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[45]

Chapter 4: Lincoln.

From the false political principles and the perilous official neglect of the old administration — from the dissensions and impotence of Congress, and from the threatening attitude and the hostile preparations of the South, all parties and persons now turned to the President-elect and the incoming administration. During the winter many earnest but overhasty patriots had besought him to intervene by some public declaration. But Mr. Lincoln preserved a discreet silence, though in confidential letters to responsible personal friends of opposing politics he repeated his former assertions that, while adhering tenaciously to the Republican doctrine of “No extension of slavery,” he bore no ill — will to the South, meditated no aggression on her rights, and would on the contrary treat her with liberal indulgence in matters of minor controversy.

As the day of inauguration approached, various legislatures of the Free States by formal resolutions invited him to visit their capitals on his way to Washington; a call which his deep popular sympathy moved him to accept. Starting from home on the 11th of February, he accordingly passed through the principal cities between Springfield and New York, and between New York and Washington.

Unprecedented crowds came forth to see the new Chief [46] Magistrate. Could the quick intelligence of the American people be otherwise than intensely curious to behold this remarkable man, whose strange career they had heard outlined in the recent election speeches? His obscure birth in the deep seclusion of the Kentucky forests; how he read Weems' Life of Washington by the flickering firelight in an humble pioneer cabin in Indiana; how, as a tall emigrantboy, he split rails to fence his father's clearing in Illinois; now, launching his solitary canoe on the Sangamon, he sought his own fortune, becoming flatboatman, postmaster, deputy county surveyor, and captain of volunteers in the Black Hawk Indian War; how, commencing with a borrowed Blackstone, he argued cases before neighborhood juries, followed itinerant Circuit Courts from county to county, and gradually became the first lawyer in his State; how in a primitive community, where politics dealt with every office from postmaster to President, he rose in public service from Representative in the Vandalia Legislature to Presidentelect of the nation.

The people had also heard how this elevation was tried by the touchstone of sleepless rivalry, of unscrupulous criticism, of a mighty political conflict of party and of principle. How, in the momentous slavery discussion of the day, he was the champion who had overcome Douglas, the hitherto victorious Philistine of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill; his matchless definition of the political injustice of slavery, applicable to all nations and ages: “When the white man governs himself, that is self-government; but when he governs himself and also governs another man, that is more than selfgovern-ment — that is despotism;” his irrefutable statement of the natural right of every man “to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns;” his prophetic statesmanship, in declaring that “the Union cannot permanently [47] endure half slave and half free,” four months before Wm. H. Seward proclaimed the “irrepressible conflict.”

So much, the newspapers, campaign documents, and stump speakers had told the country. The remainder, which his intimate Illinois neighbors could have related, the people half divined from what they heard. That he had risen from obscurity to fame, from ignorance to eloquence, from want to rulership, uncontaminated by vice, undefiled by temptation, without schools, without family influence, without wealth; championed by no clique, fraternity, or sect; clinging to no skirt of corporation, interest, or combination; conspicuous without affectation, winning popularity without art, and receiving consideration without parade; rendering his party not only every service it requested, but, by his talent, leading it from despondency to success, and from success to renown; meanwhile, at every stage of his career, walking among his fellow-men with such irreproachable personal conduct, that his very name grew into a proverb of integrity, and passed among the people of his entire State as the genuine coin-current and recognized token of social. moral, and political uprightness.

Malicious gossip and friendly jest had both, during the campaign, described the “railsplitter” candidate as possessing great personal ugliness; this was now seen to be an utter mistake. The people beheld in the new President a man six feet four inches in height, a stature which of itself would be hailed in any assemblage as one of the outward signs of leadership; joined to this was a spare but muscular frame, and large and strongly marked features corresponding to his unusual stature. Quiet in demeanor, but erect in bearing, his face even in repose was not unattractive; and when lit up by his open, genial smile, or illuminated in the utterance of a strong or stirring thought, his countenance was positively [48] handsome. His voice, pitched in rather a high key, but of great clearness and penetration, made his public remarks audible to a wide circle of listeners. His speeches were short; but his pithy, epigrammatic sentences, full of logical directness and force, presented the questions of the hour in new and unwonted aspects, which the exhaustive discussions of the campaign had not yet reached.

It would be impossible within any short space to give an analytic summary of the twenty to thirty short addresses he delivered on this journey. But, so long as the nation shall live, every American ought to remember his thrilling keynote of that crisis, uttered in his very first speech at Indianapolis; an admonition equally valuable to statesmen or people in every emergency which the future may bring. “The people,” said he, “when they rise in mass in behalf of the Union and the liberties of their country, truly may it be said, ‘The gates of hell cannot prevail against them.’ In all trying positions in which I shall be placed-and doubtless I shall be placed in many such-my reliance will be upon you and the people of the United States; and I wish you to remember, now and forever, that it is your business and not mine; that if the Union of these States and the liberties of this people shall be lost, it is but little to any one man of fifty-two years of age, but a great deal to the thirty millions of people who inhabit these United States, and to their posterity in all coming time. It is your business to rise up and preserve Union and liberty for yourselves, and not for me.”

