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

Kate Masur: Did the national government or the individual states own the federal forts in the South?

By Kate Masur

Professor of U.S. History at Northwestern


U.S. forts in the South and throughout the country were the property of the federal government. Nonetheless, as secessionist sentiment mounted in South Carolina, local political leaders pressed the newly inaugurated governor, Francis W. Pickens, to take the forts in Charleston harbor by force. The most desirable of them was Fort Sumter, which had just been renovated and was strategically located in the mouth of the harbor.

On December 17, 1860 -- 150 years ago today--Pickens requested that President Buchanan simply cede Sumter to the state of South Carolina. The president demurred. The U.S. government had already handed over the federal arsenal in Charleston, and Buchanan was facing public charges that he was a traitor, as well as dissent within his cabinet. Soon, the commander of the small cadre of U.S. soldiers stationed at nearby Fort Moultrie moved into Sumter, strengthening their position but outraging the secessionists. Of course, tensions over Fort Sumter boiled over that spring, when South Carolina troops opened fire on the fort as the U.S. attempted to resupply it.

This question draws our attention to the mechanics of secession. How does a state actually leave the union? As Abraham Lincoln famously reminded the country in his First Inaugural, "Physically speaking, we cannot separate. We cannot remove our respective sections from each other, nor build an impassable wall between them."

For those who wanted to leave the United States, then, the first objective was to dissolve institutional ties to the federal government. Leading South Carolinians began this process immediately after Lincoln's election. On Nov. 7, the foreman of the federal grand jury in Charleston declared that the grand jury would cease operation because it no longer had faith in the U.S. government. The presiding U.S. district judge concurred, stating, "So far as I am concerned the Temple of Justice, raised under the Constitution of the United States, is now closed." Shortly thereafter, the U.S. district attorney resigned, as did the collector of the port of Charleston, the U.S. marshal, and other federal officials. South Carolinians' bid to control the forts was an extension of the same impulse to banish the federal government. But they knew, as did U.S. officials, that moving the conflict onto military terrain was was an unprecedented provocation.

By Kate Masur  | December 20, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
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