Monday, December 10, 1860
President Buchanan did not want a war. He wanted little to do with it. He did not want to start one and believed he could do little to stop one. With his cabinet cracking and presumably soon to crumble, and with a mere three months left before his retirement, this was hardly his problem.
The whole situation was simplified to a handful of forts in Charleston Harbor. If reinforcements were sent, South Carolina would attack the forts. But if reinforcements were not sent, South Carolina would hardly have to attack them to take them. For now, however, nobody was attacking anything and Buchanan wanted to keep it that way.
In hopes of avoiding the inevitable until it was Lincoln’s problem, Buchanan wanted assurance that South Carolina would not fire upon Sumter until the state left the Union, which he figured wouldn’t be until inauguration day. He even got this in writing from a couple of South Carolina congressmen.
The letter stated that nobody would “attack or molest the United States forts in the harbor of Charleston” prior to secession. It also expressed hope (for whatever that was worth) that no attack would be made until an “offer has been made… to negotiate for an amicable arrangement” between feuding parties. That is, of course, unless Anderson was reinforced. Then all bets were off.
It was explained to Buchanan that even the movement of troops from Fort Moultrie to Sumter (which was, at this point, basically unoccupied) would violate the “terms” of this rather unofficial agreement.
Buchanan now had to delay secession. South Carolina was of a different mind.
For nearly a week, Assistant Secretary of State, William Trescot was in Columbia, the capitol of South Carolina, trying to see if secession could be postponed. Everyone he talked to agreed that it could not be. Governor William Gist went as far as to threaten that if they even tried to delay secession, he would call for the forts to be taken immediately.
But Gist’s term as Governor would be up in a few days, and if the secessionist fire-eater, Robert Barnwell Rhett, was voted into the office, as was expected to happen, things for Buchanan could jump from the frying pan into the Rhett’s fire.1
At the Charleston Defenses, Major Buell toured the fortifications with Major Anderson and verbally delivered Secretary of War John Floyd’s message.2