-- Hesitation and Decision --

Friday March 29, 1861

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Commentary: Lincoln's Idea

On July 3, 1861, Lincoln told his friend Orville Browning that he "himself conceived the idea" of sending supplies "without an attempt to reinforce," and also giving notice to the governor of South Carolina.

Lincoln's plan may have been inspired by a number of considerations. Richard N. Current notes that a variation of this idea was proposed by the New York newspaper editor, James Watson Webb, in a letter to Lincoln dated March 12, 1861. Webb suggested that the government send a relief expedition to Sumter with both provisions and reinforcements, but that it announce its destination and purpose. The expedition would use a decoy ship carrying no supplies or men to draw fire if Confederate troops attacked. The other ships would then steam into the fort.

Lincoln's thinking may also have been influenced by the visits to South Carolina by his friends, Hurlbut and Lamon, which took place shortly after he received Webb's suggestion. Hurlbut reported to Lincoln that South Carolina would stop even a ship known to carry "only provisions" to Sumter. And Navy secretary Gideon Welles recalled that following Lamon's return from Charleston, "the President declared he would send supplies to the garrison."

There seems no reason to question Lincoln's claim that it was his idea to send supplies while holding back reinforcements for Sumter. He evidently developed his plan in the period after he received the cabinet's written opinions in the middle of March, and before the cabinet meeting on March 29. However, the origin of the portion of Lincoln's plan that required giving notice to the governor of South Carolina is more controversial. Welles attributed this idea to Secretary of State Seward. Seward preferred abandoning Sumter, but when he found that Lincoln was determined to send a relief expedition, the secretary suggested that it would "promote harmony to inform the South Carolina authorities of the intention to send supplies peaceably to the garrison, and that if not resisted it would not be reinforced." It was Seward's "particular request," Welles recalled, to inform South Carolina. Welles considered this idea a military and political mistake because it undermined the government's rightful claim to furnish suppplies or troops to its own fort, and it gave Confederate forces time to make preparations to defeat the expedition.

In his study of the secession crisis, David M. Potter agrees that Seward was responsible for the notification of South Carolina. The notice to Governor Pickens, Potter argues, "was not planned by Lincoln himself, but was sent to honor a pledge which had been almost wrung from Lincoln by Seward, in an effort to avert . . . aggression." On the other hand, Lincoln's private secretaries, Nicolay and Hay, basing their statement on Nicolay's personal memoranda, confirm Lincoln's own claim. According to their account, toward the end of March, Lincoln "told Mr. Seward" that the secretary could inform the Confederate commissioners that he would not attempt to provision the fort "without giving them notice." Lincoln had weighed the matter and had come to the "deliberate decision" that giving notice was the best policy.

While there is no way to establish with certainty whether Lincoln or Seward conceived the idea of notifying South Carolina, it seems likely that this part of the plan was also Lincoln's. Notification had been a part of Webb's suggestion, and Seward's first mention of the proposal to the Confederate commissioners took place after the cabinet meeting of March 29, when the idea was extensively debated. It seems likely that Seward seized upon the proposal and tried to hold Lincoln to it, hoping that notification would prevent the collision at Sumter he was eager to avoid.

Bibliography: Browning, Diary of Browning, eds. Pease and Randall, 1: 475-76; Current, Lincoln and the First Shot, 63-64, 80; Potter, Lincoln and His Party, pp. 371, 373; Welles, Essays by Gideon Welles: Civil War, ed. Mordell, pp. 47-50; Welles, Lincoln and Seward, p. 61; Nicolay and Hay, Lincoln, 3: 429, 4: 33-34; Bates, Diary of Edward Bates, p. 180.

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