Buchanan could either make his successor's task far more difficult or to leave him with a situation uniquely designed to place the burden for beginning a war squarely on the South. Several federal forts located in the South, including those at Charleston, remained in northern hands, and Buchanan was under constant pressure to surrender them peacefully to the South. His southern friends desperately wished to confront the incoming president with a fait accompli, but for once Buchanan's head triumphed over his heart.
In late October 1860, a week before the elections, General Winfield Scott, commander in chief of the army and the Whig candidate for president in 1852, had written Secretary of War John B. Floyd that a broken Union could be reunited only by a civil war and that a lesser evil would be the division of the nation into as many as four new nations. After this startling suggestion, Scott recommended that nine federal forts in the South be immediately garrisoned but added that with most of the army stationed in the West, only four hundred men were available. Scott's "Views" were immediately relayed to Floyd's southern friends, and in January 1861, Scott published them. Throughout the following crises, Scott's advice to both Buchanan and Lincoln continued to be equally inconsistent. If either president had wished to surrender the forts, he could have done so with Scott's publicly expressed support, although the general would later insist that his alternative suggestions expressed his true sentiments.
Scott had correctly recognized the potential of the forts for triggering a war. The secessionists quickly seized all but those at Dry Tortugas and Key West, which could easily be defended, and those at Pensacola and Charleston, which posed serious problems. Fort Pickens, at Pensacola, was vulnerable, but it was located outside the harbor and could be reinforced from the sea without danger from shore batteries. At Charleston, Forts Moultrie and Johnson were shore installations and Castle Pinckney stood on a small island near the shore, while the unfinished Fort Sumter was a brick pentagon only fifty feet high on a rock in the middle of the harbor. Ships trying to reinforce Sumter could be attacked by shore batteries, as could the fort itself, but the shore batteries would be equally clear targets for heavily armed warships if the federal government should decide to use them. If the Carolinians would permit a token Union force to remain in the forts indefinitely, perhaps no explosion would occur, the border slave states would remain in the Union, and peaceful efforts to win back the others could continue. A southern attack could bring northern public opinion immediately up to the point of war.
Shortly after Lincoln's election, Buchanan and War Secretary Floyd gave the Charleston command to Major Robert Anderson, a southerner who was friendly to slavery and presumably would handle the situation with tact and understanding, but the fiftysix-year-old Anderson was first of all a Unionist and a professional soldier. He immediately began calling for reinforcements and argued that making the forts invulnerable would be the best way to avoid bloodshed. Supported by Cass and Black, Buchanan ordered reinforcements over the violent objections of his southern cabinet members. Floyd persuaded his chief to wait for a conference with General Scott. Before Scott reached Washington, Cobb and Thompson promised for South Carolina that the forts would not be molested, and Buchanan, in turn, revoked his order for reinforcements.
At no time was Buchanan ever ready to abandon the forts. They were federal property, not to be taken legally under either the right of secession, which he opposed, or the right of revolution, which he supported. The same constitutional scruples that denied him the right to coerce the seceding states also denied him the right to surrender the forts. Further, the northern press, like almost all other ascertainable public opinion, was angrily opposed to any suggestion that the forts would not be held, and Buchanan had always had a strong instinct for political survival as well as for his place in history. If the forts should be lost through their neglect, he warned Floyd, "it were better for you and me both to be thrown into the Potomac with millstones tied about our necks."
Until his resignation on 20 December, Assistant Secretary of State William H. Trescot represented South Carolina at the White House, and afterward he remained an official envoy. As Buchanan continued to insist that he could neither make concessions nor recognize Carolina negotiators as accredited diplomats, the forts remained unreinforced and unattacked by mutual consent. On 11 December, Cass resigned when Buchanan refused to send additional men to the forts, even though only two weeks earlier Cass had strongly opposed the right of the government to coerce a seceded state. Scott also urged the dispatch of three hundred men to Fort Moultrie, but Buchanan refused for the same reasons he had given Cass: no state had yet seceded and Congress was still debating possible compromises. Buchanan moved Black to State and promoted Edwin M. Stanton to attorney general. The last three had supported the Dred Scott decision and the candidacy of Breckin-ridge for president, but recognizing the public temper, they now became the antisecession war hawks in the cabinet.
