March 1861: Abraham Lincoln Inaugurated

150 Years Ago in the Civil War

Late in the morning of March 4th, 1861, President elect Abraham Lincoln left Willard’s Hotel in Washington DC, boarded a carriage, and departed for the Capitol. He was accompanied by outgoing President James Buchanon. The route to the Capitol was lined with soldiers both on the ground and in the buildings, and artillery was deployed on the grounds of the Capitol. It was an extraordinary level of security for that time.

At the Capitol, the new Vice President, Hannibal Hamlin, was sworn into office in the Senate Chamber. Lincoln then stepped out onto a temporary platform on the east portico of the Capitol building and delivered his inauguration address to the thousands assembled.

Lincoln began his address by assuring the southern states that they had nothing to fear from his administration, and that he did not intend to “interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so”. He went on to say that secession was unlawful, and “the essence of anarchy”. 

He ended the speech by saying that if war broke out, it would be the seceding states that  provoked it and not the Federal government:

In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect, and defend it.”

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature. 

When the speech was over, Chief Justice Roger Taney administered the oath of office, and Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as the 16th President of the United States.

Meanwhile, in Montgomery, Alabama, the business of setting up the Confederate government continued. Throughout March, several Federal military posts in Texas were surrendered to state authorities or abandoned.    

Lincoln and his cabinet spent the next few weeks setting up the new administration and trying to figure out what to do about the situations at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor and Fort Pickens in Pensacola, Florida. Supplies were running low, especially at Fort Sumter, and the current situation could not continue indefinitely. The cabinet was split on whether to hold or withdraw from the forts. The President considered the recommendations of General Winfield Scott, and various government officials who had traveled to Charleston and discussed the situation with South Carolina authorities and with the commander of the Fort Sumter garrison, Major Robert Anderson. Finally, at the end of March, Lincoln made up his mind. Forts Sumter and Pickens would be resupplied and held. Naval expeditions to carry this out were to be ready to sail in early April.

One way or another, the stalemate would end in April.

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