Lincoln Polls Cabinet; Orders to Ready the Ships

Friday, March 29, 1861 – Good Friday

Lincoln got little to no sleep the previous night. At noon, the cabinet gathered again, minus Secretary of War Simon Cameron. It came down to two choices. Should they follow General Scott’s plan and surrender Fort Sumter and, if the General got his way, Fort Pickens? Or should they try Gustavus Fox’s plan to resupply and reinforce Fort Sumter?

All the information that they were going to have to make a decision was before them. They knew of the conditions at Sumter – the troops had only enough provisions to last two more weeks. They knew that there was no sympathy left for the Union. They knew the force that Fox could gather for his attempt to reinforce.

The meeting broiled with discussion until Lincoln asked each member to summarize his opinion on the subject. He had asked this a week or so ago and all but one was in favor of surrendering Sumter. Perhaps this new information would change things.

Secretary of State Seward held his ground, urging for Sumter to be surrendered. He also urged that they wage war in Florida and Texas to maintain forts and outposts.

Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase was now for the resupplying and reinforcing of both Forts Pickens and Sumter.

Gideon Wells, Secretary of the Navy, thought that a peaceful attempt to resupply Sumter would result in war, but it would then make the question of reinforcing the fort and easy one. Generally, he was in favor of sending supplies.

Secretary of the Interior Caleb Blood Smith was in favor of surrendering Sumter, but would defend the other forts farther south.

Postmaster General Montgomery Blair was still in favor of Fox’s plan.

Attorney General Edward Bates felt that the southern forts should be defended, but that the time had come to abandon Fort Sumter.

With that, a vote of three for surrender, three for resupplying and one absent Secretary of War, Lincoln made his decision.

Gustavus Fox had replied to Lincoln’s order for him to calculate exactly what he would need (ships, men, etc) to resupply Sumter. On the back of Fox’s reply, Lincoln wrote an order to the Secretaries of the Navy and War Department:

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 cooperate with the Secretary of the Navy for that object.

Fox left immediately for New York to ready the ships.1

So far, no order had been given to actually launch the mission. In fact, nowhere did Lincoln state that there was even to be a mission, let alone which fort it would resupply and/or reinforce.


Confederate Secretary of War LeRoy Pope Walker, writing to General Beauregard, commander of rebel forces in Charleston, ordered that all communication between Fort Sumter and Washington be stopped. It would take over a week for it to be enacted.2

  1. Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume 3 By John George Nicolay and John Hay – Their book contains each note from the cabinet members and provides more of the meeting description than any other source. []
  2. Official Records, Series I, Vol. 1, p283. []
Creative Commons License
Lincoln Polls Cabinet; Orders to Ready the Ships by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


View all posts by