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ABRAHAM LINCOLN: A HISTORY.*
PREMIER OR PRESIDENT?
BY JOHN G. NICOLAY AND JOHN HAY, PRIVATE SECRETARIES TO THE PRESIDENT.
THE REBEL GAME.
HE rebel conspirators were not unmindful of the great advantages they had hitherto derived from their complaints, their intrigues, their assumptions, their arrogant demands. No sooner was the provisional government organized at Montgomery than they appointed a new embassy of three commissioners to proceed to Washington and make the fourth effort to assist, protect, and if possible to establish the rebellion through a negotiation. They not only desired to avert a war, but, reasoning from the past, had a well-grounded faith that they would secure a peaceful acquiescence in their schemes. The commissioners were instructed to solicit a reception in their official character, and if that were refused, to accept an unofficial interview; to insist on the de facto and de jure independence of the Confederate States; but nevertheless to accede to a proposition to refer the subject of their mission to the United States Senate, or to withhold an answer until the Congress of the United States should assemble and pronounce a decision in the premises, provided the existing peaceful status were rigidly maintained. This modest programme was made necessary by the half-fledged condition of the rebellion: its personal jealousies were not yet hushed; its notions of State rights were not yet swallowed up in an imperious military dictatorship; above all, its military preparation consisted mainly of a self-sacrificing enthusiasm. Notwithstanding the two months' drill and batterybuilding at Charleston, Davis did not agree with Governor Pickens that the moment had come to storm Sumter. "Fort Sumter should be in our possession at the earliest moment possible," wrote the rebel war secretary, but "thorough preparation must be made before an attack is attempted. . . . A failure would demoralize our people and injuriously affect us in the opinion of the world as reckless and pre
Toombs to commissioners, Feb. 27, 1861. Unpublished MS.
Walker to Pickens. War Records.
Therefore they made Beauregard a brigadier-general and sent him to command. in the harbor of Charleston. Beauregard's professional inspection justified this prudence.
If Sumter was properly garrisoned and armed [wrote he (March 6th)], it would be a perfect Gibraltar to anything but constant shelling night and day from the four points of the compass. As it is, the weakness of the garrison constitutes our greatest advantage, venting it from being reenforced. This idea I am graduand we must for the present turn our attention to preally and cautiously infusing into the minds of all here; but should we have to open our batteries upon it, I hope to be able to do so with all the advantages the is time for completing my batteries and preparing and condition of things here will permit. All that I ask organizing properly my command.§
The first of the three commissioners, Martin J. Crawford, arrived in Washington the day. before Lincoln's inauguration. He would have nothing more to do with Buchanan, he
His fears for his personal safety, the apprehensions for the security of his property, together with the cares of state and his advanced age, render him wholly disqualified for his present position. He is as incapable now of purpose as a child. ||
With the arrival of the second commissioner, John Forsyth, they prepared to begin operations upon the new Administration. It was comparatively easy to call into caucus the active or disguised secessionists who yet remained in the city. Wigfall, Mason, Hunter, and Breckinridge were still in the Senate; Virginia and the other border States had a number of sympathizing Congressmen in the House; Bell, Crittenden, and Douglas, though loyal, had no love for Lincoln, and could be approached with professions of peace; Seward, in order to gain information, had kept himself during the whole winter in relation with all parties, and had openly proclaimed that his policy was one of peace and conciliation. ¶
The prospect of beginning negotiations seemed flattering; nevertheless, their first caucus over the inaugural agreed that "it was Lincoln's purpose at once to attempt the col
Crawford to Toombs, March 3, 1861. Unpublished MS.
¶ Senate speech, Jan. 12, 1861. "Globe."
* Copyright by J. G. Nicolay and John Hay, 1886-7. All rights reserved.
lection of the revenue, to reënforce and hold Forts Sumter and Pickens, and to retake the other places."* A day or two later, on comparing the fragmentary gossip they had raked together, in which the difficulties of reënforcing Sumter were dimly reflected, with a general conversation alleged to have been held by one of their informants with Seward, they framed and reported to Montgomery a theory of probable success.
Seward, they thought, was to be the ruling power of the new Administration. Seward and Cameron were publicly committed to a peace policy. They would establish an understand ing with the Secretary of State.
