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Chapter 13.

  • The secession movement
  • -- South Carolina secession -- Buchanan's neglect -- disloyal cabinet members -- Washington central cabal -- Anderson's transfer to Sumter -- Star of the West -- Montgomery rebellion -- Davis and Stephens -- corner-stone theory -- Lincoln inaugurated -- his inaugural address -- Lincoln's cabinet -- the question of Sumter -- Seward's memorandum -- Lincoln's answer -- bombardment of Sumter -- Anderson's capitulation
    It is not the province of these chapters to relate in detail the course of the secession movement in the cotton States in the interim which elapsed between the election and inauguration of President Lincoln. Still less can space be given to analyze and set forth the lamentable failure of President Buchanan to employ the executive authority and power of the government to prevent it, or even to hinder its development, by any vigorous opposition or adequate protest. The determination of South Carolina to secede was announced by the governor of that State a month before the presidential election, and on the day before the election he sent the legislature of the State a revolutionary message to formally inaugurate it. From that time forward the whole official machinery of the State not only led, but forced the movement which culminated on December 20 in the ordinance of secession by the South Carolina convention.

    This official revolution in South Carolina was quickly [176] imitated by similar official revolutions ending in secession ordinances in the States of Mississippi, on January 9, 1861; Florida, January 10; Alabama, January II; Georgia, January 19; Louisiana, January 26; and by a still bolder usurpation in Texas, culminating on February I. From the day of the presidential election all these proceedings were known probably more fully to President Buchanan than to the general public, because many of the actors were his personal and party friends; while almost at their very beginning he became aware that three members of his cabinet were secretly or openly abetting and promoting them by their official influence and power.

    Instead of promptly dismissing these unfaithful servants, he retained one of them a month, and the others twice that period, and permitted them so far to influence his official conduct, that in his annual message to Congress he announced the fallacious and paradoxical doctrine that though a State had no right to secede, the Federal government had no right to coerce her to remain in the Union.

    Nor could he justify his non-action by the excuse that contumacious speeches and illegal resolves of parliamentary bodies might be tolerated under the American theory of free assemblage and free speech. Almost from the beginning of the secession movement, it was accompanied from time to time by overt acts both of treason and war; notably, by the occupation and seizure by military order and force of the seceding States, of twelve or fifteen harbor forts, one extensive navy-yard, half a dozen arsenals, three mints, four important custom-houses, three revenue cutters, and a variety of miscellaneous Federal property; for all of which insults to the flag, and infractions of the sovereignty of the United States, President Buchanan [177] could recommend no more efficacious remedy or redress than to ask the voters of the country to reverse their decision given at the presidential election, and to appoint a day of fasting and prayer on which to implore the Most High “to remove from our hearts that false pride of opinion which would impel us to persevere in wrong for the sake of consistency.”

    Nor must mention be omitted of the astounding phenomenon that, encouraged by President Buchanan's doctrine of non-coercion and purpose of non-action, a central cabal of Southern senators and representatives issued from Washington, on December 14, their public proclamation of the duty of secession; their executive committee using one of the rooms of the Capitol building itself as the headquarters of the conspiracy and rebellion they were appointed to lead and direct.

    During the month of December, while the active treason of cotton-State officials and the fatal neglect of the Federal executive were in their most damaging and demoralizing stages, an officer of the United States army had the high courage and distinguished honor to give the ever-growing revolution its first effective check. Major Robert Anderson, though a Kentuckian by birth and allied by marriage to a Georgia family, was, late in November, placed in command of the Federal forts in Charleston harbor; and having repeatedly reported that his little garrison of sixty men was insufficient for the defense of Fort Moultrie, and vainly asked for reinforcements which were not sent him, he suddenly and secretly, on the night after Christmas, transferred his command from the insecure position of Moultrie to the strong and unapproachable walls of Fort Sumter, midway in the mouth of Charleston harbor, where he could not be assailed by the raw Charleston militia companies that had for weeks been [178] threatening him with a storming assault. In this stronghold, surrounded on all sides by water, he loyally held possession for the government and sovereignty of the United States.

    The surprised and baffled rage of the South Carolina rebels created a crisis at Washington that resulted in the expulsion of the President's treacherous counselors and the reconstruction of Mr. Buchanan's cabinet to unity and loyalty. The new cabinet, though unable to obtain President Buchanan's consent to aggressive measures to reestablish the Federal authority, was, nevertheless, able to prevent further concessions to the insurrection, and to effect a number of important defensive precautions, among which was the already mentioned concentration of a small military force to protect the national capital.