For one thing Mr. Buchanan and his Cabinet should be remembered with gratitude. All winter long there had been fears and rumors that the conspirators were maturing a plot to seize the capital, the public buildings, and the archives, forcibly prevent the inauguration of Lincoln, and thus make themselves the defacto successors of the Buchanan administration. [49] There were indeed many threats, boasts, and warnings, to justify apprehension on this score, but an investigation held by a Committee of Congress, disclosed no traceable combination. Under such apprehension, however, Mr. Buchanan authorized General Scott to assemble sufficient troops at Washington to insure both a peaceable count of the electoral votes on February 13th, and the peaceable inauguration of the President-elect, which latter event took place with due formalities, and in the presence of great crowds, on the 4th of March, 1861.

Mr. Lincoln's inaugural address made a frank declaration of his policy on the leading points of controversy. He repeated that he had no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it existed. But he also asserted that the Union is perpetual; that secession resolves or ordinances are legally void; that acts of violence, within any State or States, against the authority of the United States, are insurrectionary or revolutionary; and that to the extent of his ability he should cause the laws to be faithfully executed in all the States. The Union would defend itself, hold its property and places, and collect the duties and imposts; “but, beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere.” There should be no bloodshed or violence, unless forced upon the national authority. Temporary discontent he would tolerate; the exercise of offices in disaffected districts he would forego; he would continue to furnish the mails unless repelled; he would endeavor to preserve that sense of perfect security most favorable to calm thought and renewed allegiance. An unanswerable argument against disunion and an earnest appeal to reason and lawful remedy, he followed by a most impressive declaration of peace and goodwill: [50] “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government; while I shall have the most solemn one to preserve, protect, and defend it.”

Unhappily the burden and difficulty of administration was already heavier than he or the public were aware. He had come into office sharing the general belief that Major Anderson was secure in his stronghold of Sumter until the rebel batteries should become powerful enough to drive him out. On the contrary, a subtler and more unfailing enemy than the rebels-starvation — was rapidly forcing the brave little garrison to surrender. On the morning after inauguration letters from Sumter were put into the President's hands, showing that the fort contained provisions for only a little more than a month longer, and adding the professional opinion of Anderson and his officers that a well-appointed fleet and an army of twenty thousand men would be needed to raise the siege, so formidable had the encircling rebel batteries already become.

Such a fleet and such an army were not in existence, nor could they be organized for many months. After mature consideration General Scott advised the President that it was practically impossible to relieve or reinforce Sumter, and that, as a mere military question, it was necessary to order its evacuation.

To Mr. Lincoln, who had only a few days before publicly promised the nation that he would “hold, occupy, and possess, the property and places belonging to the Government,” this was indeed a trying alternative. He ordered a reex-amination of the whole subject, and Cabinet, military, and [51] naval officers joined in its discussion. Among the plans of relief was one urged by Captain G. V. Fox, who, even under General Scott's adverse criticism, convinced the President and a majority of the Cabinet that he could, by means of open boats and small tugs, in a dark night throw a small quantity of provisions and a few men into the fort. The political aspects of the case, however, remained still to be considered. The President, therefore, on March 15th propounded to his Cabinet the written question, “Assuming it to be possible to provision Fort Sumter, is it wise under all the circumstances of the case to attempt to do so?” To this the Cabinet made written replies, five members arguing against the policy of attempting relief, and only two in its favor. The majority, led by Mr. Seward, argued that any possible relief would only be temporary, and that a disastrous failure, and the eventual loss of the fort would produce more damaging political results, than to give it up at once under the imperative military necessity already existing, and for which the new administration was in no wise responsible.

Two or three collateral questions connected themselves with the main one. The exposed situation of Fort Pickens had become known to Lincoln, and one of his earliest official acts was to order its reinforcement from the fleet; but of the conditions of the January truce he was not informed. He was therefore waiting in painful anxiety to receive news that his order had been executed and Pickens reinforced, for the successful strengthening of that point would have an important influence in deciding the question of Sumter.

Another secondary consideration was the attitude of Virginia. Rebel influences in her Legislature had ordered a State convention, to which convention her people had elected a large majority of professedly loyal members. Their loyalty, however, was of a qualified sort, deeply tinctured with [52] factional prejudice, and irritated with the imaginary wrongs of the South. Upon this element, rebel intrigue and conspiracy were working with telling effect; and instead of declaring and practising frank and direct adherence to the Government, the union members were fulminating baseless complaints, demanding impossible guarantees, and pleading indulgent excuses for the course of South Carolina and the Cotton Republics. And this condition of misdirected and unstable loyalty was also wide-spread among the leaders and people of the Border States of Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri.

