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What Happened in January 1861 ©
The Situation in Charleston Harbor
Major Robert Anderson Assumes Command
The day after Christmas, December 26, 1860, Major Robert Anderson, commanding two companies of the U.S. Army’s First Artillery Regiment, orchestrated the movement of the soldiers, their wives and children, and a variety of supplies, from Fort Moultrie, on Sullivan’s Island, to Fort Sumter in the middle of the harbor mouth. The movement involved two light steam vessels, which carried the wives, children, and supplies, and six barges for the passage of the men. These vessels were moored at the wharf in front of Fort Moultrie and were loaded in full sight of the Carolinians, both those on land as well as those operating patrol boats in the harbor. The light steam vessels, as well as the barges, had been leased from the Carolinians. The myth of history reports Anderson’s transfer of his garrison from one fort to the other as conducted “secretly;" in fact, the Carolinians were well aware that the only reason Anderson would stockpile barges at the seawall in front of Fort Moultrie was to use them to transfer his command from one fort to the other. The Carolinians allowed Anderson to make the movement. Why? Indeed, why, under the circumstances, did Major Anderson decide to shift his command from Moultrie to Sumter?
On November 12, 1860, Major Anderson was serving on an academic committee in New York, when he received a message from General-in-chief, Winfield Scott, to come to Washington and confer with Secretary of War John Floyd. When Anderson arrived, Floyd informed him that Col. John Gardner, the garrison commander at Fort Moultrie, had been relieved of duty and sent to Texas. The reason for this, Floyd explained, was that Gardner had caused rifles to be removed from the U.S. Arsenal at Charleston. The rifles were taken to the Charleston Battery, but the ship captain hired to move them to Fort Moultrie, reported this to the South Carolina government and permission for the ship to leave the Battery was refused. The Governor then demanded of President Buchanan that Gardner be replaced with an officer who understood the necessity of being circumspect under the circumstances developing in Carolina as the result of the presidential election.
From Secretary of War Floyd’s point of view, as well as that of the Carolinians, Robert Anderson was the ideal candidate to take command at Fort Moultrie; they expected him to be an officer naturally inclined to exhibit sympathy for the Carolinians’ rising clamor for secession from the Union. Certainly, Anderson’s personal background justified this expectation. Anderson was a native of Kentucky, who was born into a slave-holding family and was married to the daughter of a wealthy Georgia slaveholder. He owned slaves himself, and thus it was supposed that he would be motivated to act in a manner advantageous to the Carolinians. Also, since he had already served in the Army for thirty-five years (his graduation from West Point was in 1825) it was assumed he was ready for retirement and would take the easy way out, not act aggressively in the execution of his orders.
There was another trait of Anderson’s character, however, that Floyd and his associates failed to respect: Anderson was a classic product of the West Point of the times. He was a soldier, from his head to his toes. His combat experience spanned the scope of his entire career, beginning with the Blackhawk Indian wars in the 1830’s, the Seminole war of 1837, and the Mexican War of 1846, where he was severely wounded storming the bastion known as Molino del Rey covering the gates to Mexico City. The word honor meant something to him: As long as he wore the uniform of a United States Army officer, he would act in a manner that guaranteed the integrity of his reputation as a soldier and vindicated his long army career.
Major Anderson Calls For Reinforcements
Major Anderson arrived in Charleston the week of November 20 and immediately inspected the forts under his command. There were four of them: Fort Johnson, dilapidated and of no practical use; Castle Pinckney, a small casemated work that sits within close range of Charleston; Fort Moultrie, on the south facing beach of Sullivan’s Island, and Fort Sumter on a shoal in the middle of the harbor mouth. He then reported to the Army Adjutant General, Samuel S. Cooper (Cooper would eventually resign and become the Confederate AG), the following:
“In compliance with verbal instructions from the Secretary of War, I have inspected the forts of this harbor. I shall confine my remarks to the matter of greatest importance, if the Government intends holding them."
“At Fort Moultrie, Captain Foster is working on the outer defenses. There are several sand hills within 400 yards of our eastern wall, which provide good cover for approaching parties. Two of them command our work and must be leveled. This fort, with the appropriate war garrison, will be capable of making a very handsome defense. The garrison now in it is so weak as to invite an attack, which is publicly threatened."
“At Fort Sumter, the guns of the lower casement will be mounted in about 17 days. The magazines contain 40,000 pounds of powder and a full supply of ammunition for one tier of guns. This work is the key to the entrance to this harbor; its guns command Fort Moultrie, and could soon drive out its occupants. It should be garrisoned at once."
“I need not say how anxious I am—indeed, determined, so far as honor will permit—to avoid collision with the citizens of South Carolina. Nothing, however, will be better calculated to prevent bloodshed than our being found in such an attitude that it would be madness and folly to attack us."
“That there is a settled determination to leave the Union, and to obtain possession of Fort Moultrie, is apparent to all. The clouds are threatening and the storm may break upon us at any moment. I do, then, most earnestly entreat that reinforcements be immediately sent to this garrison, and that at least two companies be sent at the same time to Fort Sumter. I firmly believe that as soon as the Carolinians learn I have asked for reinforcements they will attack this fort. It is therefore of vital importance that the reinforcements be embarked on steamers designated for transport to other places."
“I will thank the department to give me special instructions, as my position here is rather a political than a military one."
