Eyewitness: 1860 Pittsburgh wins a peaceful victory

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By Len Barcousky

Secretary of War John Floyd might have thought most Pittsburgh residents would be too involved in Christmas preparations to pay attention to the news.

He was wrong.

Local political leaders and ordinary citizens reacted angrily to his order to send more than 100 pieces of artillery from the Allegheny Arsenal in Lawrenceville to federal forts in the South.

They immediately recognized the danger, according to the Pittsburgh Gazette. Once the guns were transported below the Mason-Dixon Line, they likely would be captured by secessionist Southerners and turned against the federal government. In a story that appeared Christmas Day 1860, the newspaper's headline called Floyd's decision "Evidence of Treason ..."

In response, Pittsburgh residents held two mass meetings to protest the decision by the lame-duck administration of President James Buchanan to ship the weapons. Opponents, however, were in a ticklish spot. Buchanan remained the duly elected president for two more months. Any violent protests to stop the shipments could be seen as mirror images of the kind of actions that many Southerners were taking to break up the Union.

Following a Christmas day meeting in the office of Pittsburgh Mayor George Wilson, the city leaders sent a telegram to Buchanan imploring him to reverse the shipment order, the Gazette reported on Dec. 27. A second public meeting followed that same day at the county courthouse.

"[T]he sidewalks on Fifth street [now Fifth Avenue], leading to the Court House were thronged with masses of people going to the meeting," the newspaper reported the next day. So many people attended that the session had to be moved outside.

Pittsburgh Congressman James K. Moorhead warned that South Carolina politicians, who had voted Dec. 20 for their state to leave the Union, were hoping for violence in Pittsburgh. "[N]othing resembling an overt act of treason should be committed," he said. If the president could not be persuaded to rescind Floyd's order, "Let the guns go."

Preparations to ship the guns moved slowly, and the Gazette on Dec. 31 hoped that cold weather would come to the aid of the Union. "Perhaps Jack Frost will turn patriot in this extremity and lay an embargo on the navigation of the Ohio," the Gazette speculated on Dec. 31.

Secretary Floyd had threatened to resign if Buchanan took a harder line against the South and on Dec. 29 he carried out his threat. After several more days of dithering, Buchanan and his divided cabinet agreed to hold onto the artillery.

"The order is revoked," Congressman Moorhead wrote to Mayor Wilson on Jan. 3. "The guns don't go."

Former Pittsburgh lawyer Edwin M. Stanton, who had just been named Buchanan's last attorney general, confirmed the decision. "Floyd's order respecting the shipment of arms has been countermanded," he wrote to Wilson on the same day.

"No little excitement was created in the city yesterday upon the reception of the news that Secretary Floyd's order for the removal of the guns from the Arsenal here to points in the South, had been countermanded," the Gazette reported on Jan. 4. "Our citizens have accomplished, in a peaceable way, all they desired and it is to be hoped that the 'big guns' will not again be disturbed until there is a more urgent necessity for their removal."

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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