President Lincoln Plans Fort Sumter Expedition

Montgomery Meigs

Friday, March 29, 1861

President Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward meet with Captain Montgomery Meigs on relief expedition for Ft. Pickens and Fort Sumter. “The President talked freely with me,” Union Army officer Montgomery Meigs wrote in his diary on March 29, 1861. “I told him that men enough could be found to volunteer to endeavor to relieve Fort Sumter, but that persons of higher position and rank than myself thought it not to be attempted, that this was not the place to make the war, etc. He asked me whether Fort Pickens could be held. I told him certainly if the Navy had done its duty and not lost it already. The President asked whether I could not go down there again and take a general command of these three great fortresses [Pickens at the western end of Santa Rosa Island, off Pensacola; Taylor at Key West; and Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas] and keep them safe. I told him I was only a captain and could not command majors who were there. He must take an officer of higher rank. Mr. Seward roke out with ‘I can understand too how that is, Captain Meigs, you have got to be promoted.’ I said, ‘That cannot be done; I am a captain and there is no vacancy.’ But Mr. Seward told the President that if he wished to have this thing done the proper way was to put it into my charge and it would be done, that I would give him an estimate of the means by 4 P.M. of the next day. He [Seward] complimented me much. Said that when Pitt wished to take Quebec he did not send for an old general but he sent for a young man whom he had noticed in the society of London, named [James] Wolfe, and told him that he had selected him to take Quebec, to ask for the necessary means and do it and it was done. Would the President do this now? He [Lincoln] replied that he would consider on it and would let me know in a day or two.”

After an emergency Cabinet meeting at which Lincoln announces reinforcement of Fort Sumter, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles writes: “I concur in the proposition to send an armed force off Charleston with supplies of provisions and reinforcements for the garrison at for Sumter, and of communicating, at the proper time, the intentions of the government to provision the forts, peaceably if unmolested. There is little probability that this will be permitted, if the opposing forces can prevent it. An attempt to force in provision, without reinforcing the garrison at the same time, might not be advisable. But armed resistance to a peaceable attempt to send provisions to one of our own forts will justify the government in using all the power at its command, to reenforce the garrison and furnish the necessary supplies.
Fort Pickens and other places retained should be strengthened by additional roops, and, if possible made impregnable. The naval force in the gulf and on the southern coast should be increased. Accounts are published that vessels, having on board marketable products for the crews of the Squadron at Pensacola are sized — the inhabitants we know are prohibited from punishing the ships with provisions or water; and the time has arrived, when it is the duty of the government to assess and maintain its authority.

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Lincoln Holds First State Dinner

State Dining Room

Thursday, March 28, 1861

As the Fort Sumter situation worsens, the Lincolns prepare for their first state dinner at the White House. Mary Todd Lincoln writes: “We have given our last general levee until next winter, our cabinet dinner comes off this evening, a party of 28 will dine with us. Our friends have all left, except Mrs Grimsley & Mr and Mrs Kellogg of Cincinnati. The latter leave for home, tomorrow. Mrs. G will remain a week or two longer. This is certainly a very charming spot & I have formed many delightful acquaintances. Every evening our blue room is filled with the elite of the land, last eve, we have about 40 to call in, to see us ladies from Vice P. Breckinridge down.”

New American ambassador to Britain Charles Frances Adams visits Secretary of State William H. Seward who tells him that in the Lincoln government there is: “No system, no relative ideas, no conception of his situation – much absorption in the details of office dispensation, but little application to great ideas. The Cabinet without unity, and without confidence in the head or each other.”

After the state dinner, President Lincoln calls a special meeting of the cabinet at which he reads a letter from General Winfield Scott calling for abandoning Forts Pickens and Sumter. A Scott aide writes: “Before dinner the General received from President Lincoln a note, asking him to come at once to the executive mansion. On setting out, the General whispered to me, that Mr. Lamon had informed him (Mr. Lamon had been down to Charleston with a letter from General Scott, with the sanction of Mr. Lincoln) that Governor Pickens wished to come back into the Union. The General also remarked that he supposed Mr. Lincoln wished to converse with him about Forts Sumter and Pickens, and he seemed to expect the President would be willing to give up both.”

