Lincoln’s Pros and Cons of Sumter; Houston Tries to Work

Monday, March 18, 1861

In Washington, Lincoln was still trying to decide what to do about Fort Sumter. It had been three days since Seward informed The Commissioners and Davis that the fort would be surrendered. Lincoln seemed to have ignored this or simply failed to hear about it.

Either way, he was still undecided.

When Lincoln was in a quandary, he would often make a pros vs. cons list. He did this when trying to decide upon Simon Cameron for the Cabinet and he did it now.

On the side of being “in favor of withdrawing the Troops from Fort Sumpter [sic1],” he listed eight considerations.

“The fort could not be permanently held” led the list. Even Lincoln claimed that the point was too apparent to need proof. If supplies were cut off, which he assumed would soon be the case, the fort could only last a matter of months before it had to be surrendered.

Other items included the fact that the fort could not be reinforced without bloodshed and it held no military value. If Sumter were abandoned, it “would remove a source of irritation of the Southern people and deprive the secession movement of one of its most powerful stimulants.” It could encourage pro-Union sentiment among non-radicals of the South while the enemies of the Union who have cried “coercion!” would be confounded and embarrassed.

Besides, if the fort, in a weakened state, were attacked, “the administration would be held responsible for it and this fact would be used by their opponents with great effect.” Lastly, if such an attack were successful, the “moral advantage” to the Secessionists would be “very great.”

As for “objections” to the surrender, Lincoln could come up with only two.

“The danger of demoralizing the Republican Party” because of timidity or “want of pluck” was great. However, it were merely be a first impression.

If Sumter was not surrendered, the Secessionists would still have a victory: “The danger of the movement being construed by the Secessionists as a yielding from necessity, and in so far a victory on their part”

__________________

Sam Houston had been fired as Governor of Texas because he refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the new Confederate government. On this morning, two days after he publicly chose not to take the oath, his Lt. Governor Edward Clark arrived at the Governor’s office before Houston made it in and took up where Houston left off, effectively calling “dibs” on the state of Texas.

When Houston arrived, finding Clark very literally in his seat, he addressed the new Governor: “I hope that you will find it an easier chair than I have found it.”

“I’ll endeavor to make it so, General,” quipped Clark while demoting Houston back to his military rank, “by conforming to the clearly expressed will of the people of Texas.”

Houston gathered up his belongings and left. He returned to the Governor’s Mansion and packed up his family.2

__________________

While Lincoln was unsure of what to do, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was certain of the next move of his Northern counterpart. He wrote to Governor Pickens of South Carolina that he didn’t believe “the enemy would retire peaceably from your harbor.”3

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Confederate General Braxton Bragg, commanding the forces around Pensicola, Florida, got wind that some of the local citizens were supplying the Union gunboats as well as Fort Pickens with fuel, water and provisions.

That no misunderstanding may exist on this subject, it is announced to all concerned that this traffic is strictly forbidden, and all such supplies which may be captured in transit to said vessels or to Fort Pickens will be confiscated.

The more effectually to enforce this prohibition, no boat or vessel will be allowed to visit Fort Pickens or any United States vessel without special sanction.4

Now, like Fort Sumter, Fort Pickens was cut off. Unlike Fort Sumter, however, Pickens could be easily resupplied if needed.



  1. Lincoln, along with many others, often misspelled Sumter, adding a “p” where there was none. []
  2. Sam Houston By James L. Haley, University of Oklahoma Press, 2004. – Houston composed a letter (or possibly a speech) to the legislature of Texas, but I cannot for the life of me find a copy of it. []
  3. I wish I had a good, primary source for this letter, I’d like to read more of it. As it stands, I got that one line from E.B. Long’s The Civil War Day-By-Day. I hate to use books like this for anything but ideas. I think I’ve only done it one other time (and disclosed that I did so when I did it). Sorry. []
  4. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, Series 1, Vol. 4, p99. []
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3 thoughts on “Lincoln’s Pros and Cons of Sumter; Houston Tries to Work

  1. According to John F. Kennedy, in “Profiles of Courage” Houston’s reply to Edward Clark was more succinct and barbed than what is stated here. Clark had been a longtime friend and associate of Houston’s, but when he arrived to take power, Houston merely swiveled in his chair and demanded : “And what is YOUR name, Sir”.

    1. Hmm… That would reverse the roles of the story, it seems. It’s possible (really, at this point, who knows what actually happened).

      Thanks!
      -Eric

  2. Interesting how situations repeat themselves throughout history. It is presented here that Lincoln believed surrendering Sumter “would remove a source of irritation of the Southern people and deprive the secession movement of one of its most powerful stimulants.”

    On the other hand some in his cabinet believed that surrendering the fort would reinforce the secessionists by giving them an apparent “win”… thus stimulating support for secession.

    We are facing a similar quandary as Middle Eastern nations begin to experience protests. Leaving dictators in place could encourage more violent rebellion. Supporting protests could lead to Muslim extremists taking control… leading to violence.

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