Eight Weeks in Washington, 1861: Abraham Lincoln and the Hazards of Transition

Eight Weeks in Washington, 1861: Abraham Lincoln and the Hazards of Transition

by Richard J. Tofel

As we celebrate 150 years since Lincoln first took the oath of office on March 4, 1861, a reappraisal of Lincoln's first eight weeks in office is in order. A close look at those weeks, our most hazardous transition, reveals a time when the fate of the nation's capital, certainly of the Lincoln Administration, and perhaps of the nation itself, seemed very much in


As we celebrate 150 years since Lincoln first took the oath of office on March 4, 1861, a reappraisal of Lincoln's first eight weeks in office is in order. A close look at those weeks, our most hazardous transition, reveals a time when the fate of the nation's capital, certainly of the Lincoln Administration, and perhaps of the nation itself, seemed very much in doubt.
This is a story of a president uncertain and sometimes amateurish, of a man not yet fully recognized as a legitimate leader, of an executive anxious to the point of illness, of a beleaguered figure, occasionally despairing, but also starting to find his footing. Lincoln himself soon remembered it as the most troubled and anxious time of his life, one that might actually have threatened his physical survival. In a sense, it is a story of Abraham Lincoln the human being beginning to become the Abraham Lincoln we now recall.

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Sold by:
File size:
716 KB

Read an Excerpt

Eight Weeks in Washington, 1861

Abraham Lincoln and the Hazards of Transition

By Richard J. Tofel

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2010 Richard J. Tofel
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-2843-4


First Days' Challenge

By the time of Lincoln's inauguration on March 4, 1861, seven states — South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, and Texas — had seceded. But eight others had declined to do so, at least for the present — Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, North Carolina, Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and, critically, Virginia. Without Virginia, it was generally understood, the new Confederate States of America would likely be stillborn. In the seceding states, the new president found that most of the federal forts and arsenals had been seized by the Confederates. The only exceptions were a few scattered posts in Texas; Fort Pickens in Pensacola, Florida; forts Taylor and Jefferson in the Florida Keys; and Fort Sumter in Charleston.

On the morning of the inaugural, Major Robert Anderson, in command at Sumter, informed President James Buchanan, through outgoing Secretary of War Joseph Holt, that his post must soon either be resupplied or abandoned.

Sumter had been seen as a focus of the secession crisis as soon as Lincoln's election triggered that crisis. Even before South Carolina's formal move to leave the Union, outgoing President Buchanan's cabinet had been split on the question of whether to resupply federal forces in Charleston Harbor. At that early point, the federal garrison was located at Fort Moultrie and under the command of the recently installed Major Anderson. The position at Moultrie was particularly vulnerable because, while located on Sullivan's Island, it stood on a point close to shore. But Anderson's contingent, in any event, was a great distance from any friendly forces. When the cabinet refused Anderson's request to be supplied at Moultrie, Secretary of State Lewis Cass, a former Michigan senator and the Democratic presidential candidate in 1848, resigned in protest. A week later, South Carolina declared that it had left the Union, and the threatened seizure of federal military installations in secessionist areas began.

Less than one week after that, on the day after Christmas 1860, Major Anderson, acting on his own authority and in secret, removed his command from Moultrie to a more easily defended position at Fort Sumter, on an island of its own in the middle of the harbor, although still within reach of shore batteries. New York diarist George Templeton Strong called this "Great News!" and considered it "an excellent move. ... It postpones actual collision and saves the lives probably of Anderson and his little handful of men." But the hapless Buchanan's cabinet was split again. Secretary of War John Floyd, a Virginian who had been systematically undermining efforts to safeguard federal installations and husband federal armaments, insisted that Buchanan order Anderson to retreat back to Moultrie — and almost certain surrender. When Buchanan declined, and asserted that any attack on Sumter would be resisted, Floyd resigned as well; he was soon followed by Secretary of the Interior Jacob Thompson of Mississippi. In less than a month, and with less than three months to go in his presidential term, Buchanan had lost three of the seven members of his cabinet over military questions regarding Charleston Harbor. (A fourth cabinet member, Secretary of the Treasury Howell Cobb of Georgia, had resigned rather more straightforwardly to join the secession movement.)