At First, President Buchanan Refuses to Chance Starting the War
Nothing was heard from Washington for almost four weeks, as President Buchanan and his cabinet considered what should be done with the army garrison at Charleston.
Buchanan’s dilemma was real: It was patently obvious to everyone, even then, in November 1860, that South Carolina would indeed secede from the Union. An attempt at military coercion would most certainly, in every politician’s mind, instantly bring to South Carolina’s side the Cotton States, if not the whole of the Slave States. Even if Buchanan wished to induce this result, his attorney general, Jeremiah S. Black, quite rightly in the context of abstract thought, had informed him the President had no constitutional power to declare, no authority to prosecute, and no right to enforce a war against a State. Yet, Black correctly opined, the President’s constitutional duty was to protect and preserve the property of the United States.
The dilemma was how to do this, when the property of the United States was within the limits of a State? The practical reality was that, to protect and preserve the United States property inside Charleston Harbor, the use of force was required; but President Buchanan had no force immediately available at his call. The great bulk of the Regular Army of 18,000 men was on the western plains, protecting the immigrants and settlers from the Indians. According to General Scott, there were available for Buchanan’s immediate use only five companies of regular troops, about one thousand men: these scattered at different posts between the Atlantic seaboard and the Mississippi. Similarly, the warships of the United States Navy were on stations scattered all over the seas of the world, with only four ships—Brooklyn, Pawnee, Pocahontas, and Harriet Lane—available on the east coast.
To raise the force necessary to hold the United States property in Charleston Harbor, not just the forts but also the Federal courthouse, post office, and customs house, President Buchanan’s only option, then, was to call upon the governors of the States for their militias. But the existing laws of Congress, his attorney general had quite intelligently explained, clearly did not authorize this. Even if Buchanan ignored the plain reading of the applicable law in this regard, and called for the governors to send him their militias, relying on Congress in the interim to ratify his action by amending the law, he had no reasonable basis to expect that the Border States would acquiesce. The call for troops would be received by them as confirmation of the Federal Government’s intent to control the political future of South Carolina by force, and they would resist the call.
In such circumstance, all prospects for a peaceful resolution of the impending crisis would obviously be destroyed. Suddenly, on Buchanan’s watch, the whole fabric of the Union would disintegrate into shreds. And there did appear to Buchanan to be a reasonable prospect for peace: the Republicans were publicly considering proposals that might satisfy the demand of the Slave States for security for themselves and their peculiar property. Indeed, there were at that time many Republicans, Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune among them, who publicly acknowledged the wisdom of letting the Slaves States go without a war.
Contrary to what the history books suggest, James Buchanan was not a dullard, an incompetent, an aider and abetter of the secessionists, but a political realist who understood that if he decided to build an army to support the United States’ hold on South Carolina, he would be committing the Federal Government to an offensive war, to be waged against a State; and, though such a war may be declared by Congress as expressly authorized by the Constitution, he reasonably believed the temper of the country was against it.
Major Anderson Finally Receives Instructions
Major Anderson, impatient for an answer from the government, wrote to Adjutant General Cooper on November 28th: “The question for the Government to decide—and the sooner it is done the better—is whether, when South Carolina secedes these forts are to be surrendered or not. If the former, I must be informed of it, and instructed what course I am to pursue. If the latter be the determination, no time is to be lost in either sending troops, as already suggested, or vessels of war to this harbor. Either of these courses may cause some of the doubting States to join South Carolina."
On December 1, AG Cooper wrote Anderson a response to this: “It is believed from information thought reliable, that an attack will not be made on your command, and the Secretary of War has only to refer to his conversation with you, and to caution you that your actions must be such as to be free of the charge of initiating a collision. If attacked, you are expected to defend the trust committed to you, to the best of your ability."
Several letters passed back and forth between Anderson and
Cooper thereafter, with no decision made as to reinforcements. Instead, on
December 11, Carlos Buell, an assistant adjutant general, appeared at
Charleston and conveyed to Anderson Secretary of War Floyd’s formal
instructions: “Floyd is determined to pursue a course which shall guard against
a collision of troops. He therefore abstains (obviously with Buchanan’s
blessing) from increasing the force at this point, or taking any measures which
might add to the present excited state of the public mind." Buell completed his
recitation with this sentence, attributable to the authority of the secretary
of war: “You are authorized to put your command in Fort Sumter whenever you have tangible evidence of a design (of the Carolinians) to proceed to a
Ten more days passed, with messengers shuttling back and forth; then came Secretary of Floyd’s personal letter to Major Anderson just as South Carolina’s convention of delegates had passed its Ordinance of Secession:
Washington, December 21, 1860
In the verbal instructions communicated to you by Major Buell, you are directed to hold possession of the forts, and, if attacked, to defend yourself to the last extremity. [But] useless sacrifice of your life is far from the President’s intentions. You are to exercise a sound military discretion on this subject.
It is neither expected nor desired that you should expose your own life or that of your men in a hopeless conflict in defense of these forts. If they are invested or attacked by a force so superior that resistance would, in your judgment, be a useless waste of life, it will be your duty to yield to necessity, and make the best terms in your power.
John B. Floyd.
