The people of South Carolina had protested the presence of Major Robert Anderson’s Federal garrison in Charleston Harbor ever since Anderson moved his troops from Fort Moultrie to Sumter last month. The U.S. House of Representatives had approved a resolution endorsing Anderson’s transfer to Sumter, and President James Buchanan had refused South Carolina’s demands to withdraw the garrison from the state. The failed Star of the West relief mission had caused a panic among South Carolinians, but because they could not drive Anderson out, and because Anderson had orders to only act on the defensive unless he was attacked, both sides settled into an uneasy truce.
On the 11th, South Carolina militia sank four hulks in Charleston Harbor to stop any future attempt by the Federal government to reinforce Fort Sumter from the sea. That same day, representatives of South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens (secession convention president D.F. Jamison and South Carolina secretary of state Judge A.G. McGrath) took a steamer out to Fort Sumter to deliver a letter from the governor to Anderson.
Pickens wrote that due to “considerations of the gravest public character,” he was compelled to act in the “deepest interest to all who deprecate the improper waste of life, to induce the delivery of Fort Sumter to the constituted authorities of the State of South Carolina…” In his reply, Anderson “deeply regretted” that without orders from Washington, “you have made a demand with which I cannot comply.”
The stalemate would continue, partly because southern leaders knew that if the South Carolinians pressed the matter, Buchanan could bring the whole weight of the U.S. military to the harbor and crush the “Palmetto Republic.” Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi warned Pickens not to be too rash:
“The opinion of your friends… is adverse to the presentation of a demand for the evacuation of Fort Sumter. The little garrison in its present position presses on nothing but a point of pride & to you I need not say that war is made up of real elements. It is a physical problem from the solution of which we must need exclude all sentiment. I hope we shall soon have a Southern Confederacy, shall soon be ready to do all which interest or even pride demands, & in the fullness of a redemption of every obligation the more impatient will find indemnity for any chafing in the meantime they would have to endure. We have much of preparation to make both in military and civil organization and the time which serves for our preparation, by its moral effect, tends also towards a peaceful solution… The occurrence of the Star of the West seems to me to put you in the best condition for delay so long as the government permits the matter to rest where it is—your friends here think you can well afford to stand still so far as the presence of a garrison is concerned, and if things should continue as they are for a month we shall then be in a condition to speak with a voice which all must hear & heed.”
Davis described southern sentiment in Washington: “The general tendency is to hostile measures, and against these it is needful for you to prepare.” Such measures would include besieging Anderson’s garrison. Davis warned Pickens against this because to “shut them up with a view to starve them into submission would create a sympathetic reaction much greater” than the Republicans could produce in the North. Pickens agreed, acknowledging that “the truth is I have not been prepared to take Sumter.” South Carolina could not take on the Federal government alone, so Pickens bided his time until the southern states could meet and form a new nation strong enough to support him.
As the hysteria caused by the Star of the West died down in Charleston, Pickens resumed mail service to the Federal troops in Sumter. But the troops were not allowed to come into Charleston to collect it. Instead, the mail was sent to Fort Johnson, now in the hands of South Carolina militia, and from there a Federal boat came to pick it up and bring it to Sumter. This was done to “avoid all chances for encounters and bloodshed between our (Federal) boat crews and riotous persons on the wharves in the city.”
In Washington, two emissaries arrived—Lieutenant Norman J. Hall representing Major Anderson and South Carolina Attorney General Isaac Hayne representing his state—to give each of their sides of the story regarding the Fort Sumter dispute. Hall delivered dispatches explaining his side to the War Department, while Hayne sent a letter directly to the president. Buchanan refused to see Hayne and instead instructed Secretary of War Joseph Holt to write a response. That response would reach Hayne in February.
Back in South Carolina, the state legislature approved a measure declaring that any Federal attempt to reinforce Fort Sumter would be considered an act of war. The South Carolinians strengthened Fort Johnson on James Island, and they built a battery south of Cummings Point. Gunboats regularly patrolled the harbor to watch for Federal reinforcement attempts. Foul weather for the rest of January kept either side from trying to gain an advantage over the other, and the standoff continued into February.
- 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.
- Delaney, Norman C. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.