Major Robert Anderson Assumes Command
The day after Christmas, December 26, 1860, Major Robert Anderson, commanding two companies of the U.S. Army’s First Artillery Regiment, orchestrated the movement of the soldiers, their wives and children, and a variety of supplies, from Fort Moultrie, on Sullivan’s Island, to Fort Sumter in the middle of the harbor mouth. The movement involved two light steam vessels, which
carried the wives, children, and supplies, and six barges for the passage of the men. These vessels were moored at the wharf in front of Fort Moultrie and were loaded in full sight of the Carolinians, both those on land as well as those operating patrol boats in the harbor. The light steam vessels, as well as the barges, had been leased from the Carolinians. The myth of history reports Anderson’s
transfer of his garrison from one fort to the other as conducted “secretly;” in fact, the Carolinians were well aware that the only reason Anderson would stockpile barges at the seawall in front of Fort Moultrie was to use them to transfer his command from one fort to the other. The Carolinians allowed Anderson to make the movement. Why? Indeed, why, under the circumstances, did Major Anderson
decide to shift his command from Moultrie to Sumter?
On November 12, 1860, Major Anderson was serving on an academic committee in New York, when he received a message from General-in-chief, Winfield Scott, to come to
Washington and confer with Secretary of War John Floyd. When Anderson arrived, Floyd informed him that Col. John Gardner, the garrison commander at Fort Moultrie, had been relieved of duty and sent to Texas. The reason for this, Floyd explained, was that Gardner had caused rifles to be removed from the U.S. Arsenal at Charleston. The rifles were taken to the Charleston Battery, but the ship
captain hired to move them to Fort Moultrie, reported this to the South Carolina government and permission for the ship to leave the Battery was refused. The Governor then demanded of President Buchanan that Gardner be replaced with an officer who understood the necessity of being circumspect under the circumstances developing in Carolina as the result of the presidential election.
From Secretary of War Floyd’s point of view, as well as that of the Carolinians, Robert Anderson was the ideal candidate to take command at Fort Moultrie; they expected him to be an officer naturally inclined to exhibit sympathy for the Carolinians’ rising clamor for secession from the Union. Certainly, Anderson’s personal background justified this expectation. Anderson was a
native of Kentucky, who was born into a slave-holding family and was married to the daughter of a wealthy Georgia slaveholder. He owned slaves himself, and thus it was supposed that he would be motivated to act in a manner advantageous to the Carolinians. Also, since he had already served in the Army for thirty-five years (his graduation from West Point was in 1825) it was assumed he was ready
for retirement and would take the easy way out, not act aggressively in the execution of his orders.
There was another trait of Anderson’s character, however, that Floyd and his associates failed to respect: Anderson was a classic product of the West Point of the times. He was a soldier, from his head to his toes. His combat experience spanned the scope of his entire career, beginning with the Blackhawk Indian wars in the 1830’s, the Seminole war of 1837, and the
Mexican War of 1846, where he was severely wounded storming the bastion known as Molino del Rey covering the gates to Mexico City. The word honor meant something to him: As long as he wore the uniform of a United States Army officer, he would act in a manner that guaranteed the integrity of his reputation as a soldier and vindicated his long army career.
Major Anderson Calls For Reinforcements
Major Anderson arrived in Charleston the week of November 20 and immediately inspected the forts under his command. There were four of them: Fort Johnson, dilapidated and of no practical use; Castle Pinckney, a small casemated work that sits within close range of Charleston; Fort Moultrie, on the south facing beach of Sullivan’s Island, and Fort Sumter on a shoal in the
middle of the harbor mouth. He then reported to the Army Adjutant General, Samuel S. Cooper (Cooper would eventually resign and become the Confederate AG), the following:
“In compliance with verbal instructions from the Secretary of War, I have inspected the forts of this harbor. I shall confine my remarks to the matter of greatest importance, if the Government intends holding them.”