Here was the message of a confederate communicated with a wink. South Carolina had now seceded. It was a tangible fact. But still there would be no reinforcements sent. Anderson. He and his two companies of artillerymen, with their wives and children, and a few months’ supplies, were on their own, on an island surrounded by a seething sea of rage. President Buchanan, through his mouthpiece, Floyd, was telling Anderson to surrender as soon as a mass of armed Carolinians approached the fort in the sand dunes. Safe passage for his command would quickly be offered and it would be away from Charleston, the defense of the harbor from intruders returned to South Carolina’s hands. From Buchanan’s point of view, South Carolina would be saddled with the charge of initiating the war and the Democratic Party would leave it to the Republican Party to organize the army necessary to prosecute it. In the meantime there was still a chance for reconciliation, and, perhaps, for peace.
Major Anderson Does the Unexpected
President Buchanan heard the news of Anderson’s sudden move to Sumter, just as the envoys from Governor Pickens arrived in Washington to negotiate the fair value of the property of the United States in Carolina. Buchanan’s first reaction, it is reported, was to order Anderson to go back, but then he learned that was impossible, since the Carolinians had immediately occupied Fort Moultrie, as well as Castle Pinckney, and the Federal buildings in Charleston. Holding his hands up in exasperation, as the secessionist leaders in the Senate—Davis, Lane, and Slidell—burst into his White House office, Buchanan said: “This is against orders and my policy."
This happened in the morning hours of December 27; that afternoon Buchanan sought to gain a consensus among his ministers, in support of a decision to evacuate Anderson’s men from the harbor, but Jeremiah Black, now acting as Secretary of State, threatened his resignation. Black was Buchanan’s closest political associate, really his only friend; letting Black go was not an option and it sobered him.
There was great excitement in the Cabinet that continued unabated for several days. Buchanan was pulled and tugged one way, then the other: on the one side, by the Southerners—Floyd, Thompson, Thomas; on the other by the Northerners—Black, Stanton, and Holt. Then the debate abruptly ended when General Scott drove a dagger into the heart of Buchanan’s policy of pacification.
General Scott Recommends Reinforcement
Winfield Scott was 73 years old in 1860; he was so fat, so diseased, that he could hardly walk. Several days before the presidential election, he had given the President his written views of the developing schism: The Union would splinter into pieces and there was nothing that could be done but to let it happen, hoping that in the passage of time the States would somehow again coalesce. In November, when Major Anderson had first called for reinforcement, Scott had been silent, ignored by Buchanan as he had Floyd put Adjutant General, Samuel Cooper, in Scott’s place in the official line of communication with Anderson.
For over half a century, General Scott had served as an active officer of the United States Army, wearing the stars of a general officer almost the entire time. Along with Andrew Jackson, in the War of 1812, Scott had become a hero in American eyes, having been successful battling the British at Niagara River, at Fort George, and at the Chippewa where he was wounded at Lundy’s Lane. Then he was a young vigorous man, handsome, brilliant, and strong.
(Scott in 1836)
His most astonishing accomplishment has no parallel in American military history, unless it is Dwight Eisenhower’s invasion of France and conquering of Germany in WW II. In 1846, Scott landed an army of less than 12,000 American soldiers—half of them volunteers—at Vera Cruz, marched 450 miles into the interior of Mexico and overwhelmed the bastions of Mexico City, forcing the Mexican government to flee, and the city to capitulate. He was the soldier responsible for doubling the land mass of the United States, overnight.
(Scott in 1846)
As with other soldiers in American history, Scott was rewarded for this, by being nominated for president by a political party. In 1852, he was the last candidate of the disappearing Whig Party, doing little better than Breckinridge or Bell, in 1860, though, in winning electoral votes.
(Scott in 1852)
Then ten years of inactivity passed, and Scott, old and fat and debilitated by chronic disease, stepped briefly as a player into the picture again.
WASHINGTON, December 30, 1860
The PRESIDENT of the UNITED STATES:
Lieutenant-General Scott begs the President of the United States to pardon the irregularity of this communication. (Protocol required ordinarily that it pass through the Secretary of War’s hands, but Floyd by now had resigned, and Joseph Holt had not yet assumed the post.)
It is Sunday, the weather is bad, and General Scott is not well enough to go to Church. But matters of the highest importance forbid a moment’s delay. Will the President permit General Scott, without reference to the War Department, as secretly as possible, to send two hundred and fifty recruits from New York Harbor to reinforce Fort Sumter?
The President’s most obedient servant,
The President’s Only Choice Now Is Limited to Form
(The Civilian Side-wheel Steamer, Star of the West)
On New Year’s Eve, President James Buchanan sat in his rocker by the fireside of his White House office, with Winfield Scott’s letter dangling from his hand. He was in a corner from which he could see no safe way out. By now he had received from his agent, Duff Green, Lincoln’s written response to his inquiry, what would Lincoln do? Knowing that his successor meant to take back the Charleston harbor forts by force, if he were to give them up, had locked Buchanan into the political necessity of adopting Winfield Scott’s recommendation. But how to implement it?
Scott’s had wanted the U.S.S. Brooklyn, a ten gun screw sloop, to go to Charleston with two companies of regular troops pulled from Fort Monroe’s garrison, but the President shrank from doing this: the use of a Navy warship would clearly constitute a purely military offensive act that would signify the Federal Government meant not merely to hold a fort but to subjugate the State. No urgency existed, in Buchanan’s mind, to establish this specific intent: The forts in Charleston Harbor simply had no importance for the general defense of the United States, instead being useful only for the defense of South Carolina. Leave it to Lincoln, he thought; but still something had to be done.
