Treasury Secretary Howell Cobb had once been a strong Unionist, but the election of Abraham Lincoln and the rise of the “Black Republicans” pushed him into the secession camp, and by this time he was opening urging his home state of Georgia to leave the Union. Cobb regretting leaving Buchanan’s administration, which he believed to be “the purest and ablest of those that preceded it.”
In his letter of resignation, Cobb explained that a “sense of duty to the State of Georgia” had forced him “to take a step which makes it proper that I should no longer continue to be a member of your Cabinet… The evil has now passed beyond control, and must be met by each and all of us, under our responsibility to God and our country.” Having disagreed with Buchanan’s recent message to Congress on the crisis, Cobb felt that to stay in his cabinet would put the president in a “false position.”
Buchanan accepted Cobb’s resignation and responded: “While I deeply regret that you have determined to separate yourself from us at the present critical moment, yet I admit that the question was one for your own decision, I could have wished you had arrived at a different conclusion, because our relations, both official and personal, have ever been of the most friendly and confidential character.”
Buchanan appointed Philip F. Thomas, the former governor of Maryland and current U.S. commissioner of patents, to replace Cobb as head of the Treasury. Thomas was pro-South, but being from a border state, he did not have the passion for disunion that Cobb had.
Having lost a southerner in his cabinet, Buchanan quickly lost a northerner as well. Secretary of State Lewis Cass submitted his resignation, mainly over the way Buchanan was handling the Federal garrison in Charleston Harbor. Cass argued “that additional troops should be sent to reenforce the forts in the harbor of Charleston, with a view to their better defense, should they be attacked…”
Cass also called for moving the Federal customs house to one of the forts to keep the South Carolinians from seizing it. He regretfully noted that up to this time, there had not been a “single incident to interrupt the personal intercourse which has so happily existed” between himself and the president. But Buchanan wouldn’t budge on the Charleston question, saying, “I have made up my mind.” He quickly accepted Cass’s resignation.
To fill Cass’s void, Buchanan transferred Jeremiah S. Black from attorney general to secretary of state. Black was a Pennsylvania Unionist who sided with Cass regarding the Charleston forts. Black spent the remainder of his term trying to convince Buchanan that a show of force might make the South Carolinians more reluctant to secede. However, the president felt that doing nothing would encourage southerners to resist secession. The New York Tribune expressed a growing opinion that Buchanan had gone insane.
To fill Black’s void, Buchanan appointed Edwin M. Stanton of Ohio as attorney general. Stanton was a prominent Democratic attorney whose most famous case involved defending New York Congressman Daniel Sickles against charges that he murdered his wife’s lover, who happened to have been the son of Francis Scott Key. (Sickles became the first person in U.S. history to be acquitted of murder on the grounds of temporary insanity). Stanton was strongly opposed to secession, thus tipping the balance in Buchanan’s cabinet toward the Unionists. Now the only staunch secessionists remaining were Secretary of War John B. Floyd and Interior Secretary Jacob Thompson.
In mid-month, Buchanan announced that January 4 would be a “day of humiliation, fasting, and prayer.” As the sectional crisis worsened as December went on, it seemed that nobody needed such a day more than Buchanan itself.
- Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. New York: Vintage Books, 1987.
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), The Coming Fury. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1961.
- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. Kindle Edition 2008, 1889.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Rable, George C., God’s Almost Chosen Peoples. Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, (Kindle Edition), 2010.