Plot to Ship Guns South?

Monday, December 24, 1860; Christmas Eve

Unknown to President Buchanan and most everybody else, Secretary of War, John B. Floyd – former Virginia Governor and Southern sympathizer – it seems, was attempting to give the South a wonderful Christmas present by transferring guns from northern arsenals to forts in the South. As Secretary of War, this was well within his jurisdiction to do so, however, he began a rapid fury of requests over the preceding days to arsenals in Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania), Massachusetts and New York to send muskets and artillery south to the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana.

Floyd’s largest order was to the Allegheny Arsenal in Pittsburgh. From there, he ordered 124 cannons to be taken by boat down the Mississippi River for forts in Mississippi and Texas. Though these states had not yet seceded, it was fairly obvious that they likely would.1

While the commanders of these arsenals had little choice but to comply with the Secretary’s orders, the people of Pittsburgh got wind of this and on this chilly Christmas Eve night, decided to take action.

The steamer Crystal Wave2 was at the Monongahela wharf; the streets and wharf were icy, and the guns were being rolled over the wharf to the gang planks. Some had already been placed aboard the steamer, when the movement suddenly halted, and loyal patriots sought to get in touch with the authorities at Washington, as they believed somebody had blundered.3

The Major in charge of the arsenal refused to speak to the press, but a local congressman telegraphed Edwin Stanton, Chairman of the House Committee on Military Affairs, to see if he knew anything about this.

Other area Democrats telegraphed Washington to have the orders countermanded.4

This may have been the uncovering of a great plot or it may have simply been the Secretary of War doing his job. Time and history would tell (or not, as it’s still debated).


Declaration of Immediate Causes: No Fugitive Slave Law = No Union

Overshadowing the confusion in Pittsburgh, the South Carolina Secession Convention (which was still meeting to hammer out all the details of running a new little nation) passed the “Declaration of Immediate Causes” of secession.

It begins by offering their interpretation of the Nation’s founders’ layout of a voluntary union of sovereign states. They claimed that the northern states had broken this Constitutional agreement by not enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law. The document singles out Lincoln, specifically his “government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free” idea.

On March 4th, the day of Lincoln’s inauguration, the “slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.”

The declaration closes by stating that the delegates “have solemnly declared that the Union heretofore existing between this State and the other States of North America, is dissolved, and that the State of South Carolina has resumed her position among the nations of the world, as a separate and independent State; with full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent States may of right do.”

South Carolina was also preparing for war. The Convention had sent three commissioners to meet with Buchanan in Washington. Closer to Major Anderson, however, militia units were arriving in Charleston, surveying Sullivan’s Island (home of Fort Moultrie) for artillery emplacements and scaling ladders were being constructed. Something was up and Anderson needed to act.5

  1. From Official Records, Series III, Vol. 1, p 21 – and other sources – this whole affair is generally unknown and unresearched. []
  2. possibly named Silver Wave []
  3. From Memory’s Milestones: Reminiscences of Seventy Years of a Busy Life in Pittsburgh by Percy Frazer Smith, Murdoch-Kerr Press, 1918. []
  4. From the Richmond Daily Dispatch, December 27, 1860. []
  5. Allegiance by David Detzer. []


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6 thoughts on “Plot to Ship Guns South?

  1. Crystal Wave is an awesome name for a boat.

    This seems like the most confusing aspect of this time. People loyal to states, regions, and trying to support them in different ways. Who knows what his motivations were? Did he even know? I mean I could see him sending the guns for a few reasons, and not totally working out all of the ramifications in his mind.

    Ramifications is a good boat name too.

    1. The story will develop over the next few days, but still, his reasons were never really divulged.

      We’ll also get to his career as a Confederate General in western Virginia in a few months. I’m working on the WV stuff right now and it’s really, really fun. I actually miss the state in a lot of ways.

  2. Thanks for another great post. I enjoyed reading about Floyd and the possibility of a conspiracy. It seems that so many possible plots and conspiracies could have taken place during those crucial days during the secession crisis.

    I’m glad to see a thumbnail of the manuscript version of the Declaration of Immediate Causes. This original record and so many others from SC’s Convention of the People (a convention that was not officially dissolved until December 1862) are part of the collections of the South Carolina Department of Archives and History. One interesting, recent discovery regarding our Declaration of Immediate Causes is that we have at least four original manuscript drafts of the document, as it was being written, edited, and discussed by Memminger and others before it was finally adopted on December 24.

    Those wishing to see the full seven pages of this manuscript actually adopted (or the Evans & Cogswell printed version) can go to this link:

    We should also mention Robert Barnwell Rhett’s “Address to the Southern States” as it was considered another item that helped explain SC’s reasons for secession. I have a link to it on the page linked above. Let’s keep in mind that these official declarations and addresses had various agendas, probably most notably the agenda of persuading other southern states to join them as well as the agenda, of course, of receiving some amount of recognition from the United States for this bold, but very deliberate action. Also, the Convention Journal noted that the state printer was to print 15,000 copies of the Declaration and the Rhett’s Address, presumably to be distributed to southern leaders considering secession.

    To learn more about the collections of the SC State Archives, go to this website:

    1. Hi Don,

      Thanks again for a great comment and the links. They’re all great, so keep them coming.

      There are so many speeches, proclamations, resolutions and pamphlets from this era that it’s basically impossible to even mention a fraction of them. Thanks for helping out there.


  3. As this is new to me, and I have nothing to place it in perspective, I wonder if there is less here than one might infer. It seems to me that the commanders of loyal forces in the South might be requesting arms as much as General Anderson at Charleston. Since the secessionist explicitly forbade the Union from fortifying the area around Charleston the Secy. of War might rightly try to fortify other areas. I suppose you will give us more perspective later, but the sitting President might have this same reaction at the time and be less alarmed…

    1. There wasn’t actually a whole lot on this. Most of the commanders in the South were Southern, as was Floyd. The mass seizure of forts that happened in the South prior to the war didn’t happen just yet. However, when they were seized, they got all of the guns as well.

      The strange thing is that Floyd did this behind everyone’s back. Also, if memory serves me here, some Southern governors were involved.

      Anderson’s request was highly contested by the South. If other loyal Forts were asking for arms, they would have been contested as well. This was all pretty shady, even if it was on the up and up.

      But like I said, this issue is still debated. It’s been a while since I researched this one and it definitely could use some more work.

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