Thinking this, Buchanan had gotten up from his chair by the fireside and, taking up a decanter of Whiskey from the sideboard, downed a slug, slamming the glass down on the board with a thud. Whatever was done, he knew Jacob Thompson, if Mississippi, and Philip Thomas, of Maryland, would soon be gone from his cabinet, and the States of Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana would soon be gone from the Union. He looked again at Scott’s letter—the least provocative thing that could be done was to send recruits, with supplies, on a civilian ship, he decided; and he went to his writing desk and set down his order, praying he was not the one to light the flames of hell.
Two days later, General Scott had directed that the steamer, Star of the West, be leased from its owner and taken to the wharf at Governor’s Island in New York Harbor and be prepared for sea, with 200 men and supplies for three months on board. No notice of this was sent to Major Anderson, presumably because the Carolina government authorities would not allow a messenger to reach Sumter. (But, more likely than not, the President didn’t want Anderson to fire Fort Sumter’s guns in support of the arrival of the Star of the West.) By January 5th, the troops and supplies were abroad the ship and it set out to sea under the cover story that it was proceeding on its usual run to New Orleans.
The effort at secrecy proved futile, of course. On January 7th, The New York Tribune reported: “The vessel, Star of the West, is reported going to Charleston, and will attempt to take troops in by night." On January 8th, the Washington Constitution reported that the Star of the West had sailed for Charleston on the 5th, with troops on board, and would be at the harbor mouth by the 9th. Buchanan’s secretary of the interior, Jacob Thompson, read this, and telegraphed to South Carolina Governor Pickens that Federal troops were coming. Then he resigned and went home to Mississippi. Buchanan, realizing the Star of the West would probably be sunk at the harbor entrance, with all hands lost, ordered that the U.S.S. Brooklyn be sent to sea in an effort to beat the Star of the West to Charleston and stop it.
When the Star of the West arrived at the channel leading into the harbor it was night. Its captain, John McGowan, could find no buoys or lights to navigate by. As the sky was lightening with the dawn, Cummings Point and Sullivan Island came slowly into view and McGowan moved the ship forward through the channel. As the ship came into the harbor, guns from a battery behind Cummings Point opened and shots began to throw water spouts into the air around her.
Major Anderson was watching the progress of the Star of the West from the rampart of Fort Sumter: He saw the ship’s ensign being lowered and raised, apparently in some form of signal, but he could not fathom what it was. He assumed, of course, that the ship was intending to reach Sumter’s wharf and he was excited and anxious to do something to help it, but there was nothing he could do: the battery firing on the ship was concealed from his direct view and beyond the range of Sumter’s available guns. Then a gun from Fort Moultrie, directly across from Sumter—a distance of two thousand yards at most—opened on the Star as she came opposite Sullivan’s Island. An artilleryman, Private John Davis, holding the lanyard of a ready gun, called to Anderson—“Let’s open now!" he shouted.
Major Anderson raised a pair of binoculars to his eyes and scanned the harbor waters, focusing first on the Star and then on Moultrie, gauging ranges. Then he turned and gave orders to a junior officer behind him, to go below and get a crew to make ready a battery of Parrott 42-pounders (with a range of 2,000 yards) in the casement tier facing Moultrie. Just then, a shout went among the men and Anderson turned back to the rampart and saw there was a steamer, towing a schooner, bearing down on the Star. Now the Star went into a wide turn, heading back toward the channel and the sea, and Anderson sent a private running to tell the battery crew to stand down, and not to fire.
The next day, January 9th, Major Anderson sent a message to South Carolina Governor Pickens: “I cannot but think this firing [on a United States vessel] was committed without your authority. If you do not disclaim it, I must regard it as an act of war, and not permit any vessels to pass within the range of the guns of my fort."
Pickens immediately answered: “It was understood by President Buchanan that sending any reinforcements of the troops of the United States in the harbor of Charleston would be regarded as an act of hostility, because it could only be intended by him to dispute the right of the State of South Carolina to that political independence which she has asserted and means to retain. The attempt to reinforce Fort Sumter can only be regarded as indicative of any purpose other than the coercion of the State by the armed forces of the Federal Government. It is not perceived how your proposed action can be reconciled with any purpose other than to impose upon this State the condition of a conquered province."
During the week that followed, President Buchanan conferred with General Scott, asking, in a formal memorandum prepared by his friend, Jerry Black, that Scott give his opinion whether it was the duty of the government to reinforce Anderson and, if yes, how soon action was necessary and how was it to be done. (No record exists as to Scott’s response) At the same time, a truce of sorts was worked out between Anderson and Pickens, and a messenger carried Anderson’s report of events to the President.
On the 16th, Joseph Holt, now acting as the President’s Secretary of War, Floyd having gone back to Virginia, sent Anderson the following letter:
WAR DEPARTMENT, January 16, 1861
Major Robert Anderson,
First Artillery, commanding Fort Sumter:
Sir: You rightly designate the firing into the Star of the West as an `act of war,’ and one which was actually committed without the slightest provocation. Your forbearance to return the fire is fully approved by the President. Unfortunately, the Government had not been able to make known to you that the Star of the West had sailed from New York for your relief. . . .
Your late dispatches have relieved the Government of the apprehensions previously entertained for your safety. In Consequence, it is not its purpose at present to reinforce you. The attempt to do so would, no doubt, be attended by a collision of arms and the effusion of blood—a national calamity which the President is most anxious to avoid.