This is the point at which President-elect Lincoln first tentatively entered the picture. At this early stage, Lincoln evinced strong views about the course to be followed. He wanted those forts already seized by the rebels to be retaken. Upon hearing a rumor (later proven false) that Buchanan had ordered Anderson to surrender if attacked, Lincoln blurted out, "If that is true they ought to hang him!" Buchanan, in fact, ordered an attempt to resupply Sumter, but on January 9, 1861, the mission failed when the civilian vessel hired for the purpose, Star of the West, was fired upon by shore batteries in Charleston Harbor and beaten back.

For his own part, Lincoln wrote to Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, the seventy-four-year-old commander of all American forces and the hero of the Mexican-American War Lincoln had once opposed. With his inauguration less than ten weeks away, Lincoln asked Scott to be prepared to retake seized forts.

Now, with the presidency changing hands, Major Anderson told his civilian commander that he estimated that any forcible attempt at resupply would require twenty thousand troops — a force about 25 percent larger than the entire United States army. (Holt, initially Buchanan's postmaster general, had succeeded Floyd at the War Department.) Holt passed the grim report along to Buchanan in the waning hours of the latter's presidency. Buchanan, who rode to and from the inaugural with Lincoln largely in silence, did not share the news with his successor.

The question of the federal forts hung over Lincoln's inaugural address. The thrust of the speech was clear — Lincoln closed by exhorting the South, "We are not enemies but friends." And while an earlier draft of his own had pledged to "reclaim the public property and places which have fallen," Lincoln chose to accept a formulation that "the power confided in me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government" — that is, to maintain the status quo at places like Sumter, but not necessarily to seek to retake forts and other facilities that had already been seized by the Confederates.

On March 5, his first morning as president, Lincoln received a report from Holt — still secretary of war pending the confirmation of Lincoln's cabinet later that week — that Anderson's command at Fort Sumter was down to one month's supplies. Holt completed the bleak picture by further informing Lincoln that a relief expedition prepared by the Buchanan administration was now recognized as inadequate to the task. Fort Sumter thus immediately presented itself as the first crisis of Lincoln's presidency, with a deadline and without a plan for resolution.

Holt did offer one reassurance: Questioned closely by Lincoln about whether Anderson was loyal, Holt confidently insisted that he was. Although Anderson had been a colonel in command of Illinois volunteers during Lincoln's brief military service (in the Black Hawk War of 1832), and had mustered Lincoln in and out of his service, the men did not really know each other. And Anderson was a Kentucky native, a West Point friend of Confederate president (and former U. S. senator and earlier secretary of war) Jefferson Davis. A former slave owner, Anderson was known to be opposed to abolition. With military officers, members of Congress, even some of Buchanan's cabinet officers having recently betrayed their oaths, Anderson's loyalty was not something that could be taken for granted. Learning that Anderson could be counted upon made the new president's task much less complicated than it would otherwise have been. (Whether Holt, also a Kentuckian, was correct to reassure Lincoln is not altogether clear. A service rival of Anderson's accused him, around this same time, of "boundless partiality for the South," and Anderson soon wrote a fellow officer that "my heart is not in the war which I see is about to be commenced.")

If Anderson's patriotism was in doubt, this was hardly unusual in that time and place. Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts later referred to "the mild loyalty which then pervaded Washington, New York, and the great cities of the North." The capital city, a "spreading, rambling, half village, half fortified post," was, in William Stoddard's words, "socially ... 'secesh' to the backbone. ... [T]he rich men, [most of] the bankers ... the old social leaders, including many who later served the Government for their bread and butter, were bitterly disloyal."

