Monday, March 17, 2008

Ready to be President on "Day One"

Crisis at Fort Sumter

Hillary Clinton often says she will be ready to be president on “day one.” No need for a “week of orientation” or any “on the job training.” No, if elected, she will “hit the ground running.”

The message is clear. She believes she has more experience than her Democratic rival, Barrack Obama. After all, while Barrack was toiling away in the Illinois state legislature, Hillary was in the White House. She knows she will be ready, she isn’t sure he will be.

Stephen A. Douglas might have been swayed by such logic. While Abraham Lincoln was trudging along the law circuit in Illinois, Douglas was one of the most influential members of the United States Senate.

The election of 1860 threatened to rip apart the country. Who was better prepared to handle the crisis? Who would “hit the ground running” on “day one?”

There was no question. Douglas was clearly the more experienced candidate.

But history didn’t go his way.

Douglas did not take the oath of office on March 4, 1861.

But he was there.

He watched as his rival put his hand on the Bible.

He held his rival’s hat while he delivered his inaugural address.

He listened as his rival reminded his “dissatisfied fellow countrymen” that “we are not enemies, but friends.”

He hoped that “the better angels of our nature” would indeed prevail and bloodshed would be averted.

What did “day one” of the Lincoln administration look like?

It wasn’t easy.

Lincoln remembered it well:

The first thing that was handed to me after I entered this room, when I came from the inauguration was the letter from Maj. Anderson saying that their provisions would be exhausted before an expedition could be sent to their relief, 1861.

The Buchanan Administration had left a crisis for the new president to handle. The flash point would be Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina.

Not an easy first day, right?

The acting Secretary of War Joseph Holt told Lincoln that surrender was inevitable.

Lincoln asked General Winfield Scott for his opinion. The situation was bleak.

When asked how long the soldiers in the fort could hold out, Scott replied:

In respect to subsistence, for the garrison, he has hard bread, flour & rice for about 26 days, & salt meat (pork) for about 48 days; but how long he could hold out against the whole means of attack which the South Carolinians have in, & about the city of Charleston & its Harbour, is a question that cannot be answered with absolute accuracy.

Could Scott resupply or reinforce Fort Sumter with “all the means now in your control?”

“No,” replied the general, “Not within many months.”

How long would a re-supply mission take and what would he need?

A fleet of war vessels & transports, 5,000 additional regular troops & 20,000 volunteers, in order to take all the batteries in the Harbor of Charleston (including Ft. Moultrie) after the capture of all the batteries in the approach or outer Bay. And to raise, organize & discipline such an army, would require new acts of Congress & from six to eight months.

The new president was still not satisified.

On March 15, 1861, Lincoln formally requested a written opinion from each member of his Cabinet. The president’s letter to Secretary of State William H. Seward was typical of the letter each member received:

The Hon. Secretary of State Executive Mansion

My dear Sir March 15. 1861

Assuming it to be possible to now provision Fort-Sumpter, under all the circumstances, is it wise to attempt it?

Please give me your opinion, in writing, on this question. Your Obt. Servt. A. LINCOLN.

Later that day, the president began to receive the written replies.

Secretary of State Seward advised against such a mission at this time :

...If it were possible to peacefully provision Fort Sumter, of course, I should answer, that it would be both unwise and inhuman not to attempt it. But the facts of the case are known to be, that the attempt must be made with the employment of military and marine force, which would provoke combat, and probably initiate a civil war…I would not provoke war in any way now

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles agreed with Seward:

...The question has two aspects, one military, the other political. The military gentlemen…represent that it would be unwise…and I am not disposed to controvert their opinions…In a political view, I entertain doubts of the wisdom of the measure…I do not…think it wise to attempt to provision Fort Sumter.

Attorney General Edward Bates echoed their assessment:

...I am persuaded, moreover, that in several of the misguided states of the South, 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…I am willing to evacuate Fort Sumter, rather than be an active party in the beginning of civil war...

Postmaster General Montgomery Blair offered a radically different opinion:

The evacuation of Fort Sumpter when it is known that it can be provisioned and manned will convince the rebels that the administration lacks firmness and will therefore tend more than any event that has happened to embolden them and so far from tending to prevent collision will, ensure it unless all the other forts are evacuated and all attempts are given up to maintain the authority of the United States...Mr. Buchanans policy has I think re-rendered collision almost inevitable & a continuance of that policy will not only bring it about but will go far to produce a permanent division of the Union.

The president heard from the rest of his cabinet the following day.

Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase was in favor of resupplying the fort:

...If the attempt will so inflame civil war as to involve an immediate necessity for the enlistment of armies and the expenditure of millions I cannot advise it...But it seems to me highly improbable that the attempt...will produce such consequences...I return, therefore, an affirmative answer...

Secretary of War Simon Cameron advised against it:

…it would be unwise now to make such an attempt…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…All the officers within Fort Sumter, together with Generals Scott and Totten, express this opinion…

Secretary of the Interior Caleb B. Smith did not think such a mission was wise:

...After a careful consideration of the opinions of Gens. Scott and Totten, and also those of Commodore String[h]am and Mr. Fox…I have arrived at the conclusion that the probabilities are in favor of the success of the proposed enterprise, so far as to secure the landing of the vessels at the Fort, but…it would not be wise under all circumstances to attempt to provision Fort Sumpter...

The president had a great deal to think about.

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