Military Explosions

Bad news for Cooperationists came in lockstep during the last ten days of December. Six days after South Carolina seceded and four days after Hereafter Acquired failed, federal troops seized Charleston’s vacant Fort Sumter. The strike inspired a wide-ranging Lower South military crisis during the next two weeks—the very time when Lower South debate over Separatism came to climax. The almost daily military explosions included seizures of two other empty, monumental federal forts, surrenders of a dozen occupied federal military installations, cannonballs whizzing over a federal relief ship approaching Fort Sumter—all this turmoil over alleged federal military coercion before Lower South conventions could even vote on delaying what had been merely a political crisis.

– 1 –

Once again at this turning point, a stream of occurrences having nothing to do with slavery crossed the stream of slavery incidents. This time, not the completion of a railroad but the development of a military concept coincidentally met disunion events at a pivotal crossroads. This time, the unintended and unanticipated convergence posed a question still absent from the history books: How could federal soldiers have previously failed to occupy the three most formidable Lower South federal forts, thus inviting disruptive seizures at the worst moment?

The answers, as so often in military history, begin with the army’s tendency to avoid a past disaster instead of forestalling new dangers. After the War of 1812 had demonstrated the nation’s vulnerability to English sea power, the army’s Board of Engineers devised the so-called Totten coastal defense system. The name honored the system’s most important planner, General Joseph Totten. Totten envisioned a string of massive brick structures with four to seven faces, guarding entrances to the nation’s most important Atlantic ports.

The three Lower South pillars of the Totten coastal defense system were Charleston’s Fort Sumter, Savannah’s Fort Pulaski, and Pensacola’s Fort Pickens. All three forts had walls at least two feet thick. All rose atop little islands, surrounded by protective waters. Each was completed or nearly completed by 1860. Each cost almost a million dollars. All featured multiple cannon, ready to be fired.

But none contained troops. Occupation of the three forts seemed unnecessary and thus unnecessarily expensive. Transporting food and supplies to soldiers inside an island fort cost far more in time, dollars, and convenience than sustaining troops in nearby mainland barracks. If invasion seemed imminent, nearby soldiers could be ferried to island fortresses before enemy ships appeared. Thus a trio of empty Lower South military prizes stood ready to be occupied, with only solitary guards or construction workers there to smile or frown at unopposed intruders.

When South Carolina seceded, almost all U.S. soldiers in the state lived not in Fort Sumter but in Fort Moultrie. Charleston’s citizens, not harbor waters, surrounded Moultrie. The fort guarded the tip of Sullivan’s Island, Charlestonians’ favorite suburb. From troops’ perch on the northern entrance to Charleston’s inner harbor, they could readily bombard foreign ships before the vessels reached Fort Sumter, located on its own tiny island inside the inner harbor.

Hostile South Carolinians could more easily bombard Fort Moultrie than Fort Sumter. Moultrie’s new commanding officer in November 1860, Kentucky’s Major Robert Anderson, found an impossible military situation. His only sixty men could only briefly defend themselves from sharpshooters on sand hills towering above the fort. Give me orders about how and when to defend this well-nigh indefensible position, Major Robert Anderson implored his Washington superiors.1

On December 8, South Carolina’s congressmen equally implored President James Buchanan to remove the helpless Kentucky major and his troops. The congressmen came away from the White House, so they thought, with an unwritten gentlemen’s agreement. The military situation in Charleston harbor, President Buchanan and South Carolina’s congressmen evidently informally agreed, would be temporarily frozen as it stood, with no troop reinforcements, movements, or assaults to transpire.2

Buchanan never denied South Carolinians’ allegations that he had agreed to a truce in place. But he never ordered Major Robert Anderson to comply. Instead, on December 21, a day after South Carolina departed the Union, Virginia’s Secretary of War John B. Floyd wrote Anderson, instructing the major to “exercise a sound military discretion” and to avoid “useless sacrifice of … lives.”3

The soundest “military discretion,” Anderson decided, would be to abandon Fort Moultrie and to occupy Fort Sumter, without a life lost. On the night after Christmas, under cover of darkness, the Kentuckian moved his exposed force to the unexposed island fortress. The next morning, while grateful federal soldiers and twice as many construction workers saluted the first raising of the Stars and Stripes over Fort Sumter, enraged Charlestonians found only spiked cannon and incinerated gun carriages in evacuated Fort Moultrie.

