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The Sunken Fact: Lincoln Instigated the War.

  A Trial Lawyer's Notebook
Welles's Story of Fort Sumter
Collected Works of Lincoln


Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her 2005 biography of Abraham Lincoln, Team of Rivals, gives the standard story that has been told by history teachers to students, for generations. In between informing us what Lincoln ate for breakfast, how well he slept at night, and how often he exercised, Goodwin lays down the story that Lincoln bungled his plan to reinforce Fort Sumter with troops, ammunition and provisions. In her brief reference that leaves it a mystery what Lincoln’s actual plan was, Goodwin writes, “Lincoln had failed to peruse the orders carefully and inadvertently assigned the Powhatan (a 2,000 ton side wheel steamer carrying 20 guns) simultaneously to (both expeditions planned for) [forts] Pickens and Sumter."[1] Goodwin supports her conclusion by claiming “it was not unusual for Lincoln to sign documents from Seward without reading them." (See, Team of Rivals at pp. 340-346)


Goodwin dismisses the contrary assertion that Lincoln didn’t bungle anything, that he had caused the expedition to Sumter to be carried out just as he had intended. “Critics" she writes,[2] “later claimed that Lincoln had maneuvered the South into beginning the war. In fact, he had simply followed his inaugural pledge that he would `hold’ the properties belonging to the government, `but beyond what may be necessary’ to accomplish this, `there will be no invasion—no using force.’ . . . Had Lincoln chosen to abandon the fort, he would have violated his pledge to the north. Had he used force in any way other than to `hold’ government properties, he would have breached his promise to the South."


Historian Goodwin’s invocation of Lincoln’s first Inaugural Address as her factual basis for her claim that the Sumter expedition was “bungled" by Lincoln’s failing to read orders, is a classic example of glossing over the textual meaning of words.


Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address


The apparent final text of Lincoln’s address is reproduced by the editors of Rutgers University Press, in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln ((1936). Goodwin’s quotation from the address, in which she mixes her own words, hardly amounts to a “pledge", so much as an explicit threat that Lincoln intended to hold Fort Sumter with military force! The actual text reads this way:


I therefore consider that. . . the Union is unbroken (Lincoln is refusing to recognize the Confederacy); and. . . I shall take care that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the States. Doing this I deem [a] simple duty on my part; and I shall perform it. . . unless my rightful masters, the American people, shall withhold the requisite means, or, in some authoritative manner, direct the contrary. I trust this will not be regarded as a menace (of course it was), but only as the declared purpose of the Union that it will constitutionally defend, and maintain itself. (italics in original)


In doing this there needs to be no bloodshed or violence; and there shall be none, unless it be forced upon [me]. The power confided in me, will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property, and places belonging to the government. . . ; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion—no using of force against, or among the people anywhere." (Vol IV, at pp. 265-266.) (italics added; It is for the reader to decide how accurate is Goodwin’s interpretation of Lincoln’s meaning .)


The Fort Pickens Expedition



Lincoln had made himself absolutely clear in his inaugural address that he would marshal the military forces of the Union to “hold" the forts situated at Pensacola and Charleston. But was it practical that this could be done? As for Fort Pickens the answer was plainly “yes." Fort Pickens is located at the tip of a long spit of land called Santa Rosa Island. Since January 1861, Captain Israel Vogdes, of the U.S. Army, was on board the Navy war ship, U.S.S. Brooklyn, off Pensacola Harbor. The U.S.S Brooklyn was the flag ship of a fleet of naval warships on station in the Gulf of Mexico.[3] Vodges had on board with him a regiment of soldiers, ready to go ashore Santa Rosa Island and reinforce the fort. But the Buchanan administration had recognized an armistice with the Confederate forces. Notwithstanding this, by March 1861, Vodges had gone ashore with his troops and assumed command of the garrison.




According to E.D. Keyes, at the time military secretary to the general-in-chief, Winfield Scott, the morning of Easter Sunday, March 31, 1861, General Scott handed him a map of Pensacola Harbor and told him to take it to William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State. Upon Keyes arriving at Seward’s home, Seward told him to go find Captain Montgomery C. Meigs, an army engineer who was in Washington as the supervisor of the construction of the Capital dome. When Keyes returned with Meigs to Seward’s home, Seward told them “to make a plan to reinforce Fort Pickins." (See, E.D. Keyes, Fifty Years Observation of Men and Events Charles Scribner’s Sons (1884).)


