Buchanan Gets Tough: A Pretty Good Lame-Duck Presidency

ECW welcomes back guest author Leon Reed

James Buchanan gets very low marks as president, indeed is sometimes rated the worst ever, in large part because of the perception that he was weak in dealing with southern states throughout his four-year term and in particular during his extended lame duck period as the nation came apart.

It is true that Buchanan tried throughout his term to mollify the South. In part, this was the result of advice from three southern members of his cabinet: Secretary of War John Floyd (Virginia); Secretary of the Treasury Howell Cobb (Georgia), and Secretary of the Interior Jacob Thompson (Mississippi). Once southern states began to organize secession movements and challenge possession of federal property, Buchanan’s response was handcuffed by his belief that he had no authority to prevent states from seceding, by his concern to avoid action that might cause fence-sitting slave states to leave, and by bad advice, primarily from the secretary of war.

A political cartoon about Buchanan.

Years later, Ulysses S. Grant described the extent to which Floyd harmed the Union:

“Floyd, the Secretary of War, scattered the army so that much of it could be captured when hostilities should commence, and distributed the cannon and small arms from Northern arsenals throughout the South so as to be on hand when treason wanted them.”[1]

Buchanan’s southern insiders left during his last months as president, and he had the opportunity to beef up his cabinet, moving Jeremiah Black (attorney general to State) and Joseph Holt (Postmaster to War) to more critical positions and appointing Edwin Stanton as attorney general.

The final cabinet move happened after things hit rock bottom in December 1860. With South Carolina seceding and other southern states moving toward the door, stock prices in New York plunged, and the January Treasury auctions drew no bidders at any price. Wall Street, strongly inclined to a sympathetic attitude toward the South, drew the line at secession – and its impact on their portfolios. The leading bankers let Buchanan know that subsequent auctions would continue to attract no bidders until the president appointed someone they knew and trusted to head Treasury. And by that, they meant John Dix, a well-known businessman and public servant currently serving in another cleanup role as New York postmaster, following a predecessor who fled with millions in government funds.

In late December, with guidance from his new cabinet, Buchanan refused the demands of South Carolina officials and his own secretary of war (Floyd) that Major Robert Anderson’s troops should be forced to abandon Fort Sumter, to which they had just relocated, and return to the almost indefensible Fort Moultrie. This played a key part three months later in maneuvering the South into firing first and uniting the North in support of the war effort.

Buchanan also dispatched the civilian steamer Star of the West to attempt to resupply and reinforce Fort Sumter and developed a new, tougher policy about defending federal property. The Star of the West turned back when fired upon at the entrance to Charleston Harbor.

His new cabinet officers didn’t just toughen the administration’s attitude; they also ran their own agencies with a firm hand. New War Secretary Holt called off transfers of weapons and ammunition that Floyd had arranged to send to southern arsenals. In correspondence with the pro-secession governor of North Carolina, Holt enunciated a new doctrine that reversed the formerly passive stance of the Buchanan administration:

“I am directed to say that [the fort in North Carolina], in common with the other forts, arsenals, and public property of the United States, are in the charge of the President, and that, if assailed, no matter from what quarter or under what pretext, it is his duty to protect them by all means which the law has placed at his disposal.”[2]

Holt also set out to garrison key installations located in southern territory using the very limited forces at his disposal. It is significant that of the forts that Holt and General in Chief Winfield Scott decided to garrison with a company or more (forts Washington and McHenry in Maryland; forts Pickens, Jefferson, and Taylor in Florida; Fort Monroe in Virginia; and the St. Louis Arsenal), none fell to the opposing local forces.

For example, Scott wrote Buchanan in December that ungarrisoned Fort Jefferson wasn’t in a position “to resist a handful of filibusters or a rowboat of pirates.” In January, the War Department transferred a company from Boston to Fort Jefferson, transferred some cannon from Fort Taylor, and Fort Jefferson was secure. Similar expedient actions settled the ownership of the other two critical forts (Monroe and Taylor) as well as Pensacola’s Fort Pickens and the two in Maryland. The St. Louis Arsenal – home of the largest supply of arms in the slaveholding states  – was made secure by a combination of local pro-Union militias and a company of regulars commanded by Capt. Nathaniel Lyon.

A few other facilities – arsenals at Baton Rouge, Harpers Ferry, and Little Rock; Gosport Navy Yard – quickly fell because they were less important or too difficult to defend with available troops.

Secretary of State Black issued orders to his diplomatic corps to be sure that the Confederate states didn’t get quick recognition from European powers and to notify Washington promptly of any suspicious attempted arms purchases by southerners or their purchasing agents. Evidence of these purchases were then presented to the foreign ministries of the host countries to jawbone them to cancel the sales.