This gentleman [they wrote] is urgent for delay. The tenor of his language is to this effect: I have built up the Republican party; I have brought it to triumph; but its advent to power is accompanied by great difficulties and perils. I must save the party and save the Government in its hands. To do this, war must be averted; the negro question must be dropped; the "irrepressible" conflict ignored; and a Union party to embrace the border slave-States inaugurated. I have already whipped Mason and Hunter in their own State. I must crush out Davis, Toombs, and their colleagues in sedition in their respective States. Saving the border States to the Union by moderation and justice, the people of the cotton-States, unwillingly led into secession, will rebel against their leaders and reconstruction will follow.
The commissioners therefore deemed it their duty to support Mr. Seward's policy. "Until we reach the point of pacific negotiations, it is unimportant what may be his subsequent hopes and plans. It is well that he should indulge in dreams which we know are not to be realized." They of course make no mention of the arguments, agencies, and influences which we may infer they employed in their deceitful intent to foster these dreams; unless, indeed, they were instrumental in provoking the Senate debate of March 6th and 7th, in which Clingman attacked the inaugural as an announcement of war, while Douglas defended it as a manifesto of peace, "for the purpose," as Mr. Forsyth wrote that Douglas told him, "of fixing that construction on it and of tomahawking it afterwards if it [the Administration] departed from it."t
Acting upon this assumed anxiety of Seward for delay and for peace, the commissioners now agreed upon what they elaborately described in a long dispatch to Montgomery as a most ingenious plan. They would force the Administration to accept or reject their mission, and thereby confront the immediate issue of peace or war, unless Seward would consent to
*L. Q. Washington to Walker. War Records. Forsyth to Toombs, March 8, 1861. Unpublished MS.
Commissioners to Toombs, March 9, 1861. Unpublished MS.
maintain the present military status. Having reached this conclusion, they laboriously drew up a memorandum which they purposed to ask Seward to sign, and sent it to the State Department by an "agent," but Mr. Seward was at home ill, and could not be seen.
Their long dispatches home, and their mysterious allusions to conversations, to agents, and intermediaries, convey the impression that they were "in relation " with the Secretary of State; but whether they were duped by others, or whether they were themselves duping the Montgomery cabinet, indisputable indications in these documents contradict their assertions. At last, however, their vigilance was rewarded with what they considered an item of important news, and they hurried off several telegrams to Montgomery: "Things look better here than was believed." "The impression prevails in Administration circles that Fort Sumter will be evacuated within ten days." This was on Saturday night, March 9th, and so far from being exclusive or advance information, it was substantially printed in next morning's newspapers. § After four days' consideration by the Lincoln government, and extended discussion in a Cabinet meeting, the loss of Sumter seemed unavoidable; and the rumor was purposely given out to prepare the public mind, if the need should finally come for the great sacrifice.
The Jefferson Davis cabinet at Montgomery clutched at the report with avidity. Under this hope they were no longer satisfied with the "existing peaceful status" specified in their instructions of February 27th, and repeated in the prepared memorandum of the commissioners. "Can't bind our hands a day without evacuation of Sumter and Pickens," replied Toombs imperatively by telegraph on Monday, March 11th. || Until Sumter should be evacuated it was idle to talk of peaceful negotiation, he added in his written dispatch to the commissioners, while they were further instructed to "pertinaciously demand" the withdrawal of the troops and vessels from Pickens and Pensacola. ¶
Thus spurred into activity, the commissioners now deemed it incumbent on them to make an effort. The whole tenor of their previous dispatches was calculated to convey the impression that they were twisting the Secretary of State at pleasure between their diplomatic thumb and finger. On Monday, March 11th, they sent him their first message. demand of Toombs that day received by tel
"New York Herald," March 10, 1861.
Toombs to commissioners, March 11, 1861. Unpublished MS.
