The Path to the Civil War

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The Path to the Civil War

2010-12-01 11:06

Though I'm now working with more recent materials, I couldn't resist one last Civil War-related post as we approach the 150th anniversary of the war.

Much attention will be placed on the anniversary of the start of the war: April 12, 1861, the date that Confederates opened fire on the federal Fort Sumter in South Carolina. But obviously tensions had been rising for years before that final breaking point.

South Carolina had seceded from the United States on December 20, 1860, and six more states followed before President Abraham Lincoln took office in March 1861. All of that (and much more!) happened on the watch of Lincoln's predecessor: President James Buchanan.

Buchanan's papers are here at HSP (collection 91), and I had a chance to work with them as my first project with the Digital Center for Americana pilot project.

The collection spans the entirety of Buchanan's lengthy legal, political and diplomatic career, including his service as Pennsylvania assemblyman, U.S. representative, minister to Russia, U.S. senator, secretary of state, envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to Great Britain, and finally president of the United States.

I'd guess that those last few months of his political career were among the most stressful.

Some evidence of the turmoil is obvious in the collection, like these notes Buchanan took listing each state's secession:

Buchanan's notes on secession

On the reverse, Buchanan added one more state that seceded after he left office: Arkansas.

But other evidence is more personal.

For instance, Buchanan saved a copy of a personal letter that he wrote to Varina Davis in January 1861. Varina's husband was a U.S. senator from Mississippi, and the family left Washington after his state seceded. (Of course, soon after, her husband Jefferson became president of the new Confederate States of America.)

Washington 20 January 1861
My dear Madam,
I deeply regret that the servant yesterday on account of the session of the Cabinet, did not inform me that you had come to bid me farewell. Had I been aware of your presence nothing should have prevented me from seeing you. I have [kept?] many agreeable hours in your society & cherish for you the warmest and most respectful regard. The troubles of these unfortunate times may prevent us from meeting again; but wherever your lot may be cast I shall ever feel a deep interest in your prosperity and happiness.
From your friend,
James Buchanan

Buchanan's letter to Varina Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis

Reverse of Buchanan's letter to Davis, where he notes that it is a copy

After the end of Buchanan's presidency, he retired to his Lancaster, PA, estate, Wheatland. "The troubles of these unfortunate times" largely fade from view in his papers. Just two letters in the collection mention the 1865 assassination of President Lincoln, including this letter written to the former president on April 15:

You can read the full finding aid for the James Buchanan papers here.

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