Volume 27, No. 11 – November 2014
Volume 27, No. 11
The President’s Message
Are you tired of dull, drab army rations after long marches and feel the need for hearty holiday chow and cheer? Then join the troops on December 10, 2014 and be part of the Round Table’s annual festivities at our Holiday Party. Our guest speaker will be Robert Macomber and he promises to rally your spirits or help drink them. Remember to pay your dues.
November 12, 2014 Program – Men of the USS Monitor
We will be privileged to hear more about the dead heroes of the USS Monitor from Dr. Francis J. DuCoin. Dr. DuCoin, a consultant at the USS Monitor Center in Newport News, Virginia, is an avid Civil War collector and historian. A frequent speaker on Civil War naval history, he contributed a chapter to Craig Symonds’ book "Union Combined Operations in the Civil War" (2010) and has written a number of articles, including "And the Winner Was . . ." in Naval History (April, 2012) about the engagement between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia, and "Monitor’s Slow Reveal" and "Secrets of the USS Monitor" in Civil War Times. His second appearance at the Round Table should be just as wonderful as was his first.
October 8, 2014 Program
Monroe Ackerman, one of the first members of the Roundtable, led us through the prelude to the Civil War. Starting with Lincoln’s election on November 6, 1860. Lincoln got only 39% of the popular vote but won 180 electoral votes against a combined total of 123 for his three adversaries. The Republican Party was a sectional party pledged to prevent expansion of slavery into the Federal territories. All of Lincoln’s electoral votes and almost all of his popular votes came from Northern states. His election was a tectonic shift of political power away from the slaveholding states that had controlled the Federal government for decades. The Deep South’s leaders heard the election as the death knell of slavery, an institution felt to be vital to the economy and social fabric of their society. Though Lincoln had pledged to "leave slavery alone where it exists," they feared blocking its expansion would inevitably lead to its extinction. The "crisis" predicted by Lincoln in his "House Divided" speech had come and the Deep South’s leaders would not wait. To save their "peculiar institution" they would resort to secession. Between December 20, 1860 and January 26, 1861, six Deep South states seceded. On February 18, 1861, they swore in Jefferson Davis as Provisional President. Texas seceded on February 23, 1861.
During the four months between election and inauguration, while the South adopted a Constitution and organized armies, the North wallowed in indecision, economic stagnation, half-hearted efforts at compromise and empty hopes the departing states would return. President Buchanan was a "Doughface" (a derisive term for a Northern politician who toed the South’s line). His enemies pegged the tired 69-year old man as caught in a "Catch 22" between love for the South and attachment to the Union. He believed secession was unconstitutional but that the Federal Government had no legal right to coerce a state to remain in the Union. In his State of the Union address, December 3, 1860, he warned that the South meant business and called for a constitutional convention that would secure slavery both where it existed and in the Federal territories. Until they left, three Southern Cabinet members (Secretary of State Howell Cobb of Georgia, Secretary of Treasury Jacob Thompson of Mississippi and Secretary of War John B. Floyd of Virginia) dominated Buchanan’s administration and Buchanan was prepared to deal with the commission South Carolina Governor Andrew Pickens sent to Washington to secure possession of all Federal properties in and around Charleston, including Fort Sumter.
Four forts guarded Charleston harbor (Castle Pinckney, occupied by an Ordnance Sergeant and his family; Fort Johnson, unoccupied; Fort Moultrie, occupied by 8 officers, 61 men and 13 band members under the command of Major Robert Anderson, but indefensible; and Fort Sumter, under construction on a manmade island since 1829, on which 110 civilian workers labored). In addition, the Federal Arsenal in the city was manned by a captain and 14 men. The people and government of South Carolina had worked themselves into fighting fever over the denigration of their state’s sovereignty and the insult to their honor the forts and arsenal represented. Tension grew higher when Major Anderson, acting on his own, secretly moved his garrison to Fort Sumter on December 26th. Gov. Pickens felt this violated his secret agreement with Buchanan to preserve the status quo in Charleston and seized the other three forts and the arsenal and threatened to fire on Fort Sumter unless it was immediately evacuated. Unbeknownst to Pickens, the climate in Washington had changed – Buchanan was now under the sway of pro-Union Cabinet members, especially Attorney General Edward M. Stanton of Ohio, who told Buchanan that if he surrendered Fort Sumter he would be a worse traitor than Benedict Arnold and would deserve hanging. Through this period, all attempts to compromise the uncompromisable differences between North and South failed. The Republican Party downplayed the divisive issue of slavery in favor of the more popular rallying cry, "Save the Union." Buchanan now decided to defend Fort Sumter, sending an unarmed ship, The Star of the West, with 250 troops aboard, to Charleston, but failed to inform Major Anderson that supplies and reinforcements were on the way. When Star of the West reached Charleston, Southern batteries fired on it and it turned back. Anderson, not wanting to be the one who started the war, did not try to defend the relief ship. This insult to "Old Glory" dramatically unified Northern public opinion against secession.