On 22 December a scandal broke involving corruption in the War Department resulting from the incompetence if not the actual venality of John Floyd, who had also ordered a shipment of heavy guns from Pittsburgh to Texas. Black furiously denounced Floyd on both counts. Five days later, Anderson spiked the guns at Fort Moultrie and moved his command by night into the less vulnerable Fort Sumter. Buchanan's southern friends came singly and collectively to threaten war unless the move should be countermanded. When Buchanan ultimately refused, Floyd resigned in protest from a position already untenable because of his malfeasance in office.
On 31 December, Buchanan, on Scott's advice, ordered the warship Brooklyn to sail immediately to Fort Sumter with troops, stores, and provisions. Scott then changed his mind and suggested that the Brooklyn might have difficulty maneuvering in Charleston harbor and that a fast, shallow-draft steamer might accomplish the mission with greater secrecy and success. On 5 January 1861 the Star of the West , loaded with men and supplies, sailed from New York. On the same day, Anderson reported that he needed no immediate assistance, and Scott himself sent the ship a countermanding order, which arrived after it had sailed. Scott then ordered the Brooklyn to pursue the Star of the West and give aid if it should be damaged. If the Star could not land, it should return to Norfolk. At Charleston on 9 January it was greeted by heavy gunfire and immediately retreated. The shore batteries were within range of Anderson's guns at Fort Sumter, but he had received no warning that the ship was coming and was reluctant to start a battle without orders.
Buchanan was briefly a hero for rejecting the southern demands, but the ill-fated relief expedition brought attacks from every side. Northern editors called him a weakling, secessionists were furious because he had sent the ship at all, and southern Unionists agreed with the northerners. On 18 January, Scott allowed the press to publish his "Views" of October 1860, and his suggestion that secession was permissible and preferable to civil war must have encouraged the secessionists in the states still debating the issue. As other southern states seceded one by one, their delegates continued to hound Buchanan for a promise either to withdraw Anderson or refrain from sending reinforcements. For the rest of his term Buchanan kept answering that he would send help only if Anderson requested it. Determined to be prepared, the administration organized a relief expedition of four small steamers in New York with orders to be ready to sail immediately. Scott, Black, and Stanton wished to send this fleet before the harbor defenses could be made stronger, but until the day of Lincoln's inauguration Anderson continued to advise that he was safe and that such an expedition would suffer heavy casualties and do more harm than good.
Congress, meanwhile, refused Buchanan's every request for authority to do the things he probably did not wish to do anyhow. Bills for calling the militia and increasing his military power were quickly defeated, and no bill to raise money for defense was ever proposed. Heavily criticized for inaction, he replied that with Congress in session he could not use military force without congressional authority. Lincoln would later start with the advantage of an adjourned Congress. A congressional committee dismissed as groundless the charge that Floyd had conspired to send huge quantities of arms to the South, but various northern papers continued to stir up suspicions that the president was trying to arm the South. General Scott's first report to Lincoln and his later charges were in the same vein but were quite unfair. Buchanan did strengthen the other forts, and they remained in Union hands. Substitution of the Star of the West for the Brooklyn was Scott's own idea, and unlike Scott, Buchanan had never suggested publicly that secession should be accepted.
As his oldest and dearest southern friends vied with northern editors in denouncing him as a traitor, the weary president considered inauguration day on 4 March to be truly a day of deliverance. As he sat in the Capitol signing last-minute bills, a surprising and ominous message arrived. After weeks of reassurances, Anderson had just reported that a successful reinforcement of his command would take twenty thousand men. Buchanan and his cabinet were now vulnerable to unfair charges of gross negligence or worse. As a final act, they prepared a letter for Lincoln summarizing all previous dealings with Fort Sumter and explaining the naval force in readiness in New York. The crisis now belonged to Abraham Lincoln.