* * *

On the day after his inauguration, Lincoln almost immediately turned to General Scott to help him consider the bad news from Anderson at Sumter. Scott, nicknamed Old Fuss and Feathers, was a fading presence, stooping from a former height possibly even greater than Lincoln's six feet four inches. He was grossly overweight, and tired easily, often hobbled by gout. He had been the nation's top military officer for twenty years, and for the last seven of those years had made his headquarters in New York, rather than at the War Department in Washington. From the autumn of 1859 until December 1860, he had effectively been off the scene entirely, negotiating the settlement of a border dispute with the British over San Juan Island in the Pacific Northwest. Scott made his way to the capital only after his return to New York in December. At a time when just one in forty Americans was over the age of sixty-five (compared with one in eight today), he was still the country's senior commander nearly a decade past that mark. Put another way, Scott, whose initial military commission was signed by Thomas Jefferson before Lincoln was born, had lived longer than more than 99 percent of the countrymen he was assigned to defend. But he was also almost universally admired, the only officer to have attained the rank of lieutenant general since George Washington; one British observer called him "the representative man in Washington of the monarchial idea."

Scott, who had the previous autumn urged President Buchanan to reinforce all southern forts, now advised the new president that he should reinforce both Forts Sumter and Pickens. But Scott's advice went beyond that — and beyond the point of strategic incoherence. While favoring reinforcement of the forts — a military act presumably in pursuit of holding the Union together — Scott also indicated that he thought the seceding states should be permitted to go in peace. And he observed that eventual abandonment of Sumter was nearly inevitable as a military matter. (The Confederate commander in Charleston, General P. G. T. Beauregard, was quoted in a Charleston newspaper the same day making essentially the same point. Beauregard had, until recently, been a captain in the U.S. Army, and the superintendent of its military academy at West Point. Secretary Holt, doubtful of his loyalty, had removed him from the military academy post.)

For the new president, who had made clear in his inaugural that holding together the Union was his one unshakeable aim, the advice from his military commander must have been deeply disappointing, as well as confusing. His own general seemed to shy away from a fight, to temporize in the face of tactical choices, and to consider the cause all but lost from a strategic point of view. Lincoln wanted time to settle in, and to reflect a bit.

And from his first day in office he was immensely distracted by new social obligations — and by a flood of office seekers. William Russell of The Times of London noted that the Willard Hotel, the local hostelry of choice, "probably contains at this moment more scheming, plotting, planning heads, more aching and joyful hearts, than any building of the same size ever held in the world." At the same time, Mary Lincoln scheduled the couple's first official White House reception for their fourth evening in the Executive Mansion. The First Lady, working with private secretary John Nicolay, handled most of the arrangements for social occasions, but this still left President Lincoln to attend, shake literally hundreds of hands, and try to charm his new neighbors.

Upstairs, things were even harder. For a man long used to practice in a small law firm, the professional setting of the White House must have seemed in some measure familiar to Abraham Lincoln. The new Lincoln Firm occupied the eastern half of the second floor of the Executive Mansion, facing the Treasury and State departments. The presidential office suite included just five rooms: a reception area, a waiting room, and offices for the president and each of two secretaries. The total working area comprised less than twenty-nine hundred square feet, roughly the size of a large modern apartment.

Lincoln's own office was generous in size, thirty-five feet deep, with twenty-seven feet fronting toward the White House south lawn — a bit larger than today's Oval Office. (It was located on the site of today's "Lincoln Bedroom," although Lincoln himself slept in a room on the western end of the building's southern side.) Ronald C. White describes Lincoln's office this way:

A large walnut table, piled with books and maps, dominated [the room] ... Lincoln often worked at an old upright mahogany writing desk by the middle windows of the south wall. ... Two horsehair sofas and wooden chairs were scattered about the room in no particular arrangement. More maps hung above the sofas. Oilcloths covered the floor. The room was lighted by gaslight and heated by a fireplace.

But the rest of the presidential office suite was terribly cramped, with callers constantly overflowing the reception and waiting rooms, and down the stairs to the first floor below. The eastern end of the floor also sported a bedroom for the two secretaries. The Lincoln family's quarters were located on the other end of the same floor of the building. As William Stoddard, who worked in the offices, later summed up the situation, "The President of the United States has no private residence, and less space for the transaction of the business of his office than a well-to-do New York lawyer."