Meanwhile, Lincoln remained in Springfield, Illinois, except to meet for the first time his Vice President-elect, Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, in Chicago, and to make a last visit with his stepmother, Sally Lincoln. In November Lincoln had naively believed the Southern threats to secede were mere "gasconade" (bluster) designed to panic the North into concessions. The quick and decisive actions by the Deep South combined with Lincoln’s contacts with political figures both North and South disabused him of any misconceptions.
Upon his election, Lincoln faced three major and interrelated problems:
(1) He had to choose seven men to serve in his Cabinet and head the departments of government;
(2) He had to solidify his political base by unifying its disparate factions: former Whigs (many of whom favored concessions) and Free Soilers, Liberty Party members and former Democrats, who had become "Radical Republicans" (who favored "Inauguration First, Adjustment Later); and
(3) He had to formulate a national policy. If it was not possible to assuage the South, he had to be prepared to defeat secession, while holding those slave states that had not yet seceded to stay in the Union.
Lincoln used two tools to solve these problems. First he would appoint a "balanced" Cabinet of four former Democrats and four former Whigs (three appointees and himself). Displaying amazing self-confidence, he picked five former rivals, even though none were close acquaintances: William H. Seward of New York (State), Salmon P. Chase of Ohio (Treasury), Edward Bates of Missouri (Attorney General), Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania (War) and Caleb Smith of Indiana (Interior), along with Montgomery Blair of Maryland and Missouri (Postmaster General) and Gideon Welles of Connecticut (Navy). Second, he would distribute political appointments among the ravenously hungry new Republicans with "Justice for all." All this took a lot of time and energy, but Lincoln also left his door open to "meet the people," which all too often left him exhausted. However he drew the line at expressing an opinion on current events. Anything he might add would be twisted and turned out of shape by his political enemies but "My old record cannot be so used."
He did, however, let it be known he was willing to compromise on many issues: he would not offer but would accept a constitutional amendment guaranteeing slavery where it now existed; he would enforce the fugitive slave laws if they guaranteed trial by jury; he would not oppose repeal of the "personal liberty" laws (protecting free Negroes and fugitive slaves); he would not interfere with interstate slave trade or slavery in the District of Columbia. He might even agree to the admission of New Mexico as a slave state. However, he would "hold firm, as with chains of steel" against the spread of slavery into any Federal territory present or future; he felt no state could leave the Union without the consent of the other states; he was determined to maintain the Union at "all hazards" and if Buchanan surrendered the forts in Charleston Harbor, he would try to retake them as well as all other Federal property appropriated by the Deep South states. He left by rail for Washington on February 11, 1861, the day before his 52nd birthday, spoke at may stops along the way and took 12 days to get there. His resort to a disguise to change trains in Baltimore amidst evidence of real plots against his life, diluted somewhat the favorable impression he had made en route. He immediately became involved in the tortuous process of forming an administration and drafting his Inaugural Address. At his invitation, Seward made valuable suggestions aimed at making the Address less abrasive. When Seward learned that Chase was to be head of Treasury, as a power play he sought to withdraw his acceptance of appointment to State if Chase was nominated. Lincoln asked him not to withdraw but also told a delegation of New Yorkers that if the Cabinet "broke," it would break at the top, meaning that Seward would go. Seward got the word and backed down.
Part Two: March 4, 1861 through April 13, 1861
No President was ever inaugurated under less propitious circumstances. The Union was shattered; all attempts at reconciliation had failed. Explosive situations existed in Charleston Harbor and at Fort Pickens, outside of Pensacola Bay, Florida. These forts and forts at Key West, Florida and the Dry Tortugas, were all that was left of Federal property in the Deep South. Ironically, Lincoln was sworn in by the aged, pro-Southern Chief Justice Roger Taney, the author of the Dred Scott opinion declaring Congress powerless to prohibit the spread of slavery that had revived Lincoln’s political career. The so-called "humble rail splitter" was now in charge. Many, North and South, doubted that this allegedly "rustic" lawyer, whose political career consisted of four terms in the Illinois state legislature and one two-year term in Congress, could meet the terrible challenges facing the nation. Lincoln’s Inaugural Address stated that secession was illegal and that he "would hold, occupy and possess the property and places belonging to the government." He would not, however, deliver the first blow. He would neither invade the South nor try to impose his rule on it. He called for calm and eloquently told the secessionists "In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government would not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourself the aggressors. You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the Government while I have the most solemn one to ‘Preserve, protect and defend it.’" A deft and simple plan unfortunately based on bad information. Lincoln believed that Fort Sumter had adequate supplies to hold out for months, only to find out the day after his address that they would run out in weeks! He could not sit back waiting for the secessionists to act. He would have to resupply or withdraw the garrison within weeks.
