The Sumter Conundrum

By Craig L. Symonds

Only the day before, in his inaugural address, Lincoln had pledged to the country that he would “hold, occupy, and possess” all Federal property within the seceded states. To withdraw Anderson and his garrison from Sumter now would mean beginning his administration with a violation of that pledge.

The Situation at Sumter

Even if one granted the legitimacy of secession—which Lincoln did not—the ownership of Fort Sumter was ambiguous. It had been authorized by Congress, paid for with Federal tax dollars, and built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on a man-made island constructed of granite blocks shipped to Charleston from New England. To be sure, the fort itself was in South Carolina waters, but South Carolina had no more to do with its financing or construction than any other state. Yet somehow during the lame-duck period of James Buchanan’s failed presidency, it had become the touchstone in the argument over South Carolina’s sovereignty and therefore of secession itself. That public attention made it a symbol of both Lincoln’s effort to confirm the permanence of the Union, and the Southern effort to assert its independence.

There were actually three Federal forts in Charleston Harbor: Sumter; old Castle Pinckney, watched over by a single ordnance sergeant; and Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, which was the home of the installations’ small U.S. garrison. When South Carolina Governor William Henry Gist pledged he would make no effort to occupy the three forts if the Federal government promised it would not strengthen or reinforce them, President Buchanan accepted the arrangement, though at the time no one questioned exactly what it meant to “strengthen” the forts.

Buchanan’s pro-Southern Secretary of War, John B. Floyd, who later became a Confederate general (though a very bad one), handpicked Anderson for the command of the Charleston forts mainly because the officer was a Kentuckian and a slaveholder (or at least his wife was a slaveholder—the slaves were in her name) and because he was a consummate professional who would follow orders. But Anderson believed that part of being a professional soldier was displaying responsibility down as well as obedience up and that he owed it to his men to ensure their safety. So long as he remained in Fort Moultrie, the 8 officers, 61 men, and 13 musicians of his command were entirely dependent for their security on the forbearance of the South Carolina militia. Anderson and his men were, in effect, hostages in their own fort. And so, despite Buchanan’s agreement, Anderson resolved to move his garrison from the untenable Fort Moultrie to the more isolated, though still unfinished, Fort Sumter. He did so secretly on the night on 26 December, six days after South Carolina formally declared its separation from the Union.

South Carolina authorities felt betrayed and insisted that Anderson’s clandestine move was a violation of their agreement. It was not quite a “reinforcement” of the garrison, for there were no additional U.S. Soldiers in Charleston Harbor after the move, but unquestionably the redeployment did “strengthen” Anderson’s position, for his men were no longer directly under the gaze—and the effective control—of local authorities. Southerners accused Buchanan of bad faith and demanded he order Anderson back to Moultrie. In the meantime, South Carolina troops occupied the abandoned fort as well as Castle Pinckney.

For once Buchanan stiffened. He had agreed not to send reinforcements to Charleston, and he hadn’t. Buchanan noted that Anderson commanded all three of the Charleston forts and that he had simply moved his command from one to another, which was entirely within his authority.

First Shots Fired

Apparently rather liking the feeling of standing up for the government he putatively headed, Buchanan decided that he would next send Anderson reinforcements and supplies. In January 1861, he dispatched the chartered and unarmed civilian steamer Star of the West with 200 Soldiers plus a cargo of food and medical supplies to Charleston Harbor. The South Carolinians opened fire on her on 9 January, the first shots being fired from a battery on Morris Island that was manned by cadets from The Citadel. They could easily have been the first shots of a civil war, but after several rounds flew past his ship and one caused minor damage, the Star of the West ’s civilian skipper turned back. Reverting to more characteristic behavior, Buchanan chose to ignore the fact that the U.S. flag had been fired on.

The event highlighted Anderson’s precarious position. With his heavy guns now mounted in Fort Sumter, he could have covered the Star of the West ’s approach with counterbattery fire. But he knew if he did so, it would start a war—though with whom it is not clear, for the Confederacy did not yet exist. He had watched from the ramparts of the fort as shot after shot was fired at the Star of the West , which was flying not one but two American flags. The major was on the verge of ordering supporting fire when the side-wheel steamer turned around.

An angry Anderson demanded an explanation from the Charleston authorities for why the U.S. flag had been insulted. The ensuing exchange of letters resulted in a new agreement in which both sides pledged not to upset the status quo. And so Charleston Harbor slipped into a tense armistice that lasted six weeks, from mid-January until Lincoln’s inauguration. During that period, Anderson sent regular updates to Washington—the U.S. mail and the telegraph were still working. If those reports were read at all, they had no influence on policy, for Buchanan was determined to do nothing to rock the boat before he left office.

