The Decision to Surrender Fort Sumter

Friday, March 15, 1861

My dear Sir:
Assuming it to be possible to now provision Fort Sumter, under the circumstances is it wise to attempt it ?
Please give me your opinion in writing on this question.
Your obedient servant,
A. Lincoln.

Lincoln asked this from each of the Cabinet members. Before they would reply, however, the President requested that Gustavus Fox again detail his plan for resupplying Fort Sumter. General Winfield Scott and a few other military brass also gave their opinions. Scott countered that even if Fox’s plan would work, it would have to be repeated over and over every time Major Anderson needed supplies.

Secretary of State Seward was against it. He couldn’t assume that it was possible to provision the fort. If it were possible, he would be fine with it, but it was not, so the fort had to be surrendered. He was waiting for Southern Unionists to react to secession, bringing their states back into the fold.

Montgomery Blair, Postmaster General, took the opposite view of Seward, fully backing Fox’s plan. The longer the seceded states were dealt with as a separate nation, the more they would become a separate nation. The surrender of Sumter would only encourage the secessionists. Action was urgently needed.

Attorney General Edward Bates agreed when Seward said that Sumter held no practical value. A civil war may be started by this attack. Sumter would be a sacrifice to avoid these evils. Gideon Wells, Secretary of the Navy agreed. As did Secretary of the Interior Caleb Blood Smith.

Secretary of War Simon Cameron basically agreed, saying that if General Scott was against it, he would take that side. Salmon P. Chase, Treasury Secretary, on the other hand gave a cryptic response. If attempting to resupply Sumter would bring on a war, he was against it. However, he didn’t think it would actually bring on a war, so he was okay with it.

Each Cabinet member would submit his official opinion in writing over the next day or so.1

With only one (well, one and a half) Cabinet members in favor of a plan to resupply Sumter, everybody left the meeting thinking that Sumter was to be surrendered. Everybody except Lincoln, apparently.2


After the meeting, Seward was at the State Department when he was called upon by two Supreme Court justices (one from New York, the other from Alabama), who urged him to meet with the Confederate Commissioners. Seward said that he could not, Lincoln would never consent to such a thing. Besides, he so cleverly added, “the surrender of Sumter is enough to deal with.”

The justices agreed. One thing at a time. That thing would, of course, be the surrender of Sumter. They offered to inform the Commissioners and Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Montgomery. But what should they say to Davis?

“You may say to him,” Seward allowed, “that before that letter reaches him, the telegraph will have informed him that Sumter shall have been evacuated.” He also added that no action would be taken at Fort Pickens (even though Lincoln had authorized the landing of reinforcements three days prior).

The justices informed the Commissioners that Sumter would be surrendered in five days. They also wrote a short note to Jefferson Davis, which Seward read before it was sent, and then promptly telegraphed it to the southern President.3

Now it was certain. Jefferson Davis, the Commissioners and, soon, the whole South would know that Fort Sumter was to be surrendered to the Confederacy in five days.

Everybody knew this, except Lincoln.


There is a letter from Seward to the Commissioners that is dated March 15, 1861. It is a bold letter filled with harsh words that, while not quite backing away from the claim of surrendering Fort Sumter in five days, would lead the reader to believe that all communication would now be severed.

The Commissioners did not receive the letter until April 8, which is when I’ll cover this. If you’d like to read the letter in full, it can be found as Document 47 in The Rebellion Record, page 42, which can be found here.

  1. These are all available in Crawford’s Genesis of the Civil War. []
  2. Days of Defiance by Maury Klein seems to indicate that this whole cabinet meeting took place on the 14th, even though Lincoln’s question was dated the 15th. I went with the 15th since Genesis of the Civil War by Crawford goes with that. I believe it to be correct. []
  3. This account was first cobbled together from Days of Defiance by Maury Klein and Lincoln and the Decision for War by Russell McClintock. However, since both heavily draw from Genesis of the Civil War by Crawford, I ditched the first draft of this and delved into this section of Crawford’s book. I used the first two books for clarification, since they both use a few other primary sources to which I have no access. []
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The Decision to Surrender Fort Sumter by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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