Robert Anderson had not only followed orders scrupulously and protected his troops shrewdly but also emulated his Kentucky U.S. senator brilliantly. Like John J. Crittenden, Anderson was a Border South neutral, anxious to avoid war and to save the Union. Anderson’s night of sneaking across Charleston’s inner harbor, moving soldiers from an easily assaulted fort to a pile harder to dream of conquering, sought to stall off the horrid hour.

The stall provoked immediate confrontation. Between December 27 and January 2, in retaliation for Anderson’s shattering of their supposed truce with Buchanan, Charlestonians seized all federal properties in the area except Fort Sumter. The haul included Fort Moultrie, Fort Johnson, and Castle Pinckney, as well as the U.S. Custom House and the U.S. Arsenal. Inside the arsenal lay lush treasure: 20,000-plus badly needed stands of arms.

South Carolinians desired richer bounty. They craved federal acknowledgment that they had formed a legitimate new nation, one that the United States could not legitimately coerce. They thought that Major Anderson’s movement to Fort Sumter, in violation of President Buchanan’s gentlemen’s agreement for a truce in place, gave them a trump card. Buchanan, as an honorable northern friend, would surely redeem his pledge of December 8 by ordering Major Anderson back to disabled Fort Moultrie or, better, out of the nation of South Carolina.

On December 26, the day that Anderson snuck over to Sumter, three of South Carolina’s most high-powered patriarchs arrived in Washington as the new nation’s new commissioners. The trio included the Harvard-educated Robert Barnwell, as close to a unionist as they came in South Carolina; the Yale-educated James Adams, ex-governor of the state and one of those fiery extremists that Robert Gourdin so distrusted; and James L. Orr, the most successful pragmatic politician in the wonderland of South Carolina extremism. The well-balanced trio visited Buchanan on December 28, as much three gentlemen come to see a fourth as negotiators come to protest a travesty. You must redeem your honor, violated through no fault of yours, exclaimed South Carolina’s titans. You must dispatch Major Anderson back to Moultrie or out of South Carolina.4 The honorable president almost agreed, then asked for time to ponder.

He immediately faced outraged protest from Northern Democratic allies. They thought that this proposed latest submission to the Slave Power would forever destroy their party and their nation. Thus tightened the climactic showdown between ever increasing southern demands and ever increasing northern resistance that had destroyed the National Democratic Party and Buchanan’s presidency.

As the president wrung his hands over his latest and worst predicament, a torn nation held its collective breath. Meanwhile Separatists throughout the Lower South, outraged at Buchanan’s failure instantly to order Anderson out of Fort Sumter, eyed their states’ own federal forts. Most in play were Forts Pulaski and Pickens, those two other empty exemplars of the Totten coastal defense system.

– 2 –

As the post–December 26 military story spread beyond South Carolina, the first hero (or if you will, villain) was neither a state nor a federal official. This loose cannon of a private citizen demonstrated why officials such as Judge Andrew Magrath had worried that an irresponsible individual would inspire a mob to assault the federal government illegitimately, thus discrediting supposedly legitimate disunion. Especially Robert Gourdin had sought to keep sober revolution out of Rhett’s wild hands. And then the wildest pair of private hands in the South almost started the Civil War—and (so the outlaw convinced himself) with Gourdin’s blessings!

The hands belonged to the only proslavery zany with a more outlandish name than State’s Rights Gist. Savannah’s Charles Augustus Lafayette Lamar was born in 1824. That year, the marquis de Lafayette, the French hero of the American Revolution, visited England’s ex-colonies. During his triumphant tour, the Frenchman attended the baptism and became the godfather of Gazaway Lamar’s new son.5

Gazaway earned such favors as a capitalist of the Robert Gourdin sort, many times magnified. Although a slaveholder, he amassed wealth largely the Yankee way—in cities, as a merchant and as an industrialist. He not only marketed the crops that came to Savannah but also introduced the first iron steamship into America. Gazaway owned steamboats, railroads, insurance companies, and (this was another first for a southern grandee) a New York bank.

The sober New York banker early turned over his massive Savannah affairs to his wild son. The incongruous pair, along with Gazaway’s sister, had been the only Lamar survivors of a horrendous shipwreck in Gazaway’s real domain: not the South but the Atlantic Ocean. Having lost his wife and other children to the ocean’s fury, Gazaway clung to his remaining offspring with a fellow escapee’s passion and a bereaved father’s adoration of whatever he had left. Even C.A.L.’s furious southern provincialism never alienated the cautious New York sophisticate, perhaps partly because the son’s adventurism usually bolstered the family’s bottom line.

Two years before secession, C.A.L. imported Africans for sale, in defiance of the Union’s laws. He thereby brought his synthesis of scrounging Yankee and defiant Cavalier to controversial flower. His father thought the flower repulsive. “An expedition to the moon,” Gazaway wrote C.A.L., “would have been equally sensible” and as contrary to God’s “will and his laws.”6

If God cheers Georgians who go to Virginia for slaves, answered the son, “what is the difference between going to Africa?” By going to Africa for a boatload of merchandise, C.A.L. would teach fellow Southerners that everything was right about slavery, even its African trade origins. He would also amass his rightful profit—$480,000 gained for $300,000 spent.

In December 1858, the thirty-four-year-old tycoon illegally imported Africans in a style that only Gazaway Lamar’s heir could deploy. The New York Yacht Club had barred the family’s yacht-schooner, the Wanderer, from its races because the sleek vessel’s sophistication destroyed competition. C.A.L. converted the cosmopolitan craft to provincial moneygrubbing. The Wanderer sped Lamar’s Africans to their clandestine U.S. landing at Jekyll Island near Savannah (Jekyll, of all places, where Gazaway’s fellow New York plutocrats would imminently establish a playground for Yankee millionaires). C.A.L. picked up his merchandise at Jekyll with his steamers, chugged up the Savannah River, and sold choice items at fancy plantations.7

The news created a national sensation, as did the government’s seizure of the Wanderer and arrest of the owner. C.A.L. dealt with the seizure by bidding $4001 against his jailer’s $4000, when the classy schooner came up at crass auction. To prevent a higher bid, Lafayette’s godson clubbed the jailer to earth and made off with the ship.

When he came back for trial, Lamar negotiated a plea bargain. He paid a $500 fine and served thirty days in confinement—in his own Savannah apartment! “The government has not the power” to “keep me in jail,” C.A.L. boasted, “unless they raise a few additional regiments.”8 Thirty days later, the convict strolled out of his apartment, stroking his red mustache with one hand and flaunting his golden cane with the other.

During the secession crisis, the uncontainable redhead clashed with his contained father over a more destructive (and less profitable) venture. Gazaway, true to his New York residence and transatlantic interests, favored unionist compromises. C.A.L., true to his slave trade caper and his loathing of Yankees, supported uncompromising disunionism. “I am about to organize a company,” the son wrote his father on the night before Lincoln’s election. I have “ordered 100 pistols and 100 sabers this day” from Hartford, Connecticut. “Governor Brown approves of it, and says I can order the Arms and pay for them and he will refund the money out of the 1st appropriation for the purchase of arms.” Lamar “would also purchase 4 pieces of cannon” for his troops. He hoped “Lincoln may be elected,” for “I want dissolution, & have I think contributed more than any man South for it.”9

On November 26, C.A.L. wrote Gazaway, again, dismissing his father’s prayer for continued Union. “If Georgia don’t act promptly,” declared this commander of the South’s largest, best-equipped private army, “we, the military of Savhn., will throw her in to Revolution. … We do not care what the world may approve of—we know we are right and will act regardless of consequences.”10

After Robert Anderson occupied Fort Sumter, Lamar meant to occupy the Savannah fortress, Fort Pulaski, before federal troops could garrison the empty five-sided brick colossus. Like Fort Sumter, Fort Pulaski loomed over its own island. But Pulaski’s Cockspur Island lay not in the middle of an importing city’s inner harbor, as did Sumter’s little island, but fifteen miles downstream, where the Savannah River enters the Atlantic Ocean.

Lamar dreamed that the very family vessels that had carried his African cargo up the river would now convey his fiery retainers downstream, to swarm inside an empty federal bulwark before another Robert Anderson could reach another strategically placed island fortress. As in his Wanderer fling, this rich young sport exuded the combination of private means and illegal bravado that could carry off such a lawless feat. He would thus shove Robert Gourdin’s cautious revolution toward a reckless climax.

During the evening of December 29, Lamar sent Gourdin arguably the most astonishing private letter in all the communications leading to disunion. Somehow, the letter revealed, the young hotspur had conceived that the graying Charlestonian had asked him to confiscate thousands of federal guns from Fort Pulaski and bring them to Charleston, to help blast Robert Anderson out of Fort Sumter! Alas, the document that could help explain why Lamar thought such a thing has not been uncovered.

