Friday, March 8, 1861
Secretary of State Seward needed time to broker peace. He met with the Confederate Commissioners who had hoped to negotiate a peaceful separation from the Union the day before. From them he needed a written assurance that they could be kept in a holding pattern for a time.
The Commissioners knew that a decision concerning Fort Sumter would have to be made shortly – Sumter could only hold out until early April. Knowing this, they agreed to hold off for twenty days, provided that nothing changed on the military front (meaning, that, if agreed to, Fort Sumter could not be resupplied/reinforced).
This was a slippery situation and Seward knew it. In this matter, he was going behind President Lincoln’s back. By accepting these terms from the Confederate Commissioners, he would be acknowledging the legitimacy of the Confederate government. Buchanan was in a similar situation and refused it on the same grounds. Lincoln would definitely not go for it.
Seward, perhaps figuring that the Commissioners would agree to terms, was sick in bed when they were delivered to the State Department. He would be sick for the three days. The situation was slippery, but so was Seward. He had gotten the terms, but had not personally accepted them and thus had not recognized the Commissioners as legitimate representatives of a legitimate government.
Lincoln, however, was still in the dark.1
A strange accident took place at Fort Sumter. According to Confederate Colonel Maxcy Gregg, in charge of the forces on Morris Island, “a shot was accidentally fired from the iron battery this morning, which struck Fort Sumter.” They were practicing with blank cartridges and nobody knows how a shot got mixed in. It was not suspected that it was intentional. Major Stevens, who was in charge of the battery that fired upon Fort Sumter, would go to the fort under flag of truce to do some explaining.
An explanation is exactly what Major Anderson at Fort Sumter needed. Anderson had written a letter to Major Stevens and was about to have it sent to Morris Island when the same Major Stevens was seen in a boat holding a white flag. He bore a letter from Col. Gregg offering “an ample apology.” It, along with the explanation, was accepted and all returned to normal.2