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6: War

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On the day following the inauguration, commissioners of the newly formed Confederacy appeared at Washington and applied to the Secretary of State for recognition as envoys of a foreign power. Seward refused them such recognition. But he entered into a private negotiation with them which is nearly, if not quite, the strangest thing in our history. Virtually, Seward intrigued against Lincoln for control of the Administration. The events of the next five weeks have an importance out of all proportion to the brevity of the time. This was Lincoln's period of final probation. The psychological intensity of this episode grew from the consciousness in every mind that now, irretrievably, destiny was to be determined. War or peace, happiness or adversity, one nation or two—all these were in the balance. Lincoln entered the episode a doubtful quantity, not with certainty the master even in his own Cabinet. He emerged dominating the situation, but committed to the terrible course of war.

One cannot enter upon this great episode, truly the turning point in American history, without pausing for a glance at the character of Seward. The subject is elusive. His ablest biographer1 plainly is so constantly on guard not to appear an apologist that he ends by reducing his portrait to a mere outline, wavering across a background of political details. The most recent study of Seward2 surely reveals between the lines the doubtfulness of the author about pushing his points home. The different sides of the man are hard to reconcile. Now he seemed frank and honest; again subtle and insincere. As an active politician in the narrow sense, he should have been sagacious and astute, yet he displayed at the crisis of his life the most absolute fatuity. At times he had a buoyant and puerile way of disregarding fact and enveloping himself in a world of his own imagining. He could bluster, when he wished, like any demagogue; and yet he could be persuasive, agreeable, and even personally charming.

But of one thing with regard to Seward, in the first week of March, 1861, there can be no doubt: he thought himself a great statesman —and he thought Lincoln "a Simple Susan." He conceived his role in the new administration to involve a subtle and patient manipulation of his childlike superior. That Lincoln would gradually yield to his spell and insensibly become his figurehead; that he, Seward, could save the country and would go down to history a statesman above compare, he took for granted. Nor can he fairly be called conceited, either; that is part of his singularity.

Lincoln's Cabinet was, as Seward said, a compound body. With a view to strengthening his position, Lincoln had appointed to cabinet positions all his former rivals for the Republican nomination. Besides Seward, there was Chase as Secretary of the Treasury; Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania as Secretary of War; Edward Bates of Missouri as Attorney-General. The appointment of Montgomery Blair of Maryland as Postmaster-General was intended to placate the border Slave States. The same motive dictated the later inclusion of James Speed of Kentucky in the Cabinet. The Black-Stanton wing of the Democrats was represented in the Navy Department by Gideon Welles, and in course of time in the War Department also, when Cameron resigned and Stanton succeeded him. The West of that day was represented by Caleb B. Smith of Indiana.

Seward disapproved of the composition of the Cabinet so much that, almost at the last moment, he withdrew his acceptance of the State Department. It was Lincoln's gentleness of argument which overcame his reluctance to serve. We may be sure, however, that Seward failed to observe that Lincoln's tactlessness in social matters did not extend to his management of men in politics; we may feel sure that what remained in his mind was Lincoln's unwillingness to enter office without William Henry Seward as Secretary of State.

The promptness with which Seward assumed the role of prime minister bears out this inference. The same fact also reveals a puzzling detail of Seward's character which amounted to obtuseness—his forgetfulness that appointment to cabinet offices had not transformed his old political rivals Chase and Cameron, nor softened the feelings of an inveterate political enemy, Welles, the Secretary of the Navy. The impression which Seward made on his colleagues in the first days of the new Government has been thus sharply recorded by Welles: "The Secretary of State was, of course, apprised of every meeting [of ministers] and never failed in his attendance, whatever was the subject-matter, and though entirely out of his official province. He was vigilantly attentive to every measure and movement in other Departments, however trivial—as much so as to his own—watched and scrutinized every appointment that was made, or proposed to be made, but was not communicative in regard to the transaction of the State Department." So eager was Seward to keep all the threads of affairs in his own hands that he tried to persuade Lincoln not to hold cabinet meetings but merely to consult with particular ministers, and with the Secretary of State, as occasion might demand. A combined protest from the other Secretaries, however, caused the regular holding of Cabinet meetings.

