The Great Conspiracy

Jacob Thompson, Secretary of the Interior, also resigned, January 8th,
1861, on the pretext that “additional troops, he had heard, have been
ordered to Charleston” in the “Star of the West.”–[McPherson’s History
of the Rebellion, p. 28.]

Several changes were thus necessitated in Mr. Buchanan’s cabinet, by
these and other resignations, so that by the 18th of January, 1861,
Jeremiah S. Black was Secretary of State; General John A. Dix, Secretary
of the Treasury; Joseph Holt, Secretary of War; Edwin M. Stanton,
Attorney General; and Horatio King, Postmaster General. But before
leaving the Cabinet, the conspiring Southern members of it, and their
friends, had managed to hamstring the National Government, by scattering
the Navy in other quarters of the World; by sending the few troops of
the United States to remote points; by robbing the arsenals in the
Northern States of arms and munitions of war, so as to abundantly supply
the Southern States at the critical moment; by bankrupting the Treasury
and shattering the public credit of the Nation; and by other means no
less nefarious. Thus swindled, betrayed, and ruined, by its degenerate
and perfidious sons, the imbecile Administration stood with dejected
mien and folded hands helplessly awaiting the coming catastrophe.

On December 28th, 1860, the three Commissioners of South Carolina having
reached Washington, addressed to the President a communication, in
which–after reciting their powers and duties, under the Ordinance of
Secession, and stating that they had hoped to have been ready to proceed
to negotiate amicably and without “hostile collision,” but that “the
events–[The removal, to Fort Sumter, of Major Anderson’s command, and
what followed.]–of the last twenty-four hours render such an assurance
impossible”–they declared that the troops must be withdrawn from
Charleston harbor, as “they are a standing menace which render
negotiation impossible,” threatening speedily to bring the questions
involved, to “a bloody issue.”

To this communication Mr. Buchanan replied at considerable length,
December 30th, in an apologetic, self-defensive strain, declaring that
the removal by Major Anderson of the Federal troops under his command,
from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter was done “upon his own responsibility,
and without authority,” and that he (the President) “had intended to
command him to return to his former position,” but that events had so
rapidly transpired as to preclude the giving of any such command;

[The seizure by the Secessionists, under the Palmetto Flag, of
Castle Pinckney and Fort Moultrie; the simultaneous raising of that
flag over the Federal Custom House and Post Office at Charleston;
the resignation of the Federal Collector, Naval Officer and
Surveyor of that Port–all of which occurred December 27th; and the
seizure “by force of arms,” December 30th, of the United States
Arsenal at that point.]

and concluding, with a very slight stiffening of backbone, by saying:
“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 may possess for this purpose, I do not perceive how such
a defense can be construed into a menace against the city of
Charleston.” To this reply of the President, the Commissioners made
rejoinder on the 1st of January, 1861; but the President “declined to
receive” the communication.

From this time on, until the end of President Buchanan’s term of office,
and the inauguration of Mr. Lincoln as President, March 4th, 1861,
events crowded each other so hurriedly, that the flames of Rebellion in
the South were continually fanned, while the public mind in the North
was staggered and bewildered, by them.

On January 2nd, prior to the Secession of Georgia, Forts Pulaski and
Jackson, commanding Savannah, and the Federal Arsenal at Augusta,
Georgia, with two 12 pound howitzers, two cannon, 22,000 muskets and
rifles, and ammunition in quantity, were seized by Rebel militia. About
the same date, although North Carolina had not seceded, her Governor
(Ellis) seized the Federal Arsenal at Fayetteville, Fort Macon, and
other fortifications in that State, “to preserve them” from mob-seizure.

January 4th, anticipating Secession, Alabama State troops seized Fort
Morgan, with 5,000 shot and shell, and Mount Vernon Arsenal at Mobile,
with 2,000 stand of arms, 150, 000 pounds of powder, some pieces of
cannon, and a large quantity of other munitions of war. The United
States Revenue cutter, “Lewis Cass,” was also surrendered to Alabama.

On the 5th, the Federal steamer “Star of the West,” with reinforcements
and supplies for Fort Sumter, left New York in the night–and Secretary
Jacob Thompson notified the South Carolina Rebels of the fact.

On the 9th, the “Star of the West” appeared off Charleston bar, and
while steaming toward Fort Sumter, was fired upon by Rebel batteries at
Fort Moultrie and Morris Island, and struck by a shot, whereupon she
returned to New York without accomplishing her mission. That day the
State of Mississippi seceded from the Union.

On the 10th, the Federal storeship “Texas,” with Federal guns and
stores, was seized by Texans. On the same day Florida seceded.

