previous next

Doc. 12.--the correspondence between the South Carolina Commissioners and the President of the United States.

Washington, Dec. 29, 1860.
Sir: We have the honor to transmit to you a copy of the full powers from the Convention of the people of South Carolina, under which we are “authorized and empowered to treat with the Government of the United States for the delivery of the forts, magazines, light-houses, and other real estate, with their appurtenances, in the limits of South Carolina; and also for an apportionment of the public debt, and for a division of all other property held by the Government of the United States, as agent of the Confederated States, of which South Carolina was recently a member, and generally to negotiate as to all other measures and arrangements proper to be made and adopted in the existing relation of the parties, and for the continuance of peace and amity between this Commonwealth and the Government at Washington.” [12]

In the execution of this trust it is our duty to furnish you, as we now do, with an official copy of the Ordinance of Secession, by which the State of South Carolina has resumed the powers she delegated to the Government of the United States, and has declared her perfect sovereignty and independence.

It would also have been our duty to have informed you that we were ready to negotiate with you upon all such questions as are necessarily raised by the adoption of this Ordinance, and that we were prepared to enter upon this negotiation, with the earnest desire to avoid all unnecessary and hostile collision, and so to inaugurate our new relations as to secure mutual respect, general advantage, and a future of good will and harmony, beneficial to all the parties concerned.

But the events of the last twenty-four hours render such an assurance impossible. We came here the representatives of an authority which could, at any time within the past sixty days, have taken possession of the forts in Charleston harbor, but which, upon pledges given in a manner that we cannot doubt, determined to trust to your honor rather than to its own power. Since our arrival here an officer of the United States, acting as we are assured, not only without, but against your orders, has dismantled one fort and occupied another — thus altering to a most important extent, the condition of affairs under which we came.

Until these circumstances are explained in a man ner which relieves us of all doubt as to the spirit in which these negotiations shall be conducted, we are forced to suspend all discussion as to any arrangement by which our mutual interests may be amicably adjusted.

And, in conclusion, we would urge upon you the immediate withdrawal of the troops from the harbor of Charleston. Under present circumstances, they are a standing menace which renders negotiation impossible, and, as our recent experience shows, threatens speedily to bring to a bloody issue questions which ought to be settled with temperance and judgment. We have the honor to be,

Very respectfully, your obedient servants,

R. W. Barnwell, Commissioners. J. H. Adams, Commissioners. Jas. L. Orr, Commissioners. To the President of the United States.


The President's reply.

Washington city, Dec. 30, 1860.
gentlemen: I have had the honor to receive your communication of 28th inst., together with a copy of “your full powers from the Convention of the people of South Carolina,” authorizing you to treat with the Government of the United States, on various important subjects therein mentioned, and also a copy of the Ordinance, bearing date on the 20th inst., declaring that “the Union now subsisting between South Carolina and other States, under the name of the United States of America, is hereby dissolved.”

In answer to this communication, I have to say that my position as President of the United States was clearly defined in the message to Congress, on the 3d inst. In that I stated that, “apart from the execution of the laws, so far as this may be practicable, the Executive has no authority to decide what shall be the relations between the Federal Government and South Carolina.” He has been invested with no such discretion. He possesses no power to change the relations hitherto existing between them, much less to acknowledge the independence of that State. This would be to invest a mere executive officer with the power of recognizing the dissolution of the Confederacy among our thirty-three sovereign States. It bears no resemblance to the recognition of a foreign de facto government — involving no such responsibility. Any attempt to do this would, on his part, be a naked act of usurpation. It is, therefore, my duty to submit to Congress the whole question in all its bearings.

Such is my opinion still. I could, therefore, meet you only as private gentlemen of the highest character, and was entirely willing to communicate to Congress any proposition you might have to make to that body upon the subject. Of this you were well aware. It was my earnest desire that such a disposition might be made of the whole subject by Congress, who alone possess the power, as to prevent the inauguration of a civil war between the parties in regard to the possession of the Federal forts in the harbor of Charleston; and I, therefore, deeply regret that, in your opinion, “the events of the last twenty-four hours render this impossible.” In conclusion, you urge upon me “the immediate withdrawal of the troops from the harbor of Charleston,” stating that “under present circumstances they are a standing menace, which renders negotiation impossible, and, as our recent experience shows, threaten speedily to bring to a bloody issue questions which ought to be settled with temperance and judgment.”