Keyes and Meigs, together, then went to the War Department, pulled maps, and calculated the tonnage of supplies needed, the amount of cannon and ammunition, and troops, with sustenance supplies, necessary, in their view, to sustain the Fort Pickens garrison for a period of six months. Their plans formed, the two army officers appeared at the White House at 3:00 p.m. and met with Seward and Lincoln. They presented their plan to Lincoln, who said, according to Keyes, when they were done—“See General Scott, and carry your plans into execution without delay."


Upon leaving the White House, Keyes says he went to General Scott and dined with him. Scott was not happy that his secretary had gone to the White House and assumed a position as organizer of the Pickens expedition without his permission; but he acquiesced.


On Monday morning, April 1, Meigs and Keyes continued their work, selecting as the expedition’s commander, Colonel Harvey Brown of the Artillery, and they drew up written instructions for him. This writing was reviewed by Seward. Keyes then showed it to Scott, who signed his name to it without comment. The instructions make reference to naval vessels, but is silent as to the participation of the Navy’s warship, Powhatan. The instructions read in relevant part:


You will proceed to New York, where steam transportation for four companies will be engaged, and putting on board such supplies as you can ship without delay, proceed at once to your destination.

. . .

Captain Meigs will accompany you as engineer. . . The naval officers in the Gulf will be instructed to cooperate with you, and to afford every facility in their power for the accomplishment of the object of the expedition. . .

. . .

Lt. Col. Keyes will be authorized to give all necessary orders and to call upon staff for every requisite material and for transportation. . . “


Keyes claimed, in his book, that he drafted an order for himself which he presented to Scott for signature, but Scott told him to take it to Lincoln. The text as printed by Keyes follows, but it appears that no authentic copy of this order exists in the record.


Lt. Col. E.D. Keyes Executive Mansion

April 3, 1861


You will proceed forthwith to the city of New York to carry out the instructions which you have received here. All requisitions made upon officers of the staff by your authority, and all orders given by you to any officer of the Army in my name, will be instantly obeyed. (italics added.)


Abraham Lincoln



With Lincoln’s order in hand, Keyes says he left Washington by the night train of April 3, for New York. He says that Meigs accompanied him, and, for the first time, he mentions the name of Lt. David D. Porter, a naval officer and puts Porter on the train with him. At Philadelphia, a change of train was necessary and Keyes chose to remain in Philadelphia for the night, Meigs and Porter going on alone.


Keyes arrived in New York the morning of April 4 and immediately began issuing requisitions for supplies upon the various departments of the Army. At the same time he leased the services of the transports, Atlantic, Illinois, and Philadelphia. Two days later, on Saturday, April 6, Meigs and Col. Brown went on board the Atlantic and steamed into the sea for the passage to Pensacola. The Illinois followed on Monday, April 8. Thus, the Fort Pickens expedition was carried out without incident: all the transport ships arrived and, under cover of the Gulf fleet, the troops, artillery, and provisions were uneventfully off-loaded on Santa Rosa Island and, without a shot fired, reinforced the fort. Five months later, the Confederates attempted to storm the fort but were driven off


In his narrative, Keyes raises the issue of the Powhatan indirectly. He claims he sent the text of the following message to Seward, on Tuesday, April 7th. Given the timing of events and the known circumstances of the case, Keyes’s letter makes little sense. Here it is:


Dear Sir: Captain Meigs received a telegram to stop a certain vessel. Fortunately it came too late. . .


Coming on (the train ride?) I told Porter, of the Navy, that the placing of one or two vessels in a certain place at a certain time, would make the game certain—without, the loss will be certain. . . ."


Apparently, Seward made no reply to this, although Seward eventually instructed Keyes to stop writing him and return to his chain of command. Keyes attempted to return to Scott, but Scott terminated his services as military secretary. Eventually, Lincoln appointed Keyes a major-general in command of a corps in the Army of the Potomac. Lincoln appointed Meigs the Army’s Quartermaster General. As for the barely mentioned naval officer, D.D. Porter, Lincoln appointed him an admiral.


