Only hours after being sworn in, Lincoln faced the most momentous decision in presidential history
On March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln’s first day in office, a letter from Maj. Robert Anderson, commander of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, landed on the new president’s desk, informing him the garrison would run out of provisions in a month or six weeks. Lincoln had to make his first, and one of his most important, decisions as commander in chief. Would he keep his inaugural vow to “hold, occupy and possess these, and all other property and places belonging to the government” at the risk of starting a war that might drive the rest of the slave states into the Confederacy? Or would he heed the advice of the Southern Unionists, Northern conservatives, and William Seward, his own secretary of state, and withdraw the troops to preserve the peace?
The pressures on the new president were so intense that he suffered sleepless nights and severe headaches. One morning he keeled over in a faint as he tried to get out of bed. During this time Lincoln also had to cope with swarms of patronage-hunting politicians who infested the White House day and night. Looking back in July on those weeks, Lincoln told Sen. Orville Browning that “of all the trials I have had since I came here, none begin to compare with those I had between the inauguration and the fall of Fort Sumpter [sic]. They were so great that could I have anticipated them, I would not have believed it possible to survive them!”
Lincoln’s trials weren’t eased when he consulted General-in-Chief Winfield Scott about the bombshell letter. “I now see no alternative but a surrender,” wrote the general, because “we cannot send the third of the men in several months, necessary to give them relief. . . . Evacuation seems almost inevitable.” Lincoln was reluctant to accept this counsel. At the first cabinet meeting on March 9, General Scott reportedly said it would require 25,000 troops and six months or more of preparations to reinforce Fort Sumter.
As pressures for and against the evacuation of Fort Sumter continued to mount, Lincoln ordered the reinforcement of Fort Pickens in Pensacola, Florida, so that if he ultimately decided to abandon Sumter, at least one contested symbol of national sovereignty would be maintained. But Sumter was a far more potent symbol; on its fate hinged the issues of Union or disunion, war or peace. On March 15 Lincoln asked his seven cabinet officers to submit written opinions on the question. Five of them, led by Seward, recommended withdrawal in order to preserve the peace and provide time for Southern Unionism to reassert itself. Only Postmaster General Montgomery Blair opposed evacuation, because it would “convince the rebels that the administration lacks firmness and will.” To give up the fort meant giving up the Union.
Lincoln was inclined to think so, too. The risk of demoralizing his own party and conceding the legitimacy of the Confederacy was uppermost in Lincoln’s mind. He sought a formula that might maintain Sumter as a symbol of national sovereignty without provoking war. The third week of March, Blair introduced the president to his brother-in-law Gustavus V. Fox, a Massachusetts businessman and a former naval officer, who proposed to run troops and supplies into Sumter at night on chartered tugs while warships stood by to suppress Confederate artillery if it fired on the tugs. Lincoln was intrigued and glad to talk with someone who offered a plan by which something could be done instead of telling him why it could not.
During the last week of March, Northern opinion seemed to harden against evacuation. So did Lincoln’s. On March 28 General Scott submitted a memorandum recommending that both Sumter and Pickens be evacuated. That evening the president and Mrs. Lincoln hosted a dinner for cabinet officers, foreign diplomats, and other dignitaries. Afterward Lincoln called the cabinet together to inform them of Scott’s memorandum. “Blank amazement” registered on several faces as they realized that Scott was advising what amounted to unconditional surrender.
In the meantime, the nature of the Sumter expedition had changed in a crucial way. A full-scale attempt to reinforce the fort, backed by warships shooting their way into Charleston Bay, would make the North the aggressor. Therefore Lincoln decided to separate the question of reinforcements from that of provisions. He would send in only supplies, while warships stood by to go into action only if Confederate guns opened fire. And he would notify South Carolina’s governor of his intentions. If the Confederates fired on unarmed tugs carrying provisions, they would be attacking a “mission of humanity” bringing “food for hungry men.”
It was a stroke of brilliance. In effect Lincoln flipped a coin with Confederate President Jefferson Davis, saying: “Heads I win; tails you lose.”
On April 6 Lincoln sent a special messenger to Charleston with a dispatch notifying the governor (Lincoln did not officially recognize the Confederate government) “to expect an attempt will be made to supply Fort-Sumpter 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 coin was in the air, and Lincoln expected to win either way it landed.
On April 8 the Confederate secretary of war telegraphed Gen. Beauregard, the commander at Charleston: “Under no circumstances are you to allow provisions to be sent to Fort Sumter.” Two days later came another telegram: “You will at once demand its evacuation, and if this is refused proceed . . . to reduce it.” Two days after that, Confederate guns opened fire.
For the second time in American history, it was a shot heard around the world.
Adapted from Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief by James M. McPherson (Penguin Press 2008).