MARCH 1861

Missions for the president

Abraham Lincoln declared publicly a confidence that cool heads would prevail among Southern leaders, that a kind of silent majority would express its affection for the nation of the Founders, and that bloodshed would be avoided. At the same time he had to consider the fate of Fort Sumter, a U. S. Army post located in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. The continuing occupation of the fort, the U.S. flag flying above, was like a bone in the throat to secessionists and threatened to result in violence. Within weeks of his inauguration as president Lincoln sent two old Illinois friends to Charleston. One would sample opinion in the city at the heart of the secession movement. Another would attempt to meet with Confederate leaders in Charleston, as Lincoln “believed it possible to effect some accommodation by dealing directly with the most chivalrous among their leaders; at all events he thought it his duty to try… [The] embassy to Charleston was one of his experiments in that direction.”

Lincoln chose for these missionsStephen A. Hurlbut of Belvidere (Boone County), and Ward H. Lamon of Danville (Vermilion County). A Republican politician and acquaintance since the mid-1840s, Hurlbut had been born into a family of New Englanders living in Charleston, and spent most of his first thirty years living in the city. His professional mentor, attorney James Pettigru, in 1861 was the most vocal (some would say only) unionist in South Carolina. The Virginia-born Lamon had worked with Lincoln during the 1850s on Illinois’ Eighth Judicial Circuit. The burly attorney accompanied his friend on the inaugural journey to Washington, D.C., acting informally as bodyguard.

On arriving in Charleston on March 24, Hurlbut and Lamon parted to perform their separate missions. Hurlbut began visiting old acquaintances, playing the role of “a private person upon my last visit to my relatives.” A few days of conversation with Charleston lawyers, merchants, and tradesmen brought a disappointing conclusion—no unionist sentiment existed. Hurlbut wrote to Lincoln that “I have no hesitation in reporting… that Separate Nationality is a fixed fact… that there is an unanimity of sentiment which is to my mind astonishing—that there is no attachment to the Union.” In scanning the harbor, “I regret to say that no single vessel in port displayed American colours… the Flag of the Southern Confederacy and of the State of South Carolina were visible everywhere…” Even men who supported President Andrew Jackson against South Carolina’s secession movement in 1832 “are now… ready to take arms if necessary for the Southern Confederacy.”

Although everyone Hurlbut spoke with supported secession, they split over whether to actually begin a war. He wrote that power in South Carolina and the Deep South states “is now in the hands of Conservatives—of men who desire no war, seek no armed collision, but hope & expect peaceable separation.” Others though, “desire to precipitate collision, inaugurate war & unite the Southern Confederacy by that means. These men dread the effect of time & trial upon their institutions… These are the men who demand an immediate attack upon the forts.” Summing up, the outlook for sending supplies to and holding Fort Sumter was bleak. “I have no doubt that a ship known to contain only provisions for Sumpter would be stopped & refused admittance Even the moderate men who desire not to open fire, believe in the safer policy of time and Starvation.” Moving on to offer Lincoln his opinion and advice, the Belvidere attorney declared, “If Sumpter is abandoned it is to a certain extent a concession of jurisdiction which cannot fail to have its effects at home and abroad,” and thus, “At all hazards and under all circumstances … any Fortress accessible by the Sea, over which we still have dominion, should be held & if war comes, let it come.”

As Hurlbut worked to determine public opinion, Ward H. Lamon held conversations that misled both U. S. and Confederate officials about Lincoln’s thoughts regarding Fort Sumter. He informed South Carolina governor F. W. Pickens and U. S. Army major Robert Anderson that the fort would be abandoned by the United States. Confederate general Pierre G. T. Beauregard reported to his secretary of war on March 26 that “Mr. Lamon left here last night, saying that Major Anderson and command would soon be withdrawn from Fort Sumter in a satisfactory manner,” but that the general continued to mount additional cannon, just in case. Anderson reported later in the week that “remarks made to me by Colonel Lamon … have induced me … to believe that orders would soon be issued for my abandoning this work.” When informed that an attempt would be made to resupply Sumter by ship, the confused major responded to his superior in Washington, “Colonel Lamon’s remark convinced me that the idea … would not be carried out.” Still, Anderson wrote, whatever the Lincoln administration decided, “We shall strive to do our duty.”

Read An overview of the Hurlbut and Lamon missions and their background can be found in Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life (2009), chapter 22. Hurlbut’s March 27, 1861, report to Lincoln is in the Abraham Lincoln Papers held by the Library of Congress. Search via:

Ward H. Lamon recalls the mission in Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, 1847–1865, pp. 68–79, although most of the account dwells on his boldly standing up to threats of physical violence. Hurlbut’s controversial wartime career is described in Jeffery N. Lash, A Politician Turned General: The Civil War Career of Stephen Augustus Hurlbut.