Chairman of The Lincoln Forum

It is easy for us to forget the uncertainties surrounding America at the beginning of the Civil War.

After the surrender of Fort Sumter in April 1861, President Lincoln took drastic measures as part of his strategy to resist Southern rebellion. These included his call for 75,000 volunteers, a blockade of the Southern coast, increasing the size of the federal army and navy, and authorizing the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus along the rail lines from Washington to Philadelphia or by way of Annapolis. These were military acts pursuant to what the President called the “war power.”

He believed suspension was necessary to the war effort so that troops could reach Washington and telegraph lines remain open for communication to the Northern states. The nation’s capital was surrounded by Virginia, which seceded on April 17, and Maryland which was anti-Lincoln (in the 1860 election Lincoln garnered only 2,294 votes out of a population of 92,502). The President feared the state would secede and was already hindering the arrival of troops from the North with the April 19 attack on the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment as it traveled through Baltimore.

In an April 25 letter to General Winfield Scott, the President authorized Scott to suspend habeas corpus only in “the extremist necessity” but could “bombard” Maryland’s cities if such action was militarily “necessary.” Lincoln, the lawyer/politician, understood the importance of the writ and thus made this crucial distinction with destroying cities preferable to denying habeas corpus to the citizens.

Such suspension, then, was not “to harass and intimidate the residents.” He believed his order helped, rather than hinder his “solemn” oath as president to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”

In his special message to Congress on July 4, Lincoln would explain his actions and seek acquiescence by its members. His rationale would continue for the entire conflict, “Are all the laws but one, to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated.”