Whenever, in your judgment, additional supplies or reinforcements are necessary for your safety, or for a successful defense of the fort, you will at once communicate that fact to this Department, and a prompt and vigorous effort will be made to forward them.
The Federal Government had learned enough to know that South Carolina was “ready for the red anvil where each blow is pain." (Whittier’s Thy Will Be Done, January 16, 1861) But it would have to be the incoming president that wielded the hammer and tongs.
The Situation in the Congress
A. The President’s Special Message
On January 8, 1861, the day he knew the Star of the West would be entering Charleston Harbor, President Buchanan delivered a special message to the Congress of the United States which, then, was in executive session.
When he delivered the special message, Buchanan knew that the South Carolina Government had taken possession of the Federal buildings in Charleston; these buildings—the Post Office, Custom House, and Federal Courthouse—were empty of employees, all of whom had resigned their positions. Buchanan also knew that all the forts, except Sumter, were then occupied by the South Carolina Government; the occupation of the forts, like that with the Federal buildings, having occurred without violent incident.
He did not know, at the time he sent the special message, whether or not the South Carolina Government had allowed the Star of the West access to Fort Sumter’s wharf, or, in some matter, had prevented it. Still, even though the latter fact was not known to him, President Buchanan knew enough to know he held in his hands the opportunity to call upon the Congress to pass laws enabling him to command the force necessary to establish the dominance of the Federal Government over South Carolina.
With this knowledge in his mind, President Buchanan crafted a message to Congress which did not disclose the fact that he had sent the Star of the West to Charleston, and he did not call for authority to use the tools of war. In essence he called upon Congress to give the South the one thing Lincoln had made clear he would refuse to give.
“To the Senate and the House of Representatives:
At the opening of your present session, I called your attention to the dangers which threatened the existence of the Union. . .
In my annual message I expressed the conviction, which I have long deliberately held, and which recent reflection has only tended to deepen and confirm, that no State has a right by its own act to secede from the Union or throw off the Federal Government at pleasure. I also declared my opinion to be that even if that right existed and should be exercised by a State, the executive department of this Government has no authority under the Constitution to recognize its validity by acknowledging the independence of such State. My province is to execute and not make the laws.
I certainly have no right to make aggressive war upon any State, and I am perfectly satisfied that the Constitution has wisely withheld that power even from Congress. But the right and the duty to use military force defensively against those who resist the Federal officers in the execution of their legal functions is clear and undeniable. (Here is a classic example of the silliness of politicians’ words: Buchanan’s meaning, here, has to turn on the jury’s determination of Who is Attacking Whom?)
But the dangerous and hostile acts of the States. . . has assumed such alarming proportions as to place the subject entirely beyond and above Executive control. The fact is that we are in the midst of a great revolution. Therefore I commend the question (what question? Buchanan does not exactly say.) to Congress as the only tribunal possessing the power to meet the existing emergency. (Buchanan had just said, Congress had no power)
I therefore appeal to you to declare that the Union must and shall be preserved by all constitutional means. I recommend that you devote yourselves exclusively to the question how this can be accomplished in peace. The present is no time for palliations. Action, prompt action, is required. A delay in Congress to prescribe or to recommend a distinct and practical proposition for conciliation may drive us to a point from which it will be almost impossible to recede.
A common ground on which conciliation and harmony can be produced is surely not unattainable. The proposition to compromise by letting the North have exclusive control of the territory above a certain line and to give Southern institutions protection below that line ought to receive universal approbation.
At the beginning of these unhappy troubles I determined that no act of mind should increase the excitement in either section of the country. If the political conflict were to end in a civil war, it was my determined purpose not to commence it nor even to furnish an excuse for it by any act of the government. . . Entertaining this conviction, I refrained even from sending reinforcements to Major Anderson. . . lest it might unjustly be regarded as a menace of military coercion, and thus furnish. . . a pretext for an outbreak on the part of South Carolina. (Here Buchanan naturally should have been talking about the Star of the West, but he didn’t.)
(Buchanan closes without any further reference to Sumter)
In conclusion it may be permitted to me to remark that. . . I feel that my duty has been faithfully. . . performed, and, whatever the result may be, I shall carry to my grave the consciousness that I at least meant well for my country.
In his special message Buchanan takes two positions which are in direct conflict with each other: on the one hand he states that “no State has a right by its own act to secede from the Union (a statement Lincoln certainly embraced);" and on the other he states that the Constitution has withheld from Congress the power to make “aggressive" war upon a State (a statement Lincoln certainly rejected). Yet, somewhere undefined in the Constitution, he says, lies the right of the Federal Government to make “defensive" war upon a State. Buchanan defines “defensive" war to mean “the right and duty of the Federal Government to use military force" to break South Carolina’s “resistance" to the Federal Government executing its laws.
The semantic game the politicians were playing, in early 1861, Buchanan and Lincoln alike, would be won, then, by determining who was resisting who, who was coercing who. And that determination would logically be made by determining who “attacked" who. For example, upon the appearance of the Star of the West at the mouth of Charleston Harbor—a unarmed civilian steamer known to be carrying some troops and supplies for delivery to Sumter—had the South Carolina Government fired on Fort Sumter and Major Anderson returned fire with the fort’s guns, would not South Carolina be reasonably described the attacker and the United States Army the defender? Would not then the United States calling forth from hell the dogs of war be deemed reasonable and proper under the circumstances?
