Major Robert Anderson, the commander of Fort Sumter, was a virtuous man caught in a terrible spot. While his personal but generally private loyalties lay with the South, his duty as he saw it was to the United States government.

In the early evening of December 26, 1860, at Fort Moultrie, Charleston, South Carolina, Captain Abner Doubleday invited Major Robert Anderson to an early evening tea. Anderson politely declined, ordering Doubleday to prepare his men for immediate transfer to a different post. “I have determined to evacuate this post immediately, for the purpose of occupying Fort Sumter,” Anderson stated. “I can only allow you twenty minutes to form your company and be in readiness to start.” Doubleday’s men were ready in ten minutes.[1] For the most part, Anderson had kept the move secret until the very last minute. “No one, of course, would deliberately betray a secret of this kind,” Doubleday explained in his memoirs of Secession Winter, “but it sometimes happens, under such circumstances, that officers given indications of what is about to take place by sending for their washing, packing their trunks, and making changes in their messing arrangements.”[2] Anderson could not take these risks by revealing too much too early, even to his own officers.

As a diversion to the eyes and intelligence of the South Carolinians, Anderson had ordered earlier on Christmas Day a preparation to move the families of the men to the safety of an old fort, Fort Johnson, located in the western part of Charleston Harbor. Their boats departed around noon on the 26th.[3] That same afternoon, Fort Moultrie’s Surgeon Samuel Crawford and Major Robert Anderson spied a steamer appearing as though it might enter the harbor. If so, it might need Fort Moultrie’s protection and could cause a huge problem for Anderson’s plan. “I hope she will not attempt to come in,” Anderson confided to his surgeon. “It would greatly embarrass me. I intend to move to Fort Sumter to night” he quietly and unexpectedly admitted. The steamer moved on, but Anderson used the moment to order Crawford to prepare to move the medical necessities for the hospital.[4] This revelation was a necessary and calculated risk on Anderson’s part.


When the real move came, under the cover of an early evening dusk, Anderson ordered Captain John G. Foster to remain at Fort Moultrie and “to fire on any vessel that attempted to interfere with the crossing of the boats loaded with troops. Five guns were loaded for this purpose.”[5] Seven barges moved the Federal troops, and twenty of Doubleday’s men carried arms and served as marines, landing first and taking Fort Sumter from the workmen living there. Before arriving, however, a South Carolinian harbor patrol steamer had passed close by, but Doubleday’s men hid their weapons under the clothing, thus avoiding any reflection off of the barrels that might give away the move. The steamer passed within roughly 100 yards of Doubleday’s barge, but it failed to notice any part of Anderson’s movement.[6] Doubleday’s twenty men easily captured the fort from the angry and surprised workman, many of whom openly professed strong support for secession.[7] When the last of the seven barges landed on Fort Sumter, the men remaining at Fort Moultrie fired several signal guns, giving notice to the barges that had moved the women and children earlier in the day to Fort Johnson to head now to their true destination, Fort Sumter.[8]

Anderson’s plan had worked brilliantly, and the entire transfer was over by 8pm. “Thanks be to God. I give them with my whole heart for His having given me the will, and shewn me the way to bring my command to this Fort,” Anderson wrote to his wife immediately upon the completion of the move.

I can now breathe freely. The whole force of S. Carolina would not venture to attack us. Our crossing was accomplished between six and eight o’clock. I am satisfied that there was no suspicion of what we were going to do. I have no doubt that the news of what I have done will be telegraphed to New York this night. We saw the signal rockets thrown up all around just as our last boat came over. I have not time to write more—as I must make my report to the Ad. Genl…. Praise be to God for His merciful kindness to us. I think that the whole country North and South should thank Him for this step.[9]

Once he had completed his letter to his wife, Anderson reported the movement to his direct superior.

I have the honor to report that I have just completed, by the blessing of God, the removal to this fort of all my garrison, except the surgeon, four non-commissioned officers and seven men. We have one year’s supply of hospital stores and about four months’ supply of provisions for my command. I left orders to have all the guns at Fort Moultrie spiked, and the carriages of the 32-pounders, which are old, destroyed. I have sent orders to Captain Foster, who remains at Fort Moultrie, to destroy all the ammunition which he cannot send over. The step which I have taken was, in my opinion, necessary to prevent the effusion of blood.[10]

The following day, December 27, Captain Foster followed Anderson’s orders, as explained above. He and his men spiked the guns, went into town to pay off any remaining debts to local merchants, and then sailed to Sumter.[11] They also, by Anderson’s orders, cut the flagstaff before leaving Moultrie. “No other flag but the Stars and Stripes shall ever float from that staff,” Anderson explained.[12] The men under Anderson’s command remained in extremely high spirits, but regretted, as they put it, “that Fort Moultrie could not have been blown up.”[13] Another stated: “We are ready to fight, and intend to clean ‘em out.”[14] At noon, Anderson ordered the men to the parade ground for a service to thank God for His providence, mercy, and protection of the flag.[15] “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity,” the preacher stated.[16] During the thanksgiving ceremony, Anderson, a deeply Christian man, knelt while gripping the cords holding the flag. Inspired by their commander and the gravity of the situation, the men of the fort offered a hearty “Amen.”[17]