¶Toombs to commissioners, March 14, 1861. Unpublished MS.
egraph, not even the mild suggestion of their original instructions to maintain the status and appeal to Congress, but a meek inquiry whether they would be allowed to make a sort of back-door visit to the State Department. To describe it in their own words: "We availed ourselves of the kind consent of
Senator Hunter of Virginia to see Mr. Seward, and learn if he would consent to an informal interview with us."* Mr. Seward of course received Senator Hunter politely, for he still professed to be a loyal senator representing a loyal State, and gave him the stereotyped diplomatic reply, that "he would be obliged to consult the President." The next morning Seward sent Hunter a note of irreproachable courtesy but of freezing conclusiveness. "It will not be in my power," he wrote, "to receive the gentlemen of whom we conversed yesterday. You will please explain to them that this decision proceeds solely on public grounds and not from any want of personal respect." +
This was a cold bath to the commissioners, and the theories of their own finesse, and of the torturing perplexities into which Seward had been thrown, became untenable.
To-day at 11 o'clock [so runs their own report] Mr. Hunter brought us the promised reply, a copy of which is appended to this dispatch. It is polite; but it was considered by us at once as decisive of our course. We deemed it not compatible with the dignity of our Government to make a second effort, and took for granted that having failed in obtaining an unofficial interview with the Secretary of State, we should equally fail with the President. Our only remaining course was plain, and we followed it at once in the preparation of a formal note to the State Department informing the United States Government of our official presence here, the objects of our mission, and asking an early day to be appointed for an official interview.
They then repeat the gossip of the daywhat Mr. Lincoln was said to have told a gentleman from Louisiana, that "there would be no war and that he was determined to keep the peace"; also what Crittenden told Crawford, "that General Scott was also for peace and would sustain Mr. Seward's policy." Finally, showing in what complete ignorance they were of events happening about them, they ask with bewildered curiosity, "Can it be that while they refuse to negotiate with us to keep the Republican party in heart, they mean to abandon both forts on military grounds and thus avoid the occasion of a collision, or do they mean to refer the questions raised by our note to the Senate? Time only can determine, and we await the result.
* Commissioners to Toombs, March 12, 1861. Unpublished MS.
↑ Seward to Hunter, March 12, 1861. Unpublished MS.
We are still of the opinion that Fort Sumter will be evacuated. The opinion gains ground here that Lieutenant Slemmer and garrison will also be withdrawn from Fort Pickens."* Toombs was ready to sue or bluster as occasion demanded.
States [he wrote back to the commissioners] with commendable promptness and becoming dignity that you were not supplicants for its grace and favor, and willing to loiter in the antechambers of officials to patiently await their answer to your petition; but that you are the envoys of a powerful confederacy of sovereignties, instructed to present and demand their rights.
You have shown to the Government of the United
Nevertheless, instead of recalling these neglected envoys, he instructs them to communicate freely and often," and to employ a secretary to assist them, "at such monthly compensation as you may deem reasonable."‡
The hint to remain was hardly necessary. The commissioners apparently had no idea of abandoning their intrigues, unpromising as they were.
Their secretary, John T. Pickett, now besieged the State Department for an answer to the commissioners' formal note. Seward re
plied (March 15th) in a lengthy and courteous but dignified memorandum that he did not perceive in the "Confederate States" a rightful and accomplished revolution or an independent nation; that he could not act on the assumption or in any way admit that they constituted a foreign power with which diplomatic relations ought to be established; that he had no authority, nor was he at liberty, to recognize the commissioners as diplomatic agents, or hold correspondence or other communication with them.§
This paper, if delivered, would have terminated the labors and functions of the commissioners. But they were in no hurry to return empty-handed to Montgomery, and still fondly nursed the theory so elaborately described in their long dispatches. One of them repeated it with emphasis in a private letter to a member of the Montgomery cabinet:
We are feeling our way here cautiously. We are playing a game in which time is our best advocate, and if our Government could afford the time I feel confident of winning. There is a terrific fight in the Cabinet. fight, and at least blow up the Cabinet on the quesOur policy is to encourage the peace element in the tion.
This dispatch is a frank confession that the rebel embassy was so far a complete failure,
Toombs to commissioners, March 20, 1861. Unpublished MS.