Lincoln Seeks Opinions

Those were the circumstances on 5 March when Lincoln read the latest of Anderson’s status reports—carefully numbered no. 58—in which he reported that his garrison was about to be starved out of its position and that it would take 20,000 men to relieve him.

Lincoln first turned to the 74-year-old General of the Army, Brevet Lieutenant General Winfield Scott. Scott told him that ships could not get into Charleston Harbor past all the batteries that the Rebels had erected and that capturing the batteries would require the 20,000 men Anderson had asked for as well as several months of siege work. That was more time than Anderson, or for that matter Lincoln, had.

The next place Lincoln went for advice was his Cabinet. The assembled members expressed shock and surprise; until that moment, the precariousness of Anderson’s position was not widely known or fully understood. Most of Lincoln’s advisers instinctively declared that Anderson must be sustained. After all, if the secessionists were successful in driving the American flag from national forts, the government might as well acquiesce to a divided country. Lincoln had invited Scott to the meeting, and the general patiently instructed them about the military realities that made a successful relief expedition to Fort Sumter impossible.

Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, who was a West Point graduate, was especially adamant that Sumter must be held, and he subsequently introduced Lincoln to his brother-in-law, Gustavus V. Fox, who had an idea about how to do it. Fox had served as a naval officer for 15 years, left the Navy in 1853 to command mail steamers, and was now a private citizen. He suggested that New York City tugboats, loaded with both supplies and reinforcements and escorted by warships, could run into Charleston Harbor at night and deposit their cargo on Fort Sumter’s tiny wharf. It would be virtually impossible, Fox insisted, for secessionist batteries some three-quarters of a mile away, to hit such small, fast-moving targets. 2

Lincoln saw some drawbacks to the scheme. First of all, sending a naval expedition into Charleston Harbor would almost certainly be perceived by secessionists as an aggressive act. Lincoln had promised in his inaugural address that “The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors.” Perhaps sensing the President’s wariness, Blair suggested that at least Lincoln could send Fox to Charleston to talk with Major Anderson and assess the situation. Always willing to obtain more information, Lincoln agreed, though he made no commitment and was still leaning toward evacuation when he bade Fox farewell. 3

Leaving Washington on 19 March, Fox traveled south by train through Virginia and the Carolinas, arriving in Charleston on the 21st. There, he met with South Carolina’s new governor, Francis Pickens, who agreed to let him go out to Fort Sumter and talk with Anderson if Fox assured him that his visit was for peaceful purposes. With perhaps a qualm or two, Fox agreed.

Murky View from the Fort

Rowed out to Sumter after nightfall, Fox was able to give Anderson the good news that the government had granted him two brevet promotions—from major to colonel—in recognition of his stalwart resistance. But the news did not lift the fort commander’s gloomy outlook, for Anderson continued to believe that any naval expedition to resupply him was doomed. As he and Fox stood on the ramparts of Fort Sumter in the darkness, Anderson pointed out the silhouettes of new fortifications the Southerners had erected on every side.

Fox, however, looked at the harbor defenses with different eyes and continued to believe that the batteries posed little threat to a small, fast-moving target at night. For him, the clincher came when the boat that had brought him out to Fort Sumter returned two hours later to ferry him back. Fox could hear the creak of the oarlocks, but the boat remained virtually invisible from the fort’s small pier “until she almost touched the landing.” If a small boat could not be seen from Sumter at 20 feet, how could it be seen from Fort Moultrie at three-quarters of a mile? Fox returned to Washington on 24 March more convinced than ever that “he could reinforce the garrison with men, and supply it with provisions.” 4

Fox’s information, as well as news from others who reported that there was no apparent latent Unionism in the state, led Lincoln to consider a rescue mission to Fort Sumter more seriously, but what finally changed his mind was a disturbing memorandum from Scott, who proposed that the government should evacuate both Sumter and Fort Pickens off Pensacola, Florida. The gratuitous advice was well outside Scott’s authority as commanding general, for it was based on a political judgment, not on military circumstances. Still, its contents gave Lincoln “a cold shock.” Indeed, Scott’s recommendation was nearly as distressing as the letter Lincoln had received from Anderson three weeks before. The public might eventually come to understand the evacuation of Fort Sumter as a military necessity, but Pickens was not under any immediate threat. To surrender both forts would signal a deliberate policy of accommodation, the same policy that had been pursued by Lincoln’s discredited predecessor. 5

After a sleepless night, the President decided sometime on the morning of 28 March that he would hold both Fort Pickens and Fort Sumter, which meant that in addition to sending reinforcements to Pickens, he would have to authorize a naval expedition to provision Sumter as well. By then, however, time was running out. Anderson had already reported that he could hold out only until 15 April. Lincoln wanted the Sumter expedition to move by 6 April.

