Sold – President-elect Lincoln Receives An Eyewitness Report on Conditions Inside Fort Sumter

In January 1861, he acknowledges a private communication, originally sent by code, from his strongest supporter on-site, Abner Doubleday.

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In 1858, Abner Doubleday was assigned to Fort Moultrie in Charleston harbor, a desirable posting because of its proximity to the city and its elegant society. By the summer of 1860, he was a captain and second in command of the fort, serving under Lt. Col. John Gardner, a Massachusetts man....

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Sold – President-elect Lincoln Receives An Eyewitness Report on Conditions Inside Fort Sumter

In January 1861, he acknowledges a private communication, originally sent by code, from his strongest supporter on-site, Abner Doubleday.

In 1858, Abner Doubleday was assigned to Fort Moultrie in Charleston harbor, a desirable posting because of its proximity to the city and its elegant society. By the summer of 1860, he was a captain and second in command of the fort, serving under Lt. Col. John Gardner, a Massachusetts man. Mary Doubleday, Abner’s wife, was with him and the only woman in the fort. At that time, history came right to their doorstep.   

The Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln as their presidential candidate in 1860, and because of their opponents’ split, were widely thought to have a good chance to win their first national election. Southerners were having no part of a potential Lincoln presidency. South Carolina went so far as to warn that if the Republicans won, it would withdraw from the Union. Doubleday warned of the Southern discontent and added that he was the only officer at Moultrie who favored Lincoln's election, but “As regards my companions, however, there was no difference of opinion in regard to sustaining the new President should he be legally elected, and they were all both willing and anxious to defend the fort confided to their honor.”   

In the general election on November 8, the Republicans received a minority of the total popular vote, but the vote was distributed to give Lincoln all the electoral votes he needed to assume the office of president on March 4, 1861.  The South Carolina General Assembly wasted no time and on November 10, 1860, called for a “Convention of the People of South Carolina” to draw up an Ordinance of Secession. It also elected Francis Pickens as Governor. With South Carolina’s secession a foregone conclusion, people everywhere began to prepare for a widespread crisis. Lt. Col. Gardner in Fort Moultrie announced his intention to defend the fort to the last extremity against the secessionists. President Buchanan’s Secretary of War, John B. Floyd, a Southerner who would shortly serve as a Confederate general, was displeased with this position and relieved him of command. Just days after Lincoln’s election, Floyd replaced Gardner with Maj. Robert Anderson, a Southern sympathizing Kentuckian descended from one of the first families of Virginia (he was a cousin of Chief Justice John?Marshall), and whose wife was a Georgian. Anderson believed that military action would never prevent secession, so many Northerners worried that putting him in charge of Charleston harbor at that moment was tantimount to treason. Of course, events would ultimately prove that both side’s advocates had misassessed Anderson’s conduct when push came to shove.   

On December 18, 1860, the South Carolina Convention convened in Charleston's Institute Hall and a spirit of southern nationalism and secession filled the air. Two days later, the Ordinance of Secession was adopted on a roll call vote of 169-0. The cry at once went forth, "The Union is dissolved!" The momentous news was flashed by telegraph around the country and it caused a sensation everywhere. On December 25, the Convention issued a call to the other slaveholding states to secede also and join South Carolina in a Southern Confederacy. By then, the Charleston newspapers were filled with military recruiting ads and notices, all designed to augment and train the state’s armed forces in preparation for war.   

As Doubleday later wrote in his book “Reminiscences of Forts Sumter and Moultrie in 1860-'61”, starting about a week before the Convention convened, Fort Moultrie was in the thick of the rush to war, as South Carolinians were calling for it to be turned over from Federal to state authorities. This infuriated Northern patriots on the scene, like Doubleday’s wife Mary. “On the 11th of December we had the good fortune to get our provisions from town without exciting observation…It was afterward stated in the papers that the captain of the schooner was threatened severely for having brought them. On the same day the enemy began to build batteries at Mount Pleasant, and at the upper end of Sullivan's Island, guns having already been sent there. We also heard that ladders had been provided for parties to escalade our walls. Indeed, the proposed attack was no longer a secret. My wife, becoming indignant at these preparations, and the utter apathy of the [Buchanan] Government in regard to our affairs, wrote a stirring letter to my brother, in New York, stating some of the facts I have mentioned. By some means it found its way into the columns of the Evening Post, and did much to call attention to the subject, and awaken the Northern people to a true sense of the situation.”   

Fort Moultrie was too exposed to have any chance of being successfully defended. So under the cover of darkness on December 26, 1860, and solely on his own authority, Maj. Anderson spiked the cannons at Moultrie and removed his command to Fort Sumter. Mrs. Doubleday was sent to the city at that time for her safety, thus separating her from her husband. He maintained communication with her, as stated in his book. “Foster had not been able to settle with all his workmen, and the rebels frequently sent them over under a flag of truce to demand their back pay and act as spies. I was enabled through this channel to keep up a correspondence with my wife, who was still in Moultrieville.” And showing foresight, he also relates developing a code to enable him to send coded messages. “Fearing that in the course of events our correspondence might be tampered with, I invented a cipher which afterward proved to be very useful. It enabled me to communicate, through my brother in New York, much valuable information to Mr. Lincoln at Springfield, Preston King, Roscoe Conkling, and other leaders of public opinion, in relation to our strength and resources.”   

