-- Dilemmas of Compromise --

Wednesday December 26, 1860

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Commentary: The "Truce" at Fort Sumter

When Anderson moved to Fort Sumter, he disrupted one of a series of fragile agreements, sometimes called "truces," established between the Buchanan administration and South Carolina. On December 10, before Anderson's move and before South Carolina seceded, a group of South Carolina congressmen called upon the President for a "pledge" that he would not reinforce or in any way change the military situation at Charleston pending anticipated negotiations between the state and the federal government. In return, South Carolina would not attack the forts. Buchanan refused to sign such a statement, but he offered verbal assurances that he did not intend to reinforce the forts under present circumstances. The congressmen understood Buchanan also to say that they would be informed if the President changed his policy.

This "truce" was subject to different interpretations. The South Carolinians considered Buchanan pledged as a gentleman not to change the status of the forts, including a move by Anderson from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter, and to inform them of any change in policy. The President, however, did not think he had made a firm commitment with a group who had no authority to enter into reciprocal agreements. Instead, he considered that they had arrived at something like a mutual understanding of present intentions. Wha tever the ambiguity, two things are clear. Buchanan, who had initially considered reinforcing Anderson, had changed his mind. He adopted, at least for the moment, a policy of maintaining the status quo. In addition, Buchanan refused to consider abandoning Sumter or other forts still under government control.

After South Carolina seceded (December 20, 1861) and Anderson moved to Fort Sumter, Buchanan was pressured to order Anderson to return to Fort Moultrie as well as to remove federal forces from all its forts in South Carolina. But encouraged by pro-Union cabinet members, especially fellow Pennsylvanian, Secretary of State Jeremiah S. Black, and irritated by the badgering of pro-secessionist southerners, the President refused to do either. As for the "truce," Buchanan explained that Anderson had acted on his own responsibility, that his move was not aggressive, and that South Carolina's subsequent takeover of the forts abandoned by Anderson made his return impossible. Most significantly, Buchanan announced his determination to maintain Sumter and to defend it against attack. On December 31, the President had sufficiently stiffened his resolve to hold Sumter and he initiated measures to reinforce it. On January 5, 1861, the Star of the West sailed from New York with troops and supplies to relieve the fort.

The failure of this expedition led to another arrangement, or "truce," at Fort Sumter. Following the Star of the West incident, Anderson and Governor Francis W. Pickens of South Carolina agreed that neither side would resort to arms until the issue of Sumter's possession was resolved by new negotiations in Washington. While these negotiations, undertaken by an agent of the governor, dragged on through January, President Buchanan refused to consider another relief expedition. Aid would be sent to Sumter only if Anderson requested additional supplies or reinforcements for his safety or defense. The administration, therefore, placed the responsibility for relief on Anderson, making clear to the commander that it wanted to avoid a conflict. Anderson, who shared Buchanan's hopes, did not request relief.

On February 6, 1861, Buchanan finally brought the negotiations with South Carolina to a conclusion by rejecting South Carolina's demand that he relinquish Sumter. He thereby ended the "truce" established by Anderson and the governor at Charleston. For the remainder of his term, however, the President preserved the status quo. Although he agreed to have another Sumter relief expedition readied in New York, he refused to send it unless Anderson requested aid. With compromise efforts underway in both Congress and at the Peace Convention in Washington, and with the new Confederate government sending commissioners to negotiate with the federal government, Sumter appeared temporarily secure. Anderson was instructed to act on the defensive and avoid conflict.

By the end of Buchanan's presidency, therefore, no specific agreement or "truce" remained in effect in Charleston. Despite his vacillation on other matters, Buchanan held firm to the position that he would not abandon or sell Sumter. Both South Carolina and the Confederate government claimed the fort and insisted it be relinquished. But since both the Buchanan administration and the Confederacy were willing, for different reasons, to avoid an immediate confrontation at Sumter, the appearance of an understanding existed. In the words of Lincoln's biographers, Nicolay and Hay, "while Mr. Buchanan refused a truce in theory, he granted one in fact."

Bibliography: Klein, President James Buchanan, pp. 368-402; Smith, Presidency of James Buchanan, pp. 167-89; Nicolay and Hay, Lincoln, 3: 62-174; Auchampaugh, Buchanan and His Cabinet, pp. 149-82; Nevins, Emergence o f Lincoln, 2: 347-84; Swanberg, First Blood, pp. 60-63, 109-30, 156-71, 176-78, 184-218; OR, pp. 115-28, 137, 140, 149-50, 166-68, 182-83; Joseph Holt to Lincoln, 5 March 1861, with remarks by Scott, Lincoln Papers.

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