With regard to the Confederacy, Seward's policy was one of non-resistance. For this he had two reasons. The first of these was his rooted delusion that the bulk of the Southerners were opposed to secession and, if let alone, would force their leaders to reconsider their action. He might have quoted the nursery rhyme, "Let them alone and they'll come home"; it would have been like him and in tune with a frivolous side of his nature. He was quite as irresponsible when he complacently assured the North that the trouble would all blow over within ninety days. He also believed that any display of force would convert these hypothetical Unionists of the South from friends to enemies and would consolidate opinion in the Confederacy to produce war. In justice to Seward it must be remembered that on this point time justified his fears.

His dealings with the Confederate commissioners show that he was playing to gain time, not with intent to deceive the Southerners but to acquire that domination over Lincoln which he felt was his by natural right. Intending to institute a peace policy the moment he gained this ascendency, he felt perfectly safe in making promises to the commissioners through mutual friends. He virtually told them that Sumter would eventually be given up and that all they need do was to wait.

Seward brought to bear upon the President the opinions of various military men who thought the time had passed when any expedition for the relief of Sumter could succeed. For some time Lincoln seemed about to consent, though reluctantly, to Seward's lead in the matter of the forts. He was pulled up standing, however, by the threatened resignation of the Postmaster-General, Blair. After a conference with leading Republican politicians the President announced to his Cabinet that his policy would include the relief of Sumter. "Seward," says Welles, "...was evidently displeased."

Seward now took a new tack. Fort Pickens, at Pensacola, was a problem similar to that of Sumter at Charleston. Both were demanded by the Confederates, and both were in need of supplies. But Fort Pickens lay to one side, so to speak, of the public mind, and there was not conspicuously in the world's eye the square issue over it that there was over Sumter. Seward conceived the idea that, if the President's attention were diverted from Sumter to Pickens and a relief expedition were sent to the latter but none to the former, his private negotiations with the Confederates might still be kept going; Lincoln might yet be hypnotized; and at last all would be well.

On All-Fools' Day, 1861, in the midst of a press of business, he obtained Lincoln's signature to some dispatches, which Lincoln, it seems, discussed with him hurriedly and without detailed consideration. There were now in preparation two relief expeditions, one to carry supplies to Pensacola, the other to Charleston. Neither was to fight if it was not molested. Both were to be strong enough to fight if their commanders deemed it necessary. As flagship of the Charleston expedition, Welles had detailed the powerful warship Powhatan, which was rapidly being made ready at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Such was the situation as Welles understood it when he was thinking of bed late on the night of the 6th of April. Until then he had not suspected that there was doubt and bewilderment about the Powhatan at Brooklyn. One of those dispatches which Lincoln had so hastily signed provided for detaching the Powhatan from the Charleston expedition and sending it safe out of harm's way to Pensacola. The commander of the ship had before him the conflicting orders, one from the President, one from the Secretary of the Navy. He was about to sail under the President's orders for Pensacola; but wishing to make sure of his authority, he had telegraphed to Washington. Gideon Welles was a pugnacious man. His dislike for Seward was deepseated. Imagine his state of mind when it was accidently revealed to him that Seward had gone behind his back and had issued to naval officers orders which were contradictory to his own! The immediate result was an interview that same night between Seward and Welles in which, as Welles coldly admitted in after days, the Secretary of the Navy showed "some excitement." Together they went, about midnight, to the White House. Lincoln had some difficulty recalling the incident of the dispatch on the 1st of April; but when he did remember, he took the responsibility entirely upon himself, saying he had had no purpose but to strengthen the Pickens expedition, and no thought of weakening the expedition to Charleston. He directed Seward to telegraph immediately cancelling the order detaching the Powhatan. Seward made a desperate attempt to put him off, protesting, it was too late to send a telegram that night. "But the President was imperative," writes Secretary Welles, in describing the incident, and a dispatch was sent.

Seward then, doubtless in his agitation, did a strange thing. Instead of telegraphing in the President's name, the dispatch which he sent read merely, "Give up the Powhatan...Seward." When this dispatch was received at Brooklyn, the Powhatan was already under way and had to be overtaken by a fast tug. In the eyes of her commander, however, a personal telegram from the Secretary of State appeared as of no weight against the official orders of the President, and he continued his voyage to Pensacola.

The mercurial temper of Seward comes out even in the caustic narrative written afterwards by Welles. Evidently Seward was deeply mortified and depressed by the incident. He remarked, says Welles, that old as he was he had learned a lesson, and that was that he had better attend to his own business. "To this," commented his enemy, "I cordially assented."

