Thompson Resigns Cabinet Post

Tuesday, January 8, 1861

President Buchanan was frantic about the seizure of forts. Things seemed to be falling apart around him more and more each day. In a special address to Congress, he urged them to pass Crittenden’s Compromise or any compromise. He had done all that he could, defending his position that no state could legally leave the Union and that he had no right to wage a war upon a State.

However, he felt that he did have “the right and the duty to use military force defensively against those who resist the federal officers in the execution of their legal functions, and against those who assail the property of the federal government….”

Buchanan, however, was not quite as forthcoming as he claimed to be. In closing, he reminded everybody that he had avoided war and was still avoiding war. He wanted nothing to do with war. Even though Major Anderson at Fort Sumter requested reinforcements Buchanan would not send them “until an absolute necessity for doing so should make itself apparent, lest it might unjustly be regarded as a menace of military coercion, and thus furnish, if not a provocation, at least a pretext for an outbreak on the part of South Carolina. No necessity for these reinforcements seemed to exist.”

At this time, of course, not only was Major Anderson about to be reinforced, but the sloop-of-war USS Brooklyn was on its way to lend a hand. But this was a secret mission.

So secret that Secretary of the Interior Jacob Thompson from Mississippi had to read about it in the local newspaper to find out about it. The first thing he did was telegraphed South Carolina and warned them of the reinforcements (he may have only known about one ship, the Star of the West, at this point).

His next measure was to resign. He wrote to the President, candidly explaining that, though the cabinet had discussed sending reinforcements several times, no conclusion was ever reached and thus, he thought, no reinforcements would be sent. However, he had learned that he was deceived. “Under these circumstances I feel myself bound to resign my commission as one of your constitutional advisers into your hands.”1


More Fun in Florida

The United States defenses at Pensacola, Florida were under the command of Lieutenant A. J. Slemmer of Pennsylvania. He had heard rumors of Governor Perry’s orders to seize all US military installations including Forts Pickens, Barrancas and McRea as well as a Navy yard.

Slemmer was stationed in Fort Barrancas and was determined to hold it against any force. On this night, the force was 20 civilians armed with shotguns. Some reports2 make no mention of shots being fired, only that the “attackers” found the drawbridge up and retired. Other reports3 claim that shots were fired after a sentinel at Fort Barrancas discovered the 20 (or was it only 2) men lurking in the shadows.

Either way, this confrontation spurred Lt. Slemmer into action.

  1. From The Genesis of the Civil War: The Story of Sumter, 1860-1861 By Samuel Wylie Crawford. []
  2. Pictorial History of the Civil War in the United States of America, Volume 1 by Benson John Lossing []
  3. Discovering the Civil War in Florida by Paul Taylor []
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