But, what if it was not a unarmed civilian steamer known to be approaching Charleston Harbor, but a fleet of U.S. Navy warships, escorting several steamers loaded with troops, guns, and ammunition? Upon South Carolina’s firing upon Fort Sumter as the fleet was perceived to have arrived, who reasonably ought to be recognized as the aggressor and who the defender? The answer lies in the eyes of the beholder.
B. The Senate
President Buchanan was blowing in the wind when he begged the Congress to use the issue of southern access to the Territories as the basis of conciliation, or that conciliation was even possible at that point I the history of the United States. In his speech in the Senate, On January 3, 1861, Senator Stephen Douglas, the leader of the Democratic Party in the Senate, had made the reality of the political situation plain:
“We cannot close our eyes to the fact that the Southern people have received the result of the presidential election as furnishing conclusive evidence that the Republican Party is determined to invade and destroy their Constitutional rights. Believing that their domestic institutions, their hearthstones and their family altars are to be assailed, and that the Federal Government is to be used for the inauguration of a line of policy which shall have for its object the ultimate extinction of slavery in all the States, old as well as new, South as well as North, the southern people are prepared to rush wildly, madly, as I think, into revolution, disunion, war, and defy the consequences, whatever they may be, rather than to wait for the development of events, or submit tamely to what they think is a fatal blow impending over them and over all they hold dear on this earth."
“Senator Wade (Republican Senator from Ohio) whose speech was received with so much favor from his friends yesterday, was kind enough to say he did not blame the southern people for their fears, but threw the blame for their supposed misapprehension on myself for misrepresenting the purposes and policy of the Republican Party. No, he does not blame them, because they believe in the existence of the danger; yet he will do no act to undeceive them; will take no step to relieve their painful apprehensions; and will furnish to no guarantee, no security, against the dangers which they believe to exist. But, on the contrary, he demands unconditional submission, threatens war, and talks about armies and navies, and military force for the purpose of preserving the Union! I submit whether this mode of treating the question is not calculated to confirm the worst apprehensions of the southern people and force them into the most extreme measures of resistance."
At this point, Senator Douglas turned from the galleries, to which his remarks had been directed, and stepped into the aisle to confront Senator Wade who was behind his desk a few paces away.
“I will now enquire of the Senator, and yield the floor for an answer, whether it is not the policy of his party to abolish and prohibit slavery by act of Congress, notwithstanding the decision of the Supreme Court (In, Re Dred Scott) to the contrary, in all the Territories we now possess or hereafter may acquire?"
Mr. Wade.—“Mr. President"—
Mr. Douglas.—“One other question, and I will give way."
Mr. Wade.—“Very well."
Mr. Douglas.—“Is it not the policy of the Republican Party to exert all powers of the Federal Government under the Constitution, according to their interpretation of the instrument, to restrain and cripple the institution of slavery, with a view to its ultimate extinction in all the States, old as well as new, South as well as North?"
Mr. Wade.—“I have nothing to say. If he will read my speeches, he will find my sentiments upon all these questions."
Here now comes the truth of history we tend to ignore.
Mr. Douglas.—“I know too well the Senator will not deny that this is the intent of his party. They intend to exercise the powers of the Federal Government with a view to the ultimate extinction of slavery in the Southern States. It is the policy of their party to exclude slavery in all the Territories we now possess and may acquire, with a view of surrounding the slave States with a cordon of abolition States, and thus confine the institution within such narrow limits, that when the number (of Africans) increases beyond the capacity of the soil to support, the institution must end in starvation, colonization, or servile insurrection."
Even Stephen Douglas could not publicly state the deepest truth here—the chaos of the abyss: white populations trapped with a majority of free Africans in their midst. For those of us who lived through the 1960s, it is easy to recognize the depth of passion the people of 1860 must have felt; for those of us born since, having elected the first African-American President, the feeling against living equally with Africans must be incomprehensible to express.
That Abraham Lincoln meant to use the Federal Government this way, Douglas next pointed out, was incontrovertible by reference to his own words.
Mr. Douglas.—“Mr. Lincoln was nominated for the United States Senate, by a Republican State Convention at Springfield in June 1858. Anticipating the nomination, he carefully prepared a written speech, which he delivered on that occasion and has recently been passing around the country in pamphlet form. The first few paragraphs may be taken as a fair statement of his opinions: `I believe this Government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. . . Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction, or its advocates will push it forward till it shall alike become lawful in all the States, old as well as new, North as well as South.’ Mark the language.
Now, sire, when the Republican party have published an edition of Mr. Lincoln’s speeches containing sentiments like these, and circulating it as a campaign document, is it surprising that the people of the South should suppose that he was in earnest, and intended to carry out the policy which he had announced?
I regret the necessity which has made it my duty to reproduce these dangerous and revolutionary opinions of the President-elect. I should like to find one senator on that side of the Chamber, who will have the hardihood to deny that Mr. Lincoln stands pledged by his public speeches, to which he now refers constantly as containing his present opinions, to carry out the policy indicated in the speech from which I have read."
Senator Douglas then came to the abyss and looked down.
We are told that the authority of Government must be vindicated; that the Union must be preserved. . . No man shall go further that I to maintain the just authority of the Government, to preserve the Union. I would use all the powers conferred by the Constitution for this purpose. But in the performance of these important and delicate duties, it must be borne in mind that those powers only must be used, as are authorized by the Constitution. Things should be called by their right names; and facts, whose existence can no longer be denied, should be acknowledged.