The South was taken by surprise by the refusal of President Buchanan to order Anderson’s command to abandon Fort Sumter, and angry state officials stopped providing the fort with supplies. On January 9, 1861, the U.S. Government attempted to resupply the fort. However, South Carolina artillery on Morris Island and at Fort Moultrie fired on the resupply ship “Star of the West” as it crossed into the main entrance channel to Charleston Harbor. At Anderson’s order, the guns at Fort Sumter did not return the fire to try and protect the ship, so a mile and a half from Fort Sumter, it withdrew. Doubleday had wanted to fire back and attributed Anderson’s refusal to a lack of patriotism. That very day, Mississippi seceded from the Union; on January 10 it was Florida and the next day, Alabama.   

Doubleday was deeply concerned that the true situation at Fort Sumter be brought to the attention of President-elect Lincoln and others who would fight to sustain the U.S. Government. Without such information, they could not make appropriate, vitally-needed assessments and plans, nor take appropriate actions. He did not trust the Buchanan Administration and determined to communicate with Lincoln and a few others himself. He would act as their man in Fort Sumter. He had to do this indirectly, because as a military man, providing information over the head of his commanding officer, and in fact speaking out about that officer, could be considered insubordination. He might well be court martialed and dismissed from the service. Doubleday would therefore communicate with them through his brother, and while making it clear that he was involved, would maintain the technical fiction that he was not. He wrote and sent coded letters to his brother, Ulysses. The information from one important message in early January was copied out into a letter dated January 15, 1861 that Ulysses sent to Lincoln, along with two enclosures: a letter Mary Doubleday had received from her husband, and a newspaper article from a Charleston paper suggesting that Anderson sympathized with the Southern cause. The original of Ulysses’ letter and the article still repose in the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress; Mrs. Doubleday’s letter is not there.   

Ulysses Doubleday wrote, “I enclose for your perusal, and reenclose in the accompanying envelope, a letter from Capt. Doubleday to his wife. A previous letter to me dated Jany 3d stated that men, arms and munitions of war were constantly passing Ft. Sumter, to supply the battery erecting on Morris Island. That he had constantly urged Major Anderson to forbid all such supplies as were evidently intended for warlike purposes to be sent to that post, or any other occupied by the enemy, for the purpose of cutting off the communication of the garrison with the sea, considering the keeping open of his communications as one of the most vital principles of warefare. Maj. A[nderson] refused. His letter will show you that he has still further refused to do his plain duty. The phrase in the conclusion of the letter referencing "Southerners here" refers to Maj. A., Lts. Talbot & Davis, the latter though an Indianan being a strong pro-slavery man. I send you this letter without my brother's knowledge.” Then Doubleday continued with the heart of the matter. “The condition of the garrison is this. They number 60 men soldiers and 11 musicians. They have only hard bread, pork and beans enough to last with economy four months. They have no coal, nor any other fuel, except parts of some old buildings, enough to last about forty days. The men and officers are worn out with watching and work. The enemy are rapidly strengthening their batteries on Morris & Sullivans Islands, and have sunk vessels, loaded with stones, in the channel, so as to prevent large ships approaching Ft. Sumter. Every day the situation of the garrison grows more critical, thanks to the vacillation and incompetency of Mr. Buchanan and Maj. Anderson…Depend upon it Maj. A's heart is not with his duty.”?He added, “The enclosed slip [article] from the Evening Post shows that my view is also entertained in Charleston.” The letter Mrs. Anderson received was written shortly after the one he sent to his brother and was an update on the situation. In the book “Allegiance” by David Detzer and Gene Smith, the authors state that “In mid-January, after the Star of the West debacle, Doubleday had written his wife concerning conditions. She in turn had sent it to Abner’s brother Ulysses. He…sent it along to Lincoln in Springfield…”

We know that Lincoln was sent the two Doubleday reports from inside Fort Sumter, but did he in fact see them personally? And why is the letter Mrs. Doubleday received not in the Library of Congress? Basler’s “Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln” contains no response from Lincoln, leaving the questions up in the air. Here, however, are the answers.   

Autograph Letter Signed, Springfield, January 24, 1861, to Ulysses Doubleday. "Yours of the 15th inclosing that which I now return was duly received, and for which I thank you. I have neglected for a few days to return the inclosed. Yours truly, A. Lincoln." So Lincoln received the letters, was grateful for having the chance to read them, kept them a while reviewing them, and returned Mrs. Doubleday’s to her. This is a rare letter of Lincoln directly relating to the events in Fort Sumter, even as he prepared to take office as President and develop a policy on the flash point that would soon start the Civil War.   

Lincoln clearly took the information seriously. Shortly after his inauguration, he invited Mrs. Doubleday to the White House for a consultation. As for Abner, he aimed the cannon that fired the first return shot in answer to the Confederate bombardment on April 12, 1861. He went on to become a Union general. Ulysses joined the volunteers in 1861 and rose to become colonel in the 45th U. S. Colored Infantry. He commanded a brigade at the battle of Five Forks in 1865 and was brevetted brigadier-general of volunteers "for distinguished gallantry”.

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