Following the American Civil War Sesquicentennial with day by day writings of the time, currently 1863.

Turning on the Light: A Dispassionate Survey of President Buchanan’s Administration, From 1860 to its Close, by Horatio King

A letter to the new president on Major Anderson and Fort Sumter.

War Department, March 5, 1861.

Sir,—I have the honor to submit for your consideration several letters with inclosures received on yesterday from Major Anderson and Captain Forster of the Corps of Engineers, which are of a most important and unexpected character. Why they were unexpected will appear from the following brief statement:

After transferring his forces to Fort Sumter he (Major Anderson) addressed a letter to this Department, under date of the 31st December, 1860, in which he says, ‘ Thank God! we are now where the Government may send us additional troops at its leisure. To be sure, the uncivil and uncourteous action of the Governor (of South Carolina) in preventing us from purchasing anything in the city will annoy and inconvenience us somewhat; still we are safe.’ And after referring to some deficiency in his stores, in the articles of soap and candles, he adds: ‘Still we can cheerfully put up with the inconvenience of doing without them for the satisfaction we feel in the knowledge that we can command this harbor as long as our Government wishes to keep it.’ And again, on the 6th of January, he wrote: ‘My position will, should there be no treachery among the workmen whom we are compelled to retain for the present, enable me to hold this fort against any force which can be brought against me; and it would enable me, in the event of war, to annoy the South Carolinians by preventing them from throwing supplies into their new posts except by the aid of the Wash Channel through Stono River.’

Before the receipt of this communication, the Government, being without information as to his condition, had despatched the Star of the West with troops and supplies for Fort Sumter, but the vessel, having been fired on from a battery at the entrance to the harbor, returned without having reached her destination.

On the 16th of January, 1861, in replying to Major Anderson’s letters of the 31st of December and of the 6th of January, I said, ‘Your late despatches, as well as the very intelligent statements of Lieutenant Talbot, have relieved the Government of the apprehensions previously entertained for your safety. In consequence it is not its purpose at present to reinforce you. The attempt to do so would no doubt be attended by a collision of arms and effusion of blood—a national calamity which the President is most anxious to avoid. You will, therefore, report frequently your condition, and the character and activity of the preparations, if any, which may be being made for an attack upon the fort or for obstructing the Government in any endeavors it may make to strengthen your command. Should your despatches be of a nature too important to be intrusted to the mails, you will convey them by special messenger. Whenever, in your judgment, additional supplies or reinforcements are necessary for your safety or for a successful defence of the fort, you will at once communicate the fact to this Department, and a prompt and vigorous effort will be made to forward them.’

Since the date of this letter Major Anderson has regularly and frequently reported the progress of the batteries being constructed around him, and which looked either to the defence of the harbor or to an attack on his own position. But he has not suggested that these works compromised his safety, nor has he made any request that additional supplies or reinforcements should be sent to him. On the contrary, on the 30th of January, 1861, in a letter to this Department, he uses this emphatic language: ‘I do hope that no attempt will be made by our friends to throw supplies in; their doing so would do more harm than good.’

On the 5th of February, when referring to the batteries, etc., constructed in his vicinity, he said, ‘Even in their present condition they will make it impossible for any hostile force, other than a large and well appointed one, to enter this harbor, and the chances are that it will then be at a great sacrifice of life;’ and in a postscript he adds : ‘Of course, in speaking of forcing an entrance, I do not refer to the little stratagem of a small party slipping in.’ This suggestion of a stratagem was well considered in connection with all the information that could be obtained bearing upon it, and in consequence of the vigilance and number of the guard-boats in and outside of the harbor it was rejected as impracticable.

In view of these very distinct declarations, and of the earnest desire to avoid a collision as long as possible, it was deemed entirely safe to adhere to the line of policy indicated in my letter of the 16th January, which has been already quoted. In that Major Anderson had been requested to report ‘at once,’ ‘whenever, in his judgment, additional supplies or reinforcements were necessary for his safety or for a successful defence of the fort.’ So long, therefore, as he remained silent upon this point the Government felt that there was no ground for apprehension. Still, as the necessity for action might arise at any moment, an expedition has been quietly prepared, and is ready to sail from New York on a few hours’ notice, for transporting troops and supplies to Fort Sumter. This step was taken under the supervision of General Scott, who arranged its details, and who regarded the reinforcements thus provided for aa sufficient for the occasion. The expedition, however, is not upon a scale approaching the seemingly extravagant estimates of Major Anderson and Captain Forster, now offered for the first time, and for the disclosures of which the Government was wholly unprepared.

The declaration now made by the major that he would not be willing to risk his reputation on an attempt to throw reinforcements into Charleston harbor, and with a view of holding possession of the same, with a force of less than twenty thousand good and well-disciplined men, takes the Department by surprise, as his previous correspondence contained no such intimation.