The Fort Sumter Expedition


Unlike the straightforward story Keyes tells about the organization and execution of the Pickens expedition, the story the historians tell about Sumter is full of confusion. But when the record is broken down into its separate parts and each part examined in light of the known circumstances, it becomes reasonably clear what happened to derail the Sumter expedition—Lincoln, the sly country lawyer, tricked the Confederate government into believing that he intended to use naval warships to invade the harbor. The hook for Lincoln’s trick was the U.S.S. Powhatan.


By April 1861, the problem for Abraham Lincoln was how to incite the Northern people (made up of millions of Democrats) to respond to his extra-legal call for volunteers, to form an army to invade the South. (“I deem the Union unbroken," he had said; “I shall hold the forts," he had said, and I shall do it, he said, “unless. . . the American people shall withhold the requisite means." The bodies, money, and material war requires, he means.)


When Lincoln came into office on March 4, 1861, he knew it was impossible for him to hold Fort Sumter. According to his general-in-chief, Winfield Scott, an army of twenty thousand men would be required. The force would land on Morris Island where it would have to fight battles to maintain itself in proximity to the fort which rested on a man-made shoal in the middle of the harbor. But Lincoln had no such army available to him; it was as simple as that.


Relying on the U.S. Navy to penetrate Charleston Harbor and reinforce Fort Sumter was also impossible. The feat might have been accomplished four months earlier, while Buchanan was still president, but now, in April 1861, the Confederates had built a substantial array of batteries on all points of land surrounding Fort Sumter and had battery platforms on the waters ringing the fort. No navy ship of the line could expect to survive the artillery storm that would fall on it as it came across the bar and entered the harbor. In addition, fire ships would most certainly be sailed down upon it and there would be booms of barriers across the mouth of the harbor blocking entrance.


Recognizing the Military Reality, Lincoln Creates a Scheme


During Buchanan’s last days in office, the son-in-law of Montgomery Blair, Gustavas V. Fox, had approached Buchanan’s cabinet with a paper plan to effect the reinforcement of Fort Sumter. The plan called for steamships to carry troops, munitions and sustenance supplies down to Charleston. The steamers would also carry whale boats. Tugboats would follow the steamers and naval war ships would also be present to provide covering fire. Once all these vessels were collected outside the harbor mouth, at night, and with the tide, the soldiers would occupy the whaleboats, and the tugboats would tow strings of them into the harbor and around to the fort’s wharf, where the soldiers would disembark and enter the fort.


This plan was rejected by Buchanan. Instead a single civilian steamer was sent, with notice given to the Confederates that the ship carried food supplies only. The steamer—The Star of the West—did enter the harbor, but was forced to make a U-turn under heavy fire from the shore batteries and the danger of fire ships crashing into it. Given the military facts of the situation, no reasonable person standing in Lincoln’s shoes, in April 1861, could have entertained intelligently, the idea of adopting Fox’s plan for use against South Carolina.


Most importantly, Lincoln knew that if he actually executed Fox’s plan, then his government would be viewed, both domestically and internationally, as the military aggressor, the attacker, and South Carolina would be viewed as the defender of its sovereign territory.


Such a perception certainly would not have had the effect Lincoln needed; if he was to get his hands on “the requisite means" of waging war, he first needed to change political opinion one hundred and eighty degrees from the view taken by Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune (a main stay radical Republican) that there was no point in the Union pinning the South to it by the bayonet! That was exactly what Lincoln, from his inauguration day, meant to do: Pin the South to the Union with the bayonet. Can Ms. Goodwin deny this was Lincoln’s original intent? Can any rational person who reads the record deny this?


Lincoln’s secretary of the navy, Gideon Welles, in his posthumously published book—The Diary of Gideon Welles[4]—states the political climate of the time correctly: “Neither party (Republican or Democrat) appeared to be apprehensive of or to realize the gathering storm. There was a general belief, indulged in by most persons, that an adjustment would in some way be brought about, without any extensive resort to extreme measures. . . the great body of the people. . . were incredulous as to any extensive, serious disturbance."