And, besides working to restore the credit-worthiness of the United States, Dix made efforts to protect Revenue Service equipment in the South and to ensure that southern revenue agents, who still technically worked for the United States, continued to send their revenues to the U.S. Treasury. After Dix learned that a revenue cutter captain had refused to bring his cutter from New Orleans to a safe berth in a northern port, he ordered his people in New Orleans to arrest the captain and added, “If anyone attempts to pull down the flag, shoot them on the spot.”[3] This welcome sign of pugnaciousness earned Dix hero status in northern states – and widespread scorn in the South.

A wartime patriotic envelope design with the quote from Dix.

Writing some months after the events in question, the New York Times commented that “Mr. Holt now became the animating spirit of the administration. . . . No man in the nation has his name more honorably connected with the crisis now upon the country than Mr. Holt.”[4]

Lincoln’s personal secretary commented:

“Holt was made Secretary of War, and became at once the Hercules of the national defense. Black, though as Attorney-General he had in November written an official opinion against coercion, was so far changed that he now zealously advocated the reinforcement of Sumter. All the Unionists of the Cabinet – Black, Holt, Stanton, even [Navy Secretary] Toucey in a mild way, and not long afterward Dix with memorable vigor – joined heartily in preparation to vindicate the national authority.”[5]

The moves were viewed with approval in the Republican newspapers of the North:

“We have a Government at last. High authority announces that the policy … towards the Secessionists is entirely changed. Henceforth it will be conciliatory but firm in the execution of the laws. … Mr. Buchanan, having shaken off the traitors, henceforth will be sound….”[6]

Buchanan’s initial response to secession was properly characterized as weak and vacillating. But after the departure of southern sympathizers from his cabinet, Buchanan’s attitude stiffened, and he made a strong effort to shore up government operations and to prevent takeovers that would yield even a few acres of land with tactical potential.

As a result of his strengthened approach, Federal markets stabilized, and the United States established a strong foreign-policy advantage over the South which it never yielded. Strategically, the North held onto the forts that were identified by Scott as absolutely critical: Fort Monroe, the key to Chesapeake Bay and a vital base for the entire East Coast blockading fleet, and forts Taylor and Jefferson, which controlled access to the Gulf of Mexico and similarly anchored blockading or invasion fleets headed toward New Orleans, Vicksburg, and other points west.

The stage was set for an effective blockade and for campaigns to neutralize or threaten the coastal areas of the Carolinas, the Peninsula, and New Orleans and the lower Mississippi River.


[1] US Grant, Personal Memoirs of US Grant, New York, Century Co., p. 181.

[2] Holt papers, Library of Congress, mss 26385.

[3] Russell McClintock, Lincoln and the Decision for War, p. 175.

[4] “Joseph Holt and the Rebellion,” New York Times, September 3, 1861.

[5] John Nicolay, The Outbreak of Rebellion, Wilmington, Broadfoot Publishing Co., 1989, p. 33 (originally published 1881).

[6] “The National Troubles – The Government Showing Signs of Life,” New York Times, January 3, 1861.

10 Responses to Buchanan Gets Tough: A Pretty Good Lame-Duck Presidency

    1. Thanks Ted. All from my master-work, Fort Sumter’s Long Shadow, which looks at the two amazing things that happened after the southern attack on Fort Sumter: the northern states, amazingly, created Mr. Lincoln’s 75,000 man army (largely the efforts of New York state); and the 7 slave states that had remained “loyal” took another look at their status in the Union, with four ultimately leaving but three crucial states (MO, KY, MD) staying after a lot of maneuvering and political skullduggery.

      Looking for a publisher.

  1. Good post, but the lame turkey had little to do with the change in direction. The strategic foolishness of the deep southerners in removing their forceful presence from the cabinet had everything to do with it. Buchanan continued his weak, collegial style of governance, being swayed by the last individual or individuals he talked to. However, the group now happened to be composed of strong Unionists.

    1. Oh, for sure. The damage was done. My point is very limited, that, compared to his weak, vacillating performance throughout his term and the first month of lame duckery, his activity the last six weeks in office (admittedly pushed by his strong Cabinet officers) was relatively strong. And the steps Holt and Scott took to strengthen those forts was critical when war came. Without Monro, Taylor, or Jefferson it would have been far more difficult to mount a blockade and the conquest of New Orleans would have had to wait.

  2. If tenure in office is the criterion by which James Buchanan is to be measured, then he is the BEST Lame Duck President, ever: his service as Lame Duck lasted from 4 March 1857 until 4 March 1861.

  3. Thanks for this interesting post with some facts I hadn’t thought about. That said, “better late than never” is a low bar. Buchanan spent his presidency being controlled by events and a failure to act. Trying to remedy that when he literally was a “lame duck” was futile.

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