New Year’s Day was sunny and pleasant in Washington. Despite the deepening sectional crisis, President James Buchanan held the traditional reception at the White House for government officials and the public alike. The atmosphere seemed just as civil as always, as people lined up to wish the president a happy new year. But there was tension in the air, as the wife of secessionist Congressman Roger Pryor noted that the proceedings were marked by “a gloomy foreboding of impending disaster.” Southern politicians made sure their sympathies were well known by wearing the blue cockade in support of South Carolina in her struggle with the Federal government over Major Robert Anderson’s command at Fort Sumter.
By the end of 1860, Forts Johnson and Sumter were the only forts still in Federal hands in Charleston Harbor. South Carolina militia seized Johnson early this month, leaving the island fortress of Sumter isolated. A commission of South Carolinians had demanded that Buchanan withdraw all Federal troops from Charleston, but Buchanan took a stand with the Unionists by rejecting the demand. Buchanan received the commissioners’ response while in a cabinet meeting on the 2nd.
They presented a lengthy summary of their communications with Buchanan so far, and then they accused the president of duplicity by pledging to maintain the status quo in Charleston while allowing Anderson to move his garrison to Sumter, where it could better defend itself against an attack: “It was not a peaceful change from one fort to another; it was a hostile act in the highest sense—one only justified in the presence of a superior enemy, and in imminent peril. He abandoned his position, spiked his guns, burned his gun carriages, made preparations for the destruction of his post, and withdrew, under cover of the night, to a safer position. This was war.” They went on:
“You have resolved to hold by force what you have obtained through our misplaced confidence, and by refusing to disavow the action of Major Anderson, have converted his violation of orders into a legitimate act of your executive authority… By your course you have probably rendered civil war inevitable. Be it so. If you choose to force this issue upon us, the State of South Carolina will accept it, and relying upon Him who is the God of Justice as well as the God of Hosts, will endeavor to perform the great duty which lies before her, hopefully, bravely, and thoroughly.”
Buchanan read this message aloud to his cabinet and replied: “This paper, just presented to the President, is of such a character that he declines to receive it.” This ended any semblance of negotiations between the United States and the new Republic of South Carolina. Buchanan finally acknowledged, “It is all over, and reinforcements must be sent” to Anderson’s “starving garrison.”
Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, general-in-chief of the U.S. Army, had already been working on a plan to reinforce Anderson, so Buchanan left the details to him. Scott had originally planned to send U.S. Regulars aboard the sloop-of-war U.S.S. Brooklyn, but instead he opted to send a faster civilian vessel to better protect the mission’s secrecy and purpose. This turned what could have been a simple relief expedition into a complex, clandestine operation.
It also proved very expensive, as Assistant Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas contracted the merchant ship Star of the West for $1,250 per day. Federal officials hoped that this ship, which traveled regularly between New York and New Orleans, would not attract the South Carolinians’ attention. Headed by civilian captain John McGowan, the Star of the West left Pier 29 in New York Harbor at 9 p.m. on the 5th, stopping at Governor’s Island long enough to pick up 200 troops of the 9th U.S. Infantry.
Any hope for secrecy quickly dissolved, as the New York press leaked rumors of the ship’s mission to southern sympathizers. Fearing that word might reach South Carolina before the Star of the West got there, Buchanan directed the Brooklyn to catch up to the unarmed vessel and escort her on the journey. Buchanan also authorized Anderson to defend himself if the South Carolinians attacked; this was communicated in a letter from Thomas:
“I yesterday chartered the steamship Star of the West to re-enforce your small garrison with two hundred well-instructed recruits from Fort Columbus… Further re-enforcements will be sent if necessary. Should a fire, likely to prove injurious, be opened upon any vessel bringing re-enforcements or supplies… (your guns) may be employed to silence such fire; and you may act in like manner in case a fire is opened upon Fort Sumter itself. The General-in-Chief desires me to communicate the fact that your conduct meets with the emphatic approbation of the highest in authority…”
But this letter was sent by regular mail, which would not reach Anderson before the Star of the West got there. Once again, the Charlestonians knew the plans of Anderson’s superiors before Anderson.
Many of Buchanan’s advisors were also in the dark about the expedition. Interior Secretary Jacob Thompson, the last secessionist in the cabinet, wrote fellow Mississippian A.N. Kimball: “No troops have been sent to Charleston nor will be while I am a member of the Cabinet.” When he found out about the mission in a newspaper, Thompson immediately warned Charleston officials that a ship was heading their way. Thompson then submitted his resignation to Buchanan: “Under these circumstances I feel myself bound to resign my commission as one of your constitutional advisers into your hands.” Buchanan accepted Thompson’s resignation and replaced him with Chief Clerk Moses Kelly. Thompson headed home to Mississippi, which was expected to secede.
Texas Senator Louis T. Wigfall also learned of the “secret” plan and told South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens on the 8th: “The Star of the West sailed from New York on Sunday with Government troops and provisions. It is said her destination is Charleston. If so, she may be hourly expected off the harbor of Charleston.” That same day, Anderson read an article in the Charleston Mercury warning of a relief expedition, but since he had not received any official word from his superiors, he dismissed it as idle rumor. He would soon learn otherwise.
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