Nevertheless Seward's loss of faith in himself was only momentary. A night's sleep was sufficient to restore it. His next communication to the commissioners shows that he was himself again, sure that destiny owed him the control of the situation. On the following day the commissioners had got wind of the relief expedition and pressed him for information, recalling his assurance that nothing would be done to their disadvantage. In reply, still through a third person, Seward sent them the famous message, over the precise meaning of which great debate has raged: "Faith as to Sumter fully kept; wait and see." If this infatuated dreamer still believed he could dominate Lincoln, still hoped at the last moment to arrest the expedition to Charleston, he was doomed to bitterest disappointment.

On the 9th of April, the expedition to Fort Sumter sailed, but without, as we have seen, the assistance of the much needed warship, the Powhatan. As all the world knows, the expedition had been too long delayed and it accomplished nothing. Before it arrived, the surrender of Sumter had been demanded and refused —and war had begun. During the bombardment of Sumter, the relief expedition appeared beyond the bar, but its commander had no vessels of such a character as to enable him to carry aid to the fortress. Furthermore, he had not been informed that the Powhatan had been detached from his squadron, and he expected to meet her at the mouth of the harbor. There his ships lay idle until the fort was surrendered, waiting for the Powhatan—for whose detachment from the squadron Seward was responsible.

To return to the world of intrigue at Washington, however, it must not be supposed, as is so often done, that Fort Sumter was the one concern of the new government during its first six weeks. In fact, the subject occupied but a fraction of Lincoln's time. Scarcely second in importance was that matter so curiously bound up with the relief of the forts—the getting in hand of the strangely vain glorious Secretary of State. Mention has already been made of All-Fools' Day, 1861. Several marvelous things took place on that day. Strangest of all was the presentation of a paper by the Secretary of State to his chief, entitled "Thoughts for the President's Consideration". Whether it be regarded as a state paper or as a biographical detail in the career of Seward, it proves to be quite the most astounding thing in the whole episode. The "Thoughts" outlined a course of policy by which the buoyant Secretary intended to make good his prophecy of domestic peace within ninety days. Besides calmly patronizing Lincoln, assuring him that his lack of "a policy either domestic or foreign" was "not culpable and...even unavoidable," the paper warned him that "policies...both domestic and foreign" must immediately be adopted, and it proceeded to point out what they ought to be. Briefly stated, the one true policy which he advocated at home was to evacuate Sumter (though Pickens for some unexplained reason might be safely retained) and then, in order to bring the Southerners back into the Union, to pick quarrels with both Spain and France; to proceed as quickly as possible to war with both powers; and to have the ultimate satisfaction of beholding the reunion of the country through the general enthusiasm that was bound to come. Finally, the paper intimated that the Secretary of State was the man to carry this project through to success.

All this is not opera bouffe, but serious history. It must have taxed Lincoln's sense of humor and strained his sense of the fitness of things to treat such nonsense with the tactful forbearance which he showed and to relegate it to the pigeonhole without making Seward angry. Yet this he contrived to do; and he also managed, gently but firmly, to make it plain that the President intended to exercise his authority as the chief magistrate of the nation. His forbearance was further shown in passing over without rebuke Seward's part in the affair of Sumter, which might so easily have been made to appear treacherous, and in shouldering himself with all responsibility for the failure of the Charleston expedition. In the wave of excitement following the surrender, even so debonair a minister as Seward must have realized how fortunate it was for him that his chief did not tell all he knew. About this time Seward began to perceive that Lincoln had a will of his own, and that it was not safe to trifle further with the President. Seward thereupon ceased his interference.

It was in the dark days preceding the fall of Sumter that a crowd of office-seekers gathered at Washington, most of them men who had little interest in anything but the spoils. It is a distressing commentary on the American party system that, during the most critical month of the most critical period of American history, much of the President's time was consumed by these political vampires who would not be put off, even though a revolution was in progress and nations, perhaps, were dying and being born. "The scramble for office," wrote Stanton, "is terrible." Seward noted privately: "Solicitants for office besiege the President.... My duties call me to the White House two or three times a day. The grounds, halls, stairways, closets, are filled with applicants who render ingress and egress difficult."