“At Fort Moultrie, Captain Foster is working on the outer defenses. There are several sand hills within 400 yards of our eastern wall, which provide good cover for approaching parties. Two of them command our work and must be leveled. This fort, with the appropriate war
garrison, will be capable of making a very handsome defense. The garrison now in it is so weak as to invite an attack, which is publicly threatened.”
“At Fort Sumter, the guns of the lower casement will be mounted in about 17 days. The magazines contain 40,000 pounds of powder and a full supply of ammunition for one tier of guns. This work is the key to the entrance to this harbor; its guns command Fort Moultrie, and could
soon drive out its occupants. It should be garrisoned at once.”
“I need not say how anxious I am—indeed, determined, so far as honor will permit—to avoid collision with the citizens of South Carolina. Nothing, however, will be better calculated to prevent bloodshed than our being found in such an attitude that it would be madness and folly
to attack us.”
“That there is a settled determination to leave the Union, and to obtain possession of Fort Moultrie, is apparent to all. The clouds are threatening and the storm may break upon us at any moment. I do, then, most earnestly entreat that reinforcements be immediately sent to this
garrison, and that at least two companies be sent at the same time to Fort Sumter. I firmly believe that as soon as the Carolinians learn I have asked for reinforcements they will attack this fort. It is therefore of vital importance that the reinforcements be embarked on steamers designated for transport to other places.”
“I will thank the department to give me special instructions, as my position here is rather a political than a military one.”
At First, President Buchanan Refuses to Chance Starting the War
Nothing was heard from Washington for almost four weeks, as President Buchanan and his cabinet considered what should be done with the army garrison at Charleston.
Buchanan’s dilemma was real: It was patently obvious to everyone, even then, in November 1860, that South Carolina would indeed secede from the Union. An attempt at military coercion would most certainly, in every politician’s mind, instantly bring to South Carolina’s side the Cotton States, if not the whole of the Slave States. Even if Buchanan wished to induce this
result, his attorney general, Jeremiah S. Black, quite rightly in the context of abstract thought, had informed him the President had no constitutional power to declare, no authority to prosecute, and no right to enforce a war against a State. Yet, Black correctly opined, the President’s constitutional duty was to protect and preserve the property of the United
The dilemma was how to do this, when the property of the United States was within the limits of a State? The practical reality was that, to protect and preserve the United States property inside Charleston Harbor, the use of force was required; but President Buchanan had no force immediately available at his call. The great bulk of the Regular Army of 18,000 men was on
the western plains, protecting the immigrants and settlers from the Indians. According to General Scott, there were available for Buchanan’s immediate use only five companies of regular troops, about one thousand men: these scattered at different posts between the Atlantic seaboard and the Mississippi. Similarly, the warships of the United States Navy were on stations scattered all over the seas
of the world, with only four ships—Brooklyn, Pawnee, Pocahontas, and Harriet Lane—available on the east coast.
To raise the force necessary to hold the United States property in Charleston Harbor, not just the forts but also the Federal courthouse, post office, and customs house, President Buchanan’s only option, then, was to call upon the governors of the States for their militias. But the existing laws of Congress, his attorney general had quite intelligently explained, clearly did
not authorize this. Even if Buchanan ignored the plain reading of the applicable law in this regard, and called for the governors to send him their militias, relying on Congress in the interim to ratify his action by amending the law, he had no reasonable basis to expect that the Border States would acquiesce. The call for troops would be received by them as confirmation of the Federal
Government’s intent to control the political future of South Carolina by force, and they would resist the call.
In such circumstance, all prospects for a peaceful resolution of the impending crisis would obviously be destroyed. Suddenly, on Buchanan’s watch, the whole fabric of the Union would disintegrate into shreds. And there did appear to Buchanan to be a reasonable prospect for peace: the Republicans were publicly considering proposals that might satisfy the demand of the
Slave States for security for themselves and their peculiar property. Indeed, there were at that time many Republicans, Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune among them, who publicly acknowledged the wisdom of letting the Slaves States go without a war.
