-- Final Orders --

Thursday April 4, 1861

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Commentary: The Baldwin Interview

There are two somewhat inconsistent accounts of Lincoln's interview with John B. Baldwin. Neither account was recorded until many years later, and each contains problematic information.

Baldwin himself later recollected that Seward first communicated with him on April 3, and Baldwin arrived in Washington on the following day to meet with Lincoln. Baldwin contended that Lincoln never offered to abandon Sumter, but instead told him that he should have come three or four days earlier. The President also urged Baldwin to adjourn the Virginia convention, in response to which Baldwin called upon Lincoln to conciliate unionist forces in Virginia by withdrawing from both Sumter and Pickens and convening a constitutional convention to deal with the sectional crisis.

A second story was recounted years later by a another Virginian, John Minor Botts. Botts testified that Lincoln related the contents of the Baldwin interview just a few days after it occurred. According to Botts, the initial arrangements for a meeting with a Virginia unionist took place a week or ten days prior to April 4, but the meeting was delayed and Baldwin did not arrive until that day. According to Botts, Lincoln took Baldwin into a private room where he explained the situation at Sumter and his recent decision to organize a relief operation. Although telling Baldwin that he had arrived too late, Lincoln still offered to evacuate Sumter if Baldwin would see to it that the Virginia convention adjourned without passing an ordinance of secession. Baldwin, however, rejected Lincoln's proposal without even a show of civility.

Because of these contradictory accounts, it not certain whether Lincoln actually proposed a deal to evacuate Sumter for assurances that Virginia would not secede. Both Allan Nevins and David M. Potter conclude that, whatever his initial intentions, by April 4 Lincoln withheld making an offer to surrender Sumter. Lincoln's private secretaries, John G. Nicolay and John Hay, agree that Lincoln never made an offer, but that out of courtesy to Baldwin, he explained what he had earlier considered doing.

Somewhat differently, Richard N. Current thinks that Lincoln obliquely alluded to a bargain over Sumter, but Baldwin "never got the point" that Lincoln intended to make. In a conversation filled with emotion and vagueness, Baldwin believed that Lincoln demanded that Virginia adjourn its convention, but did not offer anything in return. In short, the conversation ended "with complete misunderstanding on both sides."

At issue in the Baldwin controversy is whether Lincoln had conclusively determined before meeting with Baldwin to order Fox to proceed with the Sumter expedition. Nevins, Potter, and Nicolay and Hay present evidence that Lincoln had already determined his course before the Baldwin interview. Current, however, implies that Baldwin's behavior induced Lincoln to make final plans for the Sumter expedition.

From this swirl of conflicting testimony, it seems certain that Lincoln never explicitly offered Baldwin a deal for Sumter. But he may have indirectly sounded out Baldwin's reaction to adjourning the Virginia convention, and may also have suggested the possibility that Sumter might still have to be abandoned out of military necessity. Even though Lincoln had decided to proceed with the Sumter mission, he had nothing to lose by ascertaining Baldwin's views. There was a possibility, however remote, that he could be guaranteed sufficient advantage for withdrawing Anderson's garrison-- which he might have to do anyway-- that he should at least tentatively explore it. Baldwin's response, however, confirmed Lincoln's judgment that it was necessary to proceed with the Sumter expedition.

Bibliography: Nevins, War for the Union, 1: 64; Potter, Lincoln and His Party, pp. 355-58; Nicolay and Hay, Lincoln, 3: 426-28; Current, Lincoln and the First Shot, pp. 94-96.

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