I have the honor to be,

Very respectfully,

Your obedient servant,

J. Holt.

To The President.

Hon. A. G. Jenkins, Member of Congress from Virginia, informed why a Route Agent in his District was removed.

Post-office Department, February 22, 1861.

Dear Sir,—Your letter of the 20th inst. is received, requesting ” distinct and specific answers” to the following interrogatories,—viz.:

1. What are the grounds of the removal of Thomas J. West, late route agent on the line from Grafton to Parkersburg, Va., and of the substitution of another person in his place?

2. Why is it that these proceedings have been carried out on my part without affording you any information of my contemplated action?

3. Upon whose suggestion was I led to remove Mr. West, and by whose recommendations was I induced to appoint his successor?

4. And, finally, whether the same policy of secretly decapitating your friends is to be acted upon hereafter as the settled rule of the Department?

These are plain questions, stated nearly in your own language, and, in view of the custom which for a number of years has prevailed in the Department, of consulting members of Congress in regard to appointments and removals in their respective districts, it is not unnatural and perhaps not unreasonable that you should ask them. But you will excuse me for remarking, in all kindness, that, in the first place, it is contrary to the rule of the Department to communicate written answers to such inquiries; and, secondly, that the right which you seem to claim, of controlling the appointments in your district, has no existence in fact. Excepting the comparatively few cases in which the law imposes this duty on the President and Senate, the power of appointing the officers of this Department rests exclusively with the Postmaster-General, who alone is responsible for its proper exercise. By courtesy, the member, when agreeing politically with the administration, is very generally consulted with respect to appointments in his district; but his advice is by no means considered as binding on the Department, nor is the Postmaster-General precluded, even by courtesy, from making removals or appointments on satisfactory information, as in the present instance, exclusively from other reliable sources. When the member is politically opposed to the administration, it is not usual to consult him.

Here I might close; but, since you have asked these questions, evidently under the honest impression that it is my duty to answer them, I will disregard the rule so far as to reply to the first, second, and fourth, simply stating, with reference to the third, that I respectfully decline giving the names of the parties by whose suggestions and recommendations I have been guided in making the change.

To the first, then, I have to inform you that Mr. West was removed for leaving his route without permission from the Department, and actively engaging in a movement the avowed object of which is to induce the withdrawal of Virginia from the Union. In other words, he was discharged for undertaking to destroy the Government from whose treasury he was drawing the means of daily subsistence and whose Constitution he had solemnly sworn to support.

Your second and fourth interrogatories may be answered together. I did not advise with you because I had good reason to believe that you were yourself, honestly, I doubt not, fully committed to the secession interest in your State. As to the policy to be pursued in the future towards your friends in office, I can speak only of what may be done in the few remaining days of this administration; and I hesitate not to assure you that if, during this short time, any other cases like the present come before me, I shall esteem it my imperative duty to pursue the course adopted in this instance.

This being not strictly an official letter, I may be pardoned for adding that I am for the Union without reservation, equally against disunionists at the South and abolitionists at the North, and for the just rights of all sections in the Union.

I have the honor to be,

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Horatio King.

Hon. A. G. Jenkins,

House of Representatives.

From Horatio King’s diary:

February 19.—In Cabinet to-day the principal matter presented was an inquiry from Major Anderson, in charge of Fort Sumter, at Charleston, what he should do in the event of the floating battery understood to have been constructed at Charleston being towed toward the fort with the evident purpose of attack. The President wished time to consider. Mr. Holt asked what he would do, or rather what Major Anderson ought to do, in case he were in charge of a fort and the enemy should commence undermining it. The President answered that he should ‘crack away at them.’  The President, however, is very reluctant to fire the first gun. The Peace Convention, he said, was now in session in this city, and its president, ex-President Tyler, had this morning assured him that no attack would be made on the fort. The President expressed the opinion that the fort would eventually be taken.

The Presidents reply to Senator Slidell’s query on Major Beauregard being relieved of command at West Point.

Washington, January 29, 1861.

My Dear Sir,—With every sentiment of personal friendship and regard, I am obliged to say, in answer to your note of Sunday, that I have full confidence in the Secretary of War, and his acts, in the line of his duty, are my own acts, for which I am responsible.

Yours very respectfully,

James Buchanan.

Post-office Department, January 28,1861.

Sir,—In answer to your letter of the 24th instant, asking if you have the right, “under existing relations,” to frank and distribute certain public documents, I have the honor to state that the theory of the administration is that the relations of South Carolina to the general Government have been in nothing changed by her recent act of secession; and this being so, you are of course entitled to the franking privilege until the first Monday in December next. If, however, as I learn is the case, you sincerely and decidedly entertain the conviction that by that act South Carolina ceased to be a member of the confederacy, and is now a foreign State, it will be for you to determine how far you can conscientiously avail yourself of a privilege the exercise of which assumes that your own conviction is erroneous, and plainly declares that South Carolina is still in the Union, and that you are still a member of the Congress of the United States.

I am, very respectfully,

your obedient servant,

Horatio King,

Acting P. M.-General.

Hon. John D. Ashmore,

Anderson, S. C.

see Franking Question

Washington, January 27,1861.

MY Dear Sir,—I have seen in the Star, and heard from other parties, that Major Beauregard, who had been ordered to West Point as Superintendent of the Military Academy, and had entered on the discharge of his duties there, had been relieved from his command. May I take the liberty of asking you if this has been done with your approbation ?

Very respectfully yours,

John Slidell.

The President replies on January 29th.

Honorable John D. Ashmore, Member of Congress from South Carolina, asks if he has the Right to the Franking Privilege, now that South Carolina has passed an Ordinance of Secession.

Anderson, S. C., Jan. 24, 1861.

My Dear Sir,—I have in my possession some one thousand to twelve hundred volumes of ” public documents,” being my proportion of the same as a member of the thirtysixth Congress. They were forwarded me in mail-sacks and are now lying in my library. Since the date of the ordinance of secession (December 20,1860) of South Carolina I have not used the franking privilege, nor will I attempt to do so without the special permission of the Department To pay the postage on these books, etc., would cost me a large sum, and one I am not prepared to expend. The books are of no use to me, but might be to my constituents, for whom they were intended, if distributed among them. Have I the right to frank and distribute them under existing relations? If so, please inform me. Having said that I have not used the franking privilege since the 20th December, I need hardly add that I shall not do so, even on a “public document,” unless you authorize it.

I am, with great respect,

Truly and sincerely yours,

J. D. Ashmore.

Hon. Horatio King,

Acting Postmaster-General.

(Answered on January 28th.)

P. O. Dept., Jan’y 21, 1861.

My Dear Sir,—Yours of the 19th inst. is received.

I presume I shall continue to act as P. M. G., as I have been doing since the 1st inst. I do not anticipate that any appointment will be sent to the Senate at least for the present.

I cannot see that there is much if any improvement in the state of things. Yet if the Republicans would only present some reasonable proposition, and vote upon it with anything like unanimity to show that they were willing to do something, it would at once take the wind out of the sails of secession in all the border States, and this would dampen the ardor of the rebels . . . further South.

Very resp’ly and truly yours,

Horatio King.

Nahum Capen, Esq., P. M., Boston, Mass.


New York, Jan. 8,1861.

My Dear Sir,—Why is money to very large amounts being transferred to Washington? It may be all right, but it is unusual. Nearly a million of dollars has been sent on in specie within the last week. I write you in confidence. Are these transfers made by order of the President? Is he aware of them? These questions have suggested themselves to me. There is a good deal of uneasiness in regard to the Treasury Department. The Secretary and his assistant are known to be secessionists, and our capitalists, who furnish the Government with money, naturally feel a solicitude in regard to the disposition made of it. The transfers in specie have attracted attention and produced a good deal of unpleasant speculation. The Assistant Treasury Office is in Wall Street, and any considerable quantity of gold cannot be moved without being known. I met, a few days ago, a large number of boxes going out, and on inquiry I found $400,000 were going to Washington.

In haste, very truly yours,

John A. Dix.

Hon. Horatio King.


New York, Jan. 3, 1861.

My Dear Sir,—I have been so pressed with outside business during the last ten days (trying to save the Union) that I have been unable to write to you.

The first time we began to breathe freely was when Mr. Holt took Governor Floyd’s place in the War Department. The feeling here is strong and undivided in regard to sustaining the administration in its determination to stand by Major Anderson, to protect the public property, and to enforce the revenue laws. On these points the people of the Northern States are as one man; and I am satisfied the President will have with him the conservative men of all sections of the country.

I have been very busy corresponding with prominent men in and out of Congress. We must preserve the Union. Congress should do what is right, and the rest will be easy. Why cannot enabling acts be passed admitting Kansas and New Mexico, and like enabling acts dividing the residue of our territory by 36° 30′, and admitting two more States, at once, with no other restriction than that of ‘a republican form of government,’ which Congress under the Constitution is bound to guaranty? This will dispose of the whole territorial question; and all may support it without surrender of principle. What if New Mexico has a very small population ? This fact should weigh nothing against restoration of harmony and preservation of the Union.

Do not things look better? Let me hear from you.

Yours very truly,

John A. Dix.

Hon. Horatio King.