Much to Doubleday’s chagrin, Anderson refused to close the entire harbor, which, the New Yorker believed, he easily could have from his position at Fort Sumter.[18] Anderson, though, had steeled himself for complete destruction and the destruction of the fort and his men, should South Carolina forces attempt to take his position by force. “So great was the excitement in S. Carolina against this command, when I came into this Fort, and for weeks afterwards, that I was satisfied, that, if attacked, and overcome, not a soul would be left alive,” Anderson wrote. Further, I did “say, more than once, that, rather than let my garrison suffer that fate, I would blow up the fort as they entered the walls, and all who might be in it.”[19]

Anderson was a virtuous, republican man caught in a terrible spot. While his personal but generally private loyalties proved to be to Calhoun’s ideas of state’s rights and to the South, his duty, as he believed it, was to the United States government. “The selection of the place in which we were born was not an act of our own volition,” Anderson had written, “but when we took the oath of allegiance to our Government, it was an act of our manhood, and that oath we cannot break.”[20] Further, he contended, “Our Southern brethren have done grievously wrong, they have rebelled and have attacked their father’s house and their loyal brothers. They must be punished and brought back, but this necessity breaks my heart.”[21] For the most part, Anderson remained openly pro-Union in public, especially during the Fort Sumter crisis. He also, however, remained adamantly against any military solution to the secession crisis. When a Masonic group in New York honored him for his patriotism as demonstrated in Charleston Harbor, Anderson tellingly responded:

Permit me to express the gratification your Union-loving sentiments have given me. The time is at hand when all who love the glorious Union, under whose flag the country has won the admiration of the civilized world, shall show themselves good and true men. Our fellow-countrymen in this region have decided to raise another flag. I trust in God that wisdom and forbearance may be given by Him to our rulers, and that his severance may not be ‘cemented in blood.'[22]

A devoted soldier, Anderson never even voted, believing that a “soldier owed his allegiance to the Government no matter what the party, and that therefore he had no business to have any political bias.”[23] Importantly, Anderson claimed that three things determined his qualities as a man: the Ten Commandments; the U.S. Constitution; and the Army Book of Regulations.[24] 

A Kentuckian by birth and married to a Georgian, Anderson graduated from West Point in 1825. During his distinguished career, Anderson served in the Black Hawk War and the Seminole war of the late 1830s. He also spent a considerable time as a professor of artillery science at West Point, even authoring the standard textbook on the subject. As a professor at West Point, Anderson taught William T. Sherman, George Meade, Joseph Hooker, and P.G.T. Beauregard.[25] Honored for bravery and promoted during the Mexican War, Anderson fought in the battles of Vera Cruz, Mexico City, and El Molina Del Ray. “Captain Robert Anderson (acting field officer) behaved with great heroism on this occasion,” one of his superiors wrote of him. “Even after receiving a severe and painful wound, he continued at the head of the column, regardless of pain and self-preservation, and setting a handsome example to his men of coolness, energy, and courage.”[26] A fellow officer described Anderson as a man almost without vices. “In all things he was rigorously temperate and moderate, and he was as honest and conscientious as it is possible for a man to be,” he wrote. Anderson was frank, orderly, and methodical.[27] 

On November 15, 1860, Anderson received orders to assume command of the forts in Charleston Harbor. Believing the federal government had no right to coerce a sovereign state, Secretary of War John B. Floyd had picked Anderson to replace the previous commander because he had “great confidence” in the Kentuckian’s “coolness and judgment.”[28] Anderson arrived at Fort Moultrie on November 21, never having met any of his fellow officers stationed in the region.[29]

From the beginning of his tenure in Charleston Harbor, Anderson desired to control Castle Pinckney’s batteries, to move his command to Fort Sumter, and to obtain additional troops. By the standards of the day, Charleston Harbor required 1,050 men for a proper defense. Fort Moultrie needed 300 men, Castle Pinckney needed 100, and Fort Sumter needed 650.[30] When Anderson arrived, he found only sixty-five men stationed in the entire harbor, and these men were not nearly as disciplined as Anderson would have liked them to have been.[31] Though the Secretary of War continued to deny Anderson’s repeated requests for additional troops, he finally sent an emissary, Major Don C. Buell, to assess the situation. After his inspection, Buell told Anderson on December 11, “not to provoke hostilities, but in case of immediate danger to defend himself to the last extremity, and take any steps that he might think necessary for that purpose.”[32] 

Tensions in Charleston mounted throughout December, and Fort Moultrie was in no position to protect the U.S. troops and families stationed there against any kind of sustained attack by either regular or irregular forces.[33] “I am striving to make this weak work as defensible as possible,” Anderson wrote on December 21, 1861. “The sand-hills within from 400 to 160 yards of the fort, some of them commanding the work, with the houses all around us, except on the sea-front, render it intrinsically absolutely weak; and I am deficient in the men and in the ordnance, &c., most important for overcoming the difficulty of the position.”[34] Throughout the month, the troops were so few in number that the wives of two officers joined in sentry watch and walked “the parapets, two hours at a time.”[35] The Union men, too, were growing frustrated. Doubleday remembered feeling nothing less than abandoned during December.

