Inviting a Collision and Possibly Civil War

President James Buchanan held a cabinet meeting on the 27th to discuss what should be done about Major Robert Anderson’s move to Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Secretary of War John B. Floyd urged Buchanan to pull the garrison out of Charleston because Anderson had violated Buchanan’s implicit pledge not to make any movements in the harbor without provocation. Fellow southerner Jacob Thompson agreed with Floyd that Anderson should be withdrawn. This was met with heated opposition by Jeremiah Black, Edwin M. Stanton, and Joseph Holt. Only one northern cabinet member, Isaac Toucey, sided with Floyd and Thompson.

Buchanan initially seemed to side with the southerners, but he refused to do anything “in consequence of the violent conduct of South Carolina in seizing all the other forts and public property in the harbor and city of Charleston.” The memorandum that Major Don Carlos Buell had written to Anderson, which relayed Floyd’s verbal instructions on how Anderson should defend his garrison, was reviewed, and from this Buchanan concluded that Anderson had not violated his orders by moving to Sumter. The Federal garrison would stay put.

In another cabinet meeting the following day, Floyd and Stanton nearly came to blows. Floyd continued arguing that Anderson and his garrison should be withdrawn, and Stanton brought up Floyd’s scandals with the Indian bonds by saying that “no administration, much less this one, can afford to lose a million of money and a fort in the same week.” Stanton also brought up the recent weapons transfers. The meeting ended with the president still undecided and Floyd at his breaking point.

Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, general-in-chief of the U.S. Army, was strongly opposed to withdrawing Anderson from Sumter. On the 28th, Scott’s aide-de-camp wrote to Floyd on Scott’s behalf: “Lieutenant-General Scott, who has had a bad night, and can scarcely hold up his head this morning, begs to express the hope to the Secretary of War—1. That orders may not be given for the evacuation of Fort Sumter; 2. That one hundred and fifty recruits may instantly be sent from Governor’s Island to re-enforce that garrison…; 3. That one or two armed vessels be sent to support the said fort.” Floyd did not reply.

Meanwhile, Buchanan had to contend with the commissioners that the South Carolina convention had sent up to Washington to discuss handing Federal property over to the state. The commissioners (Robert W. Barnwell, James H. Adams, and James L. Orr) wrote to Buchanan on the 28th that–

“–we were ready to negotiate with you upon all such questions as are necessarily raised by the adoption of this (secession) ordinance, and that we were prepared to enter upon this negotiation with the earnest desire to avoid all unnecessary and hostile collision… But the events of the last twenty-four hours render such an assurance impossible… we are forced to suspend all discussion as to any arrangements by which our mutual interests might be amicably adjusted. And, in conclusion, we would urge upon you the immediate withdrawal of the troops from the harbor of Charleston…”

Buchanan agreed to a meeting on the 28th, which lasted two hours. The commissioners reminded Buchanan that he had pledged to the South Carolina congressional delegation earlier in the month that he would maintain the status quo in Charleston. Buchanan replied that if he had made any such pledge, it would have been nullified by South Carolina’s decision to secede. Barnwell pressed Buchanan by telling him repeatedly, “But, Mr. President, your personal honor is involved in this matter.” Buchanan finally snapped: “Mr. Barnwell, you are pressing me too importunely; you don’t give me time to consider; you don’t give me time to say my prayers. I always say my prayers when required to act upon any State affair.” The meeting ended with nothing resolved.

Another cabinet meeting took place on the 29th, in which Buchanan shared the draft of a letter that he intended to send to the commissioners. He refused to order Anderson to withdraw, but he would consider ordering him to return to Fort Moultrie if South Carolina made some concessions in exchange. He also reiterated that Congress, not the president, had the final say over the status of Federal property in a seceded state.

As expected, cabinet reaction was mostly divided along North-South lines, with only Isaac Toucey endorsing the letter as written. The northerners thought that Buchanan conceded too much, and Stanton was especially livid. He called the commissioners “law-breakers, traitors,” and if Buchanan officially recognized them, it “will bring the President to the verge of usurpation.” Going even further, Stanton declared that if Buchanan gave back Fort Sumter, he would go down in history as a greater traitor to the United States than Benedict Arnold. Buchanan wearily said he would consider modifications to the letter before sending it to the commissioners.

Floyd then brought up the Fort Sumter matter again. He still insisted that Buchanan change his mind, and he gave the president an order to sign for Anderson to abandon not only the fort but all of Charleston Harbor. Buchanan flatly refused, and Floyd responded by giving what Buchanan had been waiting for: his letter of resignation. Floyd wrote that he “considered the honor of the Administration pledged to maintain the troops in the position they occupied (i.e., Fort Moultrie), for such had been the assurances given to the gentlemen of South Carolina who had a right to speak for her.”

According to Floyd, both Buchanan and the South Carolinians “gave reciprocal pledges… to prevent a collision and the effusion of blood, in the hope that some means might be found for a peaceful accommodation of the existing troubles… Our refusal or even delay to place affairs back as they stood under our agreement invites a collision and must inevitably inaugurate civil war. I cannot consent to be the agent of such calamity.” Buchanan promptly accepted Floyd’s resignation.

Floyd offered to stay on until Buchanan could find a replacement, but Buchanan rejected that and put Joseph Holt in Floyd’s place. Holt was a Kentuckian who, unlike most of his fellow southerners, opposed both secession and slavery. William Henry Trescot, the former U.S. assistant secretary of state who was feeding intelligence to his fellow South Carolinians, wired the news: “Holt is Sec War. That means civil War. I do not know what reinforcements are sent but I believe the orders have been or will be sent immediately. I have heard that the Harriet Lane light draught is under orders make every preparation for preventing entrance into the Harbor.”


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