LINCOLN, Abraham. Autograph letter signed ("A.Lincoln") as President TO "HONORABLE SECRETARY OF WAR" [SIMON CAMERON], Executive Mansion [Washington, D.C.], 29 March 1861. 1 page, large folio (13 x 7 7/8 in.), irregular stain in blank upper left-hand corner, very minor repairs at two folds, otherwise in fine condition. Docketed on verso "Order of the President for the preparation of an Expedition by sea."
THE LETTER THAT MADE THE FIRST SHOTS OF THE CIVIL WAR INEVITABLE: LINCOLN ISSUES ORDERS FOR THE RELIEF OF FORTS SUMTER AND PICKENS
A momentous letter, constituting Lincoln's critical act in the Fort Sumter crisis, an action which represents a key turning point in his early presidency and the secession crisis, a decision which "was to make him the second president to be charged with contriving a war and shifting the guilt to the other side" (R.N. Current, Lincoln and the First Shot, 1963, p.11). The President, who had been in office only a few weeks, writes in a large, bold hand (similar to that he sometimes used for speeches to be read) and issues momentous orders to the Secretaries of War and Navy regarding long-delayed plans to send a relief force to the encircled Forts Sumter and Pickens.
Lincoln writes: "Honorable Secretary of War: Sir -- I desire that an expedition, to move by sea, be got ready to sail as early as the 6th of April next, the whole according to memorandum attached, and that you co-operate with the Secretary of the Navy for that object. Your obedient Servant A. Lincoln."
Even before Lincoln was sworn in as President, the secession of South Carolina and other states of the deep South placed Federal facilities within those states in jeopardy; one by one, arsenals, customshouses and forts were seized by the Confederacy--usually without any overt resistance--so that by the time of Lincoln's inauguration, only two key forts, Pickens in Pensacola Bay and Fort Sumter in the center of Charleston harbor, remained in Union hands. Sumter in particular took on immense symbolic importance as "a commanding symbol of national sovereignty in the very cradle of secession, a symbol that the Confederate government could not tolerate if it wished its own sovereignty to be recognized by the world" (McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, p. 263). Robert Anderson, Union commander of Fort Moultrie in Charleston, abandoned that vulnerable post on December 26 and retreated with his garrison to the protective walls of Sumter. The Confederate authorities proceeded to ring the harbor with batteries of artillery and cut off the Fort's usual supply channels (although mail, curiously, was readily passed under flag of truce). Anderson, with his supplies dwindling, grew increasingly anxious. An unarmed supply vessel, the Star of the West, had been sent to the beleaguered fort by the reluctant General Winfield Scott, but was effectively turned back by Confederate artillery on January 9.
In his inaugural address, Lincoln made an eloquent plea to the South, urging moderation and pledging not to interfere with the southern states' right to hold slaves, but he warned that "the power confided in me will be used to hold, occupy and possess the property and places belonging to the government," and cautioned that "in your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine is the momentous issue of civil war...You can have no conflict without being yourselves the agressors..." Late that night Lincoln left the Inaugural Ball and returned to the White House where a letter of disturbing import was delivered to him in the oval office. He later told his secretary Nicolay that "The first thing that was handed me after I entered this room, when I came from the inauguration was the letter from Maj. Anderson saying that their provisions would be exhausted before an expedition could be sent to their relief" (quoted in E.S. Meirs, Lincoln Day by Day, 3:26). "Anderson's unexpected notice, requiring either the evacuation of Sumter or the active provisioning of that fort, ruined Lincoln's policy of passive nationalism" (D.M.Potter, Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis, p.336).