Nor was he physically what one expects of a leader, then or now. William Russell of The Times first met him at the White House on March 27, 1861, barely three weeks into his presidency, and left an indelible portrait. As Russell described, Lincoln entered the room.

with a shambling, loose, irregular, almost unsteady gait, a tall, lank, lean man, considerably over six feet in height, with stooping shoulders, long pendulous arms, terminating in hands of enormous dimensions, which, however, were far exceeded in proportion by his feet. He was dressed in an ill-fitting, wrinkled suit of black, which put one in mind of an undertaker's uniform at a funeral; round his neck a rope of black silk was knotted in a large bulb, with flying ends projecting beyond the collar of his coat; his turned-down shirt-collar disclosed a sinewy, muscular yellow neck, and above that, nestling in a great black mass of hair, bristling and compact like a ruff of mourning pins, rose the strange quaint face and head, covered with its thatch of wild republican hair.

The face was even more striking, and immediately elusive. Russell continued:

The impression produced by the size of his extremities, and by his flapping and wide-projecting ears, may be removed by the appearance of kindliness, sagacity, and the awkward bonhomie of his face; the mouth is absolutely prodigious; the lips, straggling, and extending almost from one line of black beard to the other, are only kept in order by two deep furrows from the nostril to the chin; the nose itself — a prominent organ — stands out from the face, with an inquiring anxious air, as though it were sniffing for some good thing in the wind; the eyes dark, full, and deeply set, are penetrating, but full of an expression which almost amounts to tenderness; and above them projects the shaggy brow, running into the small hard frontal space, the development of which can scarcely be estimated accurately, owing to the irregular flocks of thick hair carelessly brushed across it. One would say that, although the mouth was made to enjoy a joke, it could also utter the severest sentence which the head could dictate.

Managing the office seekers was the new president's principal own chore, supported only by an usher or two to keep people moving along, and with just his two secretaries, Nicolay and young John Hay, to handle the callers' requests and the president's disposition of them. An economic slump, which had ensued when the financial markets collapsed following Lincoln's election, heightened the pressure for jobs.

The situation was much worse than it had been for nearly all of Lincoln's fifteen predecessors. Andrew Jackson, the seventh president, had substantially increased both the size of the government and the common understanding of the president's prerogative in filling its places; those coming before Jackson simply had — or believed that they had — fewer jobs to fill. (Lincoln had about eleven hundred civilian posts.)

Since Jackson, Lincoln was only the second chief executive to represent a new political party in the White House. The first, Whig Party standard bearer William Henry Harrison, had died in 1841 after one month in office (twenty years before Lincoln's assumption of the presidency) under the crush of social obligations and office seekers, which made impossible a recovery from a cold at the then-old age of sixty-eight Now, Lincoln's Republicans, in the words of Ward Hill Lamon, were "a party that had never fed; and it was voraciously hungry."


Excerpted from Eight Weeks in Washington, 1861 by Richard J. Tofel. Copyright © 2010 Richard J. Tofel. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Dick Tofel is general manager of Propublica, an investigative reporting venture, and previously was assistant managing editor and assistant publisher of the Wall Street Journal. He is the author of SOUNDING THE TRUMPET (2005) about JFK's inaugural address; VANISHING POINT (2004) about the disappearance of Judge Crater; A LEGEND IN THE MAKING (2002) about the 1939 Yankees; and RESTLESS GENIUS (2009) about Barney Kilgore and the shaping of the Wall Street Journal.

Richard J. Tofel is general manager of ProPublica, a not-for-profit investigative reporting venture, and previously was an assistant managing editor and the assistant publisher of The Wall Street Journal. He is the author of Sounding the Trumpet (2005), about JFK's inaugural address; Vanishing Point (2004), about the disappearance of Judge Crater; and A Legend in the Making (2002), about the 1939 Yankees.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >