William H. Russell

March 27, 1861

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Still, Seward was recognized as the man who had the president’s ear. William Russell of The Times in London capitalized on this intimacy when he first arrived in Washington. Russell was then forty-one, a spectacled, lively, rotund Englishman whose sparkling reports from the Crimean War had made him a celebrity in London. At a dinner party on March 26, he was fascinated by Seward, “a subtle, quick man, rejoicing in power…fond of badinage, bursting with the importance of state mysteries.” The next day, Seward arranged for Russell to slip into a White House reception for the Italian minister. Russell recalled that Lincoln “put out his hand in a very friendly manner, and said, ‘Mr. Russell, I am very glad to make your acquaintance, and to see you in this country. The LondonTimes is one of the greatest powers in the world-in fact, I don’t know anything which has much more power-except perhaps the Mississippi.’”

Russell attended the Lincolns’ first state dinner that evening. Arriving at the White House, he noted that Mary “was already seated to receive her guests.” He found her features “plain, her nose and mouth of an ordinary type, and her manners and appearance homely, stiffened, however, by the consciousness that her position requires her to be something more than plain Mrs. Lincoln, the wife of the Illinois lawyer; she is profuse in the introduction of the word ‘sir’ in every sentence.”

At the formal dinner, “there was a Babel of small talk,” Russell observed, “except when there was an attentive silence caused by one of the President’s stories… for which he is famous.” As he reeled off one humorous anecdote after another, no one could have guessed that earlier that day, Lincoln had received devastating news from General Scott. In a written memorandum, Scott had advised that it was now unlikely, “according to recent information from the South, whether the voluntary evacuation of Fort Sumter alone would have a decisive effect upon the States now wavering between adherence to the Union and secession.” Fort Pickens would also have to be abandoned, Scott argued, in order to “give confidence to the eight remaining slave-holding States.”
Shortly before the state dinner ended, Lincoln called his cabinet colleagues aside and asked them to follow him into a different room. Montgomery Blair would long remember Lincoln’s agitation as he revealed the contents of Scott’s report. “A very oppressive silence succeeded,” Blair recalled, interrupted only by his own angry retort that Scott was playing “politician and not General,” a comment directed at Seward’s influence with Scott. Like his son, Blair Senior had long believed that Lincoln should have announced the reinforcement of Sumter at the time of his inauguration and he blamed Seward for Lincoln’s “timid temporizing policy.” It was Andrew Jackson’s motto, he reminded, that “if you temporize, you are lost.”

THAT NIGHT, Lincoln was unable to sleep. The time for musing and assessment was at an end. He must make the decision between a surrender that might compromise the honor of the North and tear it apart, or a reinforcement that might carry the country into civil war. Later he confessed to Browning, “of all the trials I have had since I came here, none begin to compare with those I had between the inauguration and the fall of Fort Sumpter. They were so great that could I have anticipated them, I would not have believed it possible to survive them.”

By Doris Kearns Goodwin,“Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”,Goodwin-323-221-62,63,65,68