At his first formal Cabinet meeting on March 9th, following Seward’s lead, the consensus was for evacuation, even though Lincoln had just pledged to hold the fort! Seward saw himself as the "new" Henry Clay who would reunite the country by compromise, based on his false belief there was a reservoir of Union sentiment in the South only he could tap. Unkind fate may have deprived him of the Presidency but he would control and direct the "simple country lawyer" who held the position. He would in effect be Lincoln’s Prime Minister, the man behind the throne! Behind Lincoln’s back, he had assured the Southern commission that Fort Sumter would be evacuated. Meanwhile, General-in-Chief Winfield Scott stated (1) that he did not know how long the fort could hold out and (2) that it would take 5,000 regulars, 20,000 volunteers and a fleet of warships to resupply and reinforce the fort. But there was no way to raise and send such a force before the garrison exhausted its supplies. Then Blair brought his brother-in-law, Gustavus Vasa Fox, a former Naval officer to the White House with a "stealth" plan: Transports, carrying supplies and troops and accompanied by warships and shallow draft steam tugs, would in the dark of night offload into small boats that would be towed by tugs right up to Fort Sumter’s docks undetected and unopposed. Buchanan had accepted this plan but never followed through. Now Fox’s delayed plan would be much more difficult. Confederate General Pierre G. T. Beauregard was in command in Charleston Harbor and had repositioned and augmented the artillery surrounding the fort. Nevertheless, Lincoln, desperate to hold the fort, pressed the Fox plan on his Cabinet, which still voted 6-1 (Blair dissenting) to evacuate.
Lincoln, a strong-willed man, did not give up so easily and sent Fox to Charleston to scope out the situation. Fox, a New England patriot, did not quite trust Anderson, a Kentuckian intensely loyal to the Union but with Southern sympathies. Fox probably did not reveal his plan to Anderson, probably because of Anderson’s pessimism about the fort’s future. Fox returned to Washington, still convinced his plan could work. However, two "observers" Lincoln had sent to Charleston reported there was no Union sentiment in South Carolina and any attempt to resupply, let alone reinforce, Fort Sumter would touch off war. Lincoln called a formal Cabinet meeting, at which all (except Seward and the absent Cameron) now voted to resupply Fort Sumter. All, including Seward, favored resupplying Fort Pickens. Lincoln ordered Welles and Cameron to mount a relief expedition for Fort Sumter, ready to leave New York by April 6th. Seward hedged his now awkward position by telling the Commissioners that Gov. Pickens would be informed before any attempt to resupply Fort Sumter would be made. Then, on April Fool’s Day, Seward delivered one of the most bizarre communications ever sent to a President by his Secretary of State: he contended the Administration had neither a domestic nor a foreign policy. He urged the Federal policy to be changed from limiting slavery to saving the Union. To this end, Fort Sumter would be evacuated but Fort Pickens reinforced. The public would be diverted by war-like messages to Spain, France and even England not to interfere. "The President must carry out this policy or give it to some Cabinet member." He ended by stating "I neither seek to evade or assume responsibility." Lincoln, responding in writing, ignored talk of war with Europe, pointed out that the Administration’s domestic policy was set forth in the Inaugural Address, in which Seward had a hand, and that its foreign policy had been jointly drafted by Seward and Lincoln. He could not see how evacuating Fort Sumter could deemphasize the slavery issue while aiding Fort Pickens would shift the issue to preserving the Union. He finished with, "When policy is adopted, it is the President’s duty to see it executed and, in doing so, he is entitled to the advice of not one but all of his cabinet members." Thereafter Seward clearly knew who was President. Nevertheless, Seward tried one last ploy, urging Lincoln to induce Virginia to stay in the Union in exchange for the evacuation of Fort Sumter. Lincoln, desperate to avoid war, tried, saying "a State for a Fort is no bad business," but to no avail. No one was listening.
