. The two of them met with Lincoln. The president apologized to Welles for the mixup, blaming himself. He also told Seward that the Powhatan should go to Fox for the Sumter expedition, which was more important, and instructed him to send a telegram clarifying the situation.
Seward struck again. He sent the telegram, but signed it with his name, not the president’s. Since the original order placing the Powhatan in the Fort Pickens expedition had been signed by Lincoln, the officer in charge ignored Seward’s new telegram and went with the original, presidential, order. Powhatan steamed out of New York on April 6, headed for Florida, not South Carolina.
Fox left New York two days later, mounting the Sumter relief expedition. He had no idea that Powhatan would not be following his ship. (Why he had not checked on this before leaving remains a mystery.)
That same day, Lincoln sent a message to South Carolina’s governor: “an attempt will be made to supply Fort Sumter with provisions only, and . . . if such attempt be not resisted, no effort to throw in men, arms or ammunition, will be made, without further notice, nor in case of an attack upon the Fort.”
By this time, Jefferson Davis had concluded that he had to attack one fort or the other. He needed, he believed, to show Confederate strength, hoping thereby to attract the other slave states to his cause. General Braxton Bragg, the Confederate commander in Pensacola, said that taking Fort Pickens would result in high casualties. Davis decided that the target would be Sumter.
Things were coming to a head. On April 10, as Fox’s ships steamed toward Charleston, Davis proposed to his Cabinet that the Confederate forces fire on Fort Sumter before the relief expedition arrived. All but one Cabinet member agreed.
The lone dissenter, Secretary of State Robert Toombs, played the part of Cassandra: “The firing upon the fort,” he said, “will inaugurate a civil war greater than any the world has yet seen.”
* Lincoln had also placed three other rivals for his party’s nomination—Salmon P. Chase (secretary of the treasury), Simon Cameron (secretary of war), and Edward Bates (attorney general)—in his Cabinet. He did so in part to draw on their abilities, in part to unite the party, and in part to co-opt them from criticizing him.
Words © 2011 AtHome Pilgrim.
All Rights Reserved.