The strongest governments and proudest monarchs on earth, have often been reduced to the humiliating necessity of recognizing the existence of governments de facto in their revolted States and Provinces, when the national authorities have been expelled from their limits. In such cases the right to regain possession and exact obedience to the laws remains; but the exercise of that right is war, and must be governed by the laws of war. While the right to prosecute war for the purpose of reducing the revolted provinces to obedience remains, yet it is a military remedy, and can only be exercised according to the established principles of war. (Here Douglas, the leader of the Democratic Party sees no difference between Great Britain’s effort to stamp out the rebellion of the colonies, and the Federal Government’s effort to stamp out the secession of the States.)
South Carolina has done it. She has declared her independence of us, effaced the last vestige of our civil authority, established a foreign government, and is now engaged in opening diplomatic intercourse with the great powers of the world. What next? Unquestionably we have the right to use all the power and force necessary to regain possession of that part of the United States called South Carolina. How shall we regain possession? It may be done by arms, or by a peaceable adjustment of the matters in controversy.
Are we prepared for war? I do not mean the kind of preparation which consists of armies and navies, and supplies and munitions of war; but are we prepared in our hearts for war with our own brethren and kindred? I confess I am not. While I think the Union must be perpetual, I will not meditate war, nor tolerate the idea, until every effort at peaceful adjustment shall have been exhausted. In my opinion, war is disunion, certain, inevitable, irrevocable. I am for peace to save the Union."
Senator Douglas then addressed the peculiar paradox of political science formulated by President Buchanan in his special message of January 8th: The Constitution gives no power to Congress to make “aggressive" war on a State, but yet has power to enforce its laws against a seceded state.
“The proposition to subvert the de facto government of South Carolina, and to reduce the people of that State into subjection to our Federal authority, no longer involves the question of enforcing the laws in a country without our possession; but it does involve the question whether we will make war on a State which has withdrawn her allegiance and expelled our authorities. Now, as a man who loves the Union, and desires to see it maintained forever, I desire to know of my Union loving friends on the other side of the Chamber how they intend to enforce the laws in the seceding states, except by making war, conquering them first, and executing the laws in them afterwards."
Then Douglas closed with this:
“The South will be a unit, and desperate, under the belief that your object in waging war is their destruction, and not the preservation of the Union; that you meditate servile insurrection, and the abolition of slavery in the Southern States, by fire and sword, in the name and under pretext of enforcing the laws and vindicating the authority of the government. Such is the unanimous opinion at the South; and that ten millions of people are preparing for the terrible conflict under that conviction. Whether the war last one year, seven years, or thirty years, the result will be the same—a cessation of hostilities when the parties become exhausted, and a treaty of peace recognizing the separate independence of each section. The history of the world does not furnish an instance, where war has raged for a series of years between two classes of States, divided by a geographical line under the same National Government, which has ended in reconciliation and reunion. Extermination, subjugation, or separation, one of the three must be the result of war between the Northern and Southern States. Surely, you do not expect to exterminate or subjugate ten million people, the entire population of one section, as a means of preserving amicable relations between the two sections?
I repeat, then, my solemn conviction, that war means disunion—final, irrevocable, eternal separation. I see no alternative, therefore, but a fair compromise. Read the debates of the Federal Convention, and you will find noble examples where sages and patriots were willing to surrender cherished theories and principles of government, for the sake of unity and peace. Can we not afford to imitate their example in this momentous crisis? Are we to be told that no compromise can be effected without violating the party platform upon which Lincoln was elected? It seems that Lincoln’s party platform, his pride of opinion, are the only obstacles to a satisfactory adjustment. Have we nothing to live for but political position? Most of us have children: Can we make no concessions for the sake of our children, where party platforms shall avail us nothing in the day of final reckoning?
On January 14, Senator Crittenden’s resolution, proposing the Congress adopt the Missouri Compromise line again, thereby protecting slavery in the territories below the line, came up for a vote, but it was postponed to the next day. On the 15th, it was postponed again, very Republican senator voting for the postponement. On the 16th, by one vote, Crittenden got the floor again, but Senator Clark of New Hampshire, using procedural rules, raised an amendment to the resolution, affirming the dogma of the Chicago Platform. Clark’s motion to consider the attachment of the amendment passed the Senate by a vote of 25 to 23 (6 of the yea votes coming from Southern senators), then tabled until the 2nd of March. On that date, a vote was taken on the Crittenden resolution and it was defeated by a vote of 20 to 19. Still to be considered was a resolution to propose an amendment to the constitution prohibiting any future amendment from interfering with slavery where it existed. To the South, this proposal merely confirmed the Republican Party’s intent to bottle the Africans, who everyone knew would eventually be freed, up in their section.
C. The House of Representatives
As the senators carried on their hot debates through January, neither side of the Chamber giving ground on the core political issue of the Republicans abandoning their insistence of blocking slavery in the territories, the representatives in the House conducted their debate in the same manner. Though on one specific manner the two sides seemed to be coming together. The Committee of Thirty-Three agreed, almost unanimously, with a proposed amendment to the Constitution that would prohibit any future amendment from interfering with slavery in any state where it then existed.
Thaddeus Stevens, a Representative from Adams County Pennsylvania and a leader of the Republican Party’s Radicals, denounced Corwin’s proposed amendment in scathing words.