Seward, memorandum. "Rebellion Record." Forsyth to Walker, March 14, 1861. Unpublished
and that its future opportunity lay solely in the barren regions of hotel gossip and newspaper rumors. The commissioners would have merited no further historical mention had they not unexpectedly secured a most important ally-John A. Campbell, an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, appointed from Alabama, and therefore in the confidence and, as it soon turned out, in the secret interest of the South and the rebellion. Justice Campbell now made himself the voluntary intermediary between the commissioners and the Secretary of State. Owing to his station and his professions, Seward gave him undue intimacy and confidence, enabling Campbell, under guise of promoting peace, to give aid and comfort to the enemies of the United States, in violation of his oath and duty. The details of the intrigue rest entirely upon rebel statements, and mainly upon those of Campbell himself, who gave both a confidential and a semi-official version to Jefferson Davis; the latter Davis transmitted in a special message to the Confederate Congress to "fire the Southern heart." Campbell having thus made his share of the transaction official, and having for a quarter of a century stood before the public accusing Seward and the Lincoln administration of "equivocating conduct" and "systematic duplicity," history must adjudge the question as well as it may with the help of his own testimony.
It has already been stated that Seward's official refusal to receive the commissioners was being prepared at the State Department. The Assistant Secretary had promised to send it to the commissioners' hotel. The commissioners thus relate the beginning of Campbell's intrigue :
The interview between Colonel Pickett and the Assistant Secretary of State occurred on Friday morning the 14th inst. Immediately thereafter, and within a brief space of time after Colonel Pickett's statement to us, the Hon. John A. Campbell, of the Supreme Court of the United States, sought an interview with Mr. Crawford of this commission, and after stating what he knew to be the wish and desire of Mr. Seward to preserve the peace between the two Governments, asked if there could be no further delay for an answer to our note to the Government, stating at the same time that he had no doubt if it were pressed that a most positive though polite rejection would be the
Commissioner Crawford's official reply to this overture is best described by Toombs's formula that he should "pertinaciously demand" the evacuation of Sumter and maintenance of the "status" elsewhere; the alterna
*The almanac shows that Friday was the 15th. There is, therefore, an error either in the day of the week or day of the month.
Campbell to Seward. "Rebellion Record."
tive and confidential reply we can only conjecture. But it may well be presumed that Campbell fully revealed to Crawford his sympathy with the rebellion and his purpose to aid it, and that he was in return thoroughly instructed in the game, which was "to encourage the peace element in the fight, and at least blow up the Cabinet on the question."
Thus instructed and prepared, Justice Campbell on the same day (March 14th or 15th) made a voluntary call on Mr. Seward, and in the general conversation which he induced evidently played his part of the game of peace and reconciliation with consummate ability. He probably painted the "dreams which we know are not to be realized" in such rosy colors as to call forth from Seward the hopeful observation " that a civil war might be prevented by the success of my [Campbell's] mediation." The impression upon Seward that Campbell was laboring honestly for the preservation of the Union was also strengthened by his having brought Justice Nelson with him, to whom the slightest suspicion of disloyalty has never attached. It seems clear that these professions of patriotic zeal threw Mr. Seward off his guard as to Campbell's motives, and that he accepted his intervention as a Union peacemaker, not as a rebel emissary.
Seward replied confidentially, " that it was impossible to receive the commissioners in any diplomatic capacity or character, or even to see them personally." Campbell adds that he said "it was not desirable to deny them or to answer them."§ As part of a general policy of delay and avoidance of conflict he may have said and meant it: as an immediate and urgent diplomatic step he certainly did not mean it, because his Assistant Secretary had already promised to send the answer to the commissioners' hotel, when for mere temporary delay dozens of expedients might have been used. Continuing his conversation and unguardedly enlarging his confidence, Seward, in answer to Campbell's direct inquiry, ventured the opinion that Sumter would be evacuated and collision avoided at Charleston. The idea was not new; the rumor had been openly and half-officially printed in the newspapers nearly a whole week; the commissioners had telegraphed it to Montgomery. Campbell, however, caught eagerly at the suggestion, and proposed to write the peaceful news to Jefferson Davis; and Seward, with a momentary excess of enthusiasm, authorized him (so Campbell relates) to write: "Before this letter
+ Commissioners to Toombs, March 22, 1861. Unpublished MS.
