NAVY DEPARTMENT, March 15, 1861.
Sir: In answer to your inquiry of this date, I take it for granted that Fort Sumter cannot be provisioned except by force, and assuming that it is possible to be done by force, is it wise to make the attempt?
The question has two aspects -- one military, the other political. The military gentlemen who have been consulted, as well as the officers at the fort, represent that it would be unwise to attempt to succor the garrison under existing circumstances, and I am not disposed to controvert their opinions.
But a plan has been submitted by a gentleman of undoubted courage and intelligence,-- not of the army or navy,-- to run in supplies by steam-tugs, to be chartered in New York. It is admitted to be a hazardous scheme, which, if successful, is likely to be attacked with some loss of life and the total destruction of the boats. The force which would constitute the expedition, if undertaken, as well as the officer in command, would not, if I rightly understand the proposition, be of the army or navy. It is proposed to aid and carry out the enterprise by an armed ship at the mouth of the harbor and beyond the range of the shore batteries, which is to drive in the armed boats of the enemy beyond Fort Sumter. But suppose these armed boats of the enemy refuse to go into the inner harbor, as I think they will refuse, and shall station themselves between Sumter and the ship for the express purpose of intercepting your boats, how can you prevent them from taking that station and capturing the tugs? There can be but one way, and that is by opening a fire upon them from Sumter, or the ship, or perhaps both. If this is done, will it not be claimed that aggressive war has been commenced by us upon the State and its citizens in their own harbor. It may be possible to provision Fort Sumter by the volunteer expedition, aided by the guns of Sumter and the ship -- the military gentlemen admit its possibility, but they question the wisdom of the enterprise in its military aspect, and I would not impeach their conclusion.
In a political view I entertain doubts of the wisdom of the measure, when the condition of the public mind in different sections of the country, and the peculiar exigency of affairs, are considered. Notwithstanding the hostile attitude of South Carolina, and her long and expensive preparations, there is a prevailing belief that there will be no actual collision. An impression has gone abroad that Sumter is to be evacuated, and the shock caused by that announcement has done its work. The public mind is becoming tranquilized under it, and will become fully reconciled to it when the causes which have led to that necessity shall have been made public and are rightly understood. They are attributable to no act of those who now administer the government.
By sending or attempting to send provisions into Sumter, will not war be precipitated! It may be impossible to escape it under any course of policy that may be pursued, but I am not prepared to advise a course that would provoke hostilities. It does not appear to me that the dignity, strength, or character of the government will be promoted by an attempt to provision Sumter in the manner proposed, even should it succeed, while a failure would be attended with untold disaster.
I do not, therefore, under all the circumstances, think it wise to attempt to provision Fort Sumter. I am, very respectfully,
Bibliography: Lincoln, Works, eds. Nicolay and Hay, 6: 208-210.