Contrary to what the history books suggest, James Buchanan was not a dullard, an incompetent, an aider and abetter of the secessionists, but a political realist who understood that if he decided to build an army to support the United States’ hold on South Carolina, he would be committing the Federal Government to an offensive war, to be waged against a State; and,
though such a war may be declared by Congress as expressly authorized by the Constitution, he reasonably believed the temper of the country was against it.
Major Anderson Finally Receives Instructions
Major Anderson, impatient for an answer from the government, wrote to Adjutant General Cooper on November 28th: “The question for the Government to decide—and the sooner it is done the better—is whether, when South Carolina secedes these forts are to be surrendered or not. If the former, I must be informed of it, and instructed what course I am to pursue. If the
latter be the determination, no time is to be lost in either sending troops, as already suggested, or vessels of war to this harbor. Either of these courses may cause some of the doubting States to join South Carolina.”
On December 1, AG Cooper wrote Anderson a response to this: “It is believed from information thought reliable, that an attack will not be made on your command, and the Secretary of War has only to refer to his conversation with you, and to caution you that your actions must be such as to be free of the charge of initiating a collision. If attacked, you are expected to defend
the trust committed to you, to the best of your ability.”
Several letters passed back and forth between Anderson and Cooper thereafter, with no decision made as to reinforcements. Instead, on December 11, Carlos Buell, an assistant adjutant general, appeared at Charleston and conveyed to Anderson Secretary of War Floyd’s formal instructions: “Floyd is determined to pursue a course which shall guard against a collision of troops. He
therefore abstains (obviously with Buchanan’s blessing) from increasing the force at this point, or taking any measures which might add to the present excited state of the public mind.” Buell completed his recitation with this sentence, attributable to the authority of the secretary of war: “You are authorized to put your command in Fort Sumter whenever you have tangible evidence of a design
(of the Carolinians) to proceed to a hostile act.”
Ten more days passed, with messengers shuttling back and forth; then came Secretary of Floyd’s personal letter to Major Anderson just as South Carolina’s convention of delegates had passed its Ordinance of Secession:
Washington, December 21, 1860
In the verbal instructions communicated to you by Major Buell, you are directed to hold possession of the forts, and, if attacked, to defend yourself to the last extremity. [But] useless sacrifice of your life is far from the President’s intentions. You are to exercise a
sound military discretion on this subject.
It is neither expected nor desired that you should expose your own life or that of your men in a hopeless conflict in defense of these forts. If they are invested or attacked by a force so superior that resistance would, in your judgment, be a useless waste of life, it
will be your duty to yield to necessity, and make the best terms in your power.
John B. Floyd.
Here was the message of a confederate communicated with a wink. South Carolina had now seceded. It was a tangible fact. But still there would be no reinforcements sent. Anderson. He and his two companies of artillerymen, with their wives and children, and a few months’ supplies, were on their own, on an island surrounded by a seething sea of rage. President Buchanan, through
his mouthpiece, Floyd, was telling Anderson to surrender as soon as a mass of armed Carolinians approached the fort in the sand dunes. Safe passage for his command would quickly be offered and it would be away from Charleston, the defense of the harbor from intruders returned to South Carolina’s hands. From Buchanan’s point of view, South Carolina would be saddled with the charge of initiating
the war and the Democratic Party would leave it to the Republican Party to organize the army necessary to prosecute it. In the meantime there was still a chance for reconciliation, and, perhaps, for peace.
Major Anderson Does the Unexpected
President Buchanan heard the news of Anderson’s sudden move to Sumter, just as the envoys from Governor Pickens arrived in Washington to negotiate the fair value of the property of the United States in Carolina. Buchanan’s first reaction, it is reported, was to order Anderson to go back, but then he learned that was impossible, since the Carolinians had immediately occupied
Fort Moultrie, as well as Castle Pinckney, and the Federal buildings in Charleston. Holding his hands up in exasperation, as the secessionist leaders in the Senate—Davis, Lane, and Slidell—burst into his White House office, Buchanan said: “This is against orders and my policy.”
