The American Civil War Erupts: The Attack on Fort Sumter
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Title: Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet
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In the spring of 1861, President Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet wrestled with the issue of whether or not to resupply and hold federal fortifications within the Confederacy, even though the Confederacy had vowed to forcibly halt any such attempts by the Union government to do so. On March 29, 1861, Lincoln polled the members of his cabinet, asking each to state in writing their opinion as to whether or not to resupply Fort Sumter, located in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, and desperately in need of supplies and reinforcements. The three opinions that appear below are divided, but eventually Lincoln chose to resupply Fort Sumter. Shortly thereafter, on April 12, 1861, Confederate artillery fired on the fort and captured it, thus beginning the Civil War.

After reading the three opinions below, imagine that you are President Lincoln, faced with making this difficult decision. Would you have chosen to risk war by resupplying the fort, or would you have elected to let Fort Sumter fall in hopes of finding a more diplomatic solution to the mounting secession crisis? Write a response to your cabinet members, explaining and justifying your decision. What consequences, positive and negative, do you anticipate? How might your actions affect relations between the Union and South Carolina? How will the other Southern states considering secession interpret your actions? What steps should be taken next?

Mr. [Gideon] Welles, Secretary of the Navy wrote:

Title: Gideon Welles
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I concur in the proposition to send an armed force off Charleston with supplies of provisions and reinforcements for the garrison at Fort Sumter, and of communicating at the proper time the intentions of the government to provision the fort peaceably if unmolested. There is little probability that this will be permitted if the opposing forces can prevent it. An attempt to force in provisions without reinforcing the garrison at the same time might not be advisable; but armed resistance to a peaceable attempt to send provisions to one of our own forts will justify the government in using all the power at its command to reinforce the garrison and furnish the necessary supplies.

Fort Pickens and other places retained should be strengthened by additional troops, and, if possible, made impregnable.

The naval force in the gulf and on the southern coast should be increased. Accounts are published that vessels having on board marketable products for the crews of the squadron at Pensacola are seized—the inhabitants we know are prohibited from furnishing the ships with provisions or water; and the time has arrived when it is the duty of the government to assert and maintain its authority.

Mr. [William] Seward, Secretary of State, wrote:

Title: William Seward
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First. The dispatch of an expedition to supply or reinforce Sumter would provoke an attack, and so involve a war at that point.

The fact of preparation for such an expedition would inevitably transpire, and would therefore precipitate the war, and probably defeat the object. I do not think it wise to provoke a civil war beginning at Charleston, and in rescue of an untenable position.

Therefore I advise against the expedition in every view.

Second. I would call in Captain M. C. Meigs forthwith. Aided by his counsel, I would at once, and at every cost, prepare for a war at Pensacola and Texas: to be taken, however, only as a consequence of maintaining the possessions and authority of the United States.

Third. I would instruct Major Anderson to retire from Sumter forthwith.

Mr. [Montgomery] Blair, Postmaster-General, wrote:

Title: Montgomery Blair
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First. As regards General Scott, I have no confidence in his judgment on the questions of the day. His political views control his judgment, and his course as remarked on by the President shows that whilst no one will question his patriotism, the results are the same as if he was in fact traitorous.

Second. It is acknowledged to be possible to relieve Fort Sumter. It ought to be relieved without reference to Pickens or any other possession. South Carolina is the head and front of this rebellion, and when that State is safely delivered from the authority of the United Stares it will strike a blow against our authority from which it will take us years of bloody strife to recover.

Third. For my own part, I am unwilling to share in the responsibility of such a policy.


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