-- Initial Problems at Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens --

Problem 3: March 16-18, 1861

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What Lincoln Did

As the cabinet's responses came to Lincoln's desk over the course of March 15 and 16, it was evident that a substantial majority of his official advisers considered the plan to relieve Sumter militarily and politically unwise. On the other hand, there was some support for the expedition, and Fox had offered to visit the site itself.

Lincoln deliberated, apparently drawing up a list of the pros and cons for abandoning Sumter that had been placed before him. In favor of immediately "withdrawing the Troops from Fort Sumpter [sic]," Lincoln noted that:

  1. The fort could not permanently be held without reinforcement, and reinforcement would involve a large military force and a "bloody conflict."

  2. The fort was "of inconsiderable military value" to either side.

  3. Sumter's abandonment would remove a source of irritation that was abetting secessionist sentiment in the South.

  4. Withdrawal would please moderates, and demonstrate to southern and northern opponents that the Republican Party was not bent on coercing the South.

  5. Finally, if the fort should be successfully attacked by the Confederates, the secessionists would gain a "moral advantage," and Lincoln's administration would be held responsible.

Lincoln's list of reasons for holding the fort was comparatively short:
  1. Abandoning the fort would risk "demoralizing" the Republican Party by making it look timid.

  2. Withdrawing from Sumter might be construed by the secessionists as "a victory on their part."

Having weighed all the arguments, Lincoln decided to delay a definitive determination about withdrawing from Sumter. Taking advantage of the time still left to the garrison, he decided to gather more information about the actual situation in Charleston Harbor.


Bibliography: Lincoln, Collected Works, ed. Basler, 4: 288-90; Current, Lincoln and the First Shot, pp. 68-69; ORN, p. 247.

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