This happened in the morning hours of December 27; that afternoon Buchanan sought to gain a consensus among his ministers, in support of a decision to evacuate Anderson’s men from the harbor, but Jeremiah Black, now acting as Secretary of State, threatened his resignation. Black was Buchanan’s closest political associate, really his only friend; letting Black go was not an
option and it sobered him.
There was great excitement in the Cabinet that continued unabated for several days. Buchanan was pulled and tugged one way, then the other: on the one side, by the Southerners—Floyd, Thompson, Thomas; on the other by the Northerners—Black, Stanton, and Holt. Then the debate abruptly ended when General Scott drove a dagger into the heart of Buchanan’s policy of
General Scott Recommends Reinforcement
Winfield Scott was 73 years old in 1860; he was so fat, so diseased, that he could hardly walk. Several days before the presidential election, he had given the President his written views of the developing schism: The Union would splinter into pieces and there was nothing that could be done but to let it happen, hoping that in the passage of time the States would somehow
again coalesce. In November, when Major Anderson had first called for reinforcement, Scott had been silent, ignored by Buchanan as he had Floyd put Adjutant General, Samuel Cooper, in Scott’s place in the official line of communication with Anderson.
For over half a century, General Scott had served as an active officer of the United States Army, wearing the stars of a general officer almost the entire time. Along with Andrew Jackson, in the War of 1812, Scott had become a hero in American eyes, having been successful battling the British at Niagara River, at Fort George, and at the Chippewa where he was wounded at
Lundy’s Lane. Then he was a young vigorous man, handsome, brilliant, and strong.
(Scott in 1836)
His most astonishing accomplishment has no parallel in American military history, unless it is Dwight Eisenhower’s invasion of France and conquering of Germany in WW II. In 1846, Scott landed an army of less than 12,000 American soldiers—half of them volunteers—at Vera Cruz, marched 450 miles into the interior of Mexico and overwhelmed the bastions of Mexico City, forcing the
Mexican government to flee, and the city to capitulate. He was the soldier responsible for doubling the land mass of the United States, overnight.
(Scott in 1846)
As with other soldiers in American history, Scott was rewarded for this, by being nominated for president by a political party. In 1852, he was the last candidate of the disappearing Whig Party, doing little better than Breckinridge or Bell, in 1860, though, in winning electoral votes.
(Scott in 1852)
Then ten years of inactivity passed, and Scott, old and fat and debilitated by chronic disease, stepped briefly as a player into the picture again.
WASHINGTON, December 30, 1860
The PRESIDENT of the UNITED STATES:
Lieutenant-General Scott begs the President of the United States to pardon the irregularity of this communication. (Protocol required ordinarily that it pass through the Secretary of War’s hands, but Floyd by now had resigned, and Joseph Holt had not yet assumed the
It is Sunday, the weather is bad, and General Scott is not well enough to go to Church. But matters of the highest importance forbid a moment’s delay. Will the President permit General Scott, without reference to the War Department, as secretly as possible, to send two
hundred and fifty recruits from New York Harbor to reinforce Fort Sumter?
The President’s most obedient servant,
The President’s Only Choice Now Is Limited to Form
(The Civilian Side-wheel Steamer, Star of the West)
On New Year’s Eve, President James Buchanan sat in his rocker by the fireside of his White House office, with Winfield Scott’s letter dangling from his hand. He was in a corner from which he could see no safe way out. By now he had received from his agent, Duff Green, Lincoln’s written response to his inquiry, what would Lincoln do? Knowing that his successor meant to take
back the Charleston harbor forts by force, if he were to give them up, had locked Buchanan into the political necessity of adopting Winfield Scott’s recommendation. But how to implement it?
