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Posted at 10:00 AM ET, 12/20/2010

Harold Holzer: Did the national government or individual states own the federal forts in the South?

By Harold Holzer

Author or editor of 36 books, many on Lincoln, and chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation


If you dared suggesting to President-elect Abraham Lincoln that individual states owned the federal forts within their borders, you would have gotten the following answer from him around Christmas 1860 (in so many words): Bah, humbug!

And Lincoln, who otherwise kept his silence on policy issues, pursuing a policy called “masterly inactivity,” was in this one case not shy about letting people know exactly how he felt. When future Civil War General David Hunter, for example, warned him that lame duck President Buchanan might soon order the federal government to abandon its three disputed outposts in newly seceded South Carolina -- Forts Moultrie, Pinckney, and Sumter -- Lincoln was furious and defiant. “If the forts fall,” he thundered, “my judgment is that they are to be retaken.”

Lincoln then made sure that General in Chief Winfield Scott knew how he felt, too. “I shall be obliged to him,” he sent word, “to be as well prepared as he can to either hold, or retake, the forts, as the case may require, at, and after the inauguration.”

The incoming president was even willing to break a long silence meant to hint at neither conciliation nor coercion, to propose announcing his determination on this one issue “publicly” and “at once.” Making the Buchanan Administration—and the public—understand that he was willing to fight later to re-take the forts even if the departing President yielded them now would, he believed, “give Union men a rallying cry.” And no one was more of a Union man on this and all other related issues than Abraham Lincoln.

Was he right? Of course. The federal government’s ownership of those outposts was as certain as the unbreakable compact that made secession likewise impossible; to concede one would be to concede the other. If secession was illegal, then the forts, arsenals, and post offices belonged eternally to the government that created them and maintained them for the good of all people.

And had Buchanan failed to heed this warning as 1860 turned to 1861? Lincoln was even blunter: “They ought to hang him.” There was “no doubt,” Lincoln said, absolutely convinced he was right, “that in any event that is good ground to live and die by.”

Two days after Christmas, South Carolina took Moultrie and Pinckney and effectively isolated Sumter. Buchanan’s secretary of war quit rather than consider re-taking them, and then his secretary of state quit because Buchanan wouldn’t. Buchanan typically punted.

On inauguration day, Lincoln reiterated his policy for all Americans to hear: “The power confided to me, will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the government.” He had long believed he had the right to enforce this view. Now he had the power too. And as history shows, he used it. Correctly.

By Harold Holzer  | December 20, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Views  | Tags:  Harold Holzer  
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