150 Years Ago This Week for March 31: A tinderbox emerges in Florida

March 1861

Federal troops occupied both Fort Pickens in Pensacola, Fla. and Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C. Both states were a part of the Confederate States, and neither could abide having a Federal military installation within their borders.

On Tuesday, March 26, President Lincoln met with his Cabinet in Washington on the issues of Federal appointments and the growing crisis with these two southern forts.

Two days later, Lincoln submitted 50 appointments to the Senate for confirmation, and held his first state dinner at the Executive Mansion.

General Winfield Scott told the president that evening that he recommended evacuating forts Sumter and Pickens, stating that the actions “would instantly soothe and give confidence to the eight remaining slave-holding states in the Union, and render their cordial adherence to this Union perpetual.”

Lincoln was infuriated at the political nature of Scott’s advice, which led him to question Scott’s earlier opinions about reinforcing Fort Sumter. The President called his Cabinet into emergency session.

Friday, March 29: “I desire that an expedition, to move by sea, be got ready to sail as early as the 6th of April next” to attempt to resupply and reinforce Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens. Lincoln had made his decision after hearing many opinions. Forts Sumter and Pickens would be held.

The Cabinet reversed its stand. State Secretary William Seward was still against trying to hold the forts. Interior’s Caleb Smith remained in favor of evacuation. Treasury’s Salmon Chase and Navy’s Gideon Welles wanted to reinforce the troops. Postmaster-General Montgomery Blair remained in favor of holding on. Attorney General Bates hedged about making a decision, and wrote, “I think the time is come to either evacuate or relieve them.”

The Cabinet’s opinion was in large part changed. Where previously the vote had been 5-2 against holding onto Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens, it was now 3-2 in favor of holding on. War Secretary Simon Cameron’s vote was not recorded.

Mississippi ratified the Confederate Constitution.

On the last day of March, Lincoln ordered a relief expedition prepared to go to Fort Pickens.

At the same time, it was rumored in Washington that Fort Sumter would be evacuated. So at least did the Confederate commissioners believe after their contacts with Secretary Seward through Justice John A. Campbell. The President had made his decision to maintain Federal control of the fort in Charleston.

However, Fort Bliss in Texas was yielded to Texas state forces by the Federals.

Many questions, few answers. Two nations now existed where there had previously been only one. This state of affairs could not be ignored. Would there soon come about a crisis that would force decisions to be made?

What about Fort Pickens in Pensacola? Like Fort Sumter in Charleston, Federal troops were garrisoned there but surrounded by now-Confederate territory.

The seven states of the Confederacy were acting very much like a nation, with a central government, a President, a Constitution, a people, and territory.

What about the slave-holding states that had not yet seceded: Delaware, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Missouri?

In Washington, Lincoln had to mold and shape a new administration elected by a new political party. He must oversee a cabinet of diverse and ambitious men and fill government jobs. He had to decide what to do with these two forts; and what to do about these seceded states that he could not, and would not, recognize as departed.

How far would citizens support the new President?

The picture in the Confederacy, though, was clearer. There was much to do to solidify the new country; possibly admit new states; obtain foreign recognition; and to enable its citizens to go about living as they had in the past.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 194 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.