DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR, March 16, 1861.
Sir: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your note of yesterday, requesting my opinion in writing upon the question whether, "assuming it to be possible to now provision Fort Sumter, under all the circumstances is it wise to attempt it?"
After a careful consideration of the opinions of Generals Scott and Totten, and also those of Commodore Stringham and Mr. Fox, as presented to the President and his cabinet on yesterday, I have arrived at the conclusion that the probabilities are in favor of the success of the proposed enterprise so far as to secure the landing of the vessels at the fort, but there would be great danger of their destruction and the loss of many lives before their cargoes could be secured within the fort.
It would be impossible, in my judgment, to fit out and conduct the expedition with such secrecy as to keep those who have control of the harbor of Charleston in ignorance of their object, and of the mode and time of their approach. I do not therefore attach any importance to the proposition to approach the fort under the cover of night, but I should expect the expedition to meet with all the resistance which the authorities of South Carolina may be able to command.
The landing of supplies at Fort Sumter, if successfully accomplished, would of itself be of no practical value, as it is quite clear that Major Anderson, with his present inadequate force, could not long maintain the fort against the means of attack now concentrated there.
As the attempt to supply the fort with provisions without the consent of the authorities of South Carolina would doubtless induce an attack by them, the effect of such an attempt, whether successful or not, would be the early loss of the fort and the destruction or capture of Major Anderson's command. It would therefore, in my judgment, be unwise to attempt to supply the fort with provisions, unless they were sent with such a force as would place beyond all doubt or contingency the success of the enterprise, and also with such reinforcements of men as would insure a successful defense of the fort against any attack which could be made upon it.
The occupation of Fort Sumter is not essential to the performance of any of the duties imposed upon the government. It cannot be used as a means of enforcing the laws, or of compelling the people of South Carolina to perform the duties they owe to the federal Government. Viewing the question only as a military one, I cannot doubt that it would be expedient to abandon a position which can only be held at a great expense of life and money, and which, when held, cannot be used as a means of aiding the government in the performance of its duties.
But the most important question connected with this subject is one of a political character. The State of South Carolina is in open rebellion against the government. Her authorities have seized the public property, have wholly disregarded the laws of the United States, and have openly defied the government.
If the evacuation of Fort Sumter could be justly regarded as a measure which would even by implication sanction the lawless acts of the authorities of that State, or indicate an intention on the part of the government to surrender its constitutional authority over them, or if it could be regarded as an acknowledgment by the government of its inability to enforce the laws, I should without hesitation advise that it should be held without regard to the sacrifices which its retention might impose. I do not believe, however, that the abandonment of the fort would imply such an acknowledgment on the part of the government. There are other means by which the power and the honor of the government may be vindicated, and which would, in my judgment, be much more effective to compel the people of South Carolina to render obedience to the laws, and which would at the same time avoid the sacrifice of life which must result from a conflict under the walls of the fort.
The commencement of a civil war would be a calamity greatly to be deplored, and should be avoided if the just authority of the government may be maintained without it. If such a conflict should become inevitable, it is much better that it should commence by the resistance of the authorities or the people of South Carolina to the legal action of the government in enforcing the laws of the United States.
The public sentiment of the North would then be united in the support of the government, and the whole power of the country would be brought to its aid.
If a conflict should be provoked by the attempt to reinforce Fort Sumter, a divided sentiment in the North would paralyze the arm of the government, while treason in the Southern States would be openly encouraged in the North. It is well known that this question has already been much discussed throughout the country, and that even among the friends of the administration, many of those who demand that the laws shall be enforced urge the propriety of the withdrawal of our troops from Fort Sumter, believing that the retention of that fort is not essential to the honor of the government, or its power to enforce the laws.
While the abandonment of the fort would doubtless to some extent create surprise and complaint, I believe that public sentiment would fully justify the action of the government when the reasons which prompt it shall be explained and understood.
I therefore respectfully answer the inquiry of the President by saying that, in my opinion, it would not be wise under all the circumstances to attempt to provision Fort Sumter. I am, with respect,
Your obedient servant,
CALEB B. SMITH
Bibliography: Lincoln, Works, eds. Nicolay and Hay, 6: 210-214.