No smoking gun could be more missed, by all who love a psychological puzzle. Perhaps the trauma of Major Anderson’s movement had thrown Robert Gourdin, that endless advocate of removing hotheads’ hands from revolutionary controls, into uncharacteristically losing his balance. Or perhaps Lamar, that endless advocate of storming balanced elders, had gleefully distorted some ambiguous Gourdin phrase into a summons. But whatever the reason why Lamar felt called to become the Lafayette of the South Carolina revolution, he sadly reported to Gourdin, on the evening of December 29, that this morning, “I had steamboat, men, & mules all ready” to go “to Fort Pulaski,” there to seize “the Guns that I promised” you. But “the wind from the N. E., … blowing as it was,” made it “impossible for a boat to lay alongside of the Northern wharf. … I consequently postponed” my seizure until tomorrow morning.11

Before Lamar could make good use of the morrow, another Savannah correspondent telegraphed Gourdin about the redhead’s planned escapade. The horrified Charlestonian may have reflected on the latest coincidence that had smoothed his alliance with Savannah compatriots. First a railroad commenced at just the right moment! Then a wind howled at just the right instant! At any rate, Gourdin telegraphed Savannah allies, warning them against illegal seizures. Gourdin’s Charleston compatriot, the elderly Langdon Cheves, also telegraphed young Lamar “to do nothing without consulting Colonel Lawton.”12

Alexander Robert Lawton epitomized the cosmopolitan, cautious Savannah businessmen that sophisticates in Charleston’s 1860 Association cherished. Born in the South Carolina rice parishes, Lawton had been educated at West Point and at the Harvard Law School. The cultivated lawyer, forty-two years old in 1860, headed the Augusta and Savannah Railroad, served in the State Senate, and commanded the First Volunteer Regiment of Georgia. After the Civil War, Lawton would become a president of the American Bar Association and a United States minister to Austria.13

True to a cosmopolitan’s worldview, Alexander Lawton had written Robert Gourdin on December 16 to go ahead with revolution, but carefully. A cautiously peaceful disunion would “advance the good cause here.” But assaults on U.S. forts would lose us sympathy and be “no holiday’s work.”14 On December 29, Gourdin enlisted Lawton to forestall C.A.L. Lamar’s holiday in Fort Pulaski.

Upon hearing about Gourdin’s intervention, Lamar agreed to await the Charlestonian’s further orders. He also agreed to consult Alexander Lawton before assaulting Fort Pulaski. But if Charlestonians decided against his seizing Fort Pulaski’s guns, C.A.L. wrote Gourdin, he hoped to go “by steamer to St. Augustine” to seize “larger and superior” federal weapons.15

Colonel Lawton feared that private Savannah citizens could not control this desperado. The state’s highest public official must contain the hothead. Lawton accordingly telegraphed Governor Joseph Brown in Milledgeville on December 31. “Come to Savannah at once,” urged Colonel Lawton. Brown sped over the 170 miles the next day, arriving in the city on January 1 at 9:00 P.M.16

With Governor Brown’s arrival in Savannah, Lamar’s threat to take over the assault on Pulaski (and on Sumter) summarily ended. He would next be seen as a lowly aide-de-camp to southern officials in Fort Moultrie. He would eventually be captured just after the Civil War officially ended and shot fatally in the back, making his demise one of the last (and least necessary) casualties of the war that he had craved. But before the war began, he faded into the shadows with a rebel’s high honors. His private irresponsibility brought just the right public official to just the right place, and at just the right time, to preside over a presecession conspiracy to seize all Lower South federal military installations.

– 3 –

While Governor Joseph Brown traveled from Milledgeville to Savannah, the telegraph wires hummed with the news that the wavering Yankee in the White House had made his decision. On December 31, James Buchanan rejected the South Carolina commissioners’ demands. Robert Anderson would stay in Fort Sumter, Buchanan wrote.17 Would the president now take the next step—reinforcing Anderson’s sketchy force? Rumors flew around Washington that Buchanan had already ordered up relief ships, bound not only for Fort Sumter but also for the other two empty Totten coastal defense fortresses, Savannah’s Pulaski and Pensacola’s Pickens, and for a dozen lesser Lower South federal military installations.

