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Chapter 2:

  • Tenure of public property ceded by the States
  • -- sovereignty and eminent domain -- principles asserted by Massachusetts, New York, Virginia, and other States -- the Charleston forts -- South Carolina Sends commissioners to Washington -- sudden movement of Major Anderson -- correspondence of the commissioners with the President -- interviews of the author with Buchanan -- Major Anderson -- the Star of the West -- the President's special message -- speech of the author in the Senate -- further proceedings and correspondence relative to Fort Sumter -- Buchanan's rectitude in purpose and vacillation in action.

The sites of forts, arsenals, navy yards, and other public property of the federal government were ceded by the state, within whose limits they were, subject to the condition, either expressed or implied, that they should be used solely and exclusively for the purposes for which they were granted. The ultimate ownership of the soil, or eminent domain, remains with the people of the state in which it lies, by virtue of their sovereignty. Thus, the state of Massachusetts has declared that—
The sovereignty and jurisdiction of the Commonwealth extended to all places within the boundaries thereof, subject only to such rights of concurrent jurisdiction as have been or may be granted over any places by the Commonwealth to the United States.1

In the acts of cession of the respective states, the terms and conditions on which the grant is made are expressed in various forms, and with differing degrees of precision. The act of New York, granting the use of a site for the Brooklyn Navy Yard, may serve as a specimen. It contains this express condition:

“The United States are to retain such use and jurisdiction, so long as said tract shall be applied to the defense and safety of the city and port of New York, and no longer. . . . But the jurisdiction hereby ceded, and the exemption from taxation herein granted, shall continue in respect to said property, and to each portion thereof, so long as the same shall remain the property of the United States, and be used for the purposes aforesaid, and no longer. ”The cession of the site of the Watervliet Arsenal is made in the same or equivalent terms, except that, instead of “defense and safety of the city and port of New York,” etc., the language is, “defense and safety of the said State, and no longer.”

South Carolina in 1805, by legislative enactment, ceded to the United [180] States, in Charleston harbor and on Beaufort River, various forts and fortifications, and sites for the erection of forts, on the following conditions, viz.:

That, if the United States shall not, within three years from the passing of this act, and notification thereof by the Governor of this State to the Executive of the United States, repair the fortifications now existing thereon or build such other forts or fortifications as may be deemed most expedient by the Executive of the United States on the same, and keep a garrison or garrisons therein; in such case this grant or cession shall be void and of no effect.2

It will hardly be contended that the conditions of this grant were fulfilled, and, if it be answered that the state did not demand the restoration of the forts or sites, the answer certainly fails after 1860, when the controversy arose, and the unfounded assertion was made that those forts and sites had been purchased with the money, and were therefore the property, of the United States. The terms of the cession sufficiently manifest that they were free—will offerings of such forts and sites as belonged to the state; public functionaries were bound to know that, by the United States law of March 20, 1794, it was provided “that no purchase shall be made where such are the property of a State.”3

The stipulations made by Virginia, in ceding the ground for Fortress Monroe and the Rip Raps, on March 1, 1821, are as follows:

an act ceding to the United States the lands on old point comfort,

and the Shoal called the Rip Raps.

Whereas, It is shown to the present General Assembly that the Government of the United States is solicitous that certain lands at Old Point Comfort, and at the shoal called the Rip Raps, should be, with the right of property and entire jurisdiction thereon, vested in the said United States for the purpose of fortification and other objects of national defense:

1. Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That it shall be lawful and proper for the Governor of this Commonwealth, by conveyance or deeds in writing under his hand and the seal of the State, to transfer, assign, and make over unto the said United States the right of property and title, as well as all the jurisdiction which this Commonwealth possesses over the lands and shoal at Old Point Comfort and the Rip Raps: . . .

2. And be it further enacted, That, should the said United States at any time abandon the said lands and shoal, or appropriate them to any other purposes than those indicated in the preamble to this act, that then, and in that case, the same shall revert to and revest in this Commonwealth.4

By accepting such grants, under such conditions, the government of the United States assented to their propriety, and the principle that holds [181] good in any one case is of course applicable to all others of the same sort, whether expressly asserted in the act of cession or not. Indeed, no express declaration would be necessary to establish a conclusion resulting so directly from the nature of the case, and the settled principles of sovereignty and eminent domain.

A state withdrawing from the Union would necessarily assume the control theretofore exercised by the general government over all public defenses and other public property within her limits. It would, however, be but fair and proper that adequate compensation should be made to the other members of the partnership, or their common agent, for the value of the works and for any other advantage obtained by the one party, or loss incurred by the other. Such equitable settlement, the seceding states of the South, without exception, as I believe, were desirous to make, and prompt to propose to the federal authorities.

