War In the Cabinet
By Jamie Malanowski from the New York Times
January 2, 2011, 8:00 pm
War in the Cabinet
Disunion follows the Civil War as it unfolded.
Dec. 27, 1860 – Jan. 3, 1861
Give me a place to stand, said Archimedes, and I shall move the world. Major Robert Anderson chose to stand at Fort Sumter, and he has moved the disunion crisis onto an entirely new footing. A North that had been demoralized and adrift is now inspired. A debate about the regulation of slavery has been superseded by an argument about the preservation of the Union. And a president who had been as forceful as a feather pillow has become surprisingly stubborn.
Anderson’s decisive and defiant move into Sumter has heartened the North, which since its enthusiastic election of Abraham Lincoln in November has seen the secessionists seize the initiative and Unionists react slowly and unsurely. But the decisiveness of the slender Kentuckian, Anderson, himself once a slaveholder but always a strong union man, has had a bracing effect. “These are times to develop one’s manhood. We have had none finer since 1776,” the manufacturer Joseph Sargent told Senator Sumner of Massachusetts. “What we want is an hour of Old Hickory,’’ said the editor of The Atlantic Monthly, James Russell Lowell. “God bless Major Anderson for setting us a good example.”
And although Governor Pickens’s seizures of Fort Moultrie and the other federal installations in Charleston has had a galvanizing impact in the South, his actions have offended many in the North who were sympathetic to the South’s interests but staunchly pro-union. “We do not believe that even in this City ten respectable men can be found, — outside the circle of avowed Secessionists, — who do not rejoice and exult in Maj. Anderson’s conduct,’’ said The New York Times in an editorial.
Word of Anderson’s coup de main reached the ears of the president via a most circuitous route. Immersed in his escape, Anderson had no time to telegraph Washington, but someone in Charleston did send a message to Senator Louis Wigfall. The bombastic Texan then carried the news to William Henry Trescot, a South Carolinian who until very recently had been assistant secretary of state, and who had become an unofficial ambassador between the administration and the government of South Carolina ever since the abrupt resignation of the state’s entire Congressional delegation.
Trescot, who was hosting three commissioners sent by South Carolina to negotiate with Washington a handover of the Charleston forts, was shocked at the news. Secretary of War John Floyd, who also had just come by to visit Trescot, was also shocked. They agreed that Washington could not possibly have authorized Anderson to act. Trescot then left for the Senate to spread the word, while Floyd left for the War Department in hopes of contacting Anderson.
This was the third piece of hard news to hammer Floyd, the former governor of Virginia, in two days. At a cabinet meeting the day before, he was confronted by the president, who questioned him about an order Floyd had issued to a foundry in Pittsburgh to ship a total of 125 cannon to ports in Mississippi and Texas, despite the intense disunionist sentiments prevailing in those states.
This order called to mind a transaction completed in October, in which Floyd approved the sale of 10,000 surplus muskets to the state of South Carolina. Such transactions between the War Department and the states have long been commonplace, but given the temper of the times, this one was surely ill-advised, and was made to look all the more suspicious by South Carolina’s use an intermediary to disguise the purchase.
Floyd began to brazen his way through an explanation of the Pittsburgh deal when he was surprised by accusations from Jacob Thompson, the secretary of the interior, a Mississippi man. A total of $870,000 worth of bonds held in trust for various Indian tribes have gone missing, and Thompson accused Floyd of conniving with an Interior Department clerk to give them to a favored War Department contractor in exchange for some official promissory notes issued by Floyd as collateral. This was a singularly suspicious arrangement, and Buchanan, the least confrontational of men, felt obliged to ask for Floyd’s resignation. Floyd raged, blustered and pleaded that his colleagues in government were convicting him before he could present a defense. But he didn’t resign.
At the Senate, Trescot found Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi and Senator Robert M.T. Hunter of Virginia, and the three of them went to the White House, where they discovered they were more current about events in Charleston than the president. As he broke the news to Buchanan, Davis could not resist a concluding slap: “Mr. President, you are surrounded by blood and dishonor on all sides.’’
Library of CongressIn this 1861 drawing, Governor Francis Pickens threatens President Buchanan by holding a lit fuse to a giant Union cannon, “Peacemaker,” which is pointed at his own abdomen. He threatens, “Mr. President, if you don’t surrender that fort at once, I’ll be ‘blowed’ if I don’t fire.” President Buchanan responds, “Oh don’t! Governor Pickens, don’t fire! till I get out of office.” CLICK TO ENLARGE
“My God,’’ said Buchanan, “are misfortunes never to come singly?’’ He then tried to reassure the men that the transfer was not conducted under his orders. Very well, Davis and Hunter replied. Just order Anderson to go back to Fort Moultrie, and everything will be back in order. Buchanan sidestepped that overture, saying that he couldn’t move that quickly, that he needed to hear from Anderson and find out all the facts, that he would have to call a cabinet meeting. All right, the senators responded, have your inquiry, but meet with South Carolina’s commissioners this afternoon and promise that once you have your inquiry, you’ll order Anderson to return. Not an unreasonable proposal, but the harder Davis and Hunter pressed, the more Old Buck slithered. He canceled the meeting with the commissioners, and convened the cabinet.
Six weeks before, Buchanan brought his cabinet an idea to head off the rush to secession by calling a national convention. His conniving, self-interested cabinet members let him down. Now Buchanan faces a more virulent crisis, but he also has a different cabinet. The most effective southerner, Howell Cobb, has gone. The most prominent but least effective spokesman for the union, Lewis Cass, has also gone. The sharp, effective unionist Jeremiah Black has been promoted from attorney general to secretary of state, and his influence has increased commensurately. His successor at Justice is the brilliant, combative Edwin Stanton, another union man. And the feckless John Floyd, of whom the president was unaccountably fond, has become the feckless John Floyd, of whom the president is now considerably less enamored.
At the cabinet meeting, Floyd scathingly criticized Anderson for exceeding his orders and violating the president’s agreement with South Carolina about maintaining the status quo. “This has made war inevitable!’’ he cried. Jeremiah Black vehemently disagreed with Floyd’s assessment. First, any agreement about the disposition of troops ended when South Carolina seceded. Second, Anderson was not exceeding orders.
Prior to the meeting, Black had seen Major Don Carlos Buell, who had been sent by Floyd to see Anderson on Dec. 11. Floyd’s orders to Buell had been issued orally, but Buell put them in writing. If Anderson perceived “a tangible evidence of a design to proceed to a hostile act,’’ he was authorized to move his troops to another fort in Charleston. Black sent a messenger to retrieve a copy of those orders from the War Department. To the surprise of everyone but Floyd — and to his panicked embarrassment — they bore Floyd’s signature, and the words, “This is in conformity to my instructions to Major Buell.’’
Cornered once again, Floyd went back on the attack. He denied that Anderson ever had tangible evidence of a design to proceed to a hostile act, and was backed by Thompson and Philip Thomas, the new treasury secretary from Maryland. Black and Stanton argued back, and tempers escalated. Floyd then played his trump. “It is evident that the solemn pledges of this government have been violated by Major Anderson,’’ he said. `One remedy is left, and that is to withdraw the garrison from the harbor of Charleston altogether. I hope the president will allow me to make that order at once.’’
This infuriated Black. “There was never a moment in the history of England,’’ the secretary of state sneered at the secretary of war, “when a minister of the Crown could have proposed to surrender a military post which might be defended, without bringing his head to the block.’’
Then Stanton, replying as though not to an argument but to an insult, contributed his disdain. Surrendering Sumter by this government would be a crime equal to that of Benedict Arnold’s, he said, adding, with reference to the British major who conspired with Arnold, and all who participate in it should be hung like Andre.
“Oh, no!’’ Buchanan cried. “Not so bad as that, my friend! Not so bad as that!’’
The cabinet adjourned for dinner. During the break, the beleaguered Buchanan met with southern senators who pressed him to order Anderson back to Moultrie, and then with northern Democrats who urged him to hold on. Then the cabinet reconvened and continued to argue. An exhausted Buchanan finally decided that he would meet the commissioners from South Carolina the next day, and would defer a decision about the troops until hearing from Anderson himself.
But in the interval, the situation dramatically changed. By the time the commissioners showed up the next day, Buchanan had learned that Governor Pickens had seized Castle Pinckney and Forts Moultrie and Johnson. These aggressive actions complicated matters, as did the fact that there was no longer a Fort Moultrie to which the troops could return. The commissioners nonetheless pushed Buchanan; one of them, Robert Barnwell, three times insisted that Buchanan’s personal honor was involved. “Mr. Barnwell, you are pressing me too importunely,’’ Buchanan replied. “You don’t give me time to consider. You don’t give me time to say my prayers. I always say my prayers when required to act upon any great state affair.’’
When the cabinet reconvened that evening, the southerners tried a new tack. The government should withdraw the troops out of magnanimity, interior’s Jacob Thompson proposed. Carolina is small; the federal government is powerful. We’ll withdraw as proof that we mean no harm.
Presented with this claptrap, Stanton exploded. “Mr. President, the proposal to be generous implies that the government is strong. I think that is a mistake. No government has ever suffered the loss of public confidence and support as this one has.’’ Pointing to Thompson, whose department suffered the theft of the bonds, and to Floyd, the author of so many dubious actions, Stanton administered the coup de grace. “All I can say is that no administration, much less this one, can afford to lose a million of money and a fort in the same week.’’ Still, the night concluded without resolution.
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The next day, the 29th, Floyd at last resigned, melodramatically claiming that he couldn’t sit by as the administration plunged the country into civil war. Buchanan drafted a reply to the commissioners that he read to the cabinet. Black, for one, felt it entirely too mild, but he withheld comment until the next day, at which point he told Buchanan that unless the president was prepared to offer a more vigorous response, Black would resign, and that Stanton and others would almost certainly follow.
This was the final blow, and Buchanan, like a nail that has been relentlessly hammered into a position from which it could no longer be budged, handed Black the letter and told him to make whatever changes he felt necessary. Black found Stanton, and together they rewrote the president’s response. The terms were clear: the government would not negotiate with those who attack federal property. Major Anderson would not be ordered to go anywhere. Fort Sumter would be defended.
In a final revision, Buchanan put his own stamp on the decision. Remove the troops from the harbor, he’d been threatened , or face attack. “This I cannot do; this I will not do.’’
Of course, Buchanan had no choice. Major Anderson had seen to that. “If I withdraw Anderson from Sumter,’’ he told a friend, “I can travel home to Wheatland by the light of my own burning effigies.’’
The president’s steadfastness has brought him one reward: how to reinforce Fort Sumter.
Sources: To learn more about these events, please see “Allegiance: Fort Sumter, Charleston and the Beginning of the Civil War,” by David Detzer (Harcourt Inc., 2001); “The Emergence of Lincoln: Prologue to the Civil War 1859-1861,” by Allan Nevins (Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1959); and “Days of Defiance,” by Maury Klein (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997).
Jamie Malanowski has been an editor at Time, Esquire and Spy, and is the author of the novel “The Coup.”