The Scott memo read: “It is doubtful, according to recent information from the South, whether the voluntary evacuation of Fort Sumter alone would have a decisive effect upon the States now wavering between adherence to the Union and secession. It is known, indeed, that it would be charged to necessity, and the holding of Fort Pickens would be adduced in support of that view. Our Southern friends, however, are clear that the evacuation of both the forts would instantly soothe and give confidence to the eight remaining slave-holding States, and render their cordial adherence to this Union perpetual.” At the Cabinet meeting, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair is infuriated by Scott’s suggestion and states: “‘Mr. President, you can now see that General Scott, in advising the surrender of Fort Sumter, is playing the part of a politician, not a general.”

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English Journalist Meets with President Lincoln

William Howard Russell

Wednesday, March 27, 1861

British journalist William H. Russell writes: “This morning, after breakfast, Mr. Sanford called, according to his promise, and took me to the State Department. It is a very humble — in fact, dingy — mansion, two stories, high, and situated at the end of the magnificent line of colonnade in white marble, called the Treasury, which is hereafter to do duty as the headquarters of nearly all the public departments.
“In a moderately sized, but very comfortable, apartment, surrounded with bookshelves, and ornamented with a few engravings, we found the Secretary of State seated at his table, and enjoying a cigar; he received me with great courtesy and kindness, and after a time said he would take occasion to present me to the President, who was to give audience that day to the minister of the new kingdom of Italy, who had hitherto represented the kingdom of Sardinia.
“I have already described Mr. Seward’s personal appearance; his son, to whom he introduced me, is the Assistant Secretary of State, and is editor or proprietor of a journal in the State of New York, which has a reputation for ability and fairness. Mr. Frederick Seward is a slight, delicate-looking man, with a high forehead, thoughtful brow, dark eyes, and amiable expression; his manner is very placid and modest, and, if not reserved, he is by no means loquacious. As we were speaking, a carriage drove up to the door, and Mr. Seward exclaimed to his father, with something like dismay in his voice, ‘Here comes the Chevalier in full uniform!’ — and in a few seconds in effect the Chevalier Bertinatti made his appearance, in cocked hat, white gloves, diplomatic suit of blue and silver lace, sword, sash and riband of the Cross of Savoy. I thought there was a quiet smile on Mr. Seward’s face as he saw his brilliant companion, who contrasted so strongly with the more than republican simplicity of his own attire. ‘Fred, do you take Mr. Russell round to the President’s whilst I go with the Chevalier. We will meet at the White House.’ We accordingly set out through a private door leading to the grounds, and within a few seconds entered the hall of the moderate mansion, White House, which has very much the air of a portion of a bank or public office, being provided with glass doors and heavy chairs and forms. The domestic who was in attendance was dressed like any ordinary citizen, and seemed perfectly indifferent to the high position with whom he conversed, when Mr. Seward asked him, ‘Where is the President?’ Passing through one of the doors on the left, we entered a handsome spacious room, richly and gorgeously furnished, and rejoicing in a kind of demi-jour, which gave increased effect to the gilt chairs and ormolu ornaments.
“Soon afterward there entered, with a shambling, loose, irregular, almost unsteady gait, a tall, lank, lean man, considerably over six feet in height, with stooping shoulders, long pendulous arms, terminating in hands of extraordinary dimensions., which, however, were far exceeded in proportion by his feet. He was dressed in an ill-fitting, wrinkled suit of black, which put one in mind of an undertaker’s uniform at a funeral; round his neck a rope of black silk was knotted in a large bulb, with flying ends projecting beyond the collar of his coat; his turned-down shirt-collar disclosed a sinewy muscular yellow neck, and above that, nestling in a great black mass of hair, bristling and compact like a riff of mourning pins, rose the strange quaint face and head, covered with its thatch of wild republican hair, of President Lincoln. The impression produced by the size of his extremities, and by his flapping and wide projecting ears, may be removed by the appearance of kindliness, sagacity, and the awkward bonhomie of his face; the mouth is absolutely prodigious; the lips; straggling and extending almost from one line of black bear to the other; are only kept in order by two deep furrows from the nostril to the chin; the nose itself — a prominent organ — stands out from the face with an inquiring, anxious air, as though it were sniffing for some good thing in the wind; the eyes dark, full, and deeply set, are penetrating, but full of an expression which almost amounts to tenderness; and above them projects the shaggy brow, running into the small hard frontal space, the development of which can scarcely be estimated accurately, owing to the irregular flocks of thick hair carelessly brushed across it. One would say that, although the mouth was made to enjoy a joke, it could also utter the severest sentence which the head could dictate, but that Mr. Lincoln would be ever more willing to temper justice with mercy, and to enjoy what he considers the amenities of life, than to take a harsh view of men’s nature and of the world, and to estimate things in an ascetic or puritan spirit. A person who met Mr. Lincoln in the street would not take him to be what — according to the usages of European society — is called a ‘gentleman’; and, indeed, since I came to the United States, I have heard more disparaging allusions made by Americans to him on that account than I could have expected among simple republicans, where all should be equals; but at the same time, it would not be possible for the most indifferent observer to pass him in the street without notice.
“As he advanced through the room, he evidently controlled a desire to shake hands all round with everybody, and smiled good-humouredly till he was suddenly brought up by the staid deportment of Mr. Seward, and by the profound diplomatic bows of the Chevalier Bertinatti. Then, indeed, he suddenly jerked himself back, and stood in front of the two ministers, with his body slightly drooped forward, and his hands behind his back, his knees touching, and his feet apart. Mr. Seward formally presented the minister, whereupon the President made a prodigiously violent demonstration of his body in a bow which had almost the effect of a smack in its rapidity and abruptness, and, recovering himself, proceeded to give his utmost attention, whilst the Chevalier, with another bow, read from a paper a long address in presenting the royal letter accrediting him as ‘minister resident’; and when he said that ‘the king desired to give, under your enlightened administration, all possible strength and extent to those sentiments of frank sympathy which do not cease to be exhibited every moment of frank sympathy which do not cease to be exhibited every moment between the two peoples, and whose origin dates back as far as the exertions which have presided over their common destiny as self-governing and free nations,’ the President gave another bow still more violent, as much as to accept the allusion.
“The minister forthwith handed his letter to the President, who gave it into the custody of Mr. Seward, and then, dipping his hand into his coat pocket, Mr. Lincoln drew out a sheet of paper, from which he rad his reply, the most remarkable part of which was his doctrine ‘that the United States were bound by duty not to interfere with the differences of foreign governments and countries.’ After some words of compliment, the President shook hands with the minister, who soon afterwards retired, Mr. Seward then took me by the hand and said — ‘Mr. President, allow me to present to you Mr. Russell of the London Times.’ On which Mr. Lincoln put out his hand in a very friendly manner, and said, ‘Mr. Russell, I am very glad to make your acquaintance, and to see you in this country. The London Times is one of the greatest powers in the world — in fact, I don’t know anything which has much more power, — except perhaps the Mississippi. I am glad to know you as its minister.’ Conversation ensued for some minutes, which the President enlivened by two or three peculiar little sallies, and I left agreeably impressed with his shrewdness, humour, and natural sagacity.”