Mounting the expedition at all proved almost too much for the young administration. Lincoln wanted Fox to command it, though he was no longer a naval officer, which caused some confusion. Moreover, gathering the naval forces needed for both Sumter and Pickens betrayed both a lack of clear channels of communication and a lack of coordination between government departments.

The Powhatan ’s Conflicting Orders

On 1 April, Secretary of State William H. Seward showed up in Lincoln’s office with two middle-grade officers: Army Captain Montgomery Meigs and Navy Lieutenant David Dixon Porter. They had a plan, Seward told the President, to make certain of the security of Fort Pickens. All that was needed was to dispatch the Navy steamer Powhatan —recently returned to New York from Vera Cruz and decommissioned prior to undergoing repairs—to escort a steamer loaded with a battalion of Soldiers down to the fort. Lincoln wondered if Seward had cleared the idea with Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. Seward assured him that he would “make it right with Mr. Welles.” Thereupon, Lincoln gave permission for Porter to write out orders for the President’s signature. They instructed the commandant of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Captain Andrew Hull Foote, to prepare the Powhatan for sea for an undisclosed mission, and to replace her commander, Captain Samuel Mercer, with Porter. To keep the expedition secret from Southern spies, Porter wrote into Foote’s orders that “under no circumstances” was he to “communicate to the Navy Department the fact that she is fitting out.” 6

But despite his promise, Seward did not “make it right” with Welles, nor did Seward know that Welles had already planned to use the Powhatan for Fox’s expedition to Fort Sumter. Worse, Foote’s orders forbade the captain even to tell Welles that he was sending one of the nation’s few available steam warships off on a secret mission. Foote found that more than a little awkward, but because the order pledging him to secrecy was signed by the President himself, he perforce obeyed. As a result of all this, in the first week of April, Seward and Welles each planned a secret naval mission—one to Fort Pickens, one to Fort Sumter—each expedition spearheaded by the same ship, and neither secretary was aware of the plans of the other. 7

Not until 5 April—the day before the expedition for Fort Sumter was to depart—did anyone begin to realize what had happened. That morning, Welles telegraphed Captain Mercer his orders to take the Powhatan to Charleston where he was to rendezvous with Fox on 11 April. Meigs complained to Seward by telegraph that Welles was “interfering” with Porter’s command of the Powhatan , and Seward went to Welles to straighten him out. The Navy Secretary was at first baffled and then angered. Porter had no command, he insisted. Mercer was in command of the Powhatan , and he was under orders for Charleston. Not so, Seward declared. He claimed that the Powhatan was Porter’s command and she was going to Pensacola. Characteristically, Welles became excited, and no doubt raised his voice. He demanded they go to the White House and talk to Lincoln. 8

Though it was near midnight, Lincoln was still at his desk. He listened to both men and at first sided with Seward, declaring that the Powhatan was not among those ships intended for the Sumter expedition. Welles knew better. He rushed off to get copies of the orders, and after Lincoln read them, he agreed that Welles was correct. The Powhatan was to go to Charleston. The President ordered Seward to telegram Porter in New York and tell him so. 9

But Seward did not send the telegram until late the next morning, and when he did, all it said was that Porter was “to give up the Powhatan to Captain Mercer.” It was signed “SEWARD,” but Porter had different orders in his pocket that were signed by the President. “This is an unpleasant position to be in,” the lieutenant told Foote. In the end Porter decided that Lincoln’s orders took precedence. “I received my orders from the President and shall proceed and execute them,” he declared. Then he steamed out of New York Harbor and headed off toward Pensacola. 10

Crisis Comes to a Head

Nor was that the end of the confusion. Lincoln’s decision to relieve Fort Sumter put Seward in an awkward diplomatic position, because the Secretary of State had taken it on himself to promise Southern representatives that the government would make no attempt to reinforce Sumter without adequate notice. He now told Lincoln that the administration must live up to that pledge. Welles argued that Seward had no right to make such a pledge on behalf of the government and the government had no obligation to live up to it. After all, he pointed out, a key element of Fox’s expedition was stealth. To notify the secessionists that an expedition was en route jeopardized its potential for success and put Fox and all those who sailed with him in increased peril.

Seward insisted, however, and, typically, Lincoln settled on a kind of compromise. He would send a notification to Governor Pickens, but only after the expedition had sailed. The note Lincoln sent stated that if local authorities did not resist the resupply effort, the government would not land any reinforcements, but if they did resist, then both supplies and reinforcements would be landed. 11

It is impossible to know what Lincoln expected such a message to accomplish. Many have argued that it was a deliberate ploy to compel the Rebel leaders to assume the burden of making a decision. According to this view, letting the secessionists know that the expedition was en route forced them into a provocative act that cast the Union as the victim. And, indeed, that is what finally happened. But Lincoln may have had more modest expectations. At the very least, the message would absolve him of making a treacherous assault on South Carolina—of being the aggressor, as he said in his inaugural address. It was always possible that local authorities might acquiesce in the sending of supplies, which would prolong the crisis and allow more time for all sides to find a peaceful solution. To be sure, it might also provoke the secessionists to act, and in acting, assume the burden of starting hostilities. But Lincoln could not count on that, and for the most part he was feeling his way during this crisis.