Meanwhile, Lincoln's new cabinet took up their duties in an air of impending crisis. On March 7th, Lincoln met with the cabinet to discuss Fort Sumter's relief, and two days later asked General Scott to respond in writing to critical questions bearing on the Fort's supply and defense (see his letter, Basler 4:279). In an unusual night-time meeting that same day, the cabinet again wrestled with the issue of Sumter's relief, and in a follow-up meeting (the first at which Secretary of War Cameron was present) an apparent consensus was reached to withdraw from the Fort. But Lincoln, unhappy with this policy, continued to seek counsel, and conferred in the next few days with Postmaster Montgomery Blair and naval Lieutenant Gustavus V. Fox (1821-1883), who had already devised a plan to supply and reinforce the Fort. Fox (who later helped plan the capture of New Orleans) proposed that an expedition of warships, transports and tugs with engines protected by bales of cotton run the Confederate batteries under cover of darkness. On March 15, Lincoln presented Fox's plan to the cabinet and requested their opinions in writing. The Fox plan was rejected by five out of seven cabinet members; only Blair and Treasury Secretary S.P. Chase supported the plan (for excerpts from the cabinet's opinions, see Basler 4:285). As one historian notes, "If he had been required to make a final decision on the Sumter question at that time or for two weeks thereafter, we would almost certainly have decided in favor of evacuation" (Potter, p.339). But the anticipated withdrawal had already elicited bitter criticism in the northern press, and Lincoln met again with Fox on March 19. Shortly afterwards, Fox travelled to Charleston and, with permission from Confederate Governor Francis Pickens, visited Sumter and spoke with Major Anderson. Fox reported back to Lincoln on the 25th, more than ever convinced of the soundness of his plan, if instituted with dispatch.
Back in Washington, Winfield Scott advised Lincoln that both Forts Sumter and Pickens should be evacuated, and Lincoln duly reported this advice to the cabinet on the 28th. But between that meeting and the next, Lincoln had independently reached the historic decision to put a modified version of the Fox plan into operation, in spite of the objections of most of the cabinet and senior military advisors, who "did not yet know that Lincoln was capable of over-ruling their opinion" (Potter, p.342). Scott's timorous advice--given on political grounds--"had taught him that he must act for himself" (Potter, p.361). On the 29th--the same date as the present orders--Lincoln startled the cabinet by announcing his intention to dispatch an expedition carrying provisions only, without military reinforcements or ammunition, after notifying the Confederate authorities. This time, only Secretary of State Seward (who had secretly pledged to a southern delegation that the Fort would in fact be evacuated) opposed Lincoln's plan. "The turning point of his policy," notes Potter, really came on March 29," with this letter (Potter, p.3636).
On April 6, after the expedition had been organized, Lincoln ordered a courier to proceed to Charleston and formally apprise Governor Pickens of the relief expedition, adding the admonition that "if such an attempt be not resisted, no effort to throw in men, arms or ammunition will be made, or in case of an attack against the Fort" (Basler 4:323). As Mark Neely observes, "ignoring much advice, Lincoln had taken control and pursued an independant course"; by a brilliant maneuver he had made it necessary for the Confederate government to either permit the garrison's peaceful re-supply--ensuring that the stars and stripes would continue to fly over the Fort--or else to fire on the naval relief expedition. Ironically, Jefferson Davis and his cabinet, under increasing pressure to assert the Confederacy's independence, had already made the momentous decision to open hostilities. On April 3, General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding Confederate forces at Charleston, was instructed by telegram to demand the surrender of the Fort and, if the request for evacuation was refused, to unleash the artillery which ringed the harbor. Finally, on the morning of April 12, even before the relief expedition hove into sight of Charleston harbor, the Confederate cannons ringing Sumter roared, providing an emphatic resolution to the question posed in Lincoln's inaugural.
Published in Basler 4:301 (along with Lincoln's nearly identical letter to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and the text of the enclosures, in the hand of a clerk). Lincoln's nearly identical letter, in the same large format, to Secretary of the Navy Welles is in the Huntington Library (illustrated in J. Rhodehamel and T. F. Schwartz, The Last Best Hope of Earth: Abraham Lincoln and the Promise of America, p.40).
Provenance: Philip D. Sang (sale, Sotheby Parke Bernet, 14 November 1978, lot 475).