DEPARTMENT OF STATE, WASHINGTON, 15th March, 1861.
The President submits to me the following question -- namely: "Assuming it to be possible to now provision Fort Sumter, under all the circumstances is it wise to attempt it?"
If it were possible to peacefully provision Fort Sumter, of course I should answer that it would be both unwise and inhuman not to attempt it. But the facts of the case are known to be that the attempt must be made with the employment of military and marine force, which would provoke combat, and probably initiate a civil war, which the government of the United States would be committed to maintain through all changes to some definite conclusion.
History must record that a sectional party practically constituting a majority of the people of the fifteen slave States, excited to a high state of jealous apprehension for the safety of life and property, by impassioned, though groundless, appeals went into the late election with a predetermined purpose, if unsuccessful at the polls, to raise the standard of secession immediately afterward, and to separate the slave States, or so many of them as could be detached from the Union, and to organize them in a new, distinct, and independent Confederacy. That party was unsuccessful at the polls. In the frenzy which followed the announcement of their defeat, they put the machinery of the State legislatures and conventions into motion, and within the period of three months they have succeeded in obtaining ordinances of secession by which seven of the slave States have seceded and organized a new Confederacy under the name of the Confederate States of America. These States, finding a large number of the mints, custom-houses, forts, and arsenals of the United States situate within their limits, unoccupied, undefended, and virtually abandoned by the late administration, have seized and appropriated them to their own use, and under the same circumstances have seized and appropriated to their own use large amounts of money and other public property of the United States, found within their limits. The people of the other slave States, divided and balancing between sympathy with the seceding slave States and loyalty to the Union, have been intensely excited, but, at the present moment, indicate a disposition to adhere to the Union, if nothing extraordinary shall occur to renew excitement and produce popular exasperation. This is the stage in this premeditated revolution at which we now stand.
The opening of this painful controversy at once raised the question whether it would be for the interest of the country to admit the projected dismemberment, with its consequent evils, or whether patriotism and humanity require that it shall be prevented. As a citizen, my own decision on this subject was promptly made-- namely, that the Union is inestimable and even indispensable to the welfare and happiness of the whole country, and to the best interests of mankind. As a statesman in the public service, I have not hesitated to assume that the Federal Government is committed to maintain, preserve, and defend the Union -- peaceably if it can, forcibly if it must - to every extremity. Next to disunion itself, I regard civil war as the most disastrous and deplorable of national calamities, and as the most uncertain and fearful of all remedies for political disorders. I have, therefore, made it the study and labor of the hour, how to save the Union from dismemberment by peaceful policy and without civil war.
Influenced by these sentiments, I have felt that it is exceedingly fortunate that, to a great extent, the Federal Government occupies, thus far, not an aggressive attitude, but practically a defensive one, while the necessity for action, if civil war is to be initiated, falls on those who seek to dismember and subvert this Union.
It has seemed to me equally fortunate that the disunionists are absolutely without any justification for their rash and desperate designs. The administration of the government had been for a long time virtually in their own hands, and controlled and directed by themselves, when they began the work of revolution. They had, therefore, no other excuse than apprehensions of oppression from the new and adverse administration which was about to come into power.
It seems to me, further, to be a matter of good fortune that the new and adverse administration must come in with both Houses of Congress containing majorities opposite to its policy, so that, even if it would, it could commit no wrong or injustice against the States which were being madly goaded into revolution. Under these circumstances, disunion could have no better basis to stand upon than a blind, unreasoning popular excitement, arising out of a simple and harmless disappointment in a Presidential election. That excitement, if it should find no new ailment, must soon subside and leave disunion without any real support. On the other hand, I have believed firmly that everywhere, even in South Carolina, devotion to the Union is a profound and permanent national sentiment, which, although it may be suppressed and silenced by terror for a time, could, if encouraged, be ultimately relied upon to rally the people of the seceding States to reverse, upon due deliberation, all the popular acts of legislatures and conventions by which they were hastily and violently committed to disunion. The policy of the time, therefore, has seemed to me to consist in conciliation, which should deny to disunionists any new provocation or apparent offense, while it would enable the unionists in the slave States to maintain, with truth and with effect, that the claims and apprehensions put forth by the disunionists are groundless and false.
I have not been ignorant of the objection that the administration was elected through the activity of the Republican Party, that it must continue to deserve and retain the confidence of that party, while conciliation toward the slave States tends to demoralize the Republican Party itself, on which party the main responsibility of maintaining the Union must rest. But it has seemed to me a sufficient answer, first, that the administration could not demoralize the Republican Party without making some sacrifice of its essential principles when no such sacrifice is necessary or is anywhere authoritatively proposed; and, secondly, if it be indeed true that pacification is necessary to prevent dismemberment of the Union and civil war, or either of them, no patriot and lover of humanity could hesitate to surrender party for the higher interests of country and humanity.