    Meanwhile, the governor of South Carolina had begun the erection of batteries to isolate and besiege Fort Sumter; and the first of these, on a sand-spit of Morris Island commanding the main ship-channel, by a few shots turned back, on January 9, the merchant steamer Star of the West, in which General Scott had attempted to send a reinforcement of two hundred recruits to Major Anderson. Battery building was continued with uninterrupted energy until a triangle of siege works was established on the projecting points of neighboring islands, mounting a total of thirty guns and seventeen mortars, manned and supported by a volunteer force of from four to six thousand men.

    Military preparation, though not on so extensive or definite a scale, was also carried on in the other revolted States; and while Mr. Lincoln was making his memorable journey from Springfield to Washington, telegrams were printed in the newspapers, from day to day, showing that their delegates had met at Montgomery, [179] Alabama, formed a provisional congress, and adopted a constitution and government under the title of The Confederate States of America, of which they elected Jefferson Davis of Mississippi President, and Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia Vice-President.

    It needs to be constantly borne in mind that the beginning of this vast movement was not a spontaneous revolution, but a chronic conspiracy. “The secession of South Carolina,” truly said one of the chief actors, “is not an event of a day. It is not anything produced by Mr. Lincoln's election, or by the non-execution of the fugitive-slave law. It is a matter which has been gathering head for thirty years.” The central motive and dominating object of the revolution was frankly avowed by Vice-President Stephens in a speech he made at Savannah a few weeks after his inauguration:

    The prevailing ideas entertained by him [Jefferson] and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. . . . Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery --subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

    In the week which elapsed between Mr. Lincoln's arrival in Washington and the day of inauguration, he exchanged the customary visits of ceremony with President Buchanan, his cabinet, the Supreme Court, the two Houses of Congress, and other dignitaries. In his rooms at Willard's Hotel he also held consultations [180] with leading Republicans about the final composition of his cabinet and pressing questions of public policy. Careful preparations had been made for the inauguration, and under the personal eye of General Scott the military force in the city was ready instantly to suppress any attempt to disturb the peace or quiet of the day.

    On March 4 the outgoing and incoming Presidents rode side by side in a carriage from the Executive Mansion to the Capitol and back, escorted by an imposing military and civic procession; and an immense throng of spectators heard the new Executive read his inaugural address from the east portico of the Capitol. He stated frankly that a disruption of the Federal Union was being formidably attempted, and discussed dispassionately the theory and illegality of secession. He held that the Union was perpetual; that resolves and ordinances of disunion are legally void; and announced that to the extent of his ability he would faithfully execute the laws of the Union in all the States. The power confided to him would be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the government, and to collect the duties and imposts. But beyond what might be necessary for these objects there would be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere. Where hostility to the United States in any interior locality should be so great and universal as to prevent competent resident citizens from holding the Federal offices, there would be no attempt to force obnoxious strangers among them for that object. The mails, unless repelled, would continue to be furnished in all parts of the Union; and this course would be followed until current events and experience should show a change to be necessary. To the South he made an earnest [181] plea against the folly of disunion, and in favor of maintaining peace and fraternal good will; declaring that their property, peace, and personal security were in no danger from a Republican administration.

    “One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended,” he said, “while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended; that is the only substantial dispute ... Physically speaking, we cannot separate. We cannot remove our respective sections from each other, nor build an impassable wall between them. A husband and wife may be divorced, and go out of the presence and beyond the reach of each other; but the different parts of our country cannot do this. They cannot but remain face to face, and intercourse, either amicable or hostile, must continue between them. Is it possible, then, to make that intercourse more advantageous or more satisfactory after separation than before? Can aliens make treaties easier than friends can make laws? Can treaties be more faithfully enforced between aliens, than laws can among friends? Suppose you go to war, you cannot fight always; and when, after much loss on both sides and no gain on either, you cease fighting, the identical old questions as to terms of intercourse are again upon you. . . . 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. . . . I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of [182] the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

    But the peaceful policy here outlined was already more difficult to follow than Mr. Lincoln was aware. On the morning after inauguration the Secretary of War brought to his notice freshly received letters from Major Anderson, commanding Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, announcing that in the course of a few weeks the provisions of the garrison would be exhausted, and therefore an evacuation or surrender would become necessary, unless the fort were relieved by supplies or reinforcements; and this information was accompanied by the written opinions of the officers that to relieve the fort would require a well-appointed army of twenty thousand men.

