First Fort Sumter, and Now Fort Pickens to be Surrendered?

Thursday, March 28, 1861

For some time in Washington, the views on what to do about the situations at Fort Sumter in Charleston and Fort Pickens in Pensacola, Florida were simple. Sumter would probably have to be abandoned, but Pickens could probably be reinforced without any military issue whatsoever.

On this date, that all changed. Well, on the next day it would actually change, but on this date, things got moving. Sit tight.

The order of how things happened, as usual, is up to debate. At some point earlier in the day, Ward Hill Lamon spoke with General Winfield Scott. Lamon had returned the day before from Sumter after creating an incredible stir by assuring the surrender of the fort to not only the fort’s commander, Major Anderson, but to South Carolina’s Governor Pickens as well.

Lamon informed Scott that Pickens wanted to come back into the Union. He also talked at length about his trip to Sumter. The exact topics of the conversation are lost, but it can be assumed that both Scott and Lamon wished for Sumter to be surrendered, and that they spoke at length about it.

One thing that Lamon failed to mention, however, was that he failed to mention any of this to Lincoln. Scott assumed that he and the President were on the same page concerning Lamon.1

Scott then wrote a memo to Secretary of State William Seward stating that not only should Fort Sumter be surrendered, but Fort Pickens as well. The surrender of these forts “would instantly soothe and give confidence to the eight remaining slave-holding States, and render their cordial adherence to this Union perpetual.” Two other forts still held by the Federals, Jefferson and Taylor on the Florida Keys, were another matter and should never be abandoned.2

To keep his options open, a still undecided President Lincoln ordered Gustavus Fox, author of the plan to reinforce Fort Sumter, to prepare a list of ships, men and supplies that he would need to carry out his mission.3

While Fox was at work on such tasks, The Lincolns were getting ready for their first state dinner at the White House. Before dinner, General Scott received a note from the President asking him to see him right away, before the dinner. Scott assumed that it was about the very details that he and Lamon had just discussed.

Scott arrived at the White House and presented Lincoln with the memo to Seward.4 The General spoke of how the surrender of both Sumter and Pickens was necessary. He spilled all that Lamon had told him and even more from the General’s own mind.

Lincoln’s reaction was “cold shock.” He knew nothing of Lamon’s report from Sumter, had never even considered the surrender of Pickens and, having just sent an order to Fox to do everything but prepare to sail, the surrender of Sumter was hardly a foregone conclusion. Fort Pickens was to be reinforced if Sumter surrendered.5

Scott was a military commander. His opinion of the political situation was of no concern to Lincoln. In fact, it more than rankled the President. He lashed out at Scott, saying “Anderson has played us false!” He criticized Scott’s own lack of consistency over Fort Pickens. The administration would be broken, said Lincoln, if there wasn’t more consistency. Lastly, while the dinner guests were waiting, he told Scott that if the General could not carry out his views, he would find somebody who could.6

Scott left in a huff, while Lincoln covered for him saying that the General was not feeling well and would not be joining them.7

After the formal dinner, Lincoln drew his Cabinet together and told them of Scott’s idea about surrendering both Sumter and Pickens. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, who had always thought Sumter should be reinforced, noted that Scott was playing the part of a politician. Blair spoke at some length about this, but the other Cabinet members said nothing. Lincoln asked them all to meet again the next day.

That night, Lincoln got little sleep.8

  1. Fifty Years’ Observations of Men and Events, Civil and Military by Erasmus Darwin Keyes. []
  2. Memo from Scott to Seward, March 28, 1861, as quoted in Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume 3 By John George Nicolay and John Hay. []
  3. Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume 3 By John George Nicolay and John Hay. []
  4. There is some speculation that the exact memo wouldn’t be read until later that night, but nevertheless, Scott spoke its contents to Lincoln now. []
  5. Lincoln and the Decision for War by Russell McClintock – at this point, having to use a secondary source feels like cheating. However, I trust McClintock on these points and here his sources are well indicated. Two other books I’ve been using fail in the respect over this date (though have been invaluable for others). []
  6. Fifty Years’ Observations of Men and Events, Civil and Military by Erasmus Darwin Keyes. []
  7. Lincoln and the Decision for War by Russell McClintock. []
  8. Days of Defiance by Maury Klein and Lincoln and the Decision for War by Russell McClintock, especially the latter, are great in this. McClintock’s notes on this day are wonderful. []
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First Fort Sumter, and Now Fort Pickens to be Surrendered? by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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