Charleston Learns of Fort Sumter Mission

Monday, April 8, 1861

At two o’clock in the afternoon, a secretary for the Confederate Commissioners in Washington called upon Secretary of State Seward at his office. Having been informed that they would be dropping by, Seward was absent, leaving a letter dated March 15 in his place.

It was formal and full of harsh words and had the appearance that Seward didn’t just recently assure everyone that Sumter would be evacuated.

Seward wrote that he and the Commissioners had a different understanding of the state of things. While the Commissioners (and thus the Confederates) saw “a rightful and accomplished revolution and an independent nation, with an established government,” Seward saw “a perversion of a temporary and partisan excitement to the inconsiderate purposes of an unjustifiable and unconstitutional aggression upon the rights and the authority vested in the federal government.”

Continuing, he “looks patiently but confidently for the cure of evils which have resulted from proceedings so unnecessary, so unwise, so unusual, and so unnatural.”

“Under these circumstances,” Seward writes, stating that he is subject to the direction of Lincoln, he “is unable to comply with the request” of a meeting. Not only that, but he “has no authority nor is he [Seward was writing in the third-person] at liberty to recognize them as diplomatic agents, or hold correspondence or other communication with them.”

And claiming that he had Lincoln’s consent in writing and delivering this letter, he closed.1

With this information, the Commissioners wired Governor Pickens that Sumter was to be evacuated. They also wired the Confederate Secretary of State that Fort Pickens and Texas were to be the “first points of military demonstration.”2

They then packed up to return South.


Major Anderson at Fort Sumter had just received Secretary of War Simon Cameron’s letter dated April 4th informing him that Sumter was to be resupplied, backed up by naval warships. Anderson was unnerved by this and wrote to Washington to express it.

Word had gotten to Anderson that Seward had assured everyone that no such attempt would be made. He warned that “a movement made now, when the South has been erroneously informed that none such will be attempted, would produce most disastrous results throughout our country.”

Major Anderson could hardly believe that this was happening. Fox’s plan to resupply Sumter seemed insane. Lamon assured him that it would never happen. Still, here was Cameron’s letter proving everything wrong.

Anderson closed with a hope that “God will still avert it, and cause us to resort to pacific measures to maintain our rights, is my ardent prayer.”3

Washington would never receive this letter.


Robert Chew arrived in Charleston to seek an audience with Governor Pickens. He bore a letter from President Lincoln informing the Governor of the fate of Fort Sumter.

The Governor invited him in and Chew read aloud the President’s message: “I am directed by the President of the United States to notify you to expect an attempt will be made to supply Fort-Sumpter [sic] with provisions only; and that, if such attempt be not resisted, no effort to throw in men, arms, or amunition, will be made, without further notice, or in case of an attack upon the Fort.”4

He then handed the letter to Pickens. It was a startling, chilling letter. No formalities, no closing of “your obedient servant,” not even a signature adorned the paper. This was the word that they had been waiting for, the word they had simultaneously wanted and dreaded.

Pickens shared the letter with General Beauregard who wanted to write a reply. Chew waved it off. He was not authorized to accept a reply.

Robert Chew left on the 11pm train out of town.5

Beauregard immediately sent a message to Anderson in Fort Sumter letting him know that from here on out, no mail will be allowed to pass to or from the fort.6


In the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the Harriet Lane set sail. She was heading, under sealed orders, for Fort Sumter.7

  1. Seward’s letter to the Confederate Commissioners, dated March 15, 1861, but delivered April 8, 1861. As found in The Rebellion Record: A Diary of American Events edited by Frank Moore. []
  2. Official Records of the Navy, Series I, Vol. 4, p259. []
  3. The Genesis of the Civil War by Crawford. []
  4. Lincoln to Robert Chew, April 6, 1861. []
  5. Allegiance by David Detzer. []
  6. Official Records, Series I, Vol. 1, p250. []
  7. Days of Defiance by Maury Klein. []
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