People of South Carolina were Eager, Even Jubilant, to Start an All-Out War

This Confederate albumen photograph of Fort Sumter, taken two days after Union Major Robert Anderson surrendered, sold for $1,875 at a June 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Fort Sumter, S.C. – site of the first battle of the Civil War – was located on an artificial island inside the entrance to Charleston Harbor. A pentagon with block walls 300 feet long, 40 feet high and up to 12 feet thick was still under construction in late 1860.

On Dec. 26, U.S. Army Major Robert Anderson moved his troops from Fort Moultrie, at the edge of the harbor entrance, to Fort Sumter to reduce their exposure to an attack. Just days earlier, South Carolina had declared their state an independent republic and they resented the “foreign” U.S. flag. They considered Anderson’s transfer of troops an act of aggression.

They considered it another hostile act when the lame-duck James Buchanan administration sent an unarmed merchant ship with reinforcements in January 1861. As the ship approached Charleston Harbor, shore batteries opened fire and forced it to turn back.

Apparently, few recognized how eager (perhaps more than just eager) the people of South Carolina were to start an all-out war against what they considered the oppression of the North. Some even prayed for it to start.

On Feb. 15, 1861, the Confederate Provisional Congress in Montgomery secretly resolved that “immediate steps should be taken to obtain possession of both Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens … either by negotiation or force.” Confederate President Jefferson Davis then dispatched three commissioners to Washington to try diplomatic negotiations. However, he also ordered P.G.T. Beauregard (full name Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard) to take command of the harbor and start formal preparations for the use of force.

Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard

General Beauregard (one of only eight full generals in the Confederacy … ever) proceeded to extend and enlarge the batteries, targeting the fort. His preparations nearly complete, he advised President Davis on March 27 that expulsion of the Union troops “ought now to be decided in a few days.” Davis replied that Anderson should not be allowed to buy provisions in Charleston.

Want to start a war? Surround a fort with canons … cut off any reinforcements … and restrict its provisions. Then get a match and prepare to light the fuse.

On April 10, Beauregard was ordered to demand an evacuation of Fort Sumter, and if refused, to “reduce it.”

On April 12, 1861, 50 Confederate guns and mortars launched more than 4,000 rounds on an ill-equipped Fort Sumter. They surrendered after 34 hours. Two days later, President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to quell the “insurrection.” The president was not willing to start a war over the slavery issue, but the taking of federal property was leading to disunion, something the president was not going to allow, even if it meant all-out war.

The U.S. flag would not be raised over Fort Sumter again until April 14, 1865, exactly four years after the surrender. Who would have guessed? Obviously, few if any of the people who were so jubilant when the war started and so utterly demoralized when it ended.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

As Civil War Loomed, Buchanan Failed to Act, Assumed the Worst

James Buchanan Carte de Visite Signed
This James Buchanan carte de visite, signed and dated September 1866, sold for $6,572.50 at a February 2010 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

James Buchanan was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1834 and represented Pennsylvania for 11 years during the administrations of presidents Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison and Tyler. He turned down offers to serve as U.S. attorney general for Van Buren and an appointment to the Supreme Court by Tyler. After campaigning for Polk in the election of 1844, he finally accepted the position of secretary of state, since it seemed like a clear path to the presidency.

This was a bad decision and when he and President Polk could not agree on major issues, Buchanan would complain to a friend, “My life is that of a galley slave.”

Buchanan then failed to win the Democratic nomination in 1848 and 1852, but at the age of 62, was given the post of U.S. Minister to Great Britain. There, he gained unexpected notoriety when he secretly joined with other ministers (Pierre Soulé in Spain and John Mason in France) to draft the infamous “Ostend Manifesto,” which proposed to buy Cuba from Spain. If Spain refused, then “we shall be justified in wresting” the island from its owners … a strong inference of war.

Cuba was especially important to Southern Democrats since it was primarily a plantation-slave economy based on sugar and having it as a state would add two senators and nine members to the House of Representatives. However, anti-slave Northerners were not about to go to war with Spain to add more slave states to the Union and the effort was easily defeated.

At the Democratic National Convention in Cincinnati in June 1856, Buchanan bounced back, winning the nomination and then the election.

Two days after Buchanan was sworn in as president, the Supreme Court handed down the Dred Scott decision, which affirmed the right of slave owners to take their slaves into Western territories. This bolstered Buchanan’s belief that slavery was rooted in the Constitution and could not be legislated out of existence; it was an issue for each state to decide.

Then came the Panic of 1857, which was caused by the failure of Ohio Life Insurance Company of Cincinnati. The sudden demise of a once-solid institution touched off a wave of bank runs across the nation that plunged the nation into a deep economic depression. Many railroads failed due to over-expansion as did many state banks that were operating under flimsy regulations. The only areas that were unaffected were the cotton-growers exporting to England (and they needed more slaves to expand production).

It was clear that the slavery issue would lead directly to a civil war and James Buchanan was too inept or unwilling to provide leadership to avoid one. He just assumed the worst and declared that he “would be the last president of a United States.”