On the 11th, Forts Jackson and St. Philip, commanding the mouth of the
Mississippi River, and Fort Pike, dominating Lake Pontchartrain, were
seized by Louisiana troops; also the Federal Arsenal at Baton Rouge,
with 50,000 small arms, 4 howitzers, 20 heavy pieces of ordnance, 2
batteries, 300 barrels of powder, and other stores. The State of
Alabama also seceded the same day.

On the 12th–Fort Marion, the coast surveying schooner “Dana,” the
Arsenal at St. Augustine, and that on the Chattahoochee, with 500,000
musket cartridges, 300,000 rifle cartridges and 50,000 pounds of powder,
having previously been seized–Forts Barrancas and McRae, and the Navy
Yard at Pensacola, were taken by Rebel troops of Florida, Alabama and
Mississippi. On the same day, Colonel Hayne, of South Carolina, arrived
at Washington as Agent or Commissioner to the National Government from
Governor Pickens of that State.

On the 14th, the South Carolina Legislature resolved “that any attempt
by the Federal Government to reinforce Fort Sumter will be regarded as
an act of open hostility, and a Declaration of War.”

On the 16th, Colonel Hayne, of South Carolina, developed his mission,
which was to demand of the President the surrender of Fort Sumter to the
South Carolina authorities–a demand that had already been made upon,
and refused by, Major Anderson.

The correspondence concerning this demand, between Colonel Hayne and ten
Southern United States Senators;–[Senators Wigfall, Hemphill, Yulee,
Mallory, Jeff. Davis, C. C. Clay, Fitzgerald, Iverson, Slidell, and
Benjamin.]–the reply of the President, by Secretary Holt, to those
Senators; Governor Pickens’s review of the same; and the final demand;
consumed the balance of the month of January; and ended, February 6th,
in a further reply, through the Secretary of War, from the President,
asserting the title of the United States to that Fort, and declining the
demand, as “he has no Constitutional power to cede or surrender it.”
Secretary Holt’s letter concluded by saying: “If, with all the
multiplied proofs which exist of the President’s anxiety for Peace, and
of the earnestness with which he has pursued it, the authorities of that
State shall assault Fort Sumter, and peril the lives of the handful of
brave and loyal men shut up within its walls, and thus plunge our Common
Country into the horrors of Civil War, then upon them and those they
represent, must rest the responsibility.”

But to return from this momentary diversion: On the 18th of January,
Georgia seceded; and on the 20th, the Federal Fort at Ship Island,
Mississippi, and the United States Hospital on the Mississippi River
were seized by Mississippi troops.

On the 26th, Louisiana seceded. On the 28th, Louisiana troops seized
all the quartermaster’s and commissary stores held by Federal officials;
and the United States Revenue cutter “McClelland” surrendered to the

On February 1st, the Louisiana Rebels seized the National Mint and
Custom House at New Orleans, with $599,303 in gold and silver. On the
same day the State of Texas seceded.

On February 8th, the National Arsenal at Little Rock, Arkansas, with
9,000 small arms, 40 cannon, and quantities of ammunition, was seized;
and the same day the Governor of Georgia ordered the National Collector
of the Port of Savannah to retain all collections and make no further
payments to the United States Government.*
[It was during this eventful month that, certain United States
troops having assembled at the National Capital, and the House of
Representatives having asked the reason therefor, reply was made by
the Secretary of War as follows:

“WAR DEPARTMENT, February 18, 1861.
[Congressional Globe, August 8, 1861, pp. 457,458] “SIR: On the 11th February, the House of Representatives adopted a
resolution requesting the President, if not incompatible with the
public interests, to communicate ‘the reasons that had induced him
to assemble so large a number of troops in this city, and why they
are kept here; and whether he has any information of a Conspiracy
upon the part of any portion of the citizens of this Country to
seize upon the Capital and prevent the Inauguration of the
President elect.’

“This resolution having been submitted to this Department for
consideration and report, I have the honor to state, that the body
of troops temporarily transferred to this city is not as large as
is assumed by the resolution, though it is a well-appointed corps
and admirably adapted for the preservation of the public peace.
The reasons which led to their being assembled here will now be
briefly stated.

