When Abraham Lincoln became President, he chose Gideon Welles (image above) to be a member of his cabinet as Secretary of the Navy. Welles’ three-volume diary, documenting his Cabinet service from 1861–1869, is an invaluable archive for Civil War scholars and students of Lincoln alike, allowing readers rare insight into the complex struggles, machinations, and inter-relational strife within the President’s War Cabinet. (“Gideon Welles”, Wikipedia, March 21, 2013)
One of the “machinations” described by Gideon Welles is the seeming double-dealing by William Seward, Secretary of State, about the Fort Sumter situation.
Fort Sumter, of course, was where the shots which began the Civil War were fired, on April 12, 1861.
“A strange state of things existed at that time [late winter/early spring 1861] in Washington,” wrote Gideon Welles. “The atmosphere was thick with treason.” There were “doubts and uncertainty on every hand as to who could be trusted…” The Democrats “to a large extent sympathized with the Rebels more than with the Administration, which they opposed…” Meanwhile, crowds of Republicans “thronged the ante-rooms of the President and Secretaries, clamorous for the removal of all Democrats, indiscriminately, from office.”
As for Secretary of State William Seward: “Old Whig associates he clung to and strove to retain. All Democrats he distrusted, unless they became identified with the Republican Party.”
“Neither [political] party appeared to be apprehensive of or to realize the gathering storm. There was a general belief, indulged in by most persons, that an adjustment would in some way be brought about, without any extensive resort to extreme measures.”
Seward had come to an understanding of a secret agreement which had been made between the outgoing administration of James Buchanan and the leading Secessionists: “…no assault should be made on Fort Sumter [by the Rebs], provided the garrison should not be reinforced.”
Major Robert Anderson was in command at Fort Sumter. Should the Fort be re-supplied? Secretary of State William Seward “was vigilantly attentive to every measure and movement in other Departments, however trivial…” He “watched and scrutinized…” other Departments, but as to his own, Seward “was not communicative in regard to the transactions of the State Department.” Seward “opposed any and every scheme to reinforce Sumter…”
Reading between the lines of Gideon Welles’ writings, it is as if Seward was trying to undermine and/or supersede the efforts of President Abraham Lincoln. “No need for regular Cabinet meetings,” Seward advised. “The President had only to send word to the State Department, at any time, day or night, when he wanted to call his Cabinet together, or any portion of them, and he, Seward, would take upon himself to have every member notified whose attendance was required.”
But other Cabinet members advised against this set-up, and President Lincoln “concurred in these views of the majority, and it was decided that thereafter the Cabinet should assemble at meridian on Tuesdays and Fridays.”
Seward was pushing for an abandonment of Fort Sumter. It looked like that would happen. But then the father of Postmaster-General Montgomery Blair “entered his protest against non-action, which he denounced as the offspring of intrigue [emphasis added]. His earnestness and indignation aroused and electrified the President; and when, in his zeal, [the elder] Blair warned the President that the abandonment of Sumter would be justly considered by the people, by the world, by history, as treason to the country, he touched a chord that responded to his invocation. The President decided from that moment that an attempt should be made to convey supplies to Major Anderson, and that he would reinforce Sumter.”
But William Seward still had a little trick up his sleeve…