Campbell to Jefferson Davis, April 3, 1861. Unpublished MS.
reaches you Sumter will be evacuated, or the orders will have issued for that purpose-and no change is contemplated at present in respect to Pickens."* Campbell rushed off in a fever of delight to tell the commissioners, and magnified the confidence to the proportions of a pledge. The incident began to grow more rapidly than the story of the three black crows. The commissioners, on their part, hurried a telegram to Montgomery:
By pressing we can get an answer to our official
note to-morrow. If we do, we believe it will be adverse to recognition and peace. We are sure that within five days Sumter will be evacuated. We are sure that no steps will be taken to change the military status. With a few days' delay a favorable answer may be had. Our personal interests command us to press. Duty to our country commands us to wait. What shall we do? t
To all of which Toombs answered laconically, "Wait a reasonable time and then ask for instructions."
It is needless to point out the absurd variance of this announcement with Seward's alleged statement, which was simply an opinion that orders would be issued to evacuate Sumter within five days. He undoubtedly believed every word of this at the moment. Seward was then, as he declared to Lincoln in writing, in favor of evacuation; and Scott's written draft of an order to that effect, under date of the 11th, was in the President's hands. The President had as yet announced no decision. On the 15th, for the first time, the Cabinet voted-five to evacuate, two to attempt to supply. Seward still had every reason to suppose that the necessity, the Cabinet majority, General Scott's influence, and Lincoln's desire to avoid war would, acting together, verify his prediction. Presuming that he was talking to a friend and not an enemy, to a judge and not an advocate, to a Unionist and not a rebel, he undoubtedly and properly thought his words were received as a prediction, and not as a pledge.
The five days elapsed, but Lincoln sent no order to Anderson, and announced no decision to the Cabinet. He was still patiently seeking, and had not found his way out of the dilemma. He had not yet beheld "the salvation of the Lord." He was neither optimist nor pessimist. He wished to decide, not upon impulse or even necessity, but upon judgment and advantage. He was neither stubbornly headstrong nor cravenly submissive. If, like the farmer in his favorite illustration, he could not plow through the log, perhaps he might plow around it. He
Campbell to Jefferson Davis, April 3, 1861. Unpublished MS.
+ Commissioners to Toombs, March 15, 1861. Unpublished MS.
Seward to Lincoln, March 15, 1861. Opinion on Sumter.
was meditating on the visit of Fox to Sumter, of Lamon and Hurlbut to Charleston; he was deliberating about a diversion upon the Virginia convention; above all, he was waiting to hear from his order to reënforce Pickens, dispatched on the 12th of March. His Cabinet ministers did not yet understand him. Seward on the one hand, and Blair on the other, unused to men of his fiber, began to fear this was vacillation, indecision, executive incompetence. The atmosphere of Washington. had hitherto largely produced two classes of men-those who bluster and domineer, those who protest and yield. Lincoln belonged to neither class; and his persistent non-committal, his silent hopefulness, his patient and wellconsidered inaction, baffled their prophecy. Such tenacity of purpose, combined with such reticence of declaration, was an anomaly in recent Federal administration.
The hopes of the rebels, so unexpectedly inflated, began once more to collapse. Governor Pickens sent inquiries to the commissioners. Toombs telegraphed them, "We can't hear from you."§ Campbell was summoned and dispatched post-haste to the State Department. He had interviews on March 21st and 22d. But in reality Seward was no wiser than he had been in the previous interviews, and could only repeat his beliefs and his predictions, and declare, in his philosophic vein, that "governments could not move with bank accuracy." ||
For a third time the conspirators grew impatient, and again Campbell, on Saturday, March 30th, and Monday, April 1st, went to the State Department as the messenger of rebellion. By this time Seward had real information. A second Cabinet vote had been taken, on March 29th, in which the majority was reversed. The President had ordered the preparation of the Sumter expedition; and Seward himself, though still advising the abandonment of Sumter, was personally preparing an expedition to reënforce Fort Pickens.
Seward at this point must have realized how injudicious he had been to give Campbell any confidence whatever, since to preserve secrecy for his own project he must abruptly break off the intimacy. Perhaps he had by this time. divined that he was dealing with a public enemy. At all events, whatever may have been his reasons, he took occasion to correct any misunderstanding which might previously have sprung up by giving Campbell a written mem
Toombs to commissioners, March 20, 1861. Unpublished MS.
|| Commissioners to Toombs, March 22, 1861. Unpublished MS.
¶ Campbell to Seward. "Rebellion Record."