President Buchanan Takes a Stand

In South Carolina, Governor Francis W. Pickens issued orders to Colonel John Cunningham of the 17th South Carolina Militia that “in the most discreet and forbearing manner you will proceed to the U.S. Arsenal in Charleston, and there demand, in my name, its entire possession, and state distinctly that you do this with a wish to prevent any destruction of public property that may occur in the present excited state of the public mind, and also as due to the public safety…” The Federals complied, and state officials now held all Federal property in the area except Forts Johnson and Sumter.

In Washington, President James Buchanan mulled over his response to the three commissioners who had been sent by South Carolina to negotiate a transfer of property from the Federal government to the new “Palmetto Republic.” The commissioners had informed Buchanan that negotiations could begin only after they received redress for Major Robert Anderson moving to Fort Sumter, and all Federal troops were withdrawn from Charleston.

The first draft of Buchanan’s response had pleased hardly anybody in his cabinet. Secretary of State Jeremiah Black spent the night of the 29th thinking it over, and the next day he told the president that the letter would drive an irreparable wedge between his advisors. Black threatened to resign if Buchanan did not back Anderson. Exasperated, Buchanan handed the draft to Black and said, “Here. Take this paper and modify it to suit yourself, but do it before the sun goes down.” Black took the document to Attorney General Edwin M. Stanton’s office, and the two men wrote a new response.

Denying the right of secession, Black and Stanton wrote that since the Federal government did not recognize South Carolina as an independent nation, Federal officials could not and would not negotiate with its representatives. To emphasize this point, they referred to the three commissioners not by their diplomatic roles, but only as “private gentlemen of the highest character.”

As to Fort Sumter, Buchanan’s “first promptings” upon learning that Anderson had moved to Sumter “were to command him to return to his former position.” But this “could only have been done with any degree of safety to the command by the concurrence of the South Carolina authorities.” The South Carolinians’ immediate seizure of Fort Moultrie and Castle Pinckney meant that Anderson no longer had anywhere else to go. The letter continued:

“It is under all these circumstances that I am urged immediately to withdraw the troops from the harbor of Charleston, and am informed that without this, negotiation is impossible. This I cannot do; this I will not do. Such an idea was never thought of by me in any possible contingency… whilst it is my duty to defend Fort Sumter as a portion of the public property of the United States against hostile attacks, from whatever quarter they may come… I do not perceive how such a defense can be construed into a menace against the city of Charleston.”

Buchanan’s endorsement of this new response to the South Carolina commissioners finally placed him firmly in the anti-secession camp. The letter was dispatched on New Year’s Eve.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, general-in-chief of the U.S. Army, had gotten no response from the secretary of war about his request to reinforce Fort Sumter. Through his secretary, Scott then wrote directly to Buchanan on the 30th: “It is Sunday; the weather is bad and General S. is not well enough to go to church. But matters of the highest national importance seem to forbid a moment’s delay…” In this message, Scott now upped his request for reinforcements from 150 two days before to 250.

Although he did not reply to Scott, Buchanan finally bowed to pressure and issued orders to reinforce Fort Sumter. Navy Secretary Isaac Toucey directed the commandant of the Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk, Virginia, to prepare the sloop-of-war U.S.S. Brooklyn for action, and Scott ordered the army commander at Fort Monroe, Virginia, to raise and equip a force of 200 regular infantry to board the Brooklyn and head down the coast for South Carolina.

Anderson was not notified of this operation, but southern sympathizers in Washington quickly got wind of it and sent word to Charleston. Thus, the Charlestonians knew that a Federal relief effort was underway before the Federals being relieved did. Governor Pickens ordered the placement of a battery at the northern tip of Morris Island, which would command the harbor entrance and thereby prevent any ships from getting to Anderson’s garrison.


  • Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), The Coming Fury. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1961.
  • Davis, William C., Brother Against Brother: The War Begins. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
  • Sears, Stephen W., Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, (Kindle Edition), 2017.
  • United States War Department, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1 – Vol. 1. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1880-1902.

Leave a Reply