March 15, 1861
The Hon. Secretary of State
My dear Sir
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.
Your Obt. Servt.
Letter from Abraham Lincoln to William H. Seward, March 15, 1861
Provisioning The Fort
The newly inaugurated President Lincoln had inherited a lot of national challenges, a particularly one stood in the middle of South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor: Fort Sumter.
In December 1860, after South Carolina seceded, the U.S. commander of the military in Charleston, Major Robert Anderson, moved his garrison from the mainland to the harbor fort. Attempts to reinforce and send provisions to Fort Sumter met with warning shots from the Southern batteries. It was estimated that the food in the stronghold would last until April 15th. Under siege and unwilling to surrender, Major Anderson waited for his government and military to make a decision.
Lincoln would make the decision to send provisions. The fleet sailed in early April and arrived near the harbor on the 11th. Meanwhile, the Confederates ordered Anderson to surrender before the supply ships arrived, threatening to open fire if he did not submit. Anderson refused to capitulate and the bombardment of Fort Sumter began on April 12, 1861.
Ironically, a supply ship – Star of the West – took the surrendered garrison back north, where they were received as national heroes.
William H. Seward
The secretary of state (and recipient of Lincoln’s letter) was William H. Seward. Prior to 1861, he had served as a U.S. Senator and actually ran against Lincoln for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. Losing the nomination, Seward campaigned for his rival, and spent the months between the election and inauguration making speeches and taking stances against secession.
Initially, Seward rejected Lincoln’s request that he accept the post of Secretary of State; later, he accepted and became a major figure in the Lincoln administration. It has been recorded that Seward added polishing touches to Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, softening the rhetoric aimed at the Southern states.
Seward would continue at the post of secretary of state throughout both terms of Lincoln’s presidency, offering advice, agreement, or opposition to most of the president’s political decisions. Though targeted in an assassination attempt the same night Lincoln was killed, Seward would survive and play a role in Reconstruction policies. Additionally, he secured the acquisition of Alaska Territory – which, at the time, was mocked as “Seward’s Folly” and “Seward’s Icebox.” (Discoveries in later decades have proved that Alaska was a valuable territory for the U.S. for defense and natural resources, so apparently Seward wasn’t as foolish as the 19th Century cartoons claimed.)
Lincoln chose write a very short note, asking a simply-worded question. And he asked Seward to reply in writing. Couldn’t the president have asked the secretary of state during a meeting? Why did Lincoln specifically insist on a written reply? Some historians believe that Lincoln asked for official opinions in writing to establish historical records. Or perhaps it was part of the “lawyer-instinct” – that ability to pull out the written record when his squabbling cabinet decided to recant an original position. Either way the short note (and others like) are part of the valuable primary sources related to the Civil War and are a gold-mine of information for researchers.
It is also interesting to observe that Lincoln is asking for advice. While some might argue that he was just looking for consensus, it seems more probably that the president was really seeking counsel. Lincoln would excel as a politician during his time in the executive office, but he also had to rely on the information presented by his cabinet; some were veteran politicians who had more insight (good or bad is sometimes a matter of debate) than the “country lawyer.” Certainly, Lincoln had character flaws – what human does not? – but this note, written just nine days after he took office, reveals humility and a genuine request for advice.
P.S. Do you think it was wise decision to eventually decide to send the supply ships to Fort Sumter? Do you think with Lincoln’s stance against secession there was any other possible action he could’ve taken?