Neoconfederates like to make the claim that there was a peace agreement in effect in Charleston Harbor. They make a couple different claims regarding this. First, some claim the alleged agreement was in effect when Anderson moved his men to Fort Sumter and that Anderson’s move was a violation of this alleged agreement. Second, some claim Lincoln’s attempt to land provisions at Fort Sumter violated the alleged agreement. Some of them make both claims.
Some historians have addressed this claim.
“At that time Buchanan was still being harassed by continued pressure from the secessionists to abandon the pro-Union doctrines of his message [Buchanan’s annual message to Congress, December 3, 1860, can be viewed here]. On December 8 the congressional delegation from South Carolina called upon the President to assure him that sending reinforcements to Charleston Harbor would be the surest way to provoke an attack. They believed the forts would not be disturbed until after the ordinance of secession had been passed and commissioners had been sent to Washington to seek a peaceful settlement. At Buchanan’s request they reduced this opinion to writing and handed it to him on December 10. He at once objected to a significant reservation — ‘that no reinforcements shall be sent into those forts, and their relative military status remain as at present.’ This, he said, ‘might be construed into an agreement on my part which I never would make.’ The delegation replied that it was not their intention to force him into such a position. Evidently Buchanan then led them to believe that he did not propose at that time to send reinforcements or change the military status of the forts.
“A few weeks later the South Carolinians and the President’s northern critics interpreted these negotiations as evidence that he had agreed to a formal truce involving a mutual pledge to preserve the status quo. Assuming there was actually such a truce, Northerners were to accuse Buchanan of disloyalty, and Southerners were to accuse him of double-dealing. Buchanan himself always insisted that there had been no truce and that he had in no way committed himself.
“the trouble was that two constructions were easily deducible from the interview and correspondence. There seems to be little reason to doubt that the South Carolinians really thought the President had made them a pledge. To be sure, he did tell them that he had no immediate plans to change the status of the forts; but he also specifically refused to make that a binding promise for the future. Buchanan was probably right in maintaining that no formal truce had been made. Nevertheless, these negotiations doubtless provided the reassurance that Buchanan needed to confirm his decision not to send reinforcements for the present. In other words, he proceeded as if there were a truce, even though technically none existed. Altogether it was a confused situation.” [Kenneth M. Stampp, And the War Came: the North and the Secession Crisis, 1860-61, pp. 59-60]
Those interested in the actual correspondence can look in OR Series I, Vol 1. Begin on page 109 and 110. That is communication from Robert W. Barnwell, James H. Adams, and James Orr to President Buchanan.
Buchanan’s response begins on page 115. On page 116 we see the text of the letter from early December Stampp mentioned, along with Buchanan’s objection to the wording, continued on page 117. Buchanan’s response ends on page 118.
For the confederates’ rejoinder, head to pages 120 through 125. Page 125 begins the statement of Miles and Keitt of their version of the meeting with Buchanan. Page 126 contains the original 9 Dec letter to Buchanan and their version of his response and the ensuing conversation. Their statement goes through page 128.
The upshot of all this is the confederates thought there was an agreement in place, but Buchanan and the rest of the Federals didn’t.
W. A. Swanberg weighs in on this issue also. “A few days later, on December 8th, a delegation of South Carolina Congressmen headed by William Porcher Miles and Lawrence Keitt consulted him on the same subject but with opposite advice: no reinforcement.
“These Palmetto representatives, who were all secessionists but had not yet resigned their seats, admitted they could not speak officially but gave it as their belief that Anderson was in no danger of attack so long as no help was sent him. Let any reinforcements be sent, they warned, and violence was certain.
“The Congressmen had an extraordinary nerve if they expected the President to give them a binding promise to return for their mere hopeful and unofficial opinion. Yet they came away with the feeling that Buchanan had ‘solemnly pledged’ the government not to alter the military status of Charleston–a misunderstanding that later was to swamp Old Buck with woe and erupt like lava in Carolina. Such a pledge he had no power to give, for he would be promising away the government’s right to defend itself against disunion, which he had already condemned as illegal and unconstitutional. He put nothing in writing, so there is no proof that he even gave a flat verbal guarantee. But the long and short of the matter was that according to his own definition the Carolinians had no particle of authority over the forts in the harbor, and he was moving toward a dangerous surrender of national sovereignty in giving them any assurances whatever.” [W. A. Swanberg, First Blood: The Story of Fort Sumter, pp. 61-62]
Swanberg makes a great point. How could Buchanan make a peace agreement with men who had no official status and were only giving him their belief? And how could a president who was commander-in-chief of the US military promise not to defend US forces and facilities? It stretches credibility too much to believe the confederates were right in thinking there was such an agreement. So while the confederates probably believed there was such an agreement, in fact there most probably was not.
Later on, though, there was a short-lived, unofficial truce.
“Anderson had not recovered from this rebuff when, on January 11, Pickens presented him with a new demand for the surrender of Fort Sumter. Anderson promptly refused but hopefully offered ‘to refer the matter to Washington.’ ‘It would afford me the sincerest pleasure to depute one of my officers to accompany any messenger you may deem proper to be the bearer of your demand.’ Pickens consented to this proposal, and on January 13, Colonel Isaac W. Hayne, Attorney General of South Carolina, and Lieutenant J. Norman Hall arrived in Washington to present the issue to the President. During the ensuing negotiations a temporary truce existed at Charleston, a truce that was neither initiated nor approved by Buchanan, but was the exclusive responsibility of Major Anderson and Governor Pickens.” [Kenneth M. Stampp, And the War Came: the North and the Secession Crisis, 1860-61, pp. 100-101] Crawford reproduces Anderson’s entire letter here. The New York Times took this on here and provided the correspondence between Pickens and Anderson and Pickens and Buchanan.
The informal truce remained in effect as long as Hayne was in Washington. “What Buchanan did not know was that Hayne, who professed to be impatient to get on with his mission, was actually quite willing to cool his heels and give his state time to build more batteries. The ‘truce’ was precisely equivalent to one man standing with hands tied while another gathered brickbats to assault him. Every day of it saw more cannon readied in a ring around Sumter while the fort remained in status quo.
“What Hayne did not know was that Buchanan, though he made out to be annoyed at Anderson for suggesting the truce in the first place, was equally happy to delay the issue. He had some forty-seven days remaining of his Presidency and was counting them on his fingers, regarding each day gained without facing the dread finality of war as a victory. Had he sincerely wished to end the truce he could have done so instantly, with a word. So the President, the colonel, and the Senators were all playing for time, each with his own motive.” [W. A. Swanberg, First Blood: The Story of Fort Sumter, p. 165]
Hayne’s mission failed, though. The Buchanan administration refused to abandon Fort Sumter, and Hayne eventually returned to South Carolina in early February. “This impasse, of course, terminated the truce which had been concluded by Major Anderson, and neither he nor the administration ever renewed it.” [Kenneth M. Stampp, And the War Came: the North and the Secession Crisis, 1860-61, p. 102]
So there was not peace agreement in effect when Anderson moved his garrison to Fort Sumter, and what informal truce had existed since then was terminated in February, so neither Anderson nor Lincoln, contrary to the claims of some neoconfederates, violated any peace agreement or truce.