The President of the United States has requested my opinion, in writing, upon the following question:
"Assuming it to be possible to now provision Fort Sumter, under all the circumstances is it wise to attempt it?"
This is not a question of lawful right or physical power, but of prudence and patriotism only. The right is in my mind, unquestionable, and I have no doubt at all that the government has the power and the means not only to provision the fort, but also, if the exigency required, to man it with its war complement of 650 men, so as to make it impregnable to any local force that could be brought against it. Assuming all this, we come back to the question., "Under all the circumstances, is it wise" now to provision the fort?
The wisdom of the act must be tested by the value of the object to be gained, and by the hazards to be encountered in the enterprise. The object to be gained by the supply of provisions is not to strengthen the fortress so as to command the harbor and enforce the laws, but only to prolong the labors and privations of the brave little garrison that has so long held it with patient courage.
The possession of the fort, as we now hold it, does not enable us to collect the revenue or enforce the laws of commercial navigation. It may indeed involve a point of honor or a point of pride, but I do not see any great national interest involved in the bare fact of holding the fort as we now hold it -- and to hold it at all we must supply it with provisions and it seems to me that we may, in humanity and patriotism, safely waive the point of pride in the consciousness that we have the power, and lack nothing but the will, to hold Fort Sumter in such condition as to command the harbor of Charleston, cut off all its commerce, and even lay the city in ashes.
The hazards to be met are many and obvious. If the attempt be made in rapid boats, light enough to pass the bar in safety, still they must pass under the fire of Fort Moultrie and the batteries on Morris Island. They might possibly escape that danger, but they cannot hope to escape the armed guard-boats which ply all night from the port to the outer edge of the bar. These armed guard-boats would be sure to take or destroy our unarmed tugs, unless repelled by force, either from our ships outside the bar or from Fort Sumter within -- and that is war. True, war already exists by the act of South Carolina; but this government has thus far magnanimously forborne to retort the outrage. And I am willing to forbear yet longer, in the hope of a peaceful solution of our present difficulties. I am most unwilling to strike -- I will not say the first blow, for South Carolina has already struck that -- but I am unwilling, "under all the circumstances," at this moment 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; for I am convinced that flagrant civil war in the Southern States would soon become a social war, and that could hardly fail to bring on a servile war, the horrors of which need not be dwelt upon.
To avoid these evils I would make great sacrifices, and Fort Sumter is one; but if war be forced upon us by causeless and pertinacious rebellion, I am for resisting it with all the might of the nation.
I am persuaded, moreover, that in several of the misguided States a large proportion of the people are really lovers of the Union, and anxious to be safely back under the protection of its flag. A reaction has already begun, and if encouraged by wise, moderate, and firm measures on the part of this government, I persuade myself that the nation will be restored to its integrity without the effusion of blood.
For these reasons I am willing to evacuate Fort Sumter, rather than be an active party in the beginning of civil war. The port of Charleston is, comparatively, a small thing. If the present difficulties should continue and grow, I am convinced that the real struggle will be at the Mississippi; for it is not practically possible for any foreign power to hold the mouth of that river against the people of the middle and upper valley.
If Fort Sumter must be evacuated, then it is my decided opinion that the more southern forts, Pickens, Key West, etc., should, without delay, be put in condition of easy defense against all assailants; and that the whole coast, from South Carolina to Texas, should be as well guarded as the power of the navy will enable us.
Upon the whole, I do not think it wise now to attempt to provision Fort Sumter.
Most respectfully submitted,
Your obedient servant,
EDWD. BATES, Attorney-General
Bibliography: Lincoln, Works, eds. Nicolay and Hay, 6: 217-220.