Scott’s had wanted the U.S.S. Brooklyn, a ten gun screw sloop, to go to Charleston with two companies of regular troops pulled from Fort Monroe’s garrison,
but the President shrank from doing this: the use of a Navy warship would clearly constitute a purely military offensive act that would signify the Federal Government meant not merely to hold a fort but to subjugate the State. No urgency existed, in Buchanan’s mind, to establish this specific intent: The forts in Charleston Harbor simply had no importance for the general defense of the United
States, instead being useful only for the defense of South Carolina. Leave it to Lincoln, he thought; but still something had to be done.
Thinking this, Buchanan had gotten up from his chair by the fireside and, taking up a decanter of Whiskey from the sideboard, downed a slug, slamming the glass down on the board with a thud. Whatever was done, he knew Jacob Thompson, if Mississippi, and Philip Thomas, of Maryland, would soon be gone from his cabinet, and the States of Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi,
and Louisiana would soon be gone from the Union. He looked again at Scott’s letter—the least provocative thing that could be done was to send recruits, with supplies, on a civilian ship, he decided; and he went to his writing desk and set down his order, praying he was not the one to light the flames of hell.
Two days later, General Scott had directed that the steamer, Star of the West, be leased from its owner and taken to the wharf at Governor’s Island in New York Harbor and be prepared for sea, with 200 men and supplies for three months on board. No notice of this was sent to Major Anderson, presumably because the Carolina government authorities would not allow a
messenger to reach Sumter. (But, more likely than not, the President didn’t want Anderson to fire Fort Sumter’s guns in support of the arrival of the Star of the West.) By January 5th, the troops and supplies were abroad the ship and it set out to sea under the cover story that it was proceeding on its usual run to New Orleans.
The effort at secrecy proved futile, of course. On January 7th, The New York Tribune reported: “The vessel, Star of the West, is reported going to Charleston, and will attempt to take troops in by night.” On January 8th, the Washington Constitution reported that the Star of the West had sailed for Charleston on the 5th, with
troops on board, and would be at the harbor mouth by the 9th. Buchanan’s secretary of the interior, Jacob Thompson, read this, and telegraphed to South Carolina Governor Pickens that Federal troops were coming. Then he resigned and went home to Mississippi. Buchanan, realizing the Star of the West would probably be sunk at the harbor entrance, with all hands lost, ordered that
the U.S.S. Brooklyn be sent to sea in an effort to beat the Star of the West to Charleston and stop it.
When the Star of the West arrived at the channel leading into the harbor it was night. Its captain, John McGowan, could find no buoys or lights to navigate by. As the sky was lightening with the dawn, Cummings Point and Sullivan Island came slowly into view and McGowan moved the ship forward through the channel. As the ship came into the harbor, guns from a battery
behind Cummings Point opened and shots began to throw water spouts into the air around her.
Major Anderson was watching the progress of the Star of the West from the rampart of Fort Sumter: He saw the ship’s ensign being lowered and raised, apparently in some form of signal, but he could not fathom what it was. He assumed, of course, that the ship was intending to reach Sumter’s wharf and he was excited and anxious to do something to help it, but there was
nothing he could do: the battery firing on the ship was concealed from his direct view and beyond the range of Sumter’s available guns. Then a gun from Fort Moultrie, directly across from Sumter—a distance of two thousand yards at most—opened on the Star as she came opposite Sullivan’s Island. An artilleryman, Private John Davis, holding the lanyard of a ready gun, called to
Anderson—“Let’s open now!” he shouted.
Major Anderson raised a pair of binoculars to his eyes and scanned the harbor waters, focusing first on the Star and then on Moultrie, gauging ranges. Then
he turned and gave orders to a junior officer behind him, to go below and get a crew to make ready a battery of Parrott 42-pounders (with a range of 2,000 yards) in the casement tier facing Moultrie. Just then, a shout went among the men and Anderson turned back to the rampart and saw there was a steamer, towing a schooner, bearing down on the Star. Now the Star went into a wide
turn, heading back toward the channel and the sea, and Anderson sent a private running to tell the battery crew to stand down, and not to fire.