Partly by design, partly by chance, this policy has been hitherto pursued by the last administration of the Federal Government, and by the Republican Party in its corporate action. It is by this policy thus pursued, I think, that the progress of dismemberment has been arrested after the seven Gulf States had seceded, and the border States yet remain, although they do so uneasily, in the Union.
It is to a perseverance in this policy for a short time longer that I look as the only peaceful means of assuring the continuance of Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, and Arkansas, or most of those States, in the Union. It is through their good and patriotic offices that I look to see the Union sentiment revived and brought once more into activity in the seceding States, and through this agency those States themselves returning into the Union.
I am not unaware that I am conceding more than can reasonably be demanded by the people of the border States. They could, speaking justly, demand nothing. They are bound by the Federal obligation to adhere to the Union without concession or conciliation, just as much as the people of the free States are. But in administration we must deal with men, facts, and circumstances, not as they ought to be, but as they are.
The fact, then, is that while the people of the border States desire to be loyal, they are at the same time sadly, though temporarily, demoralized by a sympathy for the slave States which makes them forget their loyalty whenever there are any grounds for apprehending that the Federal Government will resort to military coercion against the seceding States, even though such coercion should be necessary to maintain the authority, or even the integrity, of the Union. This sympathy is unreasonable, unwise, and dangerous, and therefore cannot, if left undisturbed, be permanent. It can be banished, however, only in one way, and that is by giving time for it to wear out and for reason to resume its sway. Time will do this, if it be not hindered by new alarms and provocations.
South Carolina opened the revolution. Apprehending chastisement by the military arm of the United States, she seized all the forts of the United States in the harbor of Charleston, except Fort Sumter, which, garrisoned by less than a hundred men, stands practically in a state of siege, but at the same time defying South Carolina and, as the seceding States imagine, menacing her with conquest. Every one knows, first, that even if Sumter were adequately reinforced, it would still be practically useless to the government, because the administration in no case could attempt to subjugate Charleston or the State of South Carolina.
It is held now only because it is the property of the United States, and is a monument of their authority and sovereignty. I would so continue to hold it as long as it can be done without involving some danger or evil greater than the advantage of continued possession. The highest military authority tells us that without supplies the garrison must yield in a few days to starvation, that its numbers are so small that it must yield in a few days to attack by the assailants lying around it, and that the case in this respect would remain the same even if it were supplied but not rein forced. All the military and naval authorities tell us that any attempt at supplies would be unavailing without the employment of armed military and naval force. If we employ armed force for the purpose of supplying the fort, we give all the provocation that could be offered by combining reinforcement with supply. The question submitted to me, then, practically is: Supposing it to be possible to reinforce and supply Fort Sumter, is it wise now to attempt it instead of withdrawing the garrison? The most that could be done by any means now in our hands, would be to throw two hundred and fifty to four hundred men into the garrison, with provisions for supplying it for six months. In this active and enlightened country, in this season of excitement, with a daily press, daily mails, and an incessantly operating telegraph, the design to reinforce and supply the garrison must become known to the opposite party at Charleston as soon, at least, as preparation for it should begin. The garrison would then almost certainly fall by assault before the expedition could reach the harbor of Charleston. But supposing the secret kept, the expedition must engage in conflict on entering the harbor of Charleston. Suppose it be overpowered and destroyed, is that new outrage to be avenged, or are we then to return to our attitude of immobility? Shall we be allowed to do so? Moreover, in that event, what becomes of the garrison?
Suppose the expedition successful, we have then a garrison in Fort Sumter that can defy assault for six months. What is it to do then? Is it to make war by opening its batteries and attempting to demolish the defenses of the Carolinians? Can it demolish them if it tries? If it cannot, what is the advantage we shall have gained? If it can, how will it serve to check or prevent disunion? In either case it seems to me that we will have inaugurated a civil war by our own act, without an adequate object, after which reunion will be hopeless, at least under this administration, or in any other way than by a popular disavowal both of the war and of the administration which unnecessarily commenced it. Fraternity is the element of union; war, the very element of disunion. Fraternity, if practised by this administration, will rescue the Union from all its dangers. If this administration, on the other hand, takes up the sword, then an opposite party will offer the olive-branch, and will, as it ought, profit by the restoration of peace and union.
I may be asked whether I would in no case, and at no time, advise force -- whether I propose to give up everything? I reply, no. I would not initiate war to regain a useless and unnecessary position on the soil of the seceding States. I would not provoke war in any way now. I would resort to force to protect the collection of the revenue, because this is a necessary as well as a legitimate minor object. Even then it should be only a naval force that I would employ for that necessary purpose, while I would defer military action on land until a case should arise when we would hold the defense. In that case we should have the spirit of the country and the approval of mankind on our side. In the other, we should imperil peace and union, because we had not the courage to practise prudence and moderation at the cost of temporary misapprehension. If this counsel seems to be impassive and even unpatriotic, I console myself by the reflection that it is such as Chatham gave to his country under circumstances not widely different.
WILLIAM H. SEWARD
Bibliography: Lincoln, Works, eds. Nicolay and Hay, 6: 192-201.