How, in riling the country to war, was Lincoln to turn on its head the perception that he was the aggressor? How to make it seem that South Carolina was the aggressor and that Lincoln’s government was merely defending itself from such aggression. How, in other words, to provoke South Carolina into bombarding the fort without, apparently, any provocation?


No sooner had Lincoln assumed the executive office but he was off and running with a plan to do this. He accomplished the plan by creating the appearance, in the minds of the Confederates, that he had issued orders that circumstances confirmed were being carried out, to send U.S. Naval warships to Charlestown, to force an entrance into the harbor.


Charleston Harbor 1861





The Political Situation


On March 5, 1861, commissioners from the Confederate government arrived in Washington and began communicating with William Seward, the Secretary of State. They were there to negotiate with Lincoln, the idea being to establish a treaty between the Union and the Confederacy. In the course of these communications they pressed for the garrisons be evacuated from forts Pickens and Sumter. Lincoln refused to meet with them, but allowed Seward to string them along through the month of March and into early April. Seward’s several messages promised that eventually he would persuade Lincoln to order the evacuations.

According to Gideon Welles’s account, on March 6, two days after Lincoln’s inauguration, Welles was informed by General Scott, of “the formidable obstacles which were to be encountered from the numerous and well-manned batteries that were erected in Charleston Harbor. Any successful attempt to reinforce or relieve the garrison by sea Scott supposed impractical."


The next day, Welles and Scott met with Lincoln at the White House and Scott repeated his opinion. According to Welles’s story, the “President. . . was adverse to any offensive measures . . . to forbear giving offense." Lincoln at this meeting ordered Scott to prepare a position statement on Sumter and report back.


Lincoln Plays It Close To The Vest.


At this point, Welles relates, Lincoln established the practice of not inviting all cabinet members to meetings. Between March 4 and April 6, 1861, Lincoln held the ribbons leading to each minister in his hands, but each minister was in the dark regarding what was happening in the departments of the other ministers. In other words, he kept the right hand from knowing what the left hand was doing. Only William Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state, seemed to be in Lincoln’s total confidence although, from the evidence, that is far from certain. As Welles stated it, “The Secretary of State was apprised of every meeting. . . The President had only to send word to the State Department (Seward) at any time, day or night, when he wanted to call his cabinet together, or any portion of them

. . . “


In the middle of March, at Lincoln’s direction, G. V. Fox went to Sumter to confer with Major Anderson commanding the garrison. Anderson told Fox, forcing a way in to the harbor was not practical. But when Fox returned, Welles states, “The President accepted the services of Fox. . . , the object being the relief of the garrison and the supplies and troops for reinforcement being from the army, the expedition was a military one and not a naval one, but with naval aid and cooperation." Welles’s statement, here, is contradicted by Welles: “Any successful attempt to reinforce [Fort Sumter] by sea [Scott] supposed impractical. . . The question was, however, one for naval authorities to decide, for the army could do nothing." (italics added; see p. 4.)


Welles tells us his understanding of Fox’s plan. “The transports which the War Department was to charter were to rendezvous off Charleston with naval (war) vessels. . . The steam frigate Powhatan. . . had just arrived (at Brooklyn Naval Yard), and the crew discharged the day before the final decision of the President was communicated. Dispatches were sent. . . directing that the Powhatan be fitted without delay for service. The Pawnee, Pocahontas, and the Harriet Lane, were ordered (by Welles) to be in readiness for sea service on or before April 6. These orders were given on March 30th." (The Harriet Lane was at the Washington Naval Yard, the Pawnee and Pocahontas were at Norfolk Naval Yard.)


Welles, as the “naval authority," had first called upon Commander Ward and Commodore Stringham to take command of the expedition to Sumter. According to Welles, both naval officers (of high rank) “were confident that the Navy could reinforce the garrison." But in interviews with Scott “Commander Ward became less confident and was finally convinced that relief was impracticable." “Commodore Stringham came ultimately but reluctantly to the same conclusion." (Diary at pp. 8-9.) It was at this point, when Lincoln realized that senior naval officers were not willing to recommend the expedition that he sent G.V. Fox, who had formally been, but was not then, a naval officer down to Charleston

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