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Patronage Pressure Hits Presidential Aide

Sunday, March 24, 1861

Lincoln Aide John G. Nicolay writes his fiance from the White House: “So far the extra labor and fatigue to which I am subjected seems to have no immediate bad effects. The intense pressure does not sem to abate as yet but I think it cannot last more than two or three weeks longer. I am looking forward with a good deal of eagerness to when I shall have time to at least read and write my letters in peace and without being haunted continually by some one who ‘wants to see the President for only five minutes.’ At present this request meets me from almost every man woman and child I met — whether it be by day or night – in the house or on the street…”

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Stephens Calls Slavery “Cornerstone” of the Confederacy

Thursday, March 21, 1861

Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens, who had been a friend of then-Congressman Abraham Lincoln in the late 1840s, delivers “Cornerstone Speech” in Georgia in which he states that the cornerstone of secession is “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery…is his natural and moral condition.”

Secretary of State William H. Seward meets with U.S. Supreme Court Justice John A. Campbell as a conduit to Confederate commissioners, whom President Lincoln has ordered him not to meet with. Seward tries to reassure the Confederates that a compromise can be reached — even as the Lincoln Administration seems to be hardening on Fort Sumter. Gustavus V. Fox is in Charleston visiting Fort Sumter as a confidential agent of President Lincoln. Another Lincoln agent, Illinois politician Stephen A. Hurlbut, is dispatched from Washington to visit Charleston and report to the president.

