-- Final Orders --


April 6, 1861

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Commentary: The Significance of April 6

Lincoln's decisions on April 6 are as controversial as those of April 4, and for similar reasons. Were Lincoln's actions on April 6 the final and conclusive ones, or merely a follow-up to those he had made two days earlier? Further, were Lincoln's actions on April 6, determined by the news he received about the failure to reinforce Fort Pickens? And, finally, was Lincoln motivated by a deep desire to avoid conflict?

For David M. Potter, Lincoln's actions on April 6 were the decisive ones, and were determined by the information he received that day about Fort Pickens. According to Potter, Lincoln was doing all he could to preserve peace. Although he had, on April 4, authorized the Sumter expedition to set sail, and sent word to Anderson that a relief expedition was coming, he had not taken the "crucial" step of informing the governor of South Carolina that the Sumter expedition was underway. Significantly, Lincoln did not take this final, "irrevocable step" until after he received word that Fort Pickens remained unsecured. With Pickens no longer an incontrovertable symbol of the government's resolve to uphold its sovereignty, the mission t o Sumter became crucial.

Further, until April 6, Lincoln still could have countermanded the Sumter expedition, since its ships did not actually depart for Charleston until two days later, April 8. But the news from Pickens compelled Lincoln to take "the decisive step" of sending word to Charleston. In Potter's words, the Sumter expedition "was withheld until the fort was almost starved out, and it was withheld because Lincoln still hoped that he could transfer the issue of Union to Fort Pickens before the Sumter question reached a crisis. Even beyond the point of safety, Lincoln had delayed, hoping that a display of Federal authority elsewhere would enable him to evacuate Fort Sumter."

Potter's view of the importance of April 6 is supported by many authorities. James Ford Rhodes's authoritative history of the period agrees that while Lincoln had "virtually decided" on April 4 to send the Sumter expedition, "he reserved in his mind the privilege of countermanding it or changing its destination, should he hear that his former order touching Fort Pickens had been executed." Lincoln's former private secretaries, Nicolay and Hay, in their account of the Sumter crisis also judge the news from Pickens as making the Sumter expedition "doubly important."

Lincoln himself seemed to justify the Sumter mission in these terms. In his official account of his actions during this period, offered in a Special Session Message to Congress on July 4, 1861, Lincoln claimed that he had learned it would be impossible to reinforce Pickens before a crisis would be reached at Sumter. A mission to relieve Sumter having been readied for some days, "the strongest anticipated case for using it was now presented, and it was resolved to send it forward."

However, both Richard N. Current and Kenneth M. Stampp present a different picture. Current, for example, identifies the key decision making day as April 4, when Lincoln arranged the details of the Sumter expedition with Fox, and also mailed a message to Anderson notifying him of the mission and urging him to hold out until the fleet arrived. On April 6, Lincoln merely followed through on his plan by informing the governor of South Carolina. He also sent by messenger another copy of his instructions to Anderson in case the previous mail failed.

As for the situation at Fort Pickens, Current asserts that Lincoln had long expected that the fort had not been provisioned; the notification he received on April 6 was, therefore, not unexpected. The news had no discernible effect on Lincoln except that he dispatched a messenger to Pensacola with new, properly signed orders. Meanwhile, the relief expeditions to the two forts proceeded according to schedule.

Finally, Current maintains that Lincoln's own explanation, which connected the news from Pickens with the Sumter expedition, was either a failure of memory or an attempt to assure northerners that he had taken the fateful step of relieving Sumter only after exhausting all other alternatives. In fact, Current notes, the idea of linking the fate of Pickens to the Sumter expedition was secretary Seward's, not Lincoln's. There was no reason to consider Pickens as significantly less explosive than Sumter. The principles involved were identical, and the military situation similar. Regardless of what happened at Sumter, a crisis would soon have arrived at Pickens. In short, there was no reason to hinge policy at Sumter on events at Pickens.

Stampp essentially concurs with Current's points. He adds that there is no evidence that Lincoln's policy ever inextricably conjoined the fate of the two forts. On both occasions, March 15 and March 29, when he polled his cabinet about the Sumter situation, Lincoln never mentioned Fort Pickens as a consideration. Further, Stampp contends that even on April 6, Lincoln still had time to reinforce Pickens before Sumter would have to be abandoned. The messenger to Pensacola arrived in sufficient time to commence the reinforcement of that fort before the Sumter relief expedition arrived at Charleston. Thus, the news from Pickens on April 6, was not decisive to sending the Sumter mission because Lincoln had treated the two forts as separate problems.

There is no conclusive evidence that supports either interpretation. Each has strengths and weaknesses. Potter, for example, too readily discounts the significant actions taken by Lincoln on April 4, and probably exaggerates Lincoln's ability to countermand the expedition he had authorized. Given the numerous foul-ups that had already happened -- not least of which was the failure, learned that very day, of the navy officer at Pensacola to follow orders and reinforce Pickens -- Lincoln could not be assured that he could abort the Sumter mission at the last minute.

On the other hand, Current and Stampp do not sufficiently weigh the evidence that Lincoln always showed a greater hesitancy in dealing with Fort Sumter than with Fort Pickens. He took one incremental step at a time regarding Sumter, never locking himself into an irreversible commitment. Lincoln's caution may have had less to do with events at Pickens than with military and political considerations posed by Sumter. There was, for example, considerable uncertainty whether Anderson's garrison could hold out before a relief expedition arrived, as compared to the relative security of the troops at Fort Pickens. Regardless of the reasons for his wariness, Lincoln may well have seen his actions of April 4 as revocable should circumstances, such as an attack against the fort, warrant. The news he received on April 6 concerning the failure to reinforce Pickens may, therefore, have made the case to send the mission to Sumter even more conclusive. The situation at Pickens, in short, may have been influential, though not decisive.

(Click here for full text of Special Session Message)

Bibliography: Potter, Lincoln and His Party, pp. xxvi-xxvii, xxxi, 362-63, 373; Rhodes, History, 3: 345; Nicolay and Hay, Lincoln, 4: 8; Lincoln, Works, eds. Nicolay and Hay, 6: 302; Current, Lincoln and the First Shot, pp. 196-99, 223; Stampp, And the War Came, pp. 282-84; Stampp, Imperiled Union, pp. 177-79.

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