Yet the Administration made no arrangements to withdraw us, and no effort to re-enforce us, because to do the former would excited great indignation in the North, and the latter might be treated as coercion by the South. So we were left to our own scanty resources, with every probability that the affair would end in a massacre.[36]

It certainly would not be the last time he or his fellow officers felt this way before their departure from the harbor in middle April. Tension increased even more after South Carolina’s formal secession on December 20th. On that day, South Carolina governor Francis Pickens openly “swore that by the 26th of December none other than the palmetto flag should float over Fort Moultrie.”[37] Around the same time, Pickens had sent a letter to President Buchanan proposing that the sovereign state of South Carolina simply occupy and control Sumter.[38] Though he did not know of Pickens’s letter to the president, Anderson did know about the governor’s December 20th statements. Consequently, the major moved his command to Fort Sumter, a stronger fort than Moultrie, before Pickens could live up to his threat.

This is the first essay in a series; the second essay may be found here

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Print FriendlyNotes:

[1] Doubleday, Abner Reminiscences of Forts Sumter and Moultrie in 1860-61, 62-66.

[2] Doubleday, Reminiscences, 60; and “Affairs in South Carolina,” New York Times, January 5, 1861.

[3] Crawford, Samuel The Genesis of the Civil War: The Story of Sumter, 1860-61, 102-103.

[4] Crawford, Genesis, 103-104.

[5] Major General J. G. Foster, “Report of Major General J.G. Foster to the Committee on the Conduct of the War,” in Supplemental Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1866), 4-6; and James P. Jones, ed., “Charleston Harbor, 1860-1861: A Memoir from the Union Garrison,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 62 (1961): 149.

[6] Crawford, Genesis, 104-105; and Doubleday, Reminiscences, 65-66.

[7] Crawford, Genesis, 105. Captain Foster told the men that they could either “fight or leave the fort.” See “The Fort Sumter Mechanics in Baltimore,” New York Times (January 5, 1861).

[8] Crawford, Genesis, 106.

[9] Quoted in Eba Anderson Lawton, Major Robert Anderson and Fort Sumter, 1861 (New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1911), 8-9.

[10] Robert Anderson, Fort Sumter, S.C., to Colonel S. Cooper, December 26, 1860, 8p.m., in Colonel Robert N. Scott, ed., The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, Vol. 1 (1880; Harrisburg, Penn.: National Historical Society, 1985), 2 (Hereafter: OR).

[11] “Report of Major General J.G. Foster,” 6-7; and O.R., vol. 1, 108-109.

[12] Quoted in Lawton, Major Robert Anderson, 7-8.

[13] “Affairs in South Carolina,” New York Times (January 5, 1861).

[14] “Letter from a Soldier in Fort Sumter,” New York Times (January 7, 1861).

[15] Crawford, Genesis, 112.

[16] “An Incident at Fort Sumter,” New York Times (January 10, 1861); and “The Prayer at Sumter,” Harper’s Weekly (January 26, 1861).

[17] Harper’s Weekly, January 19, 1861.

[18] Doubleday, Reminiscences, 74-75.

[19] Quoted in Lawton, Major Robert Anderson, 10.

[20] Quoted in Lawton, Major Robert Anderson, 13. On Anderson’s pro-Southern feelings, see “Robert N. Gourdin to Robert Anderson, 1861,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 60 (1959), 11.

[21] Quoted in Lawton, Major Robert Anderson, 17.

[22] Robert Anderson, “A Letter from Major Anderson,” Harper’s Weekly (February 2, 1861).

[23] Lawson, Major Robert Anderson, 16.

[24] Brian McGinty, “Robert Anderson: Reluctant Hero,” Civil War Times Illustrated (May/June 1992), 47.

[25] McGinty, “Robert Anderson,” 46.

[26] Quoted in Harper’s Weekly, January 12, 1861. See also, Eba Anderson Lawton, “Introduction,” in Robert Anderson, An Artillery Officer in the Mexican War, 1846-7: Letters of Robert Anderson, Captain 3rd Artillery, U.S.A. (Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries, 1971), v-xiii.

[27] E.D. Keyes, Fifty Years’ Observation or Men and Events: Civil and Military (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1884), