Witness history - Fort Sumter 1861
To The Editor Of The Nation:
Sir: The "Diary of a Public Man," as recently published by the North American Review, contains, amid much apocryphal gossip relating to the outbreak of our civil war, certain specific statements based on the assumption that the Administration of President Lincoln was brought, in the early days of its existence, to contemplate and accept the evacuation of Fort Sumter as a military necessity.
This purpose was unofficially announced a few days after the inauguration of Mr. Lincoln, but as the subsequent conduct of the Administration indicated a change of policy— if any such purpose had been formed—it has been common to resolve the public doubts under this head by questioning the existence of any such intention.
It may be proper, therefore, to say that, as one of the editors of the National Intelligencer in 1861, I was authentically informed of this purpose by Mr. Secretary Seward, not only for my guidance as a public journalist, but with the request that I should communicate the fact to the Hon. George W. Summers, the recognized leader of the Union majority in the Virginia ConvVention then sitting at Richmond.
Mr. Seward believed that intelligence of the fact would strengthen the hands of the Unionists in that body, and, concurring with him in this opinion, I hastened to write to Mr. Summers in the sense and to the purport of the Secretary's statements……I still have the reply of Judge Summers, from which the purport of my communication can be sufficiently gathered, as well as the effect it produced on the minds of the Virginia Unionists in the Convention, I subjoin it to this note as a slight contribution to the political literature of that troublous period.
The North American diarist says, under date of March 6, 1861, that Mr. Seward communicated the meditated purpose of the Administration to the Richmond Unionists through "a messenger enjoying the direct personal confidence" of the Secretary.
This may be true, but as the fact that I had written to Mr. Summers was an open secret both in Washington and Richmond at that time, it may be that the statement of the diarist is but an echo of the communication I was authorized to make.
As the statements made by Mr. Seward in the early days of March, 1861, with regard to the projected evacuation of Fort Sumter, when viewed in the light of subsequent events, have subjected him to the charge of duplicity in the premises, I beg leave to say that the charge, according to my knowledge of the facts, is entirely unfounded.
He honestly believed in the truth of his statements when he made them, and he had a right to believe in their truth, for they were made with the full knowledge and consent of Mr. Lincoln, and were supported by the military representations of General Scott—representations supposed at the time to be decisive of the question. And when, at a later day, Mr. Lincoln determined to send supplies of food to the famished garrison of Fort Sumter, "peaceably if he could, forcibly if he must," I have good reasons for believing that the resolution was concerted without the privity of Mr. Seward, though after the resolution had been taken, a sense of loyalty to his official chief combined with convictions of public duty to prevent him from replying to the suspicions brought upon him by his ill fated efforts to "keep the peace."
In order to appreciate the motives and conduct of Mr. Seward in this crisis, it is important to remember that his statements were made not at all in subservience to the wishes and claims of the Confederate politicians, but in deference to the wishes and sensibilities of the Union men in the Border States—men who were fighting a gallant political battle for the Union under circumstances which gave them a claim to his best consideration. He believed, moreover, that if these States could be retained within their normal orbits the Secession movement initiated by the Cotton States would either "die a natural death" or could be restricted within limits so comparatively narrow as to make it otherwise manageable by the power of the Federal Government. If the view was a mistaken one he should at least have the benefit of the candor and earnestness with which he held it.
When the truth of history in this matter shall be fully brought to light I incline to think that the facts in the case will prove to be substantially as follows: - that the evacuation of Fort Sumter was entertained by President Lincoln and his Cabinet as an inevitable military necessity during the earlier weeks of March, 1861;
- that this evacuation was never formally or finally resolved on by the President, although for a time he had no alternative plan in his mind;
- that during this time the statements in question were made by Mr. Seward not only in perfect good faith but by authority of the President;
- that when the announcement of the proposed evacuation excited, as we know it did, a profound feeling of disgust and indignation in the breasts of the "Stalwarts" of that day, the President was finally moved to accept the alternative proposition which was submitted to him, with the view of protecting himself from political odium, and at the same time maintaining the prestige of the National Government at the only two points where it was then possible to make a stand in the seceded States—Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens.
As the Hon. Montgomery Blair, a member of Mr. Lincoln's Cabinet, was understood at the time to be opposed to the meditated evacuation of Fort Sumter, and as the expedition to Charleston was placed under the command of his brother-in-law, Capt. G. V. Fox an ex-officer of the United States Navy, and subsequently Assistant Secretary of the Navy Department, it is reasonable to suppose that either or both of these distinguished gentlemen could shed valuable light on the motives and considerations which, beyond and besides those included in Mr. Lincoln's message of July 4th, 1861 may have led to the President’s final decision in this matter.
Yours most respectively,
James C. Welling
- Date Added
- September 4, 2012
- Item Type
- 1861, Capt. G. V. Fox, Fort Sumter, President Abraham Lincoln, Secretary William Seward
- Caroline Welling Van Deusen, Project Archivist, “Witness history - Fort Sumter 1861,” E - A r c h i v e s , accessed December 11, 2018, https://citizenarchivist.omeka.net/items/show/614.