Wednesday, January 2, 1861
President Buchanan and his Cabinet were in their afternoon meeting when the letter from the South Carolinian Commissioners arrived.
The pompous, scathing reply was read aloud. The Commissioners claimed that their mission had been one of peace. Buchanan had rejected this peace by not ordering Anderson’s withdrawal. They called the President on saying one thing (keeping the “status quo”) and doing the other (keeping Anderson at Sumter). Also, they gave an account of the short history of South Carolina’s secession and Buchanan’s reaction to it. That reaction, until this point, had seemed neutral, even favorable.
It was clear to the Commissioners that something had changed. When they had left their meeting with the President, it seemed to them that he would shortly be recalling Anderson. Instead, Anderson had waged war. “No other words will describe his action… This is war.”
According to the letter, Buchanan had “resolved to hold by force what you have obtained through our misplaced confidence, and by refusing to disavow the action of Major Anderson, have converted his violation of orders into a legitimate act of your executive authority.”
Civil War, they said, was now “probably rendered … inevitable.” Throwing down the gauntlet, they continued, “If you choose to force this issue upon us, the State of South Carolina will accept it….”1
While Buchanan read the letter to his outraged cabinet, officially he refused to accept it. He scribbled “This paper, just presented to the President, is of such a character that he declines to receive it.” upon the note and sent a secretary to return it to these “private gentlemen.”
This formal snub fell short, however, as the Commissioners had already left for South Carolina. Negotiations, if they could even be called that, were at an end.
The Cabinet meeting ended with Buchanan calling for reinforcements to be sent to Anderson at Fort Sumter.
Newly appointed Secretary of War Joseph Holt and Secretary of the Navy Isaac Toucey left the meeting to find General Winfield Scott.2
Scott was already planning how best to send troops to Anderson as well as to other forts and outposts in the Gulf area. He had selected the steamer USS Brooklyn, stationed in Hampton Roads, Virginia (near Norfolk). She was a sloop of war with 21 guns and could not only transport the 200 men Scott ordered, but she could protect them, too.
Buchanan had finally agreed with the plan to reinforce Anderson, but Scott had second thoughts. Perhaps a warship was a bit much. He reconsidered and ordered the merchant-class steamer, Star of the West, a side-wheeler, to be chartered instead.
In Charleston, South Carolina troops had seized Fort Johnson. It had been abandoned for some time now and nobody really seemed all that interested in it. Its short-lived importance would come later.