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Illness Hits the White House

Lincoln Family, 1861

Wednesday, March 20, 1861

Willie and Thomas “Tad” Lincoln are ill. Presidential aide John G. Nicolay writes: “Excepting the fact that the two little boys [Willie and Tad Lincoln] have the measles, every body about the White House is in good health, notwithstanding the fact that some of us have work and annoyance enough to make almost anybody sick. There is consolation in the fact however that this rush cannot last many weeks longer and that then we will enjoy our leisure all the better…”

Things continue to be unwell between Mary Todd Lincoln and Julia Jayne Trumbull, the wife of Illinois Senator Lyman Trumbull. Their friendship dissolved in 1855 when Trumbull defeated Lincoln for a Senate seat. Elizabeth Todd Grimsley, Mary’s cousin, writes from the White House: To-morrow night Mary has another reception, the last of the season. I presume it will be pleasant as there will not be so much of a crowd. The children are very much better and I think will soon be quite well. I have not seen Mrs. Trumbull — she sent me word she expected me to call, as that is etiquette, but I concluded in the present state of affairs, that as Mrs. Crittenden, McLean, Foster & various other senators wives had called specially to see me that Mrs. Trumbull might waive ceremony also, if she wished to see me. Trumbull is exceedingly unpopular here and particularly so with the conservative portion of the Republican party.”

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Fort Sumter on President Lincoln’s Mind

Monday, March 18, 1861

President Lincoln writes a memorandum regarding his options on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina: “Some considerations in favor of withdrawing the Troops from Fort Sumpter, by President Lincoln.
“1st. The Fort cannot be permanently held without reinforcement.
“This point is too apparent to [six] need proof.
“The cutting off supplies and consequent starvation, not to mention disease, would compel surrender in a few months at farthest, without firing a gun
“2 The Fort cannot now be re-inforced without a large armament, involving of course a bloody conflict and great exasperation on both sides, and when re-inforced can only be held by sufficient number to garrison the post and to keep open communication with it by means of the harbor.
“3. The Fort in the present condition of affairs is of inconsiderable military value, for: It is not necessary for the Federal Government to hold it in order to protect the City of Charleston from foreign invasion, no: Is it available under existing circumstances for the purpose of collecting the revenue: and, It is difficult to see how the possession of the Fort by the Secessionists can be rendered a mean of annoyance to the Federal Government. Every purpose for which the fort can now be made available would be better subserved by Ships of War, outside the harbor.
4. The abandonment of the Post would remove a source of irritation in the Southern people and deprive the secession movement of one of its most powerful stimulants.
“5. It would indicate both an independent and a conservative position on part of the new administration, and would gratify and encourage those, who while friendly to the Union are yet reluctant to see extreme measures pursued.
“6 It would tend to confound and embarrass those enemies of the Union both at the North and South who have relied on the cry of ‘Coercion’ as a means of keeping up the excitement against the Republican Party.
“7 If the garrison should, while in an enfeebled condition be successfully attacked, or from want of proper supplies should be cut off by disuse the administration would be held responsible for it and this fact would be used by their opponents with great effect.
“8 The moral advantage to the Secessionists of a successful attack would be very great.
Objections
“1st The danger of demoralizing the Republican Party by a measure which might seem to many to indicate timidity or in common parlance, ‘want of pluck.’
“That this may be the first impression is probable but if the measure is justified upon the double ground of the small importance of the post in a military point of view and desire to conciliate wherever this can be safely done a second thought will discover the wisdom of the course, and increase rather than diminish the confidence of the party in its leaders.
“2d The danger of the movement being construed by the Secessionists as a yielding from necessity, and in so far a victory on their part.”

President Lincoln continues to be caught between the pressures of policy and patronage. He agrees to pressure from Secretary of State William H. Seward to appoint Massachusetts Congressman Charles Francis Adams as minister to Great Britain. When at the White House, Adams attempts to thank the president, Lincoln says: “Very kind of you to say so, Mr. Adams, but you are not my choice. You are Seward’s man.” The president then turned to the secretary of state and quickly changed the subject: “‘Well, Seward, I have settled the Chicago Post Office.” Adams is affronted that his diplomatic position could be equated with a postmastership.