The next day, January 9th, Major Anderson sent a message to South Carolina Governor Pickens: “I cannot but think this firing [on a United States vessel] was committed without your authority. If you do not disclaim it, I must regard it as an act of war, and not permit any vessels to pass within the range of the guns of my fort.”
Pickens immediately answered: “It was understood by President Buchanan that sending any reinforcements of the troops of the United States in the harbor of Charleston would be regarded as an act of hostility, because it could only be intended by him to dispute the right of the State of South Carolina to that political independence which she has
asserted and means to retain. The attempt to reinforce Fort Sumter can only be regarded as indicative of any purpose other than the coercion of the State by the armed forces of the Federal Government. It is not perceived how your proposed action can be reconciled with any purpose other than to impose upon this State the condition of a conquered province.”
During the week that followed, President Buchanan conferred with General Scott, asking, in a formal memorandum prepared by his friend, Jerry Black, that Scott give his opinion whether it was the duty of the government to reinforce Anderson and, if yes, how soon action was necessary and how was it to be done. (No record exists as to Scott’s response) At the same time, a truce
of sorts was worked out between Anderson and Pickens, and a messenger carried Anderson’s report of events to the President.
On the 16th, Joseph Holt, now acting as the President’s Secretary of War, Floyd having gone back to Virginia, sent Anderson the following letter:
WAR DEPARTMENT, January 16, 1861
Major Robert Anderson,
First Artillery, commanding Fort Sumter:
Sir: You rightly designate the firing into the Star of the West as an `act of war,’ and one which was actually committed without the slightest provocation. Your forbearance to return the fire is fully approved by the President. Unfortunately, the Government
had not been able to make known to you that the Star of the West had sailed from New York for your relief. . . .
Your late dispatches have relieved the Government of the apprehensions previously entertained for your safety. In Consequence, it is not its purpose at present to reinforce you. The attempt to do so would, no doubt, be attended by a collision of arms and the effusion of
blood—a national calamity which the President is most anxious to avoid.
Whenever, in your judgment, additional supplies or reinforcements are necessary for your safety, or for a successful defense of the fort, you will at once communicate that fact to this Department, and a prompt and vigorous effort will be made to forward
The Federal Government had learned enough to know that South Carolina was “ready for the red anvil where each blow is pain.” (Whittier’s Thy Will Be Done, January 16, 1861) But it would have to be the incoming president that wielded the hammer and tongs.
The Situation in the Congress
A. The President’s Special Message
On January 8, 1861, the day he knew the Star of the West would be entering Charleston Harbor, President Buchanan delivered a special message to the Congress
of the United States which, then, was in executive session.
When he delivered the special message, Buchanan knew that the South Carolina Government had taken possession of the Federal buildings in Charleston; these buildings—the Post Office, Custom House, and Federal Courthouse—were empty of employees, all of whom had resigned their positions. Buchanan also knew that all the forts, except Sumter, were then occupied by the South
Carolina Government; the occupation of the forts, like that with the Federal buildings, having occurred without violent incident.
He did not know, at the time he sent the special message, whether or not the South Carolina Government had allowed the Star of the West access to Fort Sumter’s wharf, or, in some matter, had prevented it. Still, even though the latter fact was not known to him, President Buchanan knew enough to know he held in his hands the opportunity to call upon the Congress to pass
laws enabling him to command the force necessary to establish the dominance of the Federal Government over South Carolina.
With this knowledge in his mind, President Buchanan crafted a message to Congress which did not disclose the fact that he had sent the Star of the West to Charleston, and he did not call for authority to use the tools of war. In essence he called upon Congress to give the South the one thing Lincoln had made clear he would refuse to give.