South Carolina’s three angry commissioners in Washington investigated the rumors. On January 1, they telegraphed their conclusions to the South Carolina secession convention. The convention’s president, David F. Jamison, immediately telegraphed Governor Joseph Brown in Milledgeville. Brown’s office forwarded the telegram to Savannah, care of Colonel Lawton. The colonel handed the secret missive to the governor upon the chief executive’s arrival in town three hours later. “Just rec’d from our commissioners at Washington,” ran Jamison’s wire, the “following Telegram: War we believe is inevitable” and “reinforcements are now on the way. Prevent their entrance into the harbor at every hazard.”18

During the late evening of January 1, Governor Brown confronted not only Jamison’s secret telegram but also “great popular apprehension,” he reported, “that Fort Pulaski would be garrisoned with United States Troops” or with private Georgia armies, unless “occupied by State Troops.” Thus on January 2, 1861, the governor confidentially ordered Alexander Lawton, commanding 125 Georgia volunteers, to seize the fort. As Brown explained his justification to Colonel Lawton, “the Government at Washington has, as we are informed upon high policy, decided on the policy of coercing a seceded state back into the Union, and it is believed now has a movement on foot to occupy with Federal Troops, the Southern Forts, including Fort Pulaski.” Lawton must thus seize and retain that Savannah fort, until the Georgia state convention “has decided on” secession. In the early morning of January 3, Lawton, unopposed, occupied the empty fort.19

Hours after Lawton struck, Governor Brown secretly telegraphed the two Governors Moore (of Alabama and Louisiana), as well as Mississippi’s Governor Pettus and Florida’s Governor Perry. “In view of … the coercive policy understood to be adapted by our Government,” ran the missive, “I have ordered Georgia troops to occupy Fort Pulaski at the mouth of the river till our convention assembles.” Governor Brown added his “hope” that “you will cooperate and occupy the Forts” in your state.20

The Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi governors confidentially telegraphed back that they would swiftly cooperate. So they did. Governor Brown, nervous about Louisiana’s missing answer, telegraphed Pettus to alert Louisiana’s Governor Moore. Pettus sent the requested telegram, with slightly delayed but ultimately gratifying results.21

Alabama’s Governor Moore supplied secret gratification more quickly. The day after Brown telegraphed Lawton (and the day Lawton struck), Andrew Moore privately wired Captain John Todd in Mobile. “You are ordered,” ran the call to arms, “to occupy Forts Morgan and Gaines and to take possession of the U.S. arsenal immediately and to hold them for the State of Alabama,” until I or the Alabama state convention orders otherwise.22

I am “advised,” continued Moore’s order, that “the Federal Government intends to coerce the Seceding States,” and thus “that all the Southern forts will be immediately reinforced.” To prevent federal reinforcement, Governor Brown “has occupied Fort Pulaski.” We must follow suit. But since “Alabama has not yet seceded,” we must take “both the forts and the arsenal … without bloodshed,” lest we begin a shooting war against the government of “which we continue to be an integral part.”

Some part! This prerevolutionary plot delivered the simultaneous capture of four states’ federal military installations, with the seizures arming imminent rebels and influencing citizens’ decision to revolt. As the prearranged military strike evolved, Governor Brown controlled Fort Pulaski two weeks before Georgia’s convention acted (and on the very day that his state’s voters split their votes almost evenly between Separatist and Cooperationist convention delegates). Alabama’s Moore governed Forts Morgan and Gaines, plus the Mt. Vernon Arsenal, four days before his state’s badly divided state convention sought to muster a majority for disunion. Florida’s Perry occupied Fort Marion and the St. Augustine Arsenal three days before his state’s convention authorized disunion. Louisiana’s Moore controlled Forts Jackson, St. Phillips, and Pike twelve days before the state seceded. The governor also seized the big Louisiana catch, the Baton Rouge Arsenal, sixteen days before secession.

In the eleven days between Georgia’s possession of Fort Pulaski (January 3) and Louisiana’s capture of Fort Pike (January 14), the governors of four states, none having yet seceded, had coordinated the ambush of eight forts and three arsenals. No lives had been lost. Almost no shots had been fired. Only one state, Florida, had experienced any trouble carrying out the interstate plot.