On the secession of South Carolina, the condition of the defenses of Charleston harbor became a subject of anxiety with all parties. Of the three forts in or at the entrance of the harbor, two were unoccupied, but the third (Fort Moultrie) was held by a garrison of but little more than one hundred men—of whom only sixty-three were said to be effectives—under command of Major Robert Anderson of the First Artillery.

About twelve days before the secession of South Carolina, the representatives in Congress from that state had called on the President to assure him, in anticipation of the secession of the state, that no purpose was entertained by South Carolina to attack, or in any way molest, the forts held by the United States in the harbor of Charleston—at least until opportunity could be had for an amicable settlement of all questions that might arise with regard to these forts and other public property—provided that no reenforcements should be sent, and the military status should be permitted to remain unchanged. The South Carolinians understood Buchanan as approving of this suggestion, although declining to make any formal pledge.

It appears, nevertheless, from subsequent developments, that both before and after the secession of South Carolina preparations were secretly made for reenforcing Major Anderson, in case it should be deemed necessary by the government at Washington.5 On December 11th instructions were communicated to him from the War Department, of which the following is the essential part:

You are carefully to avoid every act which would needlessly tend to provoke [182] aggression; and for that reason you are not, without evident and imminent 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 this 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 defensive steps, whenever you have tangible evidence of a design to proceed to a hostile act.6

These instructions were afterward modified—as we are informed by Buchanan—so as, instead of requiring him to defend himself “to the last extremity,” to direct him to do so as long as any reasonable hope remained of saving the fort.7

Immediately after the secession of the state, the convention of South Carolina deputed three distinguished citizens of that state—Robert W. Barnwell, James H. Adams, and James L. Orr—to proceed to Washington, “to treat with the Government of the United States for the delivery of the forts, magazines, lighthouses, and other real estate, with their appurtenances, within 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.”

The commissioners, in the discharge of the duty entrusted to them, arrived in Washington on December 26th. Before they could communicate with the President, however—indeed, on the morning after their arrival—they were startled, and the whole country electrified, by the news that, during the previous night, Major Anderson had “secretly dismantled Fort Moultrie,”8 spiked his guns, burned his gun carriages, and removed his command to Fort Sumter, which occupied a more commanding position in the harbor. This movement changed the whole aspect of affairs. It was considered by the government and people of South Carolina as a violation of the implied pledge of a maintenance of the status quo; the remaining forts and other public property were at once taken possession of by the state; the condition of public feeling [183] became greatly exacerbated. An interview between the President and the commissioners was followed by a sharp correspondence, which was terminated on January 1, 1861, by the return to the commissioners of their final communication, with an endorsement stating that it was of such a character that the President declined to receive it. The negotiations were thus abruptly broken off. This correspondence may be found in the Appendix.9

In the meantime Cass, Secretary of State, had resigned his position early in December, on the ground of the refusal of the President to send reinforcements to Charleston. On the occupation of Fort Sumter by Major Anderson, Secretary of War Floyd, taking the ground that it was virtually a violation of a pledge given or implied by the government, had asked that the garrison should be entirely withdrawn from the harbor of Charleston, and, on the refusal of the President to consent to this, had tendered his resignation, which was promptly accepted.10

This is believed to be a correct outline of the earlier facts with regard to the Charleston forts, and in giving it I have done so, as far as possible, without prejudice or any expression of opinion upon the motives of the actors.

The kind relations, both personal and political, which had long existed between Buchanan and myself, had led him occasionally, during his presidency, to send for me to confer with him on subjects that caused him anxiety, and warranted me in sometimes calling upon him to offer my opinion on matters of special interest or importance. Thus it was that I had communicated with him freely in regard to the threatening aspect of events in the earlier part of the winter of 1860-‘61. When he told me of the work that had been done, or was doing, at Fort Moultrie —that is, the elevation of its parapet by crowning it with barrels of sand—I pointed out to him the impolicy as well as inefficiency of the measure. It seemed to me impolitic to make ostensible preparations for defense, when no attack was threatened; the means adopted were inefficient, because any ordinary field piece would knock the barrels off the parapet, and thus render them hurtful only to the defenders. He inquired whether the expedient had not been successful at Fort Brown, on the Rio Grande, in the beginning of the Mexican war, and was answered that the attack on Fort Brown had been made with small arms, or at great distance.

After the removal of the garrison to the stronger and safer position [184] of Fort Sumter, I called upon him again to represent, from my knowledge of the people and the circumstances of the case, how productive the movement would be of discontent, and how likely to lead to collision. One of the vexed questions of the day was by what authority the collector of the port should be appointed, and the rumor was that instructions had been given to the commanding officer at Fort Sumter not to allow vessels to pass, unless under clearance from the United States collector. It was easy to understand that, if a vessel were fired upon under such circumstances, it would be accepted as the beginning of hostilities—a result which both he and I desired to avert, as the greatest calamity that could be foreseen or imagined. My opinion was that the wisest and best course would be to withdraw the garrison altogether from the harbor of Charleston.

The President's objection to this was that it was his bounden duty to preserve and protect the property of the United States. To this I replied, with all the earnestness the occasion demanded, that I would pledge my life that, if an inventory were taken of all the stores and munitions in the fort, and an ordnance sergeant with a few men left in charge of them, they would not be disturbed. As a further guarantee, I offered to obtain from the governor of South Carolina full assurance that, in case any marauders or lawless combination of persons should attempt to seize or disturb the property, he would send from the citadel of Charleston an adequate guard to protect it and to secure its keepers against molestation.

The President promised me to reflect upon this proposition, and to confer with his cabinet upon the propriety of adopting it. All cabinet consultations are secret, which is equivalent to saying that I never knew what occurred in that meeting to which my proposition was submitted. The result was not communicated to me, but the events which followed proved that the suggestion was not accepted.

Major Anderson, who commanded the garrison, had many ties and associations that bound him to the South. He performed his part like the true soldier and man of the finest sense of honor that he was; that it was most painful to him to be charged with the duty of holding the fort as a threat to the people of Charleston is a fact known to many others as well as to myself. We had been cadets together. He was my first acquaintance in that corps, and the friendship then formed was never interrupted. We had served together in the summer and autumn of 1860, in a commission of inquiry into the discipline, course of studies, and general condition of the United States Military Academy. At the close of our labors the commission had adjourned, to meet again in [185] Washington about the end of the ensuing November, to examine the report and revise it for transmission to Congress. Major Anderson's duties in Charleston harbor hindered him from attending this adjourned meeting of the commission, and he wrote to me, its chairman, to explain the cause of his absence. That letter was lost when my library and private papers were “captured” from my home in Mississippi. If anyone has preserved it as a trophy of war, its publication would show how bright was the honor, how broad the patriotism of Major Anderson, and how fully he sympathized with me as to the evils which then lowered over the country.

In comparing the past and the present among the mighty changes which passion and sectional hostility have wrought, one is profoundly and painfully impressed by the extent to which public opinion has drifted from the landmarks set up by the sages and patriots who formed the constitutional Union, and observed by those who administered its government down to the time when war between the states was inaugurated. Buchanan, the last President of the old school, would as soon have thought of aiding in the establishment of a monarchy among us as of accepting the doctrine of coercing the states into submission to the will of a majority, in mass, of the people of the United States. When discussing the question of withdrawing the troops from the port of Charleston, he yielded a ready assent to the proposition that the cession of a site for a fort, for purposes of public defense, lapses whenever that fort should be employed by the grantee against the state by which the cession was made, on the familiar principle that any grant for a specific purpose expires when it ceases to be used for that purpose. Whether on this or any other ground, if the garrison of Fort Sumter had been withdrawn in accordance with the spirit of the Constitution of the United States, from which the power to apply coercion to a state was deliberately and designedly excluded, and if this had been distinctly assigned as a reason for its withdrawal, the honor of the United States government would have been maintained intact, and nothing could have operated more powerfully to quiet the apprehensions and allay the resentment of the people of South Carolina. The influence which such a measure would have exerted upon the states which had not yet seceded, but were then contemplating the adoption of that extreme remedy, would probably have induced further delay; the mellowing effect of time, with a realization of the dangers to be incurred, might have wrought mutual forbearance—if, indeed, anything could have checked the madness then [186] prevailing among the people of the Northern states in their thirst for power and forgetfulness of the duties of federation.

It would have been easy to concede this point. The little garrison of Fort Sumter served only as a menace; it was utterly incapable of holding the fort if attacked, and the poor attempt soon afterward made to re-enforce and provision it, by such a vessel as the Star of the West, might by the uncharitable be readily construed as a scheme to provoke hostilities. Yet, from my knowledge of Buchanan, I do not hesitate to say that he had no such wish or purpose. His abiding hope was to avert a collision, or at least to postpone it to a period beyond the close of his official term. The management of the whole affair was what Talleyrand describes as something worse than a crime—a blunder. Whatever treatment the case demanded, should have been prompt; to wait was fatuity.

