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[Detail] The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865


South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860, about two weeks before Horatio Nelson Taft's first diary entry, January 1, 1861:

The old year passed away in gloom and sadness and the new one opens today without affording one hopeful ray of light in regard to the future. There seems to be a determination on the part of nearly the whole south to break up the Government. The Comrs [commissioners] from S.C. are still here and little is known in the City about what is taking place betwen them and the President & Cabinet.

From "The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865, Volume 1, January 1, 1861"

Even before South Carolina issued its Ordinance of Secession, the state pressed President Buchanan for the transfer of federal forts and arsenals to the state. With secession, Forts Moultrie and Sumter became the focal issue. Major Robert Anderson, commander of the garrison at Fort Moultrie, recognized that it was indefensible and moved his garrison to the more secure Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. South Carolina demanded that Anderson return his garrison to Fort Moultrie and sent commissioners to Washington at the end of December to negotiate a settlement. Although the President originally seemed amenable, considerable pressure from throughout the North convinced him to terminate negotiations. On January 2, 1861, Taft reported that Buchanan had "…refused to acknowledge the Commissioners as being anything more than distinguished citizens from the State of S.C."

  • What was the significance of recognizing the commissioners as nothing more than "distinguished citizens" from South Carolina?
  • Based on your knowledge of President James Buchanan, was that action typical or atypical of his handling of issues related to slavery and states' rights? Explain your answer.

As Taft continued to make daily entries in his diary in the first months of 1861, he reported on secession and attempts to reach a negotiated solution to prevent the breakup of the Union. Tensions were high in Washington and Taft noted on January 9 that the city was "arming for self-protection" until federal troops arrived. He also mentioned that fires and burglaries occurred every night in the capital and that he slept with a "loaded revolver within reach."

On January 10, Taft reported that the steamer Star of the West, sent to reinforce Major Anderson at Fort Sumter, had been fired upon and that Anderson threatened to bombard Charleston if there were further attempts to prohibit the steamer from its mission. The following day, he recorded that the news was incorrect.

On January 22, 1861, Taft expressed concern over the possible secession of Virginia and Maryland if President Buchanan's administration could not reach a compromise with the five states of the lower South that had seceded (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, and Georgia). He further remarked that, unless some settlement could be negotiated, "then nothing but a large force will ensure the Inauguration of Mr. Lincoln on the 4th March."

Louisiana seceded on January 26. Three days later, Taft wrote, "Secession seems now a fixed fact and we have to look Disunion in the face." The entry for this date also mentions an attempt to negotiate a settlement based on a plan proposed by Senator John Crittenden of Kentucky.

Review all of Taft's diary entries for January 1861 and consider the following questions:

  • According to Taft, what was the prevailing mood in Washington in January and February 1861? Identify some words and phrases that convey that mood.
  • List events related to secession that Taft mentions in his diary entries. Which events tended to improve the mood of Washingtonians? Which made their mood worse? Explain your answers.
  • How did Taft get his news about secession and other political events? Which of these sources do you think were most likely to be reliable? Why?
  • Research the provisions of the Crittenden Compromise. Why did Republicans oppose the plan?

Taft recorded a hopeful sign in his diary on February 5, stating that a Virginia convention had the day before by a large majority defeated a secessionist movement. The diary entry referred to an assembly of moderates that cautioned against "rash action" by the state. He felt reassured that the secession movement had "reached its climax." On March 21, he stated that Fort Sumter would probably be evacuated along with other forts in the South but held the belief that there would be a peaceful separation of the Union.

By early April, however, optimism about a peaceful solution vanished. On April 6, Taft wrote of a suspected coup d'etat in Washington. Three days later, he described widespread fear of an outright attack on the city. On April 12, he wrote, "Treason is in our midst. One hardly knows whom to trust." When he recorded this entry, he was unaware of the bombardment of Fort Sumter that had begun early that morning. His diary entry of April 13 relates news of the attack and closes with the words, "all will soon be compelled to 'show their hands,' for or against the Union." On April 18, the day after Virginia issued its ordinance of secession and reportedly seized arsenals in the state, Taft recorded that soldiers from the North arrived to protect the capital from an expected attack by Virginians.

  • What was Taft's attitude toward the secessionists? Did not knowing "whom to trust" affect how he expressed himself about the secessionists? Cite evidence to support your answer.
  • Find evidence in the diaries of how the preparation for war affected the daily lives of Washingtonians. Consider their work, pastimes, and economic factors.