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Lincoln Seeks Job for Black White House Servant

Saturday, March 16, 1861

President Lincoln looks for a job for William Johnson, an African-American who has accompanied Lincoln from Springfield to act as a valet. White House servants object to his color so Lincoln seeks other employment. He writes Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles: “The bearer (William) is a servant who has been with me for some time & in whom I have confidence as to his integrity and faithfulness. He wishes to enter your service. The difference of color between him & the other servants is the cause of our seperation. If you can give him employment you will confer a favour on Yours truly.”

Lincoln eventually finds employment for Johnson at the Department of the Treasury next door to the White House but Johnson continues to act as a valet and barber to the President. He will accompany Lincoln to Gettysburg in November 1863. Like Lincoln, he will fall ill with variloid. Unlike the President, Johnson will die. Lincoln will pay for Johnson’s funeral and handle his estate in January 1864.

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Lincoln Solicits Cabinet Opinions on Fort Sumter

Friday, March 15, 1861

President Lincoln writes to his Cabinet: “Assuming it to be possible to now provision Fort-Sumpter, under all the circumstances, is it wise to attempt it? Please give me your opinion, in writing, on this question.”

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General Scott Sends Memo to President Lincoln

General Winfield Scott

Sunday, March 10, 1861

Meeting at Montgomery, Alabama, the new Confederate Congress adopts constitution.

President and Mrs. Lincoln worship at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, which they will attend regularly during the Lincoln Presidency.

General Winfield Scott sends Abraham Lincoln a detailed memorandum on military options: “The President has done me the honor to address to me certain professional questions, to which he desires answers. I proceed with them categorically.
“1. To what point of time can Major Anderson maintain his position, at Fort Sumter, without fresh supplies or reinforcement?”
Answer. In respect to subsistence, for the garrison, he has hard bread, flour & rice for about 26 days, & salt meat (port) for about 48 days; but how long he could hold out against the whole means of attack which the South Carolinians have in, & about the city of Charleston & its Harbour, is a question that cannot be answered with absolute accuracy. Reckoning the [batteries] troops at 3,500 (now somewhat disciplined) the batteries at 4 powerfull land, & at least one floating — all mounting guns & mortars of large calibre, & of the best patterns; — & supposing those means to be skillfully & vigorously employed — Fort Sumter with its less than 100 men — including common laborers & musicians — ought to be taken by a single assault, & easily, if harassed perseveringly for several previous days & night by threats & false attacks, with the ability, from the force of overwhelming numbers, of converting one out of every three or four of those, into a real attack.
“2. Can you with all the means now in your control, supply or reinforce Fort Sumter within that time?’
“Answer. No: Not within many months. See answer to No. 3.
“3. If not, what amount of means, & of what description, in addition to that already at your control, would enable you to supply & reinforce that fortress within the time?’
“Answer: A fleet of war vessels & transports, 5,000 additional regular troops & 20,000 volunteers, in order to take all the batteries in the Harbor of Charleston (including Ft. Moultrie) after the capture of all the batteries in the approach or outer Bay. And to raise, organize & discipline such an army, would require new acts of Congress & from six to eight months.”

Secretary of State William H. Seward writes President Lincoln regarding diplomatic positions: “I received last night what seemed to be authoritative as an announcement that Mr Fessenden withdraws his claim upon a chief or any mission. This is a relief.
“I like Clay for Spain — And am prepared to dispose of the question at once.
“I like equally Corwin to Mexico — and am also ready —
“As to Fremont and France — the prestige is good — But I think that is all. If as I have heard, he is to be engaged in raising money there for his estates, it would be a serious complication — Besides this he is by birth and education a South Carolinian and I am not certain of his being so very decided in the defence of the Union as a minister at Paris ought to be — I would rather send Dayton there — For England I am sure Mr Adams far above all others adapted to British Court & Society and infinitely more watchful capable, efficient, reliable every thing — New England is an important point. What better can we do for her. N.Jersey gives us little, and that grudgingly — I think Daytons appointment would be as much too large for her as any thing else we are likely to do for New England would be too small for her.
“After considering these things you will please decide. I can wait on you this morning on this subject if you wish, or I shall be ready to acquiesce at once in your decision without further conference.
“Please hold in reserve Secretaryships of these legations. They are almost as good as missions and hardly less important.”

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