How to deal with such a morbid and disturbed public sentiment-how to treat this unnatural, contradictory, and halfhearted allegiance, was a problem of direct bearing on the Sumter question. Mr. Seward, optimist by nature, believed and argued that the revolution throughout the South had spent its force and was on the wane; and that the evacuation of Sumter, and the manifestation of kindness and confidence to the Rebel and Border States, would undermine the conspiracy, strengthen the union sentiment and union majorities, and restore allegiance and healthy political action without resort to civil war.

Mr. Lincoln shared Seward's pacific inclinations, but not his optimism. He deferred his decision; gathered information from Anderson, from Charleston, from Richmond, waited in anxious suspense for news from Pickens. No substantial encouragement, however, reached him from any quarter. Anderson had no faith in a relief expedition. All union sentiment had disappeared from South Carolina. The Virginia Convention was evidently playing fast and loose with treason; and finally, General Scott was so far wrought upon by the insane cry for concession to gratify the morbid patriotism which yet found expression in the South, that he advised [53] the evacuation of Pickens as well as Sumter. To crown all, news came that the commander of the fleet at Pensacola had refused to allow the reinforcement of Fort Pickens from the ships, because of Buchanan's January truce, and of the technical objection that General Scott's order had not come through the regular channels of the Navy Department.

Amid these growing difficulties and dangers Mr. Lincoln felt that the time for decisive action had arrived. On March 29th a second and final cabinet discussion was held, in which there appeared a change of sentiment. Four of his seven counsellors now voted for an attempt to relieve Anderson, and at the close of the meeting the President ordered the preparation of the expedition proposed by Captain Fox. Three ships of war, with a transport and three swift steamtugs, a supply of open boats, provisions for six months, and two hundred recruits, were fitted out in New York with all possible secrecy, and sailed from that port, after unforeseen delays, on April 9th and 10th, under sealed orders to rendezvous before Charleston Harbor at daylight on the morning of the 11th.

Coincident with this, the President, deeming the safety of Fort Pickens no less essential than that of Sumter, at once sent new and peremptory orders to the commander of the fleet, and also ordered the secret preparation of another and separate naval expedition to still further strengthen that post. The simultaneous preparation of the two produced a certain confusion and mutual embarrassment; but the latter was got off first, and, arriving safely, increased the garrison of Fort Pickens, including those already landed from the fleet, to 858 men, with provisions for six months, thus rendering it impregnable to rebel assault.

If we may credit abundant indications, the authorities at Montgomery did not believe they would need to resort to [54] their guns. As soon as the provisional government was organized, three rebel commissioners were appointed to proceed to Washington to negotiate for “recognition,” for “adjustment of differences,” and for possession of the federal forts. Two efforts to obtain Sumter by intrigue had failed; nevertheless, they still had faith a third attempt might succeed with the new administration.

Through a conspirator who still professed loyalty, they presented their application to Mr. Seward, Secretary of State. Mr. Seward answered courteously, but decidedly, that the new administration could have nothing to do either with the rebel government or its emissaries; and to a written paper sent to the State Department by the commissioners, he wrote an unofficial “memorandum” reply of the same purport. This properly finished the negotiation; but the commissioners, authorized to do so by the government they affected to represent, sought excuse to delay their departure, and Associate Justice Campbell, of the Supreme Court of the United States, volunteered to act as an unofficial intermediary in continuing to press their errand upon the Secretary of State. Campbell had at tho beginning publicly opposed secession and still professed loyalty; and in that friendly and patriotic guise was admitted by the Secretary of State to an intimacy he could never have gained under his true colors. It seems that Seward, in this unofficial intimacy, did not hesitate to tell Campbell of his own willingness to give up Sumter, and of his belief that the President, upon the recommendation of General Scott, would order its evacuation. This was about the time of the first Cabinet discussion of the direct proposition, when five members voted for evacuation and only two against it, and the general situation of affairs strongly supported Mr. Seward's course of reasoning.

Whatever may have been his language, a patriot could not [55] have misunderstood it. But Campbell had meanwhile become so far committed to the cause of the conspiracy, that he conveyed his information to the commissioners as a virtual pledge of the evacuation of Sumter, and they sent the news to Montgomery in high glee.

As a matter of fact, President Lincoln had not at that date decided the Sumter question; he was following his own sagacious logic in arriving at a conclusion, which was at least partially reached on the 29th of March, when, as we have seen, he made the order to prepare the relief expedition. By this time, Campbell, in extreme impatience to further rebellion, was importuning Seward for explanation; and Seward, finding his former prediction at fault, thought it best not to venture a new one. Upon consultation, therefore, the President authorized him to carry to Campbell the first and only assurance the Administration ever made with regard to Sumter-namely — that he would not change the military status at Charleston without giving notice.

This, be it observed, occurred on the 1st of April, about which time the policy of Seward favoring delay and conciliation finally and formally gave way before the President's stronger self-assertion and his carefully matured purpose to force rebellion to put itself flagrantly and fatally in the wrong by attacking Fort Sumter.

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