Tensions were about as taunt as they could be in Charleston during the spring of 1861. For decades, since before the Nullification Crisis of 1820, South Carolina had nursed grievances against the U.S. government regarding the spread of slavery to new territories and the imposition of tariffs that favored the industrial North’s economy over the agrarian South’s. More than once the state had threatened to secede. Now they had.

Even before the Presidential election of 1860, South Carolina’s Congressional delegation warned President James Buchanan that if Lincoln, who opposed the spread of slavery into new states (though he pledged he would not interfere in states that currently allowed it), were elected, the state would secede.

True to their word, both of South Carolina’s U.S. Senators resigned days after Lincoln’s election.

Most historians agree Buchanan was miserable. Some historians say he was unhappy during his entire tenure as President and became absolutely unnerved as he watched the country begin to dissolve in the last four months of his term. His goal now was to buy himself time to prevent the war from starting under his administration.

Buchanan’s annual December address to Congress was ambiguous at best, stating first that he believed secession was illegal, but then going on to say that he did not believe the Federal government had a right to prevent states from seceding. The only thing he accomplished was further angering both sides. Indeed, two members of his Cabinet resigned in the wake of his message, for opposing reasons. Georgian Howard Cobb, Secretary of the Treasury, resigned because Buchanan’s claimed secession was illegal, while his Secretary of State, Lewis Cass of Michigan, resigned because Buchanan did not take a stronger position against secession. Clearly, no one was happy. Nor were they about to get any happier.

As forewarned, South Carolina declared its independence from the United States of America on Dec. 20, 1860. Six days later U.S. Maj. Robert Anderson evacuated Fort Moultrie under cover of darkness, moving his 70 or so (accounts vary) men to take refuge at the unfinished, but more defendable Fort Sumter. Two days after that, a delegation of state representatives met with Buchanan. In their minds at least the conversation had moved beyond efforts to maintain the Union. They were there to talk about the transfer of federal properties within the state, particularly Fort Sumter. Fort Moultrie already had been seized by the state militia the day before, following Anderson’s evacuation.

Anderson had arrived at Fort Sumter with enough food, medicine, and military supplies for several months. Believing Anderson was in dire straits, on Jan. 6 Buchanan sent a merchant ship, Star of the West, along with two military escort ships to resupply Anderson. Upon hearing of the ship’s departure, S.C. Gov. Francis W. Pickens warned he would not allow the Star to enter Charleston Harbor.

Shortly after the Star left, Secretary of War Joseph Holt received a message from Anderson saying the Confederates were strengthening their batteries surrounding Fort Sumter and he was not in immediate need of more supplies. Realizing the danger, Holt tried to recall the Star, but it was too late. Four Citadel cadets stationed on Morris Island opened fire on the unarmed ship as it crossed the harbor’s bar. It turned around and left.

In early February, a group headed by Virginia’s congressional leadership sought to bridge the animosity through a Peace Convention, calling for new Constitutional amendments that might appease the South. After two weeks of discussion, the effort petered out. Kentucky Sen. John Crittenden then proposed changes to the Constitution that would not only allow slavery in the states that already had it but also would ensure its permanency. Though not yet in office, Lincoln said he would not support such a plan, and it died as well.

By the time of Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, six states had joined South Carolina to form the Confederate States of America. Following the inauguration, four more joined them. Each began seizing federal properties within their states. S.C. Gov. Francis Pickens tried to negotiate a peaceful surrender of Charleston’s fortifications, including forts Moultrie and Sumter. When Anderson refused, per his orders, Pickens continued shoring up batteries around Charleston Harbor, from Fort Johnson on James Island to Fort Moultrie on Sullivans Island, as well as in Charleston and Mt. Pleasant. Their immediate objective was to prevent ships from resupplying Anderson. Fort Sumter was surrounded.

According to Robert Rosen, author of A Short History of Charleston, Lincoln held a secret meeting with Assistant Secretary to the Navy Capt. Gustavus V. Fox on March 29 to plan a naval expedition. Preparations were so secret that not even his Secretary of War nor Secretary of the Navy were read in. The date for the expedition was set for April 6 – yet no destination was given. More on that in an upcoming segment.

Follow us each day over the next two weeks to discover the fascinating history of how the Civil War began, with a day-by-day retelling of the events that led up to the deadliest war ever fought by Americans.