-- Hesitation and Decision --

Thursday March 28, 1861

--- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- ---

Commentary: Scott's Memorandum

General Scott had become increasingly committed to the idea of voluntary reconstruction, associated with Seward. During Buchanan's presidency, Scott had argued for sending supplies and reinforcements to hold the southern forts. After Lincoln's inauguration, however, Scott shifted course and subscribed to Seward's position that avoiding conflict would hold the eight non-secessionist slaveholding states in the Union and inspire the deep South to return. Doubtless, Scott's southern background, the growing seriousness of the crisis, the potential horrors of a civil war, and increased southern military preparedness explain his change of heart. Not even the Blairs, however, questioned Scott's fundamental loyalty to his country.

Indeed, Montgomery Blair's denunciation of Scott's memorandum as political rather than military was almost certainly directed at Seward. Scott and Seward were in close consultation, and the cabinet understood that Blair's remarks were intended for Seward. While Scott's words may have accurately reflected his own opinions, the impulse behind them seemed to be Seward's. Thus, Allan Nevins concludes: "everyone knew that Seward had promoted Scott . . . As it was common knowledge that Pickens could be held indefinitely, Scott's advice was obviously given on political, not military, grounds."

The dating of Scott's memorandum to Lincoln about Forts Pickens and Sumter is subject to some controversy. The document itself, which was addressed to the secretary of war, is undated. Most scholars hold that a stunned Lincoln first saw the memorandum on March 28, and presented the information to the cabinet that evening. Disillusioned with Scott and stirred by the unanimous dissent against the general's recommendation, Lincoln decided the next day to take action on the Sumter situation.

However, Ari Hoogenboom presents an alternative argument, which claims that the Scott memorandum was written in response to Lincoln's questions to the cabinet on March 15, and that Lincoln knew of it well before March 28. Therefore, Blair's outburst and the cabinet meeting that evening had little effect on Lincoln's decision concerning Sumter. According to Hoogenboom, Lincoln concluded to take action earlier on that day, March 28, when the President communicated with Fox about a Sumter expedition. Even if one takes the position that Lincoln first saw Scott's memorandum on March 28, Hoogenboom claims that his decision to go forward with the Sumter mission occurred before the emotional cabinet session that evening.

Bibliography: Current, Lincoln and the First Shot, pp. 25-26, 75-77; Elliott, Winfield Scott, pp. 672-706; Nicolay and Hay, Lincoln, 3: 394-95, 433; Nevins, War for the Union, 1: 55; OR, pp. 201-202; Potter, Lincoln and His Party, pp. 360-64; Stampp, And the War Came, pp. 277-78; Crawford, Genesis of the Civil War, pp. 362-68.

[Main Menu] [Back]