The reason for this change in your position is, that since your arrival in Washington, “an officer of the United States acting, as we (you) are assured, not only without, but against your (my) orders, has dismantled one fort and occupied another — thus altering to a most important extent the condition of affairs under which we (you) came.” You also allege that you came here “the representatives of an authority which could, at any time within the past sixty days, have taken possession of the forts in Charleston harbor, but which, upon pledges given in a manner that we (you) cannot doubt, determined to trust to your (my) honor rather than to its power.”

This brings me to a consideration of the nature of those alleged pledges, and in what manner they have been observed. In my Message of the 3d of December last, I stated, in regard to the property of the United States in South Carolina, that it “has been purchased for a fair equivalent, by the consent of the Legislature of the State, for the erection of forts, magazines, arsenals, &c., and over these the authority ‘to exercise exclusive legislation,’ has been expressly granted by the Constitution to Congress. It is not believed that any attempt will be made to expel the United States from this property by force; but if in this I should prove to be mistaken, the officer in command of the forts has received orders to act strictly on the defensive. In such a contingency, the responsibility for consequences would rightfully rest upon the heads of the assailants.” This being the condition of the parties, on Saturday, 8th December, four of the Representatives from South Carolina, called upon me, and requested an interview. We had an earnest conversation on the subject of these forts, and the best means of preventing [13] a collision between the parties, for the purpose of sparing the effusion of blood. I suggested, for prudential reasons, that it would be best to put in writing what they said to me verbally. They did so, accordingly, and on Monday morning, the 10th inst., three of them presented to me a paper signed by all the Representatives from South Carolina, with a single exception, of which the following is a copy:

To His Excellency James Buchanan, President of the United States.
In compliance with our statement to you yesterday, we now express to you our strong convictions that neither the constituted authorities, nor any body of the people of the State of South Carolina, will either attack or molest the United States forts in the harbor of Charleston, previously to the act of the Convention, and we hope and believe not until an offer has been made through an accredited representative, to negotiate for an amicable arrangement of all matters between the State and the Federal Government, provided that no reinforcements shall be sent into those forts, and their relative military status shall remain as at present.


And here I must, in justice to myself, remark that at the time the paper was presented to me, I objected to the word “provided,” as it might be construed into an agreement on my part, which I never would make. They said that nothing was further from their intention — they did not so understand it, and I should not so consider it. It is evident they could enter into no reciprocal agreement with me on the subject. They did not profess to have authority to do this, and were acting in their individual character. I considered it as nothing more, in effect, than the promise of highly honorable gentlemen to exert their influence for the purpose expressed. The event has proven that they have faithfully kept this promise, although I have never since received a line from any one of them, or from any member of the convention on the subject. It is well known that it was my determination, and this I freely expressed, not to reinforce the forts in the harbor, and thus produce a collision, until they had been actually attacked, or until I had certain evidence that they were about to be attacked. This paper I received most cordially, and considered it as a happy omen that peace might be still preserved, and that time might be thus given for reflection. This is the whole foundation for the alleged pledge.

But I acted in the same manner as I would have done had I entered into a positive and formal agreement with parties capable of contracting, although such an agreement would have been on my part, from the nature of my official duties, impossible. The world knows that I have never sent any reinforcements to the forts in Charleston harbor, and I have certainly never authorized any change to be made “in their relative military status.” Bearing upon this subject, I refer you to an order issued by the Secretary of War, on the 11th inst. to Maj. Anderson, but not brought to my notice until the 21st inst. It is as follows:

memorandum of verbal instructions to Major Anderson, First Artillery, Commanding Fort Moultrie, S. C.

You are aware of the great anxiety of the Secretary of War that a collision of the troops with the people of this State shall be avoided, and of his studied determination to pursue a course with reference to the military force and forts in this harbor, which shall guard against such a collision. He has, therefore, carefully abstained from increasing the force at this point, or taking any measures which might add to the present excited state of the public mind, or which would throw any doubt on the confidence he feels that South Carolina will not attempt by violence to obtain possession of the public works, or interfere with their occupancy.

But as the counsel and acts of rash and impulsive persons may possibly disappoint these expectations of the Government, he deems it proper that you should be prepared with instructions to meet so unhappy a contingency. He has therefore directed me, verbally, to give you such instructions.

You are carefully to avoid every act which would needlessly tend to provoke aggression, and for that reason you are not, without necessity, to take up any position which could be construed into the assumption of a hostile attitude; but you are to hold possession of the forts in the harbor, and if attacked, you are to defend yourself to the last extremity. The smallness of your force will not permit you, perhaps, to occupy more than one of the three forts, but an attack on, or attempt to take possession of either of them, will be regarded as an act of hostility, and you may then put your command into either of them which you may deem most proper to increase its power of resistance. You are also authorized to take similar steps whenever you have tangible evidence of a design to proceed to a hostile act.

D. P. Butler, Assistant Adjutant-General. Fort Moultrie, S. C., Dec. 11, 1860.

This is in conformity to my instructions to Major Buell. John B. Floyd, Secretary of War.

These were the last instructions transmitted to Major Anderson before his removal to Fort Sumter, with a single exception, in regard to a particular which does not in any degree affect the present question. Under these circumstances it is clear that Major Anderson acted upon his own responsibility, and without authority, unless, indeed, he had “tangible evidence of a design to proceed to a hostile act” on the part of South Carolina, which has not yet been alleged. Still he is a brave and honorable officer, and justice requires that he should not be condemned without a fair hearing.

Be this as it may, when I learned that Major Anderson had left Fort Moultrie and proceeded to Fort Sumter, my first promptings were to command him to return to his former position, and there to await the contingencies presented in his instructions. This would only have been done with any degree of safety to the command by the concurrence of the South Carolina authorities. But before any step could possibly have been taken in this direction, we received information that the “Palmetto flag floated out to the breeze at Castle Pinckney, and a large military force went over last night (the 27th) to Fort Moultrie.” Thus the authorities of South Carolina, without waiting or asking for any explanations, and doubtless believing, as you have expressed it, that the officer had acted not only [14] without but against my orders, on the very next day after the night when the removal was made, seized by a military force two of the Federal forts in the harbor of Charleston, and have covered them under their own flag instead of that of the United States.

At this gloomy period of our history, startling events succeed each other rapidly. On the very day, the 27th instant, that possession of these two forts was taken, the Palmetto flag was raised over the Federal Custom-house and Post-office in Charleston; and on the same day every officer of the Customs — Collector, Naval Officer, Surveyor, and Appraiser — resigned their offices.--And this, although it was well known from the language of my message that, as an executive officer, I felt myself bound to collect the revenue at the port of Charleston, under the existing laws. In the harbor of Charleston we now find three forts confronting each other, over all of which the Federal flag floated only four days ago; but now, over two of them, this flag has been supplanted, and the Palmetto flag has been substituted in its stead. It is under all these circumstances that I am urged immediately to withdraw the troops from the harbor of Charleston, and am informed that without this negotiation is impossible. This I cannot do — this I will not do. Such an idea was never thought of by me in any. possible contingency. No such allusion had been made in any communication between myself and any human being. But the inference is that I am bound to withdraw the troops from the only fort remaining in the possession of the United States in the harbor of Charleston, because the officer there in command of all of the forts thought proper, without instructions, to change his position from one of them to another.

At this point of writing, I have received information by telegraph from Capt. Humphreys, in command of the arsenal at Charleston, that “it has to-day (Sunday, the 30th) been taken by force of arms.” It is estimated that the munitions of war belonging to this arsenal arc worth half a million of dollars.

Comment is needless. After this information, I have only to add, that whilst it is my duty to defend Fort Sumter, as a portion of the public property of the United States, against hostile attacks, from whatever quarter they may come, by such means as I possess for this purpose, I do not perceive how such a defense can be construed into a menace against the city of Charleston. With great personal regard I remain, yours very respectfully,


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
December 30th, 1860 AD (1)
December 29th, 1860 AD (1)
December 11th, 1860 AD (1)
December 9th, 1860 AD (1)
December 8th (1)
December 3rd (1)
28th (1)
27th (1)
21st (1)
20th (1)
11th (1)
10th (1)
3rd (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: