Letter from SC Commissioners to President Buchanan Asking Him to Withdraw Federal Troops from Charleston Harbor, 28 December 1860

[Letter of the commissioners to the President]

Washington, 28th December, 1860.

Sir: We have the honor to transmit to you a copy of the full powers from the Convention of the People of the 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, 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.” 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 manner 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 arrangements by which our mutual interests might 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, Sir, to be, Very respectfully, Your obedient servants, R.W. BARNWELL J. H. ADAMS, JAMES L. ORR, Commisioners. To the President of the United States.

Document Description:

On 26 December 1860, just two days before this letter was written, Major Robert Anderson, the commanding officer in Charleston, moved federal troops from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter.  In response, the state militia seized all federal property in Charleston, except for Fort Sumter.  The Convention of the People of South Carolina, which passed the Ordinance of Secession and the Declaration of Immediate Clauses, formed a commission, consisting of R.W. Barnwell, J.H. Adams, and James L. Orr, to negotiate with President James Buchanan regarding the presence of federal troops in Charleston Harbor.

In this letter dated 28 December 1860, the Commissioners wrote to President Buchanan to give him a copy of the Ordinance of Secession and ask him to withdrawal federal troops from Charleston harbor. In a letter dated 30 December 1860, President Buchanan responded that he is not withdrawing troops from the harbor.   He explained to the South Carolina Commissioners his inability under the U.S. Constitution to resolve any disagreements with Congress and stated his intention of upholding his constitutional duty to protect the property of the United States, including Fort Sumter, if it is attacked.  Although the attack on Fort Sumter would not occur for four more months, this exchange between the Commissioners and President Buchanan illustrates the significance of federal troops in Charleston in the initiation of armed combat between the two sides


Letter of Commissioners to President Buchanan, December 28, 1860. Constitutional Convention (1860-1862). Correspondence of the Commissioners Authorized to Negotiate with President James Buchanan.  S 131057. South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia, South Carolina.