Fortunately, he was wrong, but it would take four long years and 620,000 dead Americans to prevent it.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Buchanan Left Looming Disaster of Seceding South to Lincoln

james-buchanan-silver-japanese-embassy-medal
Commemorative medals were gifted to a Japanese delegation when they visited the United States and President Buchanan in 1860. This Silver Japanese Embassy Medal sold for $10,157.50 at a November 2011 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Abraham Lincoln began making appearances in the East in early 1860 and emerged a national figure. That summer, Republicans obtained a semblance of unity behind a ticket of Lincoln for president and Hannibal Hamlin for vice president. Their victory in November was no surprise at the White House or anywhere else.

Outgoing President James Buchanan had four months left to serve and knew he was sitting on a powder keg. He started to distance himself from Southern advisers and, as disunion started to loom as a reality, Cabinet meetings became an ordeal. Buchanan had a sharp legal mind and a keen perception of people; he did not share the president-elect’s optimism that threats of secession were mere tactical bluffs by vocal Southerners.

However, the bachelor Buchanan and his niece Harriet Lane, who served as official White House hostess, entertained as usual during the winter of 1860-61. Each week, there were two major dinners for about 40 guests in the State Dining Room. Smaller “family” dinners honored Cabinet members. They were all gala affairs with masses of flowers and superb French cuisine with separate wines for each course. In prison, five years later, ex-Senator Jefferson Davis wrote that the Buchanan White House had come closest of any to being a “Royal Court.”

On election day, a committee from South Carolina had called at the White House asking Buchanan what his plans were for the unfinished forts in Charleston harbor. In his desk was a puzzling document marked “Scott’s views” from General Winfield Scott. It presumed that a Lincoln victory would result in a takeover of the small forts and, importantly, every military installation in every state that seceded!

Without answering the Southern committee, Buchanan convened his Cabinet to debate what should be done. Finally, Buchanan simply dismissed the issue and the Cabinet heads left. They were passed on the stairs by a messenger bringing the news that the commander of Fort Moultrie-Charleston had been confronted by a mob while trying to transfer supplies.

This was the first overt action taken against the Union by the hotheaded South Carolinians.

On Dec. 20, 1860, Buchanan wrote to a friend: “I have never enjoyed better health or a more tranquil spirit. … All our troubles have not cost me an hour’s sleep or a single meal. … I am leaving the rest to Providence.”

That same evening, word was received: South Carolina had seceded.

During the last days of December, members of the Cabinet began to resign. Treasury Secretary Howell Cobb was the first to go. Most of the others followed after much shouting, table-pounding and book-slamming rage. Gray-faced and unsmiling, the president sat puffing on his cigar as his Cabinet fell apart.

On New Year’s Day 1861, South Carolina began seizing federal property around Charleston harbor and then it spread. Six more states seceded and grabbed forts, offices, custom houses, mints and arsenals. But Buchanan stubbornly maintained the status quo, waiting for his successor to shoulder the burden.

Just after 11 a.m. on Feb. 14, a messenger raced up the stairs to the Cabinet room and slipped a card into the president’s hand. Buchanan read it and stood up smiling. “Gentlemen,” he announced, “Uncle Abe is in the Red Room below. Let us not keep him waiting.”

There was a new sheriff in town.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Ineffective Leadership is the Last Thing Needed in the White House

franklin-pierce-daguerreotype
This Franklin Pierce daguerreotype, housed in a leatherette case, sold for $15,525 at a November 2003 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Millard Fillmore was the last Whig president and also the last to represent the kind of American nationalism that had appeared during the War of 1812. His successor, Franklin Pierce (1853-57), was a northern Democrat who supported the extension of slavery and a nominee selected by his party in order to win both northern and southern votes. He had praised the Compromise of 1850 and promised to prevent slavery from becoming a national issue.

He was swept into office with the greatest electoral landslide since James Monroe.

A politician’s politician, the curly-headed Pierce never lost an election. At his inaugural ceremony, he stood away from the lectern and spoke extemporaneously; it was more of a sermon than an inaugural address. He challenged the nation with the promise of a bright, prosperous future and his listeners cheered as though they had been delivered at last.

He was also a master of knowing how to get along with all people – evidenced by the fact he is the only president in history who served a complete term without making a single change in his Cabinet. But he totally misjudged the temper of the time, since he regarded the abolitionists as a lunatic fringe that should be ignored. And when he signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the repeal of the 1820 Missouri Compromise, he unwittingly let loose a storm that made slavery a greater national issue than ever before.

Unable to accomplish much due to a deeply divided Congress, President Pierce still desperately wanted to be nominated for a second term. But just before the Democratic Convention began in Cincinnati on June 2, 1856, reports of bloodshed in Kansas alarmed the country. Armed battles raged between anti- and pro-slavery factions, firing up public anger.

The telegraph wires clicked constantly, with Pierce anxiously reading each dispatch. In the oval room, he read newspapers until his eyes grew too tired and then had his wife read them to him. He followed every detail of the convention, considerably more confident than he should have been. At the convention, Pierce’s supporters abandoned him in favor of Stephen A. Douglas, but the strategy failed and James Buchanan took the prize home to Pennsylvania.

