March 19th, 1861: Lincoln’s ‘March Madness’

By Scott Ackerman

March 1861 was most certainly a month of madness for President Lincoln. Moments after being inaugurated as the 16th President, Lincoln was confronted by the monumental decision of whether or not to reinforce the United States Army garrison stationed at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. The garrison’s supplies would run out in manner of weeks, but Lincoln, never one to be hurried, was determined to gather all the necessary information before reaching a decision. David Herbert Donald, in his seminal biography Lincoln, finds the President’s actions during the Fort Sumter crisis to reveal the “essential passivity” of Lincoln’s nature. However, a quick glance at an important action Lincoln took on March 19th, 1861, reveals clear indications that Lincoln’s actions bespoke patience, not passivity. On this date, the President dispatched Gustavus Vasa Fox, a thirty-four year old former naval officer to Charleston, South Carolina. The object of his mission was to “ascertain the feasibility” of his plan to reinforce the fort by sending troops and supplies to the mouth of Charleston Harbor via a commercial vessel, then transfer to “light, fast tugboats that would convey them to the for under cover of darkness.” Given the tense atmosphere in Charleston, Lincoln’s decision to “obtain more information” before undertaking an audacious plan was prudent, but the plan itself, and the serious consideration Lincoln bestowed on it by sending Fox to Charleston are more accurately a reflection of patience then passivity. (For more, see Michael Burlingame’s Abraham Lincoln: A Life.)  March 1861 may have been “March Madness” in the most visceral sense of the term, but in Lincoln’s actions on this date we see the roots of the patient aggression that would characterize his war leadership.

Mr. Ackerman is an Historical Interpreter at President Lincoln’s Cottage

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