    The new President had appointed as his cabinet William H. Seward, Secretary of State; Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury; Simon Cameron, Secretary of War; Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy; Caleb B. Smith, Secretary of the Interior: Montgomery Blair, Postmaster-General; and Edward Bates, Attorney-General. The President and his official advisers at once called into counsel the highest military and naval officers of the Union to consider the new and pressing emergency revealed by the unexpected news from Sumter. The professional experts were divided in opinion. Relief by a force of twenty thousand men was clearly out of the question. No such Union army existed, nor could one be created within the limit of time. The officers of the navy thought that men and supplies might be thrown into the fort by swift-going vessels, while on the other hand the army officers believed that such an expedition would surely be destroyed by the formidable batteries which the insurgents had erected to close the harbor. In view [183] of all the conditions, Lieutenant-General Scott, general-in-chief of the army, recommended the evacuation of the fort as a military necessity.

    President Lincoln thereupon asked the several members of his cabinet the written question: “Assuming it to be possible to now provision Fort Sumter, under all the circumstances is it wise to attempt it?” Only two members replied in the affirmative, while the other five argued against the attempt, holding that the country would recognize that the evacuation of the fort was not an indication of policy, but a necessity created by the neglect of the old administration. Under this advice, the President withheld his decision until he could gather further information.

    Meanwhile, three commissioners had arrived from the provisional government at Montgomery, Alabama, under instructions to endeavor to negotiate a de facto and de jure recognition of the independence of the Confederate States. They were promptly informed by Mr. Seward that he could not receive them; that he did not see in the Confederate States a rightful and accomplished revolution and an independent nation; and that he was not at liberty to recognize the commissioners as diplomatic agents, or to hold correspondence with them. Failing in this direct application, they made further efforts through Mr. Justice Campbell of the Supreme Court, as a friendly intermediary, who came to Seward in the guise of a loyal official, though his correspondence with Jefferson Davis soon revealed a treasonable intent; and, replying to Campbell's earnest entreaties that peace should be maintained, Seward informed him confidentially that the military status at Charleston would not be changed without notice to the governor of South Carolina. On March 29 a cabinet meeting for the second time discussed [184] the question of Sumter. Four of the seven members now voted in favor of an attempt to supply the fort with provisions, and the President signed a memorandum order to prepare certain ships for such an expedition, under the command of Captain G. V. Fox.

    So far, Mr. Lincoln's new duties as President of the United States had not in any wise put him at a disadvantage with his constitutional advisers. Upon the old question of slavery he was as well informed and had clearer convictions and purposes than either Seward or Chase. And upon the newer question of secession, and the immediate decision about Fort Sumter which it involved, the members of his cabinet were, like himself, compelled to rely on the professional advice of experienced army and navy officers. Since these differed radically in their opinions, the President's own powers of perception and logic were as capable of forming a correct decision as men who had been governors and senators. He had reached at least a partial decision in the memorandum he gave Fox to prepare ships for the Sumter expedition.

    It must therefore have been a great surprise to the President when, on April I, Secretary of State Seward handed him a memorandum setting forth a number of most extraordinary propositions. For a full enumeration of the items the reader must carefully study the entire document, which is printed below in a foot-note 1; [185] but the principal points for which it had evidently been written and presented can be given in a few sentences.

    A month has elapsed, and the administration has neither a domestic nor a foreign policy. The administration must at once adopt and carry out a novel, radical, and aggressive policy. It must cease saying a word about slavery, and raise a great outcry about Union. It must declare war against France and Spain, [186] and combine and organize all the governments of North and South America in a crusade to enforce the Monroe Doctrine. This policy once adopted, it must be the business of some one incessantly to pursue it. “It is not in my especial province,” wrote Mr. Seward; “but I neither seek to evade nor assume responsibility.” This phrase, which is a key to the whole memorandum, enables the reader easily to translate its meaning into something like the following:

    After a month's trial, you, Mr. Lincoln, are a failure as President. The country is in desperate straits, and must use a desperate remedy. That remedy is to submerge the South Carolina insurrection in a continental war. Some new man must take the executive helm, and wield the undivided presidential authority. I should have been nominated at Chicago, and elected in November, but am willing to take your place and perform your duties.

    Why William H. Seward, who is fairly entitled to rank as a great statesman, should have written this memorandum and presented it to Mr. Lincoln, has never been explained; nor is it capable of explanation. Its suggestions were so visionary, its reasoning so fallacious, its assumptions so unwarranted, its conclusions so malapropos, that it falls below critical examination. Had Mr. Lincoln been an envious or a resentful man, he could not have wished for a better occasion to put a rival under his feet.

    The President doubtless considered the incident one of phenomenal strangeness, but it did not in the least disturb his unselfish judgment or mental equipoise. There was in his answer no trace of excitement or passion. He pointed out in a few sentences of simple, quiet explanation that what the administration had done was exactly a foreign and domestic policy which [187] the Secretary of State himself had concurred in and helped to frame. Only, that Mr. Seward proposed to go further and give up Sumter. Upon the central suggestion that some one mind must direct, Mr. Lincoln wrote with simple dignity:

    If this must be done, I must do it. When a general line of policy is adopted, I apprehend there is no danger of its being changed without good reason, or continuing to be a subject of unnecessary debate; still, upon points arising in its progress I wish, and suppose I am entitled to have, the advice of all the cabinet.

    Mr. Lincoln's unselfish magnanimity is the central marvel of the whole affair. His reply ended the argument. Mr. Seward doubtless saw at once how completely he had put himself in the President's power. Apparently, neither of the men ever again alluded to the incident. No other persons except Mr. Seward's son and the President's private secretary ever saw the correspondence, or knew of the occurrence. The President put the papers away in an envelop, and no word of the affair came to the public until a quarter of a century later, when the details were published in Mr. Lincoln's biography. In one mind, at least, there was no further doubt that the cabinet had a master, for only some weeks later Mr. Seward is known to have written: “There is but one vote in the cabinet, and that is cast by the President.” This mastery Mr. Lincoln retained with a firm dignity throughout his administration. When, near the close of the war, he sent Mr. Seward to meet the rebel commissioners at the Hampton Roads conference, he finished his short letter of instructions with the imperative sentence: “You will not assume to definitely consummate anything.”

    From this strange episode our narrative must return to the question of Fort Sumter. On April 4, official [188] notice was sent to Major Anderson of the coming relief, with the instruction to hold out till the eleventh or twelfth if possible; but authorizing him to capitulate whenever it might become necessary to save himself and command. Two days later the President sent a special messenger with written notice to the-governor of South Carolina that an attempt would be made to supply Fort Sumter with provisions only; and that if such attempt were not resisted, no further effort would be made to throw in men, arms, or ammunition, without further notice, or unless in case of an attack on the fort.

    The building of batteries around Fort Sumter had been begun, under the orders of Governor Pickens, about the first of January, and continued with industry and energy; and about the first of March General Beauregard, an accomplished engineer officer, was sent by the Confederate government to take charge of and complete the works. On April I he telegraphed to Montgomery: “Batteries ready to open Wednesday or Thursday. What instructions?”

    At this point, the Confederate authorities at Montgomery found themselves face to face with the fatal alternative either to begin war or to allow their rebellion to collapse. Their claim to independence was denied, their commissioners were refused a hearing; yet not an angry word, provoking threat, nor harmful act had come from President Lincoln. He had promised them peace, protection, freedom from irritation; had offered them the benefit of the mails. Even now, all he proposed to do was — not to send guns or ammunition or men to Sumter, but only bread and provisions to Anderson and his soldiers. His prudent policy placed them in the exact attitude described a month earlier in his inaugural: they could have no [189] conflict without being themselves the aggressors. But the rebellion was organized by ambitious men with desperate intentions. A member of the Alabama legislature, present at Montgomery, said to Jefferson Davis and three members of his cabinet: “Gentlemen, unless you sprinkle blood in the face of the people of Alabama, they will be back in the old Union in less than ten days.” And the sanguinary advice was adopted. In answer to his question, “What instructions?” Beauregard on April 10 was ordered to demand the evacuation of Fort Sumter, and, in case of refusal, to reduce it.

    The demand was presented to Anderson, who replied that he would evacuate the fort by noon of April 15, unless assailed, or unless he received supplies or controlling instructions from his government. This answer being unsatisfactory to Beauregard, he sent Anderson notice that he would open fire on Sumter at 4:20 on the morning of April 12.

    Promptly at the hour indicated the bombardment was begun. As has been related, the rebel siege-works were built on the points of the islands forming the harbor, at distances varying from thirteen hundred to twenty-five hundred yards, and numbered nineteen batteries, with an armament of forty-seven guns, supported by a land force of from four to six thousand volunteers. The disproportion between means of attack and defense was enormous. Sumter, though a work three hundred by three hundred and fifty feet in size, with well-constructed walls and casemates of brick, was in very meager preparation for such a conflict. Of its forty-eight available guns, only twenty-one were in the casemates, twenty-seven being on the rampart en barbette. The garrison consisted of nine commissioned officers, sixty-eight non-commissioned officers and privates, eight musicians, and forty-three [190] non-combatant workmen compelled by the besiegers to remain to hasten the consumption of \provisions.

    Under the fire of the seventeen mortars in the rebel batteries, Anderson could reply only with a vertical fire from the guns of small caliber in his casemates, which was of no effect against the rebel bomb-proofs of sand and roofs of sloping railroad iron; but, refraining from exposing his men to serve his barbette guns, his garrison was also safe in its protecting casemates. It happened, therefore, that although the attack was spirited and the defense resolute, the combat went on for a day and a half without a single casualty. It came to an end on the second day only when the cartridges of the garrison were exhausted, and the red-hot shot from the rebel batteries had set the buildings used as officers' quarters on fire, creating heat and smoke that rendered further defense impossible.

    There was also the further discouragement that the expedition of relief which Anderson had ,been instructed to look for on the eleventh or twelfth, had failed to appear. Several unforeseen contingencies had prevented the assembling of the vessels at the appointed rendezvous outside Charleston harbor, though some of them reached it in time to hear the opening guns of the bombardment. But as accident had deranged and thwarted the plan agreed upon, they could do nothing except impatiently await the issue of the fight.

    A little after noon of April 13, when the flagstaff of the fort had been shot away and its guns remained silent, an invitation to capitulate with the honors of war came from General Beauregard, which Anderson accepted; and on the following day, Sunday, April 14, he hauled down his flag with impressive ceremonies, and leaving the fort with his faithful garrison, proceeded in a steamer to New York.


    Some thoughts for the President's consideration, April 1, 1861.

    First. We are at the end of a month's administration, and yet without a policy, either domestic or foreign.

    Second. This, however, is not culpable, and it has even been unavoidable. The presence of the Senate, with the need to meet applications for patronage, have prevented attention to other and more grave matters.

    Third. But further delay to adopt and prosecute our policies for both domestic and foreign affairs would not only bring scandal on the administration, but danger upon the country.

    Fourth. To do this we must dismiss the applicants for office. But how? I suggest that we make the local appointments forthwith, leaving foreign or general ones for ulterior and occasional action.

    Fifth. The policy at home. I am aware that my views are singular, and perhaps not sufficiently explained. My system is built upon this idea as a ruling one, namely, that we must change the question before the public from one upon slavery, or about slavery, for a question upon Union or Dis-Union.

    In other words, from what would be regarded as a party question, to one of Patriotism or Union.

    The occupation or evacuation of Fort Sumter, although not in fact a slavery or a party question, is so regarded. Witness the temper manifested by the Republicans in the free States, and even by the Union men in the South.

    I would therefore terminate it as a safe means for changing the issue. I deem it fortunate that the last administration created the necessity.

    For the rest, I would simultaneously defend and reinforce all the ports in the Gulf, and have the navy recalled from foreign stations to be prepared for a blockade. Put the island of Key West under martial law.

    This will raise distinctly the question of Union or Disunion. I would maintain every fort and possession in the South.

    For foreign nations.

    I would demand explanations from Spain and France, categorically, at once.

    I would seek explanations from Great Britain and Russia, and send agents into Canada, Mexico, and Central America, to rouse a vigorous continental spirit of independence on this continent against European intervention.

    And, if satisfactory explanations are not received from Spain and France, Would convene Congress and declare war against them.

    But whatever policy we adopt, there must be an energetic prosecution of it.

    For this purpose it must be somebody's business to pursue and direct it incessantly.

    Either the President must do it himself, and be all the while active in it, or Devolve it on some member of his cabinet. Once adopted, debates on it must end, and all agree and abide.

    It is not in my especial province.

    But I neither seek to evade nor assume responsibility.

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