There were 5 living former presidents during the onset of the Civil War:
There were five former living presidents in 1860: Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan. They were #8, #10, #13, #14, and #15. Lincoln is #16.
Two die in 1862: Van Buren and Tyler, the former having been born in 1782 and the latter in 1790.
Van Buren was a one-term president who served 1837-1841. He did not support the annexation of Texas before or after his presidency, in large part due to the worry about territorial expansion and slavery. In the 1848 election, he headed a political splinter group known as the Free Soilers, who campaigned primarily on ending the spread of slavery into the West. The Free Soil party lost in 1848, and thus Van Buren stepped out of politics. By Lincoln’s election in 1860, he had written his memoirs and traveled the world. He supported Lincoln’s decision to resist secession with force. Considering his anti-annexation and Free Soil beliefs, one can argue that he believed the war was necessary to stop the spread of slavery out West. He hadn’t voted for Lincoln, but he didn’t believe that the sitting president (Buchanan) had the proper ideas in responding to secession. [Fun fact: he died just after Union forces captured New Orleans and as the Confederacy crossed the Potomac, causing Union troops to rush to D.C. to protect it.] Source: The Miller Center.
Tyler was also a one-term president. He had been the Vice President, but William Henry Harrison died in office in 1841 from pneumonia (and possibly an overdose of one of the medicines given to him). Tyler served from 1841-1845. He was a Whig when in the White House, but ultimately the party rejected him because he was so pro-state’s-rights, and he removed himself from politics. He remained reclusive in a Virginia plantation he named “Sherwood Forest” (because he’d been outlawed by his party; he thought himself like Robin Hood). When the Civil War seemed eminent, he re-appeared and headed the Virginia Peace Convention. This convention in 1861 after seven states had already seceded. It was intended to negotiate a way to avoid war. Tyler was chosen to represent Virginia, which was a slave-holding “swing state,” to speak to President Buchanan about the matter. Tyler had then suggested the Peace Convention. It did not work, because everyone disagreed on what parts of slavery to limit and where, and, even though they sent a proposed bill to Congress, the Senate voted against it. Afterward, Tyler was chosen again to represent Virginia – this time to their secession convention. He chose secession. He did not believe much violence would occur. He joined the Provisional Confederate Congress and was then elected to their House. He was on his way to the opening sessions of the Confederate Congress in early 1862 when he fell ill and collapsed. He lingered a week then died. Sources: John Tyler, Champion of the Old South and John Tyler: The Accidental President.
The other three all lived through the Civil War: Millard Fillmore dies in 1874, Franklin Pierce dies in 1869, and James Buchanan dies in 1868.
Fillmore was also a one-term president. He served from 1850-1853. Like Tyler, he had been Vice President, but his President (Zachary Taylor) had died in office (he died of digestive troubles; there’s a lot of myth and conspiracy about it). Unlike Van Buren, Fillmore did not oppose the spread of slavery into the West, and he supported the Compromise of 1850 (which may have defused tensions briefly, but it certainly upheld some of the nastier parts of slavery and encouraged others, such as the Fugitive Slave Act). When Fillmore left the presidency, he joined the Know Nothing, or American, Party because he refused to join the Republican party (which was the party of Lincoln and other anti-slavery folks). To be clear, the Know Nothing or American Party is in strong opposition to immigration and Catholicism; it’s pretty much their entire platform. You may remember this party from Gangs of New York – they were the men with the blue bands on their hats and waists. In 1856, he was the Know Nothing presidential candidate, and he garnered about 21% of the popular vote which put him in third. During the Civil War, Fillmore remained in New York, but did not support Lincoln, though he became a “staunch Unionist.” He led a home-guard militia of men over 45 who had not gone into combat (called the Union Continentals) to protect the area if the Confederates ever came that north. After the War, Fillmore supported Andrew Johnson’s lenient measures towards the South. Source: The White House and The Miller Center. Here’s an image of him as a Union Continental in the Civil War. You can read about his experiences in the Civil War as the Union Continental commander here in a free ebook.
Pierce was yet another one-term president. He served from 1853-1857. He is considered one of the worst presidents in American history. Why? Well, a number of reasons. The first is the less well known Ostend Manifesto, which basically was a document suggesting that the U.S. buy Cuba from Spain and, if Spain refused to sell, the U.S. should go to war. The second was and still is the most controversial: he supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which further divided the country as they sought to figure out slavery in the West. His acquisition of southwestern land for railroads aggravated the situation even more, as settlers rushed out west and fell into conflict with each other almost immediately over the issue of slavery. These all turned much of America against Pierce while he was in office. When he left the presidency in 1857, he did what many other former presidents do and traveled abroad. He returned to America in 1859. Now realize that Pierce’s Secretary of War is Jefferson Davis, who would become the Confederacy’s President. Pierce had been persuaded by Davis several times when he was president. Now that the war itself was starting, he continued correspondence with Davis. Some of their letters were leaked during the war, which further alienated him from many. Throughout the Civil War, Pierce rejected Lincoln (they were in opposing parties, Pierce = Democrat, Lincoln = Republican), but he did support the Union. Still, he openly and repeatedly blamed the war on Lincoln, and, this combined with his letters to Davis, cost him dearly. Apparently, when he died, little was said about him or his passing. Sources: The White House, The Miller Center, and here’s one of his letters to Davis in 1861.
And finally, Buchanan, who was ALSO a one-term president, serving between 1857-1861. So much has been written about his views on the Civil War, it’s hard not to write a book about it. I’ll be short with him, because you can easily find information about his views. In summary, Buchanan was the president when the storm of the Civil War was brewing. If Pierce knew hell was on the horizon, then Buchanan was feeling heat, and Lincoln was the one who roasted. Buchanan did his best to deal with the upcoming conflict, but he probably aggravated matters. He was of the opinion that slavery was a state’s (and territory’s) issue, not federal, and they should decide if slavery would be present. He was the president during the Dred Scott decision, which said that slaves had no rights under the Constitution and the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. Buchanan had encouraged a Northern Supreme Court justice to join in opinion with the Southern ones, and thus, the Dred Scott decision came to be. He urged all American citizens to follow the decision in his Inaugural Address. Then, of course, there was Bleeding Kansas, a situation which he also aggravated by endorsing a proslavery constitution from the state. During the 1860 election, which he didn’t run in as he had promised, things fell apart.
As The Miller Center explains: “Buchanan, ever conciliatory, tried not to alienate anyone—either secessionist or unionist—but pleased no one. The outgoing President seemed at a loss to take any action against the South, which only emboldened the new Confederacy. All Southerners in his cabinet resigned. Secretary of State Lewis Cass quit too, disgusted with Buchanan’s inaction in the crisis. The President did little, fearful of provoking the South; yet he angered the South by refusing to relinquish Fort Sumter at Charleston, South Carolina. While his inaction averted war for the time being, it also enabled the new Confederate government to begin operations. Buchanan seemed eager to get out of the White House before the real disasters ensued.”
Buchanan encountered serious criticism after he left office. His portrait had to be removed from the White House because vandals kept damaging it, and posters appeared in numerous places with caricatures of him in a hangman’s noose with the caption “Judas” and sometimes “Traitor.” He tried to express his support for the Union cause, but many did not believe him (which makes sense, because there’s also evidence he supported the Confederacy). He published a book after the war blaming it on Republicans and abolitionists. Much like Tyler, he too became a recluse, rarely seeing anyone. He died in 1868 of respiratory failure, leaving behind a complicated legacy. Sources: The Miller Center