-- Dilemmas of Compromise --

Wednesday February 27, 1861

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Commentary: Confederate Commissioners

The commissioners were never formally received by the Lincoln administration. Using intermediaries, they communicated indirectly with Lincoln's secretary of state, William H. Seward. These negotiations, which continued until April 8, were complicated and confusing as each side sought its own advantage.

The three commissioners wanted recognition for the Confederacy and the transfer of federal forts and other property. They believed the Lincoln administration, and especially Seward, were committed to avoiding war, and would, therefore, yield to their demands. However, if pressure and threats did not gain the forts, the commissioners were prepared to back away from a confrontation in order to buy time. Delay would allow the Confederacy to consolidate its political and military position. The Confederacy coul d then resort to force. In either case, the commissioners assumed that the Confederacy's permanent existence was an established fact.

Seward also sought to avoid a confrontation over the forts. He wanted to give Unionist elements in the seceded states time to rally, and to keep the upper South in the Union. On a number of occasions, Seward gave assurances to the commissioners, via intermediaries, that Sumter would be abandoned. Seward's statements increasingly reflected his own hopes for a peaceable, voluntary reconstruction of the Union, rather than Lincoln's policy.

Seward's actions in this period have stirred controversy. Jefferson Davis and the Confederate commissioners later accused Seward to deceiving them about Lincoln's intentions with regard to Sumter. According to Davis, at the very time the commissioners were receiving encouragement that their mission would be a success, Lincoln and Seward were preparing secret missions to relieve the forts.

But it is evident that the actual story is more complicated. While Seward did, in fact, provide assurances throughout March that Sumter would be abandoned, the commissioners had ample evidence that Lincoln might adopt a different policy. Seward's assurances were never so firm as to constitute pledges, and the commissioners knew that a debate was raging in the administration over relieving Sumter and Pickens. Davis himself did not count on Seward's promises . The Confederate leader used the time during which the negotiations took place to strengthen his military situation. Indeed, the commissioners viewed the delay as giving the Confederacy valuable time to establish itself. On their part, they did nothing to discourage Seward from thinking that abandoning the forts would bring the deep South back into the Union.

In short, it is unlikely that Seward actually deceived the commissioners; and if he did, deception was a game that both parties played. In this context, Seward's actions are more revealing as an insight into the strength of his optimistic (and naive) conviction that secession was a short-term phenomenon that would be quickly resolved if confrontation were avoided. Seward's zeal, perhaps even desperation, to defuse the potentially dangerous diplomatic situation presented by the commissioners, may well have led him to be unguarded in making pledges about Sumter. In so doing, he was moving in a direction opposite t o that of Lincoln. But his divergence from Lincoln was never great. By April 1, Seward had added conditions about yielding Sumter, and a week later, on April 8, he broke off further discussions with the commissioners, delivering to them a flat denial of their request for recognition.

Bibliography: Current, Lincoln and the First Shot, pp. 53-55, 89, 114-15, 142-48, 177, 205; Nevins, War for the Union, 1: 49-53; Van Deusen, Seward, pp. 276-87; Potter, Lincoln and His Party, pp. 342-49.

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