The exception involved a serious setback. On January 8, a handful of Governor Perry’s Floridians marched on Fort Barrancas in Pensacola Harbor. After U.S. troops fired warning shots, Perry’s men retreated. Two days later, with the federal position on the Florida mainland precarious, the U.S. commander at Barrancas, Lieutenant Adam Slemmer, pulled a Robert Anderson. He moved his eighty-two men across Pensacola Bay to empty Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island, the Pensacola stronghold of the Totten coastal defense system.23

On January 12, Florida militiamen overwhelmed the other U.S. installations in Pensacola, Forts Barrancas and McRee plus the Pensacola Naval Yard. Meanwhile, after an exchange of telegrams that Georgia’s Governor Brown initiated, Mississippi dispatched eight companies and Alabama (which still had not seceded!) three companies (and soon another three companies) to Pensacola, to help drive federal Lieutenant Slemmer out of Fort Pickens. Once arrived, this first transstate rebel army, almost a thousand angry Southerners strong, lined the sand beach, eager to have at the island fort but without the ships to reach it (or the orders to invade).24

Despite this unfinished business, Governor Joseph Brown correctly bragged that the “responsibility” for state seizure of federal military prizes “was a grave one, but I did not hesitate to take it.” Brown was “happy to see” that “other southern governors … have followed the example.” Or as Georgia’s James Mercer Green chortled, Governor Brown heads “a long list of traitors whom the Yankees intend to hang.”25

A U.S. treason court could indeed have indicted, convicted, and hanged the governors for conspiratorial plotting, if prosecutors had uncovered these stillsurviving telegrams. In the case of that previous spree of clandestine disunion plotting, the early October–early November fleeting conspiracy between South Carolinians and Lower South secessionists elsewhere, many of the incriminating letters have disappeared, and nothing happened until planning shifted to the open air. But in the case of the secretly coordinated fort seizures, the smoking guns, that evidence prized by treason courts, are all there (save only for that much lamented lost letter, explaining how C.A.L. Lamar had so misunderstood Robert Gourdin). Furthermore, the undercover plotting directly produced the treasonous activity (as the federal government defined treason).

The military conspiracy, like the political conspiracy before it, showed the strengths and limits of clandestine plotting in an open democratic system. Secret correspondence could not alone build a revolutionary consensus, as Robert Barnwell Rhett had learned in the November South Carolina legislature. Open debate also had to convince the voters, as the Charleston and Savannah Railroad celebration had demonstrated. But clandestine communication could arrange the issues before the public. In October–early November, the Gist-Pettus secret confrontations had arranged a consistent Separatist appeal for serial Lower South decisions on single state secession, not on a southern convention. So too, in early January, the secretly arranged simultaneous assault on all Lower South forts had partially shifted voters’ and conventions’ decision from whether Lincoln’s menace justified immediate secession to whether governors had been justified to defy coercion before the coercive ships arrived.

Or to put the shifting issue slightly differently, the changed context of decision invited citizens to affirm the (uncontested) right to secede before the (highly contested) expediency of secession had been secured. Frustrated Cooperationists even charged, inaccurately, that, in Georgia’s Hershel Johnson’s words, the fort seizures had been deliberately “designed” at “shaping matters” so “as to render secession a necessity.” The simultaneous action of several states showed “concert among the ringleaders,” charged Johnson, just as military action before secession is “treason against the U.States.”26

Alabama’s Governor Andrew Moore seems to have especially feared that his participation in secret treason would merit a traitor’s gallows. As if filing a preindictment plea before a grand jury, Moore wrote President Buchanan that he had taken “every precautionary step” to maintain the peace. He had been “left” with “little, if any, room to doubt that the Government of the United States … was about to reinforce these forts.” If I had failed to do “my duty, … I would probably have been overruled by an excited and discontent people and popular violence might have accomplished what we did peaceably.” I will equally peaceably hand back the forts, arsenals, and guns, if our imminent convention does not secede.27

When the four states’ conventions did secede, they possessed a treasure of arms at a needy moment. In late December and early January, the four states’ governors had urgently been seeking guns to buy all over the South, the North, and Europe. They had succeeded mostly in competing with each other, driving up the prices for excellent guns, and settling for bargainbasement hand-me-downs.28

They had especially slim luck with Eli Whitney’s famous Connecticut gun factory. That concern accused Mississippi officials of refusing to pay their bills on time.29 Meanwhile, other Connecticut suppliers of guns gladly served the swiftly paying Charles Augustine Lafayette Lamar. The upshot: While thousands of Lower South volunteers eagerly sought guns, their governors could not find the rifles to spend half their states’ appropriations.

The military plot eased the debacle. Some 75,000 stands of arms had been confiscated from U.S. forts and arsenals. The coup highlighted a crucial reason why Separatists demanded that the revolution be completed by March 4. If Lincoln gains “possession of the army and navy—the public treasury and all the patronage,” wrote Mississippi’s Powhattan Ellis, Sr., on Christmas Day, 1860, “the odds … will be against us.”30 The odds against the rebels would indeed have been worse if those circa 75,000 U.S. guns confiscated from federal arsenals and forts in the three weeks after December 26 had not supplied the volunteers.

