-- Final Orders --

Tuesday April 2, 1861

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Commentary: Seward's Desperate Gambit

As it became evident that Lincoln was going forward with an expedition to relieve Fort Sumter, Seward resorted to more and more desperate measures. He was instrumental in organizing the new mission to Fort Pickens, and issuing the orders for Lincoln to sign. Seward probably would have preferred abandoning both Pickens and Sumter, but given Lincoln's resistance, he apparently hoped that the Pickens project might substitute for the Sumter one. The Sumter expedition would, somehow, be abandoned or delayed, and the government would uphold its honor at a site more remote and less explosive.

Seward's desire to sacrifice Sumter was nothing new. He had long felt that letting Sumter go was the best means of averting civil war, holding the upper South in the Union, and providing grounds for a peaceable and voluntary reconstruction of the Union. If a stand must be taken to maintain the principle of Union against secession, it should be done at Pickens, away from the charged atmosphere of South Carolina, and where reinforcement could be undertaken with little risk of a military engagement.

As for Seward's bold challenge to Lincoln's leadership and his wild-sounding diplomatic initiative, a number of historians have explained that they were founded on assumptions that seemed reasonable to Seward and were largely consistent with his previous behavior. Seward had always assumed that he was the most experienced, able, and prominent member of the administration, including Lincoln. Moreover, his claim that Lincoln had no discernible policy was seconded by many northerners of all political persuasions who viewed Lincoln's deliberateness during his first month in office as a sign of weakness and ineptitude.

Finally, his foreign policy suggestions, which appeared to advocate a foreign war in order to reunite Americans, may have been based on a realistic assessment of sectional self-interest. Allan Nevins argues that Seward hoped the South might prove willing to join in a war against Spain rather than risk seeing Cuba drawn into the orbit of the free-soil North.

In short, while it is easy to think of Seward's memorandum as a product of April Fools' Day silliness, its ideas had some intellectual legitimacy. He was driven by a desperate desire to avoid war and restore the Union, to show power against European countries who might otherwise recognize the Confederacy, and to demonstrate dramatically that the administration had the upper hand in dealing with the rebellion. Had Seward's project lacked these defensible elements, it is hard to imagine how he could have retained, as he did, Lincoln's trust.

Yet however comprehensible Seward's reasoning, his memorandum shows the New Yorker's ambitiousness, his failure to appreciate Lincoln's own political skills, and his woeful miscalculation of the forces behind secession. As Nevins comments, Seward's efforts to avoid a confrontation contained elements of deviousness and duplicity, whether it was in his indirect negotiations with the Confederate commissioners, his likely encouragement of General Scott's advice to abandon both Sumter and Pickens, and his agency in the planning for a new Pickens expedition. It is unlikely, however, that his intriguing actually misled Lincoln. The President clearly knew his secretary's leanings, and he may have found that Seward's machinations served a useful political purpose without compromising his own freedom to act.

Bibliography: Nicolay and Hay, Lincoln, 3: 443-49; Current, Lincoln and the First Shot, pp. 88-92; Nevins, War for the Union, 1: 58-64; Potter, Lincoln and His Party, pp. 367-71; Van Deusen, Seward, pp. 280-87.

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