Virginia Totters on the Edge; Orders for Sumter

Thursday, April 4, 1861

Union sympathy in the deeper South was gone. The trip Lamon and Hurlbut made to Charleston proved that. But what about Virginia? The border state had been holding an on again, off again secession convention since early January. Lincoln, wishing to take the true pulse of nationalism in Virginia, sent George W. Summers, a Unionist, to the convention. Summers, knowing that an important vote (the vote) would soon be coming, sent John B. Baldwin in his stead.

Baldwin arrived in Washington in the morning on this date, and met with Lincoln right away. The President told his visitor that he had come three or four days too late, though Baldwin left as soon as he was summoned. What Lincoln meant was that it was too late to do any good.

The Secession Convention in Virginia was an embarrassment to Lincoln, who thought that the Unionists should adjourn it before more of their ilk switched sides.

Virginia’s Unionists were barely that. They were tottering on the edge just as much as their state was. More than Union, they wanted peace. If appeasing the Southern states – The Confederacy – would keep the peace, they felt, then conciliation and compromise was needed.

But the compromise that the South wanted was exactly what Lincoln could not give. Fort Sumter and Pickens, said Baldwin, must be abandoned as a gesture of peace; the administration’s policy must be one of peace.

Lincoln then asked what might happen if Sumter were resupplied with only provisions – no troops, no aggressive maneuvers, just supplies? That wouldn’t work, Baldwin insisted, it would never be allowed. Once shots were fired, no matter who shot first, the Upper South, including Virginia, would secede.

There had been rumors of Lincoln offering to surrender Sumter if Virginia would stay in the Union (trading a fort for a state), but they had since proved to be unprovable.1

The vote that would take Virginia out of the Union was put before the Secession Convention. It was rejected 88 to 45, keeping the state true to the Union. For the time being, anyway.2



Major Anderson’s letter to Washington informing them that he had but a week’s worth of rations finally found its way to Lincoln’s desk. Astounded that he had such little time, the President sent orders to Gustavus Fox (now in Washington again) that he was to head up the expedition to “succor Fort Sumter.”

The letter ordered Fox to “take charge of the transports in New York having the troops and supplies on board to the entrance of Charleston Harbor.” He was to first attempt to land the supplies and if attacked, “place both troops and supplies in Fort Sumter.”3

The President (via Secretary of War Simon Cameron) then shot off a letter to Anderson asking him to hold on until the 11th or 12th, when the expedition to resupply the fort was to be attempted. The decision to surrender or hold out prior to the resupplying would be up to Anderson.4

Orders to resupply both Fort Pickens in Pensacola and Fort Sumter in Charleston had been given, but was it now too late?

  1. Lincoln and the Decision for War by Russell McClintock – completely from Baldwin’s own testimony in 1866. []
  2. Days of Defiance by Maury Klein. []
  3. Official Records, Series I, Vol. 1, p235-236. []
  4. Official Records, Series I, Vol. 1, p235. []
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Virginia Totters on the Edge; Orders for Sumter by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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One thought on “Virginia Totters on the Edge; Orders for Sumter

  1. Nothing quite like waiting to make a decision until the decision is almost pointless, eh?

    – Sean

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