James Buchanan was US President from 1857-1861. He is often considered one of the worst presidents of the US, with his presidency leading up to the US Civil War. Here, Ian Craig concludes his look at Buchanan’s presidency. He considers events around South Carolina’s secession in late 1860 and early 1861, specifically how conflict started and the role that Buchanan played.
On December 20, 1860, James Buchanan’s fears had come true as South Carolina seceded from the Union. The President had long foreseen the possibility that the South would take such drastic measures. As we have seen prior, Buchanan attempted to prepare for secession, but Congress had ignored his advice and request to prepare for such an event. Congress never raised the five regiments that the President had asked for nor did they make any efforts to enforce forts in the South. The debate over slavery and the inability for the nation’s lawmaking body to agree on the issue left America in a divided state.
Once Buchanan became aware of South Carolina’s treachery, he immediately ordered Major Robert Anderson, the commander of the forts in Charleston Harbor, to do nothing to provoke the situation but to stand firm. The President advised Anderson to stay at Fort Moultrie on the mainland and to only move to the heavily fortified Fort Sumter offshore if an attack was imminent. Buchanan believed that his orders were quite clear, however, just six days later he received word that Anderson had moved his location to Fort Sumter. The President was perplexed by Anderson’s decision to disobey his orders. Despite this, he believed that the major would not have left his location at Fort Moultrie unless he truly felt threatened. As he recalls in his memoirs “the president never doubted for a moment that Major Anderson believed before movement that he had ‘tangible evidence’ of an impending attack required by his instructions.”He thought it unlikely that South Carolina would initiate an attack since it had sent commissioners to Washington in order to find a peaceful solution. With that he waited for Major Anderson to send word of his decision and why he had violated orders.
Major Anderson’s explanation was examined by Buchanan and he determined that Anderson had moved on a false alarm. However, he could not confirm what caused the alarm because once Anderson moved, the remaining forts and all federal property in Charleston were taken over by state authorities. On December 28, two days after the siege of federal property, Buchanan (who had not been informed of what had happened yet) received the commissioners from South Carolina as private citizens. This was because he did not recognize the legality of secession and could not see them as ambassadors of a foreign republic. He would listen to their requests, but it was only Congress who could receive them in the role in which they were sent. After hearing their request Buchanan wrote that “to abandon all those forts to South Carolina, on the demand of the commissioners claiming to represent her as an independent State, would have been a recognition, on the part of the Executive, of her right to secede from the Union. This was not to be thought of for a moment.” In stating this, Buchanan made it clear that he did not accept the legality of South Carolina’s secession. His strict adherence to the United States Constitution supported his decision.
A growing divide
Even though the President had received the commissioners in good faith, South Carolina’s representatives in Congress justified their actions in Charleston, stating that Anderson had committed an act of aggression by moving his location to Fort Sumter. They had acted in “self-defense” in seizing the remaining federal property in the city. For this they blamed Buchanan and discredited his honor in such a way that his cabinet wrote a reply to their allegations stating, “this paper, just presented to the President, is of such a character that he declines to accept it.”From this point on, hostilities between Buchanan’s administration and South Carolina would increase. In a special address to Congress about the situation in South Carolina in January 1861, despite calls for him to take direct action by the public, Buchanan wrote “I certainly had no right to make aggressive war upon any state…to Congress (and) to them exclusively belongs the power to declare war or to authorize the employment of military force in all cases contemplated by the Constitution…I refrain them from sending reinforcements to Major Anderson who commanded the forts in Charleston Harbor, until an absolute necessity for doing so should make itself apparent…”
Although his message was meant to reassure South Carolina that he would not take direct military action at the present, he still intended to collect tax revenue from the state because in his eyes, South Carolina was still part of the Union. Senator Jefferson Davis argued against Buchanan’s failure to recognize his state’s right to secede and his ignorance to continue to collect taxes. At that point, all of Buchanan’s hopes to negotiate with the state ended as “all friendly intercourse between them and the president, whether of a political or social character, had ceased.”
Buchanan was not going to let the South leave under his watch. Although he strongly believed that many of the other Southern States wanted to negotiate with the North and the Federal Government, he recognized that military action may be required. Pending Congressional approval, President Buchanan had made preparations to reinforce Fort Sumter with an additional two hundred soldiers. By December 15, the Brooklyn a heavily armed ship of war was prepared to be sent to Fort Sumter with supplies and reinforcements. Buchanan was well aware of its preparation sanctioned by the Secretary of the Navy and General Scott. However, at the time, there was no call for alarm because the President had received a note from South Carolina insisting that they had no intention to attack the forts in Charleston Harbor. In addition, the state had not officially seceded from the Union yet according to the Federal Government. The Brooklynstayed ready in New York Harbor incase the situation changed in the state.
When South Carolina officially cut off all negotiations with the President in early 1861, James Buchanan realized that war was imminent. He took immediate action in ordering the Brooklyn to Charleston Harbor via General Scott. However, General Scott, after seeking the advice of a naval expert, transferred the orders to an unarmed merchant vessel Star of the West. His reasoning was that a faster ship would provide for the element of surprise and a quick delivery of the reinforcements to Fort Sumter. This was against the knowledge of the President, who was intent on getting troops to the fort as soon as possible. General Scott, upon some consideration, recognized his error and immediately sent word to New York to transfer the orders back to the Brooklyn. However, it was too late as the ship had sailed for Charleston and was beyond reach for communication.
When the Star of the West arrived in Charleston Harbor on January 9, 1861, the batteries set up in the harbor opened fire on the ship forcing it to change course and return to New York. Its captain had been instructed to land his troops at nearby Fort Monroe and to await the Brooklyn for support in the event he was unable to land at Fort Sumter. These orders apparently were disregarded in the haste of the retreat to sea after the attack. Major Anderson did not return fire because he believed that the guns had been fired by mistake and not by the South Carolina governor’s orders. He was wrong, Governor Pickens had given the order and after the attack sent a message to Anderson demanding that he surrender the fort to him. Anderson told him that he would not surrender by any means.This marked the last time that the government of the United States under James Buchanan attempted to use military action to secure Charleston Harbor via Fort Sumter.
Between January and February, before Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration, James Buchanan could only stand by and watch as the nation dissolved around him. He grew irritated over Congress’s lack of action in declaring war against the South or in giving him the powers to do so. Buchanan believed that Congress and Congress alone had the authority to authorize him as commander-in chief to take direct action. He states that it was the “imperative duty of Congress to furnish the President or his successor the means of repelling force by force, should this become necessary to preserve the Union. They, nevertheless, refused to perform this duty as much pertinacity as they had manifested in rebuilding all measures of compromise.”
Unfortunately for James Buchanan, the South at the time still had a dominant presence in Congress and the string of events had created confusion within the other states. Therefore, little could be accomplished as the nation’s governing body had been divided by secession. It was only after Buchanan had left office, under a new Congress, the powers that Buchanan had wanted were given to his successor Abraham Lincoln.
What do you think of James Buchanan’s actions during the secession of South Carolina? Let us know below.
James Buchanan, Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of Rebellion, (Scituate: Digital Scanning Inc, 1866/2009): 120.
Irving Sloan, James Buchanan: 1791-1868, (New York: Oceana Publishers, 1968): 82-84.