Monday, April 04, 2011

150 Years Ago: Fox Gets His Orders

Fort Sumter in South Carolina, USA.Image via Wikipedia

On Thursday, April 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln called Captain Gustavus Fox to the White House.  The president had finally made up his mind to relieve Fort Sumter and Fox would be the man to do it around April 11.

Lincoln told Fox that a messenger would be sent to South Carolina Governor Francis Pickens giving him due notice of the attempt.  No troops would be landed if the delivery of the provisions was unopposed.

Lincoln also gave Fox formal orders from Secretary of War Simon Cameron.  Fox was to load supplies and troops into a ship at New York, then proceed to Charleston harbor.  If armed forces opposed him, he was to report to the senior naval officer present who would have orders from Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles to use his entire force to land troops and supplies.  A letter was being sent to Major Anderson at the fort that day telling him what was being attempted and ordering him to hold out if he could.

Fox hurried back to New York, where he chartered the Baltic and rounded up the troops and supplies needed.  He was ready to set sail by April 9.

From The Coming Fury by Bruce Catton:
"The expedition he was leading had been substantially augmented since he first suggested it. Originally the big idea had been to slip a boatload of provisions into the harbor by a stealthy dash at night, relying on speed and deception to get the supplies to Fort Sumter before the Confederates knew what was up; now all question of surprise was given up, Governor Pickens was being officially notified in advance that the thing was going to be tried, and four warships were going along with orders to open fire if there was any trouble. Clearly enough the entire concept of the operation had changed. A month earlier the underlying idea had been to uphold Major Anderson and his garrison; now it was nothing less than to uphold the breadth and depth of Federal authority over an unbroken Union. The first might have been done by a quick dash with nobody looking; the second would mean nothing unless seen by all the world, and if General Beauregard's cannon might help call the world's attention to it, that would be up to General Beauregard. The first had been nothing more than a play for time. This was a frank avowal that time had run out.

"Table stakes, in other words. Sending the outridder down to Governor Pickens, Lincoln was shooting the works. He was not forcing a war, but he was serving notice that he would rather fight than back down; more, he was setting the stage in such a way that Jefferson Davis, if he in his turn preferred to fight rather than to back down, would have to shoot first. Lincoln had been plainly warned by Lamon and Hurlbut that a ship taking provisions to Fort Sumter would be fired on. Now he was sending the ship, with advance notice to the men who had the guns. He was sending warships and soldiers as well, but they would remain in the background; if there was going to be a war it would begin over a boatload of salt pork and crackers -- over that, and the infinite overtones which by now were involved. Not for nothing did Captain Fox remark afterward that it seemed very important to Lincoln that South Carolina 'should stand before the civilized world as having fired upon bread.'"

Also on this date, in Virginia, the state convention rejected a motion to hold a referendum on secession 89 to 45. Virginia would stay in the Union for the time being. At about the same time, Lincoln met with John Baldwin, a Unionist member of the Virginia state convention. Apparently Lincoln was trying to work out some kind of deal that would keep Virginia in the Union, that he would trade a fort (Sumter) for a state. Baldwin could not make a deal to bind the convention and nothing ever became of the negotiation.

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