Lincoln About Buchanan: …He Ought To Be Hanged!

Saturday, December 22, 1860

For the preceding two nights, two steam ships from Charleston were seen in the harbor around Forts Sumter and Moultrie as well as Castle Pickney. When called out to, asking what they wanted, the reply was “You shall see in a week.”

Captain John Foster of the Engineer Corps stationed at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island (and basically Major Anderson’s second in command) on this day informed Washington of these mysterious visitations. Foster believed that these steamers were keeping guard over the forts.

He was most concerned about Fort Sumter since it was unoccupied and had, at this point, no defenses. Orders from Washington forbade him to do pretty much anything that could possibly be seen as hostile, so he felt that he couldn’t even vary his plan of operation, even though it was clear that something was up.

If a stand were to be made, it would have to be made at Fort Moultrie. He reported that the moat was finished, cannons were in place and there were even plans to make a sharpshooter’s stand. Moultrie was stocked, garrisoned and ready.1

But ready for what?


According to the rumor that reached Springfield this day, it would be ready for surrender. As it went, President Buchanan supposedly ordered Major Anderson to surrender Fort Moultrie if attacked. “If that is true, he ought to be hanged!” Lincoln was angry. He immediately fired off a letter for General Winfield Scott, commander of the United States Army.

Lincoln informed the General that he wished him “to be prepared, immediately after my inauguration, to make arrangements at once to hold the forts, or, if they had been taken, to take them back again.”2

The President-Elect wrote to at least two other people this day, informing them of the same. It was, however, only a rumor. President Buchanan ordered no such thing. It was probably hyperbole stemming from the order to Anderson that if attacked it was “neither expected nor desired that you should expose your own life or that of your men in a hopeless conflict in defense of these forts.” Though, that does seem to be about the same thing.

He also wrote to Alexander Stephens of Georgia seemingly surprised in wonder, asking “Do the people of the South really entertain fears that a Republican administration would, directly, or indirectly, interfere with their slaves, or with them, about their slaves?”

Lincoln assured Stephens, “there is no cause for such fears.”3

  1. From Official Records, Vol 1, p106 – 107. []
  2. From Team of Rivals by Dorris Kearns Goodwin, Simon & Shuster, 2005. []
  3. Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Alexander Stephens, December 22, 1860. []
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Lincoln About Buchanan: …He Ought To Be Hanged! by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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