The ill-advised attempt secretly to throw reenforcements and provisions into Fort Sumter, by means of the steamer Star of the West, resulted in the repulsion of that vessel at the mouth of the harbor, by the authorities of South Carolina, on the morning of January 9th. On her refusal to heave—to, she was fired upon, and put back to sea, with her recruits and supplies. A telegraphic account of this event was handed me, a few hours afterward, when stepping into my carriage to go to the Senate chamber. Although I had then, for some time, ceased to visit the President, under the impulse of this renewed note of danger to the country I drove immediately to the executive mansion, and for the last time appealed to him to take such prompt measures as were evidently necessary to avert the impending calamity. The result was even more unsatisfactory than that of former efforts had been.

On the same day the special message of the President on the state of the Union, dated the day previous (January 8), was submitted to Congress. This message was accompanied by the first letter of the South Carolina commissioners to the President, with his answer, but of course not by their rejoinder, which he had declined to receive. Buchanan, in his memoirs, complains that immediately after the reading of his message, this rejoinder (which he terms an “insulting letter”) was presented by me to the Senate, and by that body received and entered upon its journal.11 The simple truth is that, regarding it as essential to a complete understanding of the transaction, and its publication as a mere act of justice to the commissioners, I presented and had it read in the Senate. But its appearance upon the journal as part of the proceedings, instead of being merely a document introduced as part of my remarks, was the [187] result of a discourteous objection, made by a so-called Republican Senator, to the reading of the document by the clerk of the Senate at my request. This will be made manifest by an examination of the debate and proceedings which ensued.12 The discourtesy recoiled upon its author and supporters, and gave the letter a vantage ground in respect of prominence which I could not have foreseen or expected.

The next day (January 10) the speech was delivered, the greater part of which may be found in the Appendix13—the last that I ever made in the Senate of the United States, except in taking leave, and by the sentiments of which I am content that my career, both before and since, should be judged.

The history of Fort Sumter during the remaining period, until the organization of the Confederate government, may be found in the correspondence given in the Appendix.14 From this it will be seen that the authorities of South Carolina still continued to refrain from any act of aggression or retaliation, under the provocation of the secret attempt to reenforce the garrison, as they had previously under that of its nocturnal transfer from one fort to another.

Another commissioner (the Hon. I. W. Hayne) was sent to Washington by the governor of South Carolina to effect, if possible, an amicable and peaceful transfer of the fort, and settlement of all questions relating to property. This commissioner remained for nearly a month, endeavoring to accomplish the objects of his mission, but was met only by evasive and unsatisfactory answers, and eventually returned without having effected anything.

There is one passage in the last letter of Colonel Hayne to the President which presents the case of the occupancy of Fort Sumter by the United States troops so clearly and forcibly that it may be proper to quote it. He writes as follows:

You say that the fort was garrisoned for our protection, and is held for the same purposes for which it has been ever held since its construction. Are you not aware, that to hold, in the territory of a foreign power, a fortress against her will, avowedly for the purpose of protecting her citizens, is perhaps the highest insult which one government can offer to another? But Fort Sumter was never garrisoned at all until South Carolina had dissolved her connection with your Government. This garrison entered it in the night, with every circumstance of secrecy, after spiking the guns and burning the gun-carriages and cutting down the flag-staff of an adjacent fort, which was then abandoned. South Carolina had [188] not taken Fort Sumter into her own possession, only because of her misplaced confidence in a Government which deceived her.

Thus, during the remainder of Buchanan's administration, matters went rapidly from bad to worse. The old statesman who, with all his defects, had long possessed, and was entitled still to retain, the confidence due to extensive political knowledge and love of his country in all its parts—who had, in his earlier career, looked steadily to the Constitution, as the mariner looks to the compass, for guidance—retired to private life at the expiration of his term of office, having effected nothing to allay the storm which had been steadily gathering during his administration.

Timid vacillation was then succeeded by unscrupulous cunning; for futile efforts, without hostile collision, to impose a claim of authority upon people who repudiated it, were substituted measures which could be sustained only by force.

1 Revised Statutes of Massachusetts, 1836, p. 56.

2 Statutes at Large of South Carolina, Vol. V, p. 501.

3 Act to provide for defense of certain ports and harbors of the United States.

4 See Revised Statutes of Virginia.

5 Buchanan's Administration, Chapt. IX, p. 165, and Chapt. XI, pp. 212-214.

6 Buchanan's Administration, Chapt. IX, p. 166.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid., Chapt. X, p. 180.

9 See Appendix G.

10 Buchanan's Administration, Chapt. X, pp. 187, 188.

11 Buchanan's Administration, Chapt. X, p. 184.

12 See Congressional Globe, second session, Thirty-fifth Congress, Part I, p. 284 et seq.

13 See Appendix I.

14 Ibid.

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