Still, the governors had not conspired to seize the forts in order to secure the guns for a civil war, any more than they had plotted to take over military installations in order to clinch upcoming secession decisions. Those boons had been unintended consequences of the master intention: to preclude Buchanan’s (falsely) expected reinforcements of forts throughout the Lower South. Still, after the unintended consequences fell into Separatists’ laps, they took full advantage of the martial excitement, making an electoral victory for secession easier to attain. They also cherished the 75,000-plus rifles, making treason arrests easier to forestall.

– 4 –

On January 5, five days after South Carolina’s commissioners correctly surmised that Buchanan meant to reinforce Fort Sumter, the president’s reinforcing ship, the Star of the West, steamed out of New York City. Hidden under its deck, the otherwise unarmed merchant vessel carried some two hundred soldiers, one hundred rifles, and three months of supplies for Anderson’s men, including fresh beef. The Star slipped to the edge of Charleston’s inner harbor under cover of night on January 8. But the shrouded vessel could not find its way toward Fort Sumter until daybreak on January 9.

Then the provoking ship chugged toward Robert Anderson. Cadets from Charleston’s military college, the Citadel, had first crack at the intruders. The college lads huddled in a battery on Morris Island, across the inner harbor entrance from Fort Moultrie. After the cadets opened fire, the guns of Fort Moultrie remained eerily silent. So did the guns of Fort Sumter. If Moultrie sank the Star of the West or if Sumter blasted Moultrie, a civil war would begin.

At this tense moment, Assistant Secretary of State William Trescot, back home again from Washington, “hurried” down to the water’s edge, “to hear the proclamation of civil war from Anderson’s guns at Fort Sumpter [sic]. … The slaughter,” Trescot shuddered, would be “dreadful. … Every man lost would” leave a “home … desolated and a family to mourn.”

“The present men in Fort Sumpter,” winced Trescot, had been my friends on Sullivan’s Island, when they occupied Fort Moultrie. “Almost every summer day after breakfast, I used to light my cigar, walk over to Fort Moultrie, sit down in the piazza, and talk away the long morning.” Trescot had also “dined with them” in my own house. “It is mortifying to send a cannon ball into bowels which have digested your hospitality gratefully and thoroughly. To kill them is almost as bad as to be killed ourselves.”31

The horror of an imminent brothers’ war here received affecting expression. The qualms of sophisticated South Carolina precipitators also here received uneasy statement. South Carolina did not make gentlemen more elegant than Trescot, or more sensitive to the contradictions of slavery, or more hopeful that after disunion would come the peace and quiet to reform the culture without outside interference, or more nervous about the abyss that must first be dared. Trescot had carried Howell Cobb’s plea to Charleston, to delay secession until February 1. He had reported back to Washington that sterner souls than his had pledged illegal rebellion, if legal revolution should be delayed. Now he watched the Star of the West slide past the battery on Morris Island, still unharmed, and approach the guns of Fort Moultrie.

In Fort Sumter, Robert Anderson told his men to aim cannon at Fort Moultrie. They begged to fire. Moultrie fired before Anderson could answer. The ball splashed down half a mile from the Star. Moultrie fired again. Another miss. The Star seemed to pause. “Hold on; do not fire, I will wait,” screamed Anderson.32 The Star turned and steamed back to the open sea.

The myth has arisen that Anderson would have fired, if his orders had arrived before the Star of the West appeared. (The orders may have been aboard the Star!) But the text of Anderson’s orders, subsequently delivered, does not establish that certainty. “Should a fire, likely to prove injurious, be opened upon any vessel bringing reinforcements or supplies,” wrote Anderson’s superior, “your guns … may be employed to silence such fire” (emphasis mine).33

May,” not “must” or “should”! The language left the decision up to the border neutral. The Kentucky major may well have decided to wait, with or without these orders in hand. Perhaps the coincidence of undelivered orders, but more likely the neutrality of this exemplar of the Border South, for one last moment kept Yankees and South Carolinians from pumping iron into each others’ bowels.

– 5 –

Subsequently, a truce delayed warfare at Pensacola’s Fort Pickens. In early January, President Buchanan dispatched not only the Star of the West to Charleston but also the Brooklyn, loaded with soldiers and supplies, toward Fort Pickens, where Federal Lieutenant Adam Slemmer and his eightytwo troops still eyed a thousand rebel soldiers on the mainland. Three other U.S. vessels already in Pensacola harbor—the Sabine, the St. Louis, and the Macedonian—awaited orders. All these federal ships ceased and desisted after Florida’s ex–U.S. senator Stephen Mallory and President Buchanan arranged a late January truce. Supplies but not soldiers, ran the agreement, could reinforce Lieutenant Slemmer at Fort Pickens, and no shots would be fired. A less formal truce sustained a similar uneasy peace at Fort Sumter. But nothing in either truce would prevent Abraham Lincoln from reasserting Buchanan’s reinforcement policy of early January, at Fort Sumter or at Fort Pickens or at both hot spots. No one expected the Republican to do less than the Democrat. The new president, wrote Jefferson Davis, “will have but to continue in the path of his predecessor to inaugurate a civil war.”34

Davis’s prescient comment, correctly conflating our supposedly weakest president’s policy on the forts with our arguably greatest chief executive’s, must raise questions about the conventional charge that Buchanan’s Sumter policy epitomized timorousness. President Lincoln would take thirty-three days to decide to send a relief ship to Fort Sumter, a policy that Buchanan pushed after three days. The revealing difference lay not in the decisive policy but in the speed of decision. James Buchanan’s rush to judgment, in sharp contrast to Lincoln’s stalling for perspective, illustrated the earlier president’s cardinal flaw: his dubious choices of the moment to be decisive. If Buchanan had waited Lincoln’s month to send the supposedly coercive ship, no presecession southern plot to seize federal forts would have prematurely occurred. Then the Lower South could have decided on the expediency of secession without yet deciding on the right of secession. Since Buchanan’s single reinforcing ship could only spread secession—could never conquer disunionists, much less lead them to quail—Buchanan’s decision after but seventy-two hours could only have had counterproductive impact.

The president who boldly threw down his influence against the secessionists, against Stephen A. Douglas, and against an evasive Dred Scott decision hardly vacillated on the sidelines. Rather, Buchanan deployed power imprudently, inside Supreme Court proceedings and later inside Charleston harbor, before six Lower South states decided on the expediency of departure. His nation persistently paid for his errant decisiveness.35

– 6 –

The Star of the West crisis especially stung the rebels because James Buchanan had initiated it. James Buchanan, for decades the South’s most supportive Yankee political friend! James Buchanan, the man who had made the White House a national Camelot for southern cronies! James Buchanan, the one Northerner whose word could be trusted! James Buchanan, the compatriot whose plight led the South’s Washington fanciers to wish secession delayed until March 4, so disaster would occur on a less worthy Yankee’s watch.

Now look! James Buchanan, the man who broke a gentlemen’s agreement with Charleston patriarchs! James Buchanan, the supposedly aboveboard president who sent a hostile ship into Charleston harbor, with 200 coercive soldiers hidden beneath its deck! James Buchanan, who answered southern friends’ right of revolution with blood and iron!

Buchanan’s supposed betrayal, plus northern cheers for the betrayer, felt like John Brown revisited. How appalling it had been that famous Yankee intellectuals applauded Brown’s intention to slay southern whites, so that blacks could be free. How appalling now that Northerners cheered Buchanan, as he sought to sneak soldiers into Charleston harbor to savage southern patriots. If this Yankee had bloody hands, what Northerner could be trusted? Certainly not the Republicans who turned down John Crittenden!

Buchanan’s supposed treachery, after Crittenden’s hapless compromise, showed again how badly South Carolina’s instant disunion had damaged Lower South Cooperationists’ election prospects beyond that little state. If South Carolina had waited to decide for secession in conjunction with other southern states, Crittenden would have had no early occasion to try Hereafter Acquired, nor Buchanan to send the Star of the West, nor Lower South governors to seize federal forts, all before the Lower South electorate decided on the expediency of secession. But South Carolina had rushed to decide before that Lower South decision, and the rush had deliberately and successfully changed the issue before the electorate. Crittenden’s failure had badly discredited the Cooperationists’ argument for the possibility of compromise, and Buchanan’s coercion had made expediency irrelevant. The question had become the right of a sovereign state to withdraw its consent to be governed without the federal agency’s coercion. As Lower South governors advertised that new issue with their coordinated seizure of Lower South forts, Cooperationists’ panaceas had become as hapless as their stalling—and before the electorate had voted on their viability.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!