Fort Sumter Should be in Our Possession

Major Robert Anderson’s Federal garrison remained isolated at Fort Sumter, an island in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. Governor Francis W. Pickens had sent his attorney general, Isaac Hayne, to Washington to offer to compensate the Federal government if it surrendered the fort. However, Secretary of War Joseph Holt told Hayne: “The title of the United States to Fort Sumter is complete and incontestible… It has absolute jurisdiction over the fort and on the soil on which it stands… The President… has no constitutional power to cede or surrender it.”

Hayne found the response insulting, and he sent a fiery message to Holt and Buchanan accusing them of “an intentional misconstruction.” Hayne’s message was considered “of such a character as to make it imperative to return it to him by mail.” According to the Richmond Daily Dispatch, “the offensive and insulting portion of the letter in question is believed to have been an allegation that the Government’s possession of Fort Sumter was an unwarranted act of Major Anderson, by and through the President’s violation of his faith to South Carolina, &c.”

Meanwhile, Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, general-in-chief of the U.S. Army, was looking to organize another relief mission for Anderson’s garrison to make up for January’s failed Star of the West expedition. He asked Gustavus V. Fox, a naval authority, if one could be organized, and Fox reported that light-draft tugboats could get past the harbor batteries at night to relieve Sumter. But Anderson expressed fears that South Carolinians would consider the move an act of war, and so Buchanan called it off. No further efforts would be made to supply Anderson’s garrison while Buchanan was president.

At the same time, former President John Tyler was presiding over the Peace Conference taking place at Willard’s Hotel in Washington. Tyler had a vested interest in what happened at Fort Sumter because it could destroy his efforts at compromise. He wrote Governor Pickens on the 13th: “Will you give me an assurance that no attack will be made on Fort Sumter by South Carolina, provided the President will give a like assurance and pledge that no re-enforcement shall be furnished or attempted by the Government here?”

Pickens in turn wrote Howell Cobb, president of the Provisional Confederate Congress, for assistance on the matter. The Congress had recently resolved to take charge of disputes over Federal property in the new Confederacy. New Confederate President Jefferson Davis sent Major W.H.C. Whiting to Charleston to assess the situation and report back. The South Carolinians spent the month fortifying the installations surrounding Sumter and concentrating artillery on the main ship channel to keep Federal ships from trying to get in.

As February closed, Pickens wrote to Davis: “Of course we feel that our honor and safety require that Fort Sumter should be in our possession at the very earliest moment possible… We would desire to be informed if when thoroughly prepared to take the fort shall we do so, or shall we await your order; and shall we demand the surrender, or will that demand be made by you?” The Confederate government would respond in March.


  • Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), The Coming Fury. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1961.
  • 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.

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