The time for compromise, he intoned, had already gone by. Search the record, he said, and “you will find the Republican Party always disclaiming the right or intention to touch slavery where it existed. Rather than show repentance for the election of Mr. Lincoln, with all its consequences, I would see this government crumble into a thousand atoms. If I cannot be a freeman, let me cease to exist."
Going on, with rising temper, he swept the galleries up with clippings when he shouted—If the Union be torn apart by rebels, our neighboring slave empire must consider how it will affect their peculiar institution. They will be surrounded with freedom, with the whole civilized world scowling at them."
Nearly fifty southern representatives leaped to their feet at this, and rushed upon him, cursing him and raising their fists against him, while his friends came also rushing to his side to defend him. Backing up against the Speaker’s desk, his friends like bulls forming a protective circle around him, he arraigned the slavocracy in an indictment that transcended the bitter harshness of even Charles Sumner’s bizarre speeches in the Senate. His words, however, fell short of winning a rejection of the proposed amendment in the end.
The Situation in the Country
As the Congress debated schemes of compromise which might induce union, the people’s conventions that had been called in the states of Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia,, and Louisiana, one by one, passed ordinances of secession: Mississippi on the 9th, Florida on the 10th, Alabama on the 12th, Georgia on the 18th, and Louisiana on the 26th.Delegates were chosen from each state to come together in a convention to form a government for the confederate states.
At Charleston Harbor, on January 11th, Major Anderson and Governor Pickens entered into a formal truce, whereby Anderson allowed ship passage through the harbor to continue, and Governor Pickens allowed provisions to pass to the fort as well as messengers and mail.
On the 14th of January, South Carolina Attorney General Hayne arrived at Washington and called upon President Buchanan with a letter from Pickens demanding possession of Fort Sumter and offering to pay fair market value under South Carolina’s eminent domain law for all the seized Federal property. It was agreed that neither side would change circumstances, regarding Sumter, as long as Hayne was in Washington. For two weeks, Hayne pressed Buchanan, supported by the southern senators still attending congress, and Buchanan resisted. Finally, on January 22, Buchanan responded to Hayne’s demand, through his new secretary of war, Joseph Holt, declining to accept payment for the Federal properties.
On January 22th, as he was rejecting Hayne’s offer, President Buchanan authorized the U.S.S. Brooklyn to be loaded with troops and provisions and sent to Fort Pickens, outside Pensacola Harbor Florida. The Brooklyn left Hampton Roads on the 22nd, and arrived at Pensacola on the 29th. At the same time, Buchanan ordered all U.S. Navy ships withdrawn from foreign stations and concentrated in the Gulf of Mexico.
On the 19th of January, the General Assembly of Virginia appointed ex-President John Tyler a commissioner to the President of the United States to seek an agreement, to be mutually assented to by the seceded states, that the United States would abstain from the use of military force, pending the proceedings of a “peace convention" to be attended by delegates from all the states. President Buchanan decided to submit Virginia’s proposed agreement to the Senate, which he did with a message on January 28th. Professing to have no power to accept the proposal himself, he recommended to Congress “to abstain from passing any law calculated to produce a collision of arms pending the proceedings contemplated by the General Assembly of Virginia." But both houses of Congress ignored the proposal.
Realizing that the truce between Governor Pickens and Major Anderson would expire by its terms on February 6th, President Buchanan wrote to Secretary of War Holt this note:
Washington, January 30, 1861
My Dear Sir:
It is time we should have decided whether it is practicable, with the means in our power, to reinforce Major Anderson at Fort Sumter. A plan ought to be devised in advance to accomplish this objective. I should be gratified to see General Scott, the Secretary of the Navy, and yourself, at noon today, to talk this over.
At the appointed time, General Scott and Secretary Holt appeared at the White House, with a young man named Gustavus V. Fox who presented a plan.
BOOKS AVAILABLE TO READ
John S.D. Eisenhower, Agent of Destiny: The Life and Times of General Winfield Scott, The Free Press (1997)
General Winfield Scott, Memoirs New York: Shelton, 1864
Alfred H. Bill, Rehersal for Conflict: The Story of our War with Mexico History Book Club (1947)
Lester R. Dillon, Jr., American Artillery in the Mexican War, Presidial Press (1975)
Bernard Devoto, The Year of Decision: 1846, Little, Brown & Co. (1943)
George Ticknor Curtis, Life of James Buchanan, Harper Brothers (1883)
John T. Morse, Jr., American Statemen: Thaddeus Stevens, Houghton Mifflin & Co. (1899)
United States War Department., War of the Rebellion, Official Records, Series I, Volume I (1885)
B.R. Curtis, Executive Power, Little, Brown & Co. (1862)
Peter Irons, War Power: How the Imperial Presidency Hijacked the Constitution, Henry Holt & Co. (2005)
John Yoo, The Powers of War and Peace: The Constitution and Foreign Affairs After 9/11, The University of Chicago Press (2005)
H.M. Flint, Stephen A. Douglas, The Keystone Publishing Co. (1890)
Gerald M. Capers, Stephen A. Douglas: Defender of the Union, Little, Brown & Co. (1959)
Senate of the United States., The Congressional Globe, Thirty-Sixth Congress (1861)
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Joe Ryan Original Works
About the author:
Joe Ryan is a Los Angeles trial lawyer who has traveled the route of the Army of Northern Virginia, from Richmond to Gettysburg several times.
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