President Buchanan Stands on the Defensive
On February 5th, the sloop of war, U.S.S. Brooklyn, arrived at Pensacola, Florida, with troops, munitions, and provisions on board. Waiting for her were U.S. Navy warships—Sabine, Macedonian, Wyandotte, and St. Louis—called to the Gulf of Mexico from distant stations. Between the time the Brooklyn went to sea and its arrival at Pensacola, President Buchanan had rejected South Carolina Attorney General Hayne’s effort to negotiate the purchase of Fort Sumter from the government, and he had received ex-President John Tyler of Virginia, who arrived in late January with a request from the State of Virginia that Buchanan maintain the status quo, pending Virginia’s effort to convene a “Peace Convention” in Washington, to be attended by delegates from all the States; a last ditch effort to achieve a political resolution of the crisis caused by secession.
In consequence of his communications with Tyler, President Buchanan agreed to a truce at Pensacola which his secretaries of war and navy jointed communicated to Captain Vodges, commander of the troops on board the Brooklyn.
Sir: In consequence of assurances received, that Fort Pickens will not be attacked, you are instructed not to land the company on board the Brooklyn, unless you see preparations being made for an attack. The provisions necessary for the supply of the fort you will land.
J. Holt, Secretary of War
Isaac Toucey, Secretary of the Navy
About the same time as this, South Carolina Attorney General Hayne left Washington, his effort to negotiate the purchase of Fort Sumter having been rejected by Buchanan. During Hayne’s stay in Washington, a truce existed at Fort Sumter, through an agreement made between Major Anderson and Governor Pickens that the State would allow provisions to be delivered to the fort from Charleston, and in exchange Anderson would not act offensively, pending the result of Haynes’s effort at Washington.
At this point, President Buchanan held several conferences with General Scott, other officers, and a civilian named G.V. Fox, who offered a plan of entering Charleston Harbor during the night with troops in small boats. Buchanan determined to prepare an expedition, under the command of a naval officer, composed of “a few small steamers” which “might enter the harbor at night and anchor, if possible, under the guns of Fort Sumter.”
While these conferences were being held, the engineering officer at Fort Sumter, Lt. J.G. Foster, sent almost daily reports to the War Department describing the frenetic activity the Confederates were engaged in, building artillery batteries.
The expedition did not sail. General Scott had made it clear to Buchanan that it was impossible to expect success in reinforcing Sumter, using such a small and defenseless force as Fox had suggested. In his opinion, nothing less than a full fleet of gun ships, capable of suppressing artillery fire from the Confederate batteries encircling the fort, along with a body of troops numbering 20,000, to land on the beaches, was required. This force Buchanan plainly did not have. Influencing Buchanan’s decision, too, was the fact that the State of Virginia had sent an emissary to Governor Pickens, who reported that South Carolina would respect Virginia’s plea that no hostile act be done at Charleston while the Peace Convention was underway at Washington. President Buchanan’s decision was conveyed to Major Anderson by Secretary of War Holt.
WAR DEPARTMENT, February 23, 1861
I state distinctly that you hold Fort Sumter as you held Fort Moultrie, under the verbal instructions communicated by Major Buell, subsequently modified by instructions dated the 21st of December.
In my letter to you of January 10th, I said: `You will continue to act strictly on the defensive and to avoid a collision with the hostile forces by which you are surrounded.’
The policy thus indicated must still govern your conduct. The President is not disposed at the present moment to change the instructions. . . This will be but a redemption of the implied pledge contained in my letter on behalf of the President to Attorney General Hayne, in which, speaking of Sumter, it is said: `The people of South Carolina have nothing to fear from Sumter’s guns, unless, in the absence of all provocation, they should assault it and seek its destruction.’
The labors of the Peace Convention have not yet been closed, and the presence of that body here adds another to the powerful motives already existing for the adoption of every measure for avoiding a collision.”
J. Holt, Secretary of War
And again, on February 28, 1861:
The Secretary of War directs me to say that the Peace Convention today agreed upon a basis of a settlement of our political difficulties, which was reported to Congress. The Secretary entertains the hope that nothing will occur now of a hostile character.
S. Cooper, Adjutant General
Lincoln Travels by Train Roundabout to Washington
During the first three weeks of February, President-elect Abraham Lincoln made his journey from Springfield to Washington. He took his time coming; stopping at Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Columbus, Pittsburg, New York, and Philadelphia. In the course of his zigzag trip he met in private conference with the Republican governors at the helm of the State governments in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, gathering their support for what he told them would be coming next. In his public speeches, he made conflicting statements: though he intended to hold the forts of the Union he saw no need for war; indeed, he said, “there is no occasion for alarm as nobody’s been hurt.” From these utterances, the newspapers reported that Lincoln considered the country to be in no danger, that there would be no occasion to use force.
Reaching Philadelphia, he told the audience surrounding him at Independence Hall that he could see no need for war unless. . . “I may say in advance that there will be no bloodshed unless it is forced upon the government.” How “forced?” “The government will not use force, unless force is used against it?” Moving then to Harrisburg, Lincoln met with Governor Curtin, and to the public said a few words: “With my consent, or without my great displeasure, this country shall never witness the shedding of one drop of blood by fraternal strife.” Then back to Philadelphia he went and in the night changed trains and reached Washington at dawn.
When he arrived in Washington, on February 23rd, he took rooms at the Willard Hotel—the same location where the Peace Convention was being held—and entertained the crowds of people who came to see him, touch him, and get a job from him. He was sized up by all concerned as easygoing, convivial and a bit droll.
But when he encountered one of the New York money kings in the halls of the Willard, he projected a different impression to the public altogether. Dodge, the capitalist, came to Washington with an entourage of bankers and wall streeters.
“Now,” said Dodge, “it is for you, sir, to say whether the whole nation will be plunged into bankruptcy, whether the grass shall grow in Wall Street.”
“Then, I say it shall not,” Lincoln is reported to have retorted. “If it depends upon me, the grass will grow only in the fields and meadows.”
“Then you will not go to war with the South on account of slavery?”
All merriment gone suddenly from his face, Lincoln locked eyes with Dodge and said: “I do not understand your meaning, Mr. Dodge. I will preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution until it is enforced and obeyed in every one of the United States, let the grass grow where it may.”
For a week, waiting for Inauguration Day, Lincoln went about the business of politicking; he called upon President Buchanan at the White House, shook hands with the members of Buchanan’s Cabinet, visited with Stephen Douglas, interviewed General Scott, and met with the Republicans in the Senate and House.
Live Long and Prosper....