-- Final Orders --

Thursday April 4, 1861

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Commentary: The Significance of April 4

It is evident that Lincoln took a decisive step by ordering Fox to undertake the relief expedition to Fort Sumter. Fox himself recognized the administration's new determination. Just the day before, on April 3, he had complained about the "delay, indecision, and obstacles," as he awaited final orders. Perhaps he was referring to Seward's various gambits, such as the impending Baldwin visit, to delay or stop the Sumter mission. Now he had a distinct order to commence operations.

But was Lincoln's new order conclusive? Was it a presidential command from which there was no turning back? According to David M. Potter, the answer is "no."

Potter acknowledges that Lincoln's action on April 4 marked a significant step in his determination to hold Sumter. This was going further than the preparations he had authorized on March 29. Nevertheless, Lincoln's orders on April 4 were not irrevocable. The expedition would not sail for days, and the governor of South Carolina had yet to be informed. There was still time for Lincoln to call off the operation if, for example, news arrived that Fort Pickens had, in fact, been reinforced.

Potter's assessment is connected to his general thesis that Lincoln was intent on doing whatever he could to avert war without, at the same time, sacrificing the Union. According to Potter, Lincoln was genuinely hesitant about making a stand at Sumter, if other means could be found to uphold the principle of the Union. Thus, he had always been cautious about approving a Sumter expedition, which was sure to encounter resistance, while he had always been firm about reinforcing Pickens. Final approval of the Sumter mission was, therefore, linked to the fate of his orders to reinforce Fort Pickens. Had Lincoln learned that Pickens had been secured, he could have, and would have, halted the Sumter expedition.

But Richard N. Current and Kenneth M. Stampp see things differently. They do not believe that the fate of Sumter was dependent on the situation at Pickens. The two forts were separate though related issues, and it was Seward, not Lincoln, who tried to link the two. Although Lincoln may occasionally have considered withdrawing Anderson's garrison from Sumter, he did so because he was advised by the highest military authorities that such a course was a military necessity. Even so, he withheld orders to abandon the post. Instead, he explored ways of relieving Sumter that were both militarily and politically feasible. On March 29, Lincoln resolved to order the Sumter preparations, and on April 4, he arranged the details with Fox, authorized the expedition, and ordered Anderson to hold out, if possible, until the expedition arrived. This was the decisive moment, and his course would not have been different had he received information that Pickens had been reinforced.

The heart of Stampp's and Current's position is that Lincoln was always less willing to abandon Sumter than Potter contends, and more willing to accept the various risks involved in holding it. Lincoln hoped to avert war; he did not intend deliberately to provoke one. But even knowing the probability of conflict at Sumter, he ordered it anyway. He would defend the Union even at the risk of hostilities.

Bibliography: Fox, Confidential Correspondence, 1: 19, 39; Potter, Lincoln and His Party, pp. xxvi-xxviii, 361-63; Current, Lincoln and the First Shot, pp. 193-97; Stampp, And the War Came, pp. vi, 283-86; Stampp, Imperiled Union, pp. 177-79.

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