WAR DEPARTMENT, March 16, 1861.
Sir: In reply to the letter of inquiry, addressed to me by the President, whether, "assuming it to be possible now to provision Fort Sumter, under all the. circumstances is it wise to attempt it?" I beg leave to say that it has received the careful consideration, in the limited time I could bestow upon it, which its very grave importance demands, and that my mind has been most reluctantly forced to the conclusion that it would be unwise now to make such an attempt.
In coming to. this conclusion, I am free to say I am greatly influenced by the opinions of the army officers who have expressed themselves on the subject, and who seem to concur that it is, perhaps, now impossible to succor that fort substantially, if at all, without capturing, by means of a large expedition of ships of war and troops, all the opposing batteries of South Carolina. All the officers within Fort Sumter, together with Generals Scott and Totten, express this opinion, and it would seem to me that the President would not be justified to disregard such high authority without overruling considerations of public policy.
Major Anderson, in his report of the 28th ultimo, says: "I confess that I would not be willing to risk my reputation on an attempt to throw reinforcements into this harbor within the time for our relief, rendered necessary by the limited supply of our provisions, and with a view of holding possession of the same, with a force of less than twenty thousand good and well-disciplined men."
In this opinion Major Anderson is substantially sustained by the reports of all the other officers within the fort, one of whom, Captain Seymour, speaks thus emphatically on the subject: "It is not more than possible to supply this fort by ruse with a few men or a small amount of provisions, such is the unceasing vigilance employed to prevent it. To do so openly by vessels alone, unless they are shot-proof, is virtually impossible, so numerous and powerful are the opposing batteries. No vessel can lay near the fort without being exposed to continual fire, and the harbor could, and probably would, whenever necessary, be effectually closed, as one channel has already been. A projected attack in large force would draw to this harbor all the available resources in men and material of the contiguous States. Batteries of guns of heavy caliber would be multiplied rapidly and indefinitely; at least twenty thousand men, good marksmen and trained for months past with a view to this very contingency, would be concentrated here before the attacking force could leave Northern ports. The harbor would be closed; a landing must be effected at some distance from our guns, which could give no aid. Charleston harbor would be a Sebastopol in such a conflict, and unlimited means would probably be required to insure success, before which time the garrison at Fort Sumter would be starved out."
General Scott, in his reply to the question addressed to him by the President on the 12th instant, what amount of means, and of what description, in addition to those already at command, would be required to supply and reinforce the fort, says, "I should need a fleet of war vessels and transports, which, in the scattered disposition of the navy (as understood), could not be collected in less than four months; five thousand additional regular troops, and twenty thousand volunteers -- that is, a force sufficient to take all the batteries, both in the harbor (including Fort Moultrie) as well as in the approach or outer bay. To raise, organize, and discipline such an army (not to speak of necessary legislation by Congress, not now in session) would require from six to eight months. As a practical military question, the time for succoring Fort Sumter with any means at hand had passed away nearly a month ago. Since then, a surrender under assault or from starvation has been merely a question of time."
It is true there are those whose opinions are entitled to respectful consideration, who entertain the belief that Fort Sumter could yet be succored to a limited extent without the employment of the large army and naval forces believed to be necessary by the army officers whose opinions I have already quoted. Captain Ward of the navy, an officer of acknowledged merit, a month ago believed it to be practicable to supply the fort with men and provisions to a limited extent, without the employment of any very large military or naval force. He then proposed to employ four or more small steamers belonging to the Coast Survey to accomplish the purpose, and we have the opinion of General Scott that he has no doubt that Captain Ward, at that time, would have succeeded with his proposed expedition, but was not allowed by the late President to attempt the execution of his plan. Now it is pronounced, from the change of circumstances, impracticable by Major Anderson and all the other officers of the fort, as well as by Generals Scott and Totten; and in this opinion Captain Ward, after full consultation with the latter named officers and the superintendent of the Coast Survey, I understand now reluctantly concurs.
Mr. Fox, another gentleman of experience as a seaman, who, having formerly been engaged on the Coast Survey, is familiar with the waters of Charleston Harbor, has proposed to make the attempt to supply the fort by the aid of cutters of light draught and large dimensions, and his proposal has, in a measure, been approved by Commodore Stringham; but he does not suppose, or propose, or profess to believe that provisions for more than one or two months could be furnished at a time.
There is no doubt whatever in my mind that when Major Anderson first took possession of Fort Sumter he could have been easily supplied with men and provisions, and that when Captain Ward, with the concurrence of General Scott, a month ago, proposed his expedition, he would have succeeded had he been allowed to attempt it, as I think he should have been. A different state of things, however, now exists. Fort Moultrie is now re-armed and strengthened in every way; many new hand batteries have been constructed, the principal channel has been obstructed -- in short, the difficulty of reinforcing the fort has been increased ten, if not twenty, fold. Whatever might have been done as late as a month ago, it is too sadly evident that it cannot now be done without the sacrifice of life and treasure not at all commensurate with the object to be attained; and as the abandonment of the fort in a few weeks, sooner or later, appears to be an inevitable necessity, it seems to me that the sooner it be done the better.
The proposition presented by Mr. Fox, so sincerely entertained and ably advocated, would be entitled to my favorable consideration if, with all the lights before me, and in the face of so many distinguished military authorities on the other side, I did not believe the attempt to carry it into effect would initiate a bloody and protracted conflict. Should he succeed in relieving Fort Sumter, which is doubted by many of our most experienced soldiers and seamen, would that enable us to maintain our authority against the troops and fortifications of South Carolina? Sumter could not now contend against these formidable adversaries if filled with provisions and men. That fortress was intended, as her position on the map will show, rather to repel an invading foe. It is equally clear, from repeated investigations and trials, that the range of her guns is too limited to reach the city of Charleston, if that were desirable. No practical benefit will result to the country or the government by accepting the proposal alluded to; and I am, therefore, of the opinion that the cause of humanity, and the highest obligations to the public interest, would be best promoted by adopting the counsels of those brave and experienced men whose suggestions I have laid before you.
I have, sir, the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Bibliography: Lincoln, Works, eds. Nicolay and Hay, 6: 202-207.