Now ensued a tragic bureaucratic Comedy of Errors. The next day, Seward introduced Army Captain Montgomery Meigs to Lincoln, who advised Lincoln that Fort Pickens could easily be reinforced at any time. Lincoln had twice orally ordered Scott to reinforce this fort, but somehow these orders were never executed. After Meigs’ visit, Lincoln sent written orders to Scott to reinforce Fort Pickens, but failed to advise Seward who had earlier drafted an order for the USS Powhatan, under Navy Lieutenant David D. Porter, to lead an expedition to Fort Pickens. This order, along with 26 other orders on Lincoln’s desk, was signed by Lincoln on April 1. Some time between April 1st and 4th, Lincoln also gave the Fox Fort Sumter plan the go-ahead. The Navy was to supply three warships, USS Pawnee, USS Pocahontas, USS Powhatan (!), a revenue cutter, USS Harriet Lane, three steam tugs and charter a fast liner, Baltic, to carry troops and supplies. After only a month in office, Lincoln had two naval expeditions heading south. The problem was that both depended on USS Powhatan for their main firepower. Lincoln had unknowingly ordered this ship, under Porter’s command, to Fort Pickens, while Welles had ordered it, under the command of Captain Samuel Mercer, to Fort Sumter! When Welles learned of the orders drafted by Seward and signed by Lincoln, he stormed into Lincoln’s office protesting vehemently the loss of USS Powhatan. Embarrassed, Lincoln directed Seward to order Porter to "stand down." Seward waited until the next afternoon to send Porter an order to "Give the Powhatan up to Mercer. Signed, Seward." Porter, ignored this order as it could not possibly supersede the earlier order signed by the President, and sailed for Fort Pickens. By the end of April, 1,000 troops occupied Fort Pickens, which remained in Federal control for the duration of the war.
Fox’s expedition also set sail, but under new and changed orders. No more stealth. Now Gov. Pickens would receive a curt note, signed by Cameron: "I am directed by the President of the United States to notify you to expect an attempt will be made to supply Fort Sumpter [sic] with provisions only; and that, if such attempt not be resisted, no effort to throw in men, arms or amunition [sic] will be made, without further notice, or in case of attack upon the Fort." If South Carolina used force to interfere with the resupply of provisions, the Federal Government would use force to resupply and reinforce the fort. Lincoln knew from his two "observers" that even a "peaceful" attempt to resupply starving men with bread would be met with force. He was in no doubt that civil war was inevitable, but he wanted the South to fire the first shot. He also knew he was not dealing with the Governor of South Carolina but with Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy, but at no time then or during the war would he recognize that such an entity existed. Nevertheless, there was a Confederacy. When Jefferson Davis received word of Cameron’s notice on April 9th, he assembled his Cabinet to decide on war or peace. Lincoln had put them in an impossible position – if they attacked, they would be blamed for bringing on civil war; if they exercised restraint, the symbol of Federal sovereignty would dominate and control one of their principal seaports, damaging their prestige at home and abroad and hurting their chances for recognition. There was only one dissenting vote. Secretary of State Toombs, who had been one of the foremost adherents of secession, saw Lincoln’s trap and prophetically said, "Mr. President, at this time it is suicide, murder, will lose us every friend at the North. You will wantonly strike a hornet’s nest which extends from mountain to ocean, and legions now quiet will swarm out and sting us to death; it is unnecessary; it puts us in the wrong; it is fatal." The next day, Beauregard was ordered to demand evacuation and if refused, to compel surrender. Anderson responded with a written refusal, but said to Beauregard’s aides, "Gentlemen, if you do not batter the fort to pieces about us, we shall be starved out in a few days." When Davis heard of this remark, Beauregard was authorized to wait if Anderson would state the time of his evacuation and agree not to fire without provocation. Otherwise, he was to "reduce the fort." Just after midnight on April 12th, Anderson responded, "I will evacuate Fort Sumter by noon on the 15th instant, should I not receive, prior to that time, controlling instructions from my Government, or additional supplies." Beauregard read the proviso (leaving Anderson free to use his guns to cooperate with the relief fleet that, so far as they knew, was about to arrive) as a total rejection. Beauregard informed Anderson the guns would open fire in one hour and at 4:30 A.M., April 12, 1861, the first shot of the Civil War was fired. Fox, aboard the liner Baltic, arrived at 3:00 A.M., April 12th, to find only the five-gun revenue cutter, Harriet Lane. Heavy storms had scattered his fleet. The steam tugs would never arrive. When USS Pawnee arrived at 6:00 A.M., its captain wanted to charge into Charleston Harbor with all guns blazing. Fox, still thinking USS Powhatan was coming, decided to wait until it arrived. When USS Pocahontas arrived and Fox learned he would not have USS Powhatan, that killed any chance of resupplying or reinforcing Fort Sumter. The shelling continued for 34 hours, at the end of which time, with its barracks burning, its powder magazine about to blow up, its ammunition all but exhausted and no hope of rescue, the fort surrendered on April 13th, the 40th day of Lincoln’s administration. On April 15th, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to suppress an "insurrection." Energized by the gallant defense of Fort Sumter, the very symbol of its sovereignty, the North responded with overwhelming patriotic fervor. Robert Tombs’ warning to Jefferson Davis proved true, though it took four bitter and bloody years for the nation, spread from ocean to ocean, to sting the Confederacy to death.
Monroe received a well-deserved round of applause for a well researched talk.
[Editor’s note: With apologies, Monroe’s detailed talk has been severely cut to fit the print newsletter.]
Last changed: 11/06/14