On 9 April, Fox headed south on the chartered steamer Baltic that carried most of the supplies. Two tugs from New York were supposed to rendezvous with him off Charleston and carry the supplies to the fort, but though the Baltic arrived at the rendezvous at 0300 on 12 April, the tugs never made it. Bad weather had thwarted them off New Jersey and the Carolina Capes and forced the boats to turn back. Nor was the Powhatan there, for Porter was taking her down to Fort Pickens. Two other U.S. Navy warships did arrive—the Pawnee (see “Historic Fleets,” p. 66) and Pocahontas —but without the tugs, nobody was quite sure what to do next. While Fox and the two Navy captains discussed their options, they heard the distant sound of cannon fire echoing out of Charleston Harbor.

The note Lincoln had addressed to Governor Pickens had arrived in Charleston on 8 April. By then the seven states that had seceded from the Union had organized themselves into the Confederacy and appointed Brigadier General P. G. T. Beauregard as the area commander for Charleston. Pickens therefore passed Lincoln’s note to Beauregard, who in turn passed it on to the Confederate government in Montgomery, Alabama. In the end, therefore, it was Jefferson Davis, the Confederacy’s Provisional President, who decided how to respond. He concluded that allowing Fort Sumter to be resupplied would violate the Confederacy’s claim to sovereignty. More afraid of looking weak than he was of starting a war, Davis ordered Beauregard to demand Anderson’s surrender. If that demand were refused, the general was to reduce the fort by gunfire. The first shot was fired just minutes after Fox, in the Baltic, reached the rendezvous ten miles offshore.

That initial shot galvanized both sections. Political divisions in the North instantly dissolved, and Northerners rallied around their new President and the war to save the Union. The effect was just as powerful in the South, and for a time it appeared that Davis’ decision had provided the boost the nascent nation needed to solidify its cause. On the other hand, it is hard to resist the conclusion that if the Confederate President had simply protested Lincoln’s resupply effort in an angry note, labeled it as a violation of his inauguration pledge, and let the crisis play itself out, it would have bought the Confederacy more time, cast Lincoln in the aggressor’s role, and won sympathy abroad. Taking that course would have made it very difficult, if not impossible, for Lincoln to initiate a subsequent war to save the Union without being, in fact, the aggressor. Davis’ was, in short, a catastrophically bad decision.

 



1. The central argument of this essay is adapted from Craig L. Symonds, Lincoln and His Admirals: Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. Navy, and the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), Chapter 1.

2. Ibid., p. 11.

3. Lincoln’s inaugural is in Roy P. Basler, ed., The Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln , vol. 4 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), p. 261.

4. Symonds, Lincoln and his Admirals , p. 13.

5. The “cold shock” quotation comes from the diary of Montgomery Meigs, “General M. C. Meigs on the Conduct of the Civil War,” American Historical Review (January 1921), 26:300.

6. Meigs to Seward, 1 April 1861, Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress; David Dixon Porter, Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War , (New York: Appleton, 1885), pp. 13–15.

7. Lincoln to Foote, 1 April 1861, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1894-1922) (hereinafter cited as ORN), ser. 1, vol. 4, pp. 108–9.

8. Welles to Mercer, Rowan, and Gillis, 5 April 1861, ORN, ser. 1, vol. 4, pp. 235–6; Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy under Lincoln and Johnson , ed. by Howard K. Beale (New York: W. W. Norton, 1960), undated entry, vol. 1, p. 24.

9. Gideon Welles, Diary , vol. 1, p. 24.

10. Seward to Porter, 6 April 1861, ORN, ser. 1, vol. 4, p. 112; Porter to Foote, ibid., pp. 111–12.

11. Gideon Welles, “Facts in Relation to the Reinforcement of Fort Pickens in the Spring of 1861,” Galaxy (January 1871), in Welles, Civil War and Reconstruction , Selected Essays (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1959), p. 50.

 

Craig L. Symonds taught history at the U.S. Naval Academy for thirty years. He is the author or editor of 22 books including Decision at Sea: Five Naval Battles that Shaped American History (Oxford, 2005), which won the Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt Prize, and Lincoln and his Admirals: Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. Navy, and the Civil War (Oxford, 2008), which won the Barondess Prize, the Laney Prize, the Lyman Prize, and the Lincoln Prize for 2009.

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