An Eye on the Lower Muskingum: Day Civil War should have started

The Buell Memorandum, at least according to Buell, also told when the Civil War should have started. Major A. W. Nellis of Maysville, Kentucky, visited Gen. Don Carlos Buell about 1887 and gathered material for an article that was published in the National Tribune on June 21, 1906. Titled “Maj. Anderson at Fort Sumter-Gen. Buell’s Story of His Visit to Him,” it was more about how Secretary of War John B. Floyd and President James Buchanan handled the Buell Memorandum.

In the Memorandum Buell had given Robert Anderson, the Union commander at Fort Moultrie, instructions to “avoid every act which would needlessly tend to provoke aggression . . .,” but an attempt by the South “to take possession of any one of them [Fort Moultrie, Fort Sumter, or Castle Pinckney] will be regarded as an act of hostility and you may then put your command into any three of them which you may deem most proper.”

Buell stated in his 1887 interview that after he returned to Washington [D. C.] in mid-December 1860, “I called on the Secretary of War [John B. Floyd] and submitted my report [including the Buell Memorandum]. He indorsed a copy.” On December 20th South Carolina seceded. Just six days later, Major Anderson abandoned Fort Moultrie after destroying its military usefulness and transferred his troops to Fort Sumter four miles down the bay. Before the end of the month, the South had seized Fort Moultrie and Castle Pinckney. The South had not only taken “possession of any one of them,” they had taken both forts. This, according to the Memorandum, was the first “act of hostility.” Buell recalled, “There was great excitement everywhere. Many people rushed to the White House to see the President [Buchanan] who protested that Anderson had gone without orders and against orders.” Since Buell’s exact words to Anderson were written, it was a matter of reading the orders. Buell had made it clear that if attacked, “you may then put your command into either of them . . .” Anderson, however, had moved his troops before he was attacked. Floyd claimed Buell had transcended his instructions and threatened to resign if Anderson didn’t retrace his steps. Buell felt that since Floyd was from Virginia, he was supporting the southern cause by insisting that Anderson return his troops to Fort Moultrie, which was a much weaker fort than Fort Sumter.

Soon Buell was summoned to the White House. He admitted during his interview with Nellis, “I doubt if ever Floyd had read over that paper [Buell Memorandum] at all.” President Buchanan “at first seemed to waver,” recalled Buell, but then agreed that Anderson had taken the right steps. Floyd became very angry and resigned on December 29, 1860. For the rest of the war, he followed his native state’s actions.

On January 9, 1861, a civilian ship, the Star of the West, which had been hired by the U.S. government to deliver supplies to Fort Sumter, was fired on by Southerners as it entered Charleston harbor (see picture). After being hit three times, the ship left the harbor without completing its mission. Buell had written Anderson in his Memorandum, “You are to hold possession of the forts in this harbor and if attacked to defend yourself to the last extremity.” In Buell’s 1887 interview, he condemns Anderson, saying, “It was then in his power to have shelled every rebel out of their sandpits. War should have begun right then and there.” Buell felt that since Fort Sumter’s very existence depended upon new supplies and reinforcements, an attack on the supply ship was essentially an attack on the fort. According to the instruction Anderson received, he was to defend the fort “to the last extremity.”

Both sides, especially President Buchanan, were still hopeful that open conflict could be avoided. Anderson, who was a Kentuckian, was not eager to start the war. Thus, war did not begin on January 9, 1861, or “right then and there,” as Buell put it.

Lincoln, the new President, was determined to save the Union, even if it meant war. The attack and surrender of Fort Sumter on April 12-13, 1861, was a much more blatant act of aggression. The fort was a U.S. possession and U.S. troops were forced to surrender, which was not the case with the attack on the Star of the West. Under any conditions it was the Buell Memorandum that determined the day the war started. Buell thought the date should have been January 9, 1861, but Lincoln concluded it was April 12, 1861.

Phillip L. Crane, a Waterford resident and Marietta history teacher for 32 years, will share stories of historical events that occurred in the Lower Muskingum Valley. Eye on the Lower Muskingum appears every other week.