Draft of Abraham Lincoln's instructions to Maj. Robert Anderson in
command at Fort Sumter, Charleston, South
Carolina, 4 April 1861.
(Abraham Lincoln Papers)
by John R. Sellers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress
March 1861, shortly after delivering his first inaugural address, President Abraham
Lincoln (1809-1865) received word that Fort Sumter, located in Charleston harbor, South
Carolina, would have to be resupplied sometime in the next six weeks. The alternatives
were surrender or evacuation.
The situation placed Lincoln in a quandary. In his recent address, the
president had vowed to retain all federal property, avoiding bloodshed if possible;
however, he was being overwhelmed by the pace of events. He had only a vague idea of how
the central government worked, and not one member of his cabinet had been confirmed by the
Senate. It was a confusing state of affairs, and nearly four weeks passed before he sent
to Maj. Robert Anderson (1805-1871), commander of the Fort Sumter garrison, the meager
assurance of support shown here in this 4 April 1861 document, which went out under the
aegis of Secretary of War Simon Cameron (1799-1889).
Even then, several of Lincoln's closest advisors favored inaction. Complicating matters
was Lincoln's decision to notify South Carolina governor Francis W. Pickens (1805-1869) of
an impending expedition to provision the fort, an action that Lincoln said would not
involve bringing any additional men or arms into the garrison. The state's secession
government feared a ruse, and Lincoln's message to Pickens undermined any advantage of
surprise the federal forces may have had. On 11 April, South Carolina requested Maj.
Anderson's surrender, which he refused to do, and on 12 April, as the relief fleet neared,
Confederate general G. T. Beauregard (1818-1893) opened fire on the fort. The next day,
the fort surrendered and the nation was at war.
Lincoln later took the position that he had maneuvered the Confederates
into attacking Sumter, which allowed him to label them as traitors and aggressors. As he
explained to Orville Hickman Browning (1806-1881), a longtime friend and political
advisor: "They attacked Sumter--it fell, and thus, did more service than it otherwise
could."(1) But Lincoln spoke defensively and from
1. Abraham Lincoln as quoted by Orville Hickman Browning in The Diary of Orville Hickman
Browning, ed. Theodore
Calvin Pease and James G. Randall (Springfield, Illinois: Illinois Historical Society),