After receiving the opinions of General Scott and his Cabinet, Lincoln sat down to consider whether or not to withdraw the troops from Fort Sumter. Reflecting his orderly, organized mind, he made a list of the pros and cons. In reading this list, we can see that the overwhelming amount of considerations favor abandoning Fort Sumter as of approximately March 18, 1861. So why didn’t Lincoln choose this course of action?
“Plainly Lincoln was torn. On the one hand, even if the fort could be provisioned without starting a war, which did not seem possible, it could not be held indefinitely. It had no real military value, and could not even be used for collecting the revenue offshore. Evacuation would remove the primary irritant to Southerners and, by signaling the administration’s pacific intent, strengthen Southern unionism by cutting the ground from under those who charged coercion. It would also remove the danger that a successful attack would invigorate disunionism. On the other hand, evacuation might embolden secessionists and could have a demoralizing effect on the already strained Republican Party.” [Russell McClintock, Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession, p. 218]
On March 19, Lincoln ordered Scott to send someone to Charleston on a reconnaissance mission. Scott chose Gustavus Fox for the mission. Fox left that night and arrived in Charleston on March 21. Governor Pickens allowed Fox to meet with Anderson at Fort Sumter, where Anderson told him he didn’t support any mission to relieve him and his garrison. Anderson agreed with Scott that by then it was too late to successfully relieve the garrison without touching off a shooting war. “The visit of Captain Fox was short; a statement of the provisions on hand was furnished to him, and it was understood between himself and Major Anderson that unless provisions were furnished to him, he could not hold his position beyond the 15th of April at noon, even if he should at once place his command on short rations, and for this he should await the orders of his Government.” [Samuel W. Crawford, The Genesis of the Civil War: The Story of Sumter, 1860-61, p. 372] Fox began his return to Washington that night.
Meanwhile, on March 21, Lincoln called Stephen A. Hurlbut, a native South Carolinian who had moved to Illinois, to the White House and sent him to Charleston with Ward H. Lamon to bring back information on the amount of unionism they can find in Charleston. In his report to Lincoln, Hurlbut said, “there is no attachment to the Union.” Lamon appears to have gone along as a decoy, because while Lamon was the object of attention Hurlbut was able to quietly accomplish his mission with no newspapers or others around. See John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln, Volume 3, pp. 390-391. The problem, though, is that Lamon liked to talk, liked to embellish what he talked about, and liked to sound important. As a result, Lamon gave the South Carolinians the impression that Fort Sumter was about to be evacuated. “As if this were not enough, he wrote to the Governor shortly after his departure, saying that he would soon return to arrange for the removal.” [David M. Potter, Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis, p. 340].
If there was little to no unionist feeling left among Charlestonians, then that would seem to knock out one of the reasons for evacuating Sumter, because there would be no unionism to encourage.
All of this didn’t take place in a vacuum, of course. There were things going on politically as well. Lincoln undertook most of his actions in secret, so from a public point of view, with the exception of Lamon visiting Charleston, it seemed as though the administration wasn’t doing anything. “And so within a few weeks the new administration was almost discredited. The disillusionment increased as the country was swept by rumors that Fort Sumter was to be evacuated. Soon Lincoln’s political opponents were taunting him for ‘backing down’ and for merely continuing Buchanan’s ‘weak’ policy. ‘This administration,’ mocked the Democratic Cleveland Plain Dealer, ‘after all its blustering about ‘enforcing the laws in all the states,’ not only surrenders Sumter but South Carolina and the whole South.’ Other critics laughed scornfully as they reminded Republicans of their ‘magnificent flourishes’ and ‘vainglorious boasting’ about the expected vigor of the new regime. John A. Dix congratulated Buchanan. The humiliation of Lincoln would make the former President’s record ‘brighten in proportion.'” [Kenneth M. Stampp, And the War Came: The North and the Secession Crisis, 1860-61, p. 266]
Republicans, also, pressured Lincoln to act decisively. Members of the administration received letters from supporters saying that if Sumter was evacuated the administration would be finished. Republican newspapers joined in the chorus. “Responding to this mass pressure, terrified Republican leaders begged Lincoln to make some decisive move and told him that the loss of Sumter would ruin them all. Francis Preston Blair, Sr., hastened to the White House to inform the President that he was losing public confidence and to insist Sumter should be yielded only to superior military force. Republican congressmen met secretly in Washington and demanded that reinforcements be sent to Anderson. Wade, Chandler, Trumbull, and other party leaders warned Lincoln that further delay would bring disaster. In the Senate, which was meeting in executive session, Republicans clamored for the immediate enforcement of the laws. Trumbull introduced a resolution that it was the ‘duty of the President to use all the means in his power to hold and protect public property.’ Republican governors poured into Washington to exert their influence upon the chief executive. Randall of Wisconsin declared that the Northwest would soon be lost to his party; Morton of Indiana pledged 6,000 troops for a vigorous policy. On April 4 most of these governors conferred with Lincoln and assured him that their states were ready for the use of force.” [Ibid., pp. 269-270]
There were some elections held in March and in early April. Those results reinforced what the Republican leaders were saying. They lost the majority of elections held in Rhode Island and Connecticut, lost elections in cities in Ohio, and only held strength in New Hampshire by promising Sumter would be held.
On March 28, though, the President saw a memorandum from General Scott that must have shocked him. In that memorandum, Scott urged evacuation of both Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens, saying, “indeed, the giving up of Forts Sumter and Pickens may be best justified by the hope that we should thereby recover the State to which they geographically belong by the liberality of the act, besides retaining the eight doubtful States.” Lincoln read the memorandum to his Cabinet that evening, which happened to be the evening of Lincoln’s first state dinner. “This was probably Lincoln’s first great disillusionment as President. He had accepted Scott as a military hero, and Scott’s opinion as military gospel. Now Scott abandoned the sphere of his preeminence to offer an unsolicited and inexpert opinion based on political surmise. That night, as the guests left Lincoln’s first state dinner, he invited his cabinet members to remain, and informed them, ‘with evident emotion,’ of Scott’s new recommendation. For a moment they absorbed this news in silence, and then Montgomery Blair burst into denunciation of Scott’s political generalship. No one could deny the justice of Blair’s criticism.” [David M. Potter, Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis, p. 361]
According to Blair, “This letter was written on the day fixed for the final action on the question, whether Sumter should be surrendered. But contrary to the President’s previous intention, he did not decide the question at the Cabinet meeting that day. After dinner the President called the members out of the room where he had dined with them, and in an agitated manner read Scott’s letter, which he seemed just to have received. An oppressive silence followed. At last I said, ‘Mr. President you can now see that General Scott, in advising the surrender of Fort Sumter, is playing the part of a politician, not of a general, for as no one pretends that there is any military necessity for the surrender of Fort Pickens, which he now says it is equally necessary to surrender, it is believed that he is governed by political reasons in both recommendations.
“No answer could be made to this point, and the President saw that he was misled, and immediately ordered the reinforcement of Fort Sumter. It is impossible to exaggerate the importance and merit of this act.” [Blair letter to Samuel W. Crawford, May 6, 1882, quoted in Samuel W. Crawford, The Genesis of the Civil War: The Story of Sumter, 1860-61, p. 365] Blair’s recollection may not be the most accurate, because Lincoln polled his Cabinet the next day. If the decision had been made, there would seem to be no point to poll the Cabinet again.
It does seem, though, that Lincoln was at least leaning toward relieving the garrison in some way. How did we get to the actual attempt? We’ll consider that in an upcoming post.