Secretary Welles has etched the Washington of that time in his coldly scornful way:

"A strange state of things existed at that time in Washington. The atmosphere was thick with treason. Party spirit and old party differences prevailed, however, amidst these accumulated dangers. Secession was considered by most persons as a political party question, not as rebellion. Democrats to a large extent sympathized with the Rebels more than with the Administration, which they opposed, not that they wished Secession to be successful and the Union divided, but they hoped that President Lincoln and the Republicans would, overwhelmed by obstacles and embarrassments, prove failures. The Republicans on the other hand, were scarcely less partisan and unreasonable. Patriotism was with them no test, no shield from party malevolence. They demanded the proscription and exclusion of such Democrats as opposed the Rebel movement and clung to the Union, with the same vehemence that they demanded the removal of the worst Rebels who advocated a dissolution of the Union. Neither party appeared to be apprehensive of, or to realize the gathering storm."

Seen against such a background, the political and diplomatic frivolity of the Secretary of State is not so inexplicable as it would otherwise be. This background, as well as the intrigue of the Secretary, helps us to understand Lincoln's great task inside his Cabinet. At first the Cabinet was a group of jealous politicians new to this sort of office, drawn from different parties, and totally lacking in a cordial sense of previous action together. None of them, probably, when they first assembled had any high opinion of their titular head. He was looked upon as a political makeshift. The best of them had to learn to appreciate the fact that this strange, ungainly man, sprung from plainest origin, without formal education, was a great genius. By degrees, however, the large minds in the Cabinet became his cordial admirers. While Lincoln was quietly, gradually exercising his strong will upon Seward, he was doing the same with the other members of his council. Presently they awoke—the majority of them at least—to the truth that he, for all his odd ways, was their master.

Meanwhile the gradual readjustment of all factions in the North was steadily going forward. The Republicans were falling into line behind the Government; and by degrees the distinction between Seward and Lincoln, in the popular mind, faded into a sort of composite picture called "the Administration." Lincoln had the reward of his long forbearance with his Secretary. For Seward it must be said that, however he had intrigued against his chief at Washington, he did not intrigue with the country. Admitting as he had, too, that he had met his master, he took the defeat as a good sportsman and threw all his vast party influence into the scale for Lincoln's fortunes. Thus, as April wore on, the Republican party settled down to the idea that it was to follow the Government at Washington upon any course that might develop.

The Democrats in the North were anti-Southern in larger proportion, probably, than at any other time during the struggle of the sections. We have seen that numbers of them had frankly declared for the Union. Politics had proved weaker than propinquity. There was a moment when it seemed—delusively, as events proved—that the North was united as one man to oppose the South.

There is surely not another day in our history that has witnessed so much nervous tension as Saturday, April 13, 1861, for on that morning the newspapers electrified the North with the news that Sumter had been fired on from Confederate batteries on the shore of Charleston Harbor. In the South the issue was awaited confidently, but many minds at least were in that state of awed suspense natural to a moment which the thoughtful see is the stroke of fate. In the North, the day passed for the most part in a quiet so breathless that even the most careless could have foretold the storm which broke on the following day. The account of this crisis which has been given by Lincoln's private secretary is interesting:

"That day there was little change in the business routine of the Executive office. Mr. Lincoln was never liable to sudden excitement or sudden activity.... So while the Sumter telegrams were on every tongue...leading men and officials called to learn or impart the news. The Cabinet, as by common impulse, came together and deliberated. All talk, however, was brief, sententious, formal. Lincoln said but little beyond making inquiries about the current reports and criticizing the probability or accuracy of their details, and went on as usual receiving visitors, listening to suggestions, and signing routine papers throughout the day." Meanwhile the cannon were booming at Charleston. The people came out on the sea-front of the lovely old city and watched the duel of the cannon far down the harbor, and spoke joyously of the great event. They saw the shells of the shore batteries ignite portions of the fortress on the island. They watched the fire of the defenders—driven by the flames into a restricted area—slacken and cease. At last the flag of the Union fluttered down from above Fort Sumter.

When the news flashed over the North, early Sunday morning, April 14th, the tension broke. For many observers then and afterward, the only North discernible that fateful Sabbath was an enraged, defiant, impulsive nation, forgetful for the moment of all its differences, and uniting all its voices in one hoarse cry for vengeance. There seemed to be no other thought. Lincoln gave it formal utterance, that same day, by assembling his Cabinet and drawing up a proclamation which called for 75,000 volunteer troops.