Buchanan was the last of the weak, compromising northern Democratic presidents, more sympathetic to slave owners than to northern abolitionists. When he tried to push through Kansas as a slave state, he infuriated the North and shattered the Southern Democratic Party. As Southern states seceded from the Union, one by one, in the last months of his administration, Buchanan stood by helplessly, unable to take resolute action.

This string of three weak, ineffective men – Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan – clearly demonstrate the unequivocal effects of poor leadership, as the catastrophic violence of a civil war nearly destroyed our young nation.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

After Civil War, Challenge Was Putting Pieces of Nation Back Together

gen-william-tecumseh-sherman-four-scarce-cartes-de-visite
A set of four cartes de visite of William Tecumseh Sherman, including this image of the general posed like Napoleon, sold for $2,868 at a December 2006 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

After Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, the issue of the remaining Confederate armies was now only a question of time. However, the next anticipated surrender of General Joe Johnston and his army of 22,000 soldiers did not go smoothly.

On April 14, General William Tecumseh Sherman received a surprise communique from Johnston asking for a meeting to discuss terms for “exterminating the existing war.” This was a relief for Sherman since he had been concerned about a “guerilla war” and knew how Spain had foiled Napoleon using similar tactics.

Sherman answered immediately and suggested they meet on April 17 halfway between their two armies. However, tragedy struck before the meeting when President Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre. When Sherman received the news via coded message, he quickly realized this could escalate into a major disaster. Lincoln’s death was calamitous per se, but it also had the potential to plunge the North into a vengeful bloodbath against a prostrated and fearful South. They would, in turn, fight back the only way they had left: chaos, disorder and continued violence. The war could drag out for a long time.

To Sherman it seemed imperative that he reach a prompt accommodation with Johnston and quell any acts of vengeance.

When they finally met, Sherman had apparently misunderstood the limits of his authority. He offered overly generous terms to Johnston and Confederate States Secretary of War John Breckinridge (who had been vice president for President James Buchanan pre-War). Then all hell broke loose in Washington, D.C., when new President Andrew Johnson and his cabinet learned the conditions of surrender. They canceled the armistice, ordered Sherman to resume hostilities and dispatched Grant to modify the terms of surrender.

Fortunately, there was no more fighting and Grant was able to effect the formal surrender. Sherman was infuriated, primarily because Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had insulted him and questioned his motives and loyalty. Things quieted down, but Sherman and Stanton were bitter enemies for the rest of their lives.

Now all that was left to do was to put all the pieces of the nation back together. Some cynics think this work is still under way.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Cheerful ‘First Lady’ Harriet Lane Followed Gloom of Pierce Years

Sixth plate daguerreotype of Franklin Pierce
This rare Franklin Pierce original daguerreotype, housed in a leatherette case, realized $15,525 at a November 2003 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Jane Means Pierce was known as “the Shadow in the White House.” She had always battled mild depression and, after her marriage to Franklin Pierce in 1834, things only got worse. In 1836, their 3-day-old son died and this heightened her melancholy and outright depression.

A second son also died early – 4 years old – from a bout of typhus and she bitterly blamed a mix of politics and Franklin’s excessive use of alcohol. Politics became anathema to her, but the worst was yet to come. When the Democratic Party selected Franklin Pierce to be their presidential candidate in 1852, Jane literally fainted at the news.

Then weeks after a trying election, tragedy struck again. On Jan. 6, 1853, while on a family train trip, their 11-year-old son Benny was crushed to death when the train derailed. A grief-stricken Jane was unable to attend her husband’s inauguration on March 4, 1853. She then spent the next two years virtually cloistered in the upstairs living quarters of the White House. She never fully recovered.

When she died in 1863 (aged 57), novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, a close family friend, summed up her life at the funeral: “Jane Pierce was never really of this world.”

1889 N353 Consolidated Cigarettes Ladies of The White House
Harriet Lane was among 25 “Ladies of The White House” featured in an 1889 N353 Consolidated Cigarettes trading card set.

After the depressing gloom of the Pierce administration, Washington society was delighted when the bright and cheerful “Democratic Queen” Harriet Lane became “First Lady” (the only one not married to a president). She was the favorite niece of bachelor President James Buchanan.

Lane had accompanied Buchanan to London when Pierce had appointed him Ambassador to the United Kingdom, where she partied with royalty at the Court of Saint James. Earlier, Buchanan had served as Secretary of State for James Polk and remains the last one to later be elected president.

Harriet Lane was perfect for the White House and later established her own reputation for philanthropy after donating her art collection to the Smithsonian and a “generous sum” to Johns Hopkins to establish a home for invalid children. This was the first children’s clinic in the United States associated with a medical-school hospital.

Ironically, her uncle is primarily remembered for his inability to prevent this nation’s bloody Civil War, and perennially shows up on lists of the worst presidents, an honor that is well deserved.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].