On this day in 1861, a newly inaugurated President Abraham Lincoln holds his first full cabinet meeting. What should be done about Fort Sumter? The issue had been simmering for a while.
Lincoln was elected amid tension between the northern and southern states, as you know. Indeed, his election prompted South Carolina to secede from the Union! Within a few days, the state issued a declaration, describing its reasons for seceding. South Carolina did not view itself as a rebel state. It viewed itself as a sovereign state that had voluntarily joined the Union. Now it could simply retract that agreement.
In some ways, perhaps it makes sense that South Carolina was the first state to take such a step, given a previous tussle with northern states over tariffs in the 1830s. Nevertheless, six other southern states soon seceded as well. For better or for worse, the Confederate States of America was born.
Confederate forces got to work seizing federal forts, arsenals and customs houses located in the South. If the Confederacy was an independent nation, then it could not have another government’s offices on its property! Historian Mark Collins Jenkins describes the ease of most of these seizures: “There was little to oppose the breakaway forces, a caretaker and a guard or two comprising many of the garrisons. Most of the 16,000 or so regular Army soldiers had been posted to the western frontier . . . .”
By the time Lincoln was inaugurated, only two forts of strategic value were still in federal hands: Fort Pickens (Florida) and Fort Sumter (South Carolina). The latter fort had a big problem: Its supplies were dwindling. Lincoln would have known that, before his inauguration, an armed merchant ship had been sent to resupply the fort. However, cadets at the Citadel had fired warning shots at that ship, and its mission was never completed.
Ultimately, Lincoln decided to resupply Fort Sumter, despite the fact that many of his cabinet members had initially opposed such a move. Historians disagree on what motivated Lincoln. Was he deliberately setting the South up, so it would have to take the first shot in a war? Or was he simply keeping his inaugural promise to “hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the government”?
Either way, the decision was made. Lincoln sent a message to the South Carolina governor, notifying him of the federal intent to peaceably resupply Fort Sumter. No arms, ammunition, or troops would be sent to the fort, assuming the convoy and fort were not attacked. From the Confederate viewpoint, however, any entry of federal ships into its territory was seen as a sign of aggression and as a challenge to its sovereignty.
Historian John Marszalek summarizes the issue: “Fort Sumter became the symbol of the ability or inability of the national government to maintain control over its territory, and the ability or inability of the Confederates to eject Federals from what they considered to be their land. Lincoln knew he had to hold on to that fort or admit the success of Confederate secession and the dissolution of the Union. Jefferson Davis and the Confederates believed just the opposite.”
So what happened next? Well, you guys already know that the first shot of the Civil War was fired at Fort Sumter. But that part of the story, of course, is coming soon.
Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years (reprint edition 2016)
James M. McPherson, Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief (2008)
John V. Denson, A Century of War: Lincoln, Wilson & Roosevelt (2006)
Richard J. Tofel, Eight Weeks in Washington, 1861: Abraham Lincoln and the Hazards of Transition (2011)