An incident of this day which is as significant historically as any other was on the surface no more than a friendly talk between two men. Douglas called at the White House. For nearly two hours he and Lincoln conferred in private. Hitherto it had been a little uncertain what course Douglas was going to take. In the Senate, though condemning disunion, he had opposed war. Few matters can have troubled Lincoln more deeply than the question which way Douglas's immense influence would be thrown. The question was answered publicly in the newspapers of Monday, April 15th. Douglas announced that while he was still "unalterably opposed to the Administration on all its political issues, he was prepared to sustain the President in the exercise of all his constitutional functions to preserve the Union, and maintain the Government, and defend the federal capital."

There remained of Douglas's life but a few months. The time was filled with earnest speechmaking in support of the Government. He had started West directly following his conference with Lincoln. His speeches in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, were perhaps the greatest single force in breaking up his own following, putting an end to the principle of doing nothing, and forcing every Democrat to come out and show his colors. In Shakespeare's phrase, it was—"Under which king, Bezonian? speak or die!" In Douglas's own phrase: "There can be no neutrals in this war; Only Patriots—Or Traitors."

Side by side with Douglas's manifesto to the Democrats there appeared in the Monday papers Lincoln's call for volunteers. The militia of several Northern States at once responded.

On Wednesday, the 17th of April, the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment entrained for Washington. Two days later it was in Baltimore. There it was attacked by a mob; the soldiers fired; and a number of civilians were killed as well as several soldiers.

These shots at Baltimore aroused the Southern party in Maryland. Led by the Mayor of the city, they resolved to prevent the passage of other troops across their State to Washington. Railway tracks were torn up by order of the municipal authorities, and bridges were burnt. The telegraph was cut. As in a flash, after issuing his proclamation, Lincoln found himself isolated at Washington with no force but a handful of troops and the government clerks. And while Maryland rose against him on one side, Virginia joined his enemies on the other. The day the Sixth Massachusetts left Boston, Virginia seceded. The Virginia militia were called to their colors. Preparations were at once set on foot for the seizure of the great federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry and the Navy Yard at Norfolk. The next day a handful of federal troops, fearful of being overpowered at Harper's Ferry, burned the arsenal and withdrew to Washington. For the same reason the buildings of the great Navy Yard were blown up or set on fire, and the ships at anchor were sunk. So desperate and unprepared were the Washington authorities that they took these extreme measures to keep arms and ammunition out of the hands of the Virginians. So hastily was the destruction carried out, that it was only partially successful and at both places large stores of ammunition were seized by the Virginia troops. While Washington was isolated, and Lincoln did not know what response the North had made to his proclamation, Robert E. Lee, having resigned his commission in the federal army, was placed in command of the Virginia troops.

The secretaries of Lincoln have preserved a picture of his desperate anxiety, waiting, day after day, for relief from the North which he hoped would speedily come by sea. Outwardly he maintained his self-control. "But once, on the afternoon of the 23d, the business of the day being over, the Executive office being deserted, after walking the floor alone in silent thought for nearly half an hour, he stopped and gazed long and wistfully out of the window down the Potomac in the direction of the expected ships; and, unconscious of other presence in the room, at length broke out with irrepressible anguish in the repeated exclamation, "Why don't they come! Why don't they come!"

During these days of isolation, when Washington, with the telegraph inoperative, was kept in an appalling uncertainty, the North rose. There was literally a rush to volunteer. "The heather is on fire," wrote George Ticknor, "I never before knew what a popular excitement can be." As fast as possible militia were hurried South. The crack New York regiment, the famous, dandified Seventh, started for the front amid probably the most tempestuous ovation which until that time was ever given to a military organization in America. Of the march of the regiment down Broadway, one of its members wrote, "Only one who passed as we did, through the tempest of cheers two miles long, can know the terrible enthusiasm of the occasion."

To reach Washington by rail was impossible. The Seventh went by boat to Annapolis. The same course was taken by a regiment of Massachusetts mechanics, the Eighth. Landing at Annapolis, the two regiments, dandies and laborers, fraternized at once in the common bond of loyalty to the Union. A branch railway led from Annapolis to the main line between Washington and Baltimore. The rails had been torn up. The Massachusetts mechanics set to work to relay them. The Governor of Maryland protested. He was disregarded. The two regiments toiled together a long day and through the night following, between Annapolis and the Washington junction, bringing on their baggage and cannon over relaid tracks. There, a train was found which the Seventh appropriated. At noon, on the 25th of April, that advance guard of the Northern hosts entered Washington, and Lincoln knew that he had armies behind him.

1Frederic Bancroft, Life of William H. Seward.

2Gamaliel Bradford, Union Portraits.

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