Eyewitness 1860: Anxiety rises as South steers toward secession


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Christmas 1860 was one of the most anxious times in the history of the United States. Following the election of Abraham Lincoln on Nov. 6, secessionists throughout the South, led by South Carolina, had begun organizing conventions to vote on withdrawal from the union.

President James Buchanan, who believed that secession was illegal but that there was nothing he could do to stop it, appeared paralyzed. Still, he would remain president and continue to set national policy for the next two critical months.

The Pittsburgh Gazette, which had strongly supported Lincoln's candidacy, had long given up on Buchanan, the only native-born Pennsylvanian to be elected president.

When the president called for a national day of fasting and prayer, Russell Errett, the editor of the Gazette, wrote that the country's "great sin against Heaven [had been] in electing JAMES BUCHANAN to the Presidency."

His administration "had been a crime from the beginning to the end," he wrote on Dec. 18. Its "weakness, vacillation and temporizing policy" had emboldened traitors "in five or six Southern states" who threatened to break up the union. "[I]nstead of invoking the arm of the law to punish their treason, he invokes us to come up before God ... confess our sins in voting for LINCOLN, and pray for divine help to enable us to conquer the stubborn convictions of our heart."

By mid-December, talk of secession had advanced beyond words with federal garrisons outside Charleston, S.C., under virtual siege. The state's governor had warned President Buchanan not to make any efforts to resupply or reinforce with more troops Forts Moultrie and Sumter.

The garrisons were commanded by Major Robert Anderson. The Gazette reported that his wife had visited Buchanan "a few days ago and remonstrated that he had placed her husband where he must be murdered or degraded."

The newspaper also printed what it said was a letter from John B. Floyd, a former governor of Virginia who was Buchanan's secretary of war. In the letter he promised out-going South Carolina Gov. William Henry Gist that no more federal troops would be sent to the forts outside Charleston. "I will resign before it shall be done," Floyd wrote, according to the newspaper.

Even as Southern states made plans to leave the union, regular supplies of arms and ammunition continued to be shipped below the Mason-Dixon Line. That issue exploded on Christmas Day. "Evidence of Treason of the National Government" was the headline on the Gazette's story that morning.

"The heart of the people was stirred to the utmost indignation, yesterday, upon learning that Secretary FLOYD ... ordered most the cannon at the U.S. Arsenal, here, to the extent of 100 or more, to be shipped to New Orleans and Galveston."

"The people could hardly believe so astounding a story, at first," the newspaper said. "[B]ut every inquiry only confirmed the report. There is the utmost activity at the arsenal; and the steamboat SILVER WAVE, we learn, has been chartered to convey the guns from hence to their southern destination."

In the 1860s, newspaper type had to be set one character at a time. When late-breaking information arrived close to deadline, it had to be squeezed in wherever it would fit. The Gazette's Dec. 25 edition contained a postscript updating the artillery shipment story. A total of 124 guns -- not 100 -- were to be moved, the newspaper reported. It said 78 were headed to Galveston, Texas, and 46 to Ship Island, Miss.

News reporting shifted over into advocacy with a call to action in the last paragraph of the story. "Let the people assemble today, or tomorrow, and utter their emphatic No! to the order of the Secretary of War," the newspaper urged.


Coming Dec. 26 in "Eyewitness" -- Pittsburgh challenges Buchanan. Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159. Past stories in the "Eyewitness" series can be read at www.post-gazette.com/pgh250 .


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