“I shall make no comment upon the origin of the Revolution which,
for the last three months, has been in progress in several of the
Southern States, nor shall I enumerate the causes which have
hastened its advancement or exasperated its temper. The scope of
the questions submitted by the House will be sufficiently met by
dealing with the facts as they exist, irrespective of the cause
from which they have proceeded. That Revolution has been
distinguished by a boldness and completeness of success rarely
equaled in the history of Civil Commotions. Its overthrow of the
Federal authority has not only been sudden and wide-spread, but has
been marked by excesses which have alarmed all and been sources of
profound humiliation to a large portion of the American People.
Its history is a history of surprises and treacheries and ruthless
spoliations. The Forts of the United States have been captured and
garrisoned, and hostile flags unfurled upon their ramparts. Its
arsenals have been seized, and the vast amount of public arms they
contained appropriated to the use of the captors; while more than
half a million dollars, found in the Mint at New Orleans, has been
unscrupulously applied to replenish the coffers of Louisiana.
Officers in command of revenue cutters of the United States have
been prevailed on to violate their trusts and surrender the
property in their charge; and instead of being branded for their
crimes, they, and the vessels they betrayed, have been cordially
received into the service of the Seceded States. These movements
were attended by yet more discouraging indications of immorality.
It was generally believed that this Revolution was guided and urged
on by men occupying the highest positions in the public service,
and who, with the responsibilities of an oath to support the
Constitution still resting upon their consciences, did not hesitate
secretly to plan and openly to labor for, the dismemberment of the
Republic whose honors they enjoyed and upon whose Treasury they
were living. As examples of evil are always more potent than those
of good, this spectacle of demoralization on the part of States and
statesmen could not fail to produce the most deplorable
consequences. The discontented and the disloyal everywhere took
courage. In other States, adjacent to and supposed to sympathize
in sense of political wrong with those referred to, Revolutionary
schemes were set on foot, and Forts and arms of the United States
seized. The unchecked prevalence of the Revolution, and the
intoxication which its triumphs inspired, naturally suggested
wilder and yet more desperate enterprises than the conquest of
ungarrisoned Forts, or the plunder of an unguarded Mint. At what
time the armed occupation of Washington City became a part of the
Revolutionary Programme, is not certainly known. More than six
weeks ago, the impression had already extensively obtained that a
Conspiracy for the accomplishment of this guilty purpose was in
process of formation, if not fully matured. The earnest endeavors
made by men known to be devoted to the Revolution, to hurry
Virginia and Maryland out of the Union, were regarded as
preparatory steps for the subjugation of Washington. This plan was
in entire harmony with the aim and spirit of those seeking the
subversion of the Government, since no more fatal blow at its
existence could be struck than the permanent and hostile possession
of the seat of its power. It was in harmony, too, with the avowed
designs of the Revolutionists, which looked to the formation of a
Confederacy of all the Slave States, and necessarily to the
Conquest of the Capital within their limits. It seemed not very
indistinctly prefigured in a Proclamation made upon the floor of
the Senate, without qualification, if not exultingly, that the
Union was already dissolved–a Proclamation which, however
intended, was certainly calculated to invite, on the part of men of
desperate fortunes or of Revolutionary States, a raid upon the
Capital. In view of the violence and turbulent disorders already
exhibited in the South, the public mind could not reject such a
scheme as at all improbable. That a belief in its existence was
entertained by multitudes, there can be no doubt, and this belief I
fully shared. My conviction rested not only on the facts already
alluded to, but upon information, some of which was of a most
conclusive character, that reached the Government from many parts
of the Country, not merely expressing the prevalence of the opinion
that such an organization had been formed, but also often
furnishing the plausible grounds on which the opinion was based.
Superadded to these proofs, were the oft-repeated declarations of
men in high political positions here, and who were known to have
intimate affiliations with the Revolution–if indeed they did not
hold its reins in their hands–to the effect that Mr. Lincoln would
not, or should not be inaugurated at Washington. Such
declarations, from such men, could not be treated as empty bluster.
They were the solemn utterances of those who well understood the
import of their words, and who, in the exultation of the temporary
victories gained over their Country’s flag in the South, felt
assured that events would soon give them the power to verify their
predictions. Simultaneously with these prophetic warnings, a
Southern journal of large circulation and influence, and which is
published near the city of Washington, advocated its seizure as a
possible political necessity.

“The nature and power of the testimony thus accumulated may be best
estimated by the effect produced upon the popular mind.
Apprehensions for the safety of the Capital were communicated from
points near and remote, by men unquestionably reliable and loyal.
The resident population became disquieted, and the repose of many
families in the city was known to be disturbed by painful
anxieties. Members of Congress, too-men of calm and comprehensive
views, and of undoubted fidelity to their Country–frankly
expressed their solicitude to the President and to this Department,
and formally insisted that the defenses of the Capital should be
strengthened. With such warnings, it could not be forgotten that,
had the late Secretary of War heeded the anonymous letter which he
received, the tragedy at Harper’s Ferry would have been avoided;
nor could I fail to remember that, had the early admonitions which
reached here in regard to the designs of lawless men upon the Forts
of Charleston Harbor been acted on by sending forward adequate
reinforcements before the Revolution began, the disastrous
political complications that ensued might not have occurred.

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