Lincoln chose to ignore the advice of the most prescient Cabinet members who could foresee where his aggressive and warlike actions would take him. The inexperienced new president had seen the result of Buchanan’s provocative Star of the West expedition to Sumter in early January 1861, but still rushed headlong into a collision and bloody war which followed. It should also be noted that Southern Unionists who opposed secession were looking to Lincoln for a peaceful settlement of the crisis, and pleaded with him to evacuate Sumter and let time cool the debate.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com
The Mine Laid at Washington
On the 15th of March, 1861, President Lincoln submitted the following request in writing to each member of his Cabinet:
“My Dear Sir, Assuming it to be possible to now provision Fort Sumter, under all the circumstances is it wise to attempt it? Please give your opinion in writing on this question.”
Secretary Cameron wrote that he would advise such an attempt if he “did not believe the attempt to carry it into effect would initiate a bloody and protracted conflict.”
Secretary Welles wrote:
“By sending or attempting to send provisions into Fort Sumter, will not war be precipitated? It may well be impossible to escape it under any course of policy that may be pursued, but I am not prepared to advise a course that would provoke hostilities . . . I do not, therefore, under all the circumstances, think it wise to provision Fort Sumter.”
Secretary Smith wrote:
“The commencement of civil war would be a calamity greatly to be deplored and should be avoided if the just authority of the Government may be maintained without it. If such a conflict should become inevitable, it is much better that it should commence by the resistance of the authorities or people of South Carolina to the legal action of the Government in enforcing the laws of the United States . . . in my opinion it would not be wise, under all the circumstances, to attempt to provision Fort Sumter.”
Attorney General Bates wrote:
“I am unwilling, under all circumstances . . . to do any act which may have the semblance before the world of beginning a civil war, the terrible consequences of which would, I think, find no parallel in modern times . . . upon the whole I do not think it wise now to provision Fort Sumter.”
Postmaster-General Blair and Secretary Chase united in the opinion that it would be wise to make the effort to provision Fort Sumter.
[Secretary Salmon P. Chase] then proceeded to declare that, if such a step would produce civil war, he could not advise in its favor, but that, in his opinion, such a result was highly improbable, especially if accompanied by a proclamation from the President, reiterating the sentiments of his inaugural address. “I, therefore,” concluded Secretary Chase, “return an affirmative answer to the question submitted to me.”
It will be seen . . . that five of the seven members of the Cabinet concurred in the opinion that no attempt should be made to provision or reinforce Fort Sumter, and that such an attempt would in all probability precipitate civil war.
As Mr. Seward expressed it, “We will have inaugurated a civil war by our own act without an adequate object”; or, in the language of Secretary Welles, “By sending or attempting to send provisions into Fort Sumter, will not war be precipitated?” . . . I am not prepared to advise a course that would provoke hostilities.”
If such were the opinions of leading members of President Lincoln’s Cabinet, expressed in confidential communications to their chief, as to the character of the proposed action, can it be deemed unreasonable that the people of Virginia held similar views?
Fourteen days later, the President made a verbal request to his Cabinet for an additional expression of their views on the same subject. Seward and Smith adhered to their former opinions. Chase and Blair were joined by Welles. Bates was noncommittal, and no reply was made by Cameron, so far as records show.
In the light of the facts and arguments presented by the members of the President’s Cabinet, men, not a few, will conclude that, if the explosion occurred at Fort Sumter, the mine was laid at Washington.”
(Virginia’s Attitude Toward Secession, Beverley B. Munford, L.H. Jenkins, Richmond Virginia, 1909, excerpts, pp. 285-289)