Thursday, March 24, 2011

Sesquicentennial, Part XII: Two Presidents


Abraham Lincoln was now President of a truncated United States, and probably wondering why he ever wanted the job in the first place. Initially, Lincoln had decided to deal with secession by pretending that it was essentially irrelevant. But that wouldn't hold water for long.

In his inaugural address, he tried to assuage fears of precipitous action by stating as plainly as possible that he had every intention of enforcing the laws as written, and no intention of interfering with the institution of slavery. As odious as he personally found it, that was a can of worms he didn't want to open straight away. And he promised that there would be no use of force in the South ... but at the same time, he said that the Federal government would "hold, occupy, and possess the property and places" to which the Federal government held clear title.

The half-ton gorilla that had been sitting patiently in the parlor, that the Southern gentlemen had studiously ignored during their secession deliberations, was now displayed in full view for everyone to see. This had been the main point of contention ever since Major Anderson pulled stakes at Fort Moultrie and relocated to the more defensible Fort Sumter, out in Charleston's harbor. The Southern states were making a claim to political independence, but at the same time, they had to deal with the fact that, contractually and legally, the Federal government owned substantial properties within their claimed jurisdiction. They could never be truly "free" until those rights of ownership had been properly addressed.

Jefferson Davis knew this. From the very first, he had authorized commissioners to go to Washington to negotiate with the Federal government. Their goal was to barter for an acceptable price that the Southern states could pay that would satisfy the Federals, and allow them to depart in peace. Buchanan had listened politely, but made no commitment one way or the other. In this case, his inaction was justified. He felt that he had no right to make any decision at this point that would bind his successor to a policy he might not agree with. When the Presidency was handed over on March 4th, the Lincoln White House wouldn't even recognize them in any way. Their letters were met with a stony silence.

Lincoln was operating under the assumption that Major Anderson at Fort Sumter had laid in a sufficient store of supplies to last a prolonged siege. Perhaps he thought that the January mission had been successful. This was a major flaw in the Presidential transitions of the time: there was no official contact between the outgoing and incoming Presidents on matters of policy. Buchanan's people weren't on speaking terms with Lincoln's, and virtually nothing was passed down. It wasn't until after Lincoln had delivered his address that he learned about Fort Sumter's actual supply situation, which was pretty grim.

April 15, 1861. That was the date on which the supplies at Fort Sumter would run out. Beyond that date, Major Anderson could no longer feed his men. If they were not resupplied by that date, they would be forced to surrender the garrison shortly thereafter, or starve. Once again, the thoughts turned to a resupply mission.

General Scott was against the idea, even though the first resupply mission was undertaken at his urging. He knew who had taken command of the Southern forces massing against Fort Sumter, a Louisiana-born officer named P.G.T. Beauregard. Ironically, Beauregard's instructor at West Point had been Robert Anderson, who was commanding the Union garrison on which Beauregard's guns were trained. And Beauregard was an outstanding student. He was, in fact, probably the best military engineer that the Confederacy had.

Once again, this points out a fact that I had mentioned earlier: not having an entrenched Army bureaucracy, the Confederacy could immediately assign its best men to the most crucial assignments. They needed a crackerjack artilleryman commanding the works squaring off against Fort Sumter, not some buffoon who scarcely knew which was the business end of a cannon. And they had one in Beauregard. President Davis sent him to Charleston straight away, with a General's commission, to take command of the harbor's defense.

Scott knew this, and knew that Beauregard had been drilling his men for months now, waiting for the exact kind of operation Lincoln was now contemplating. The moment Beauregard's men spotted them, they'd blast ten kinds of Hell out of any Union resuppliers. On the other hand, Gustavus Fox, one of Lincoln's new advisors and an old, experienced Navy man, was certain he could slip into the harbor unnoticed, and resupply the garrison by night without Beauregard being any the wiser. Lincoln approved this plan, and Fox began assembling the men and supplies he would need for the expedition. His ships would stand to sea by April 9th, and should arrive with several days to spare.

Meanwhile, all eyes were on Charleston. Major Anderson watched the Confederate guns, and his own dwindling supplies. General Beauregard watched Fort Sumter, and the seaward horizon for any sign of Union ships. Everyone else watched, and listened ... for the bark of the guns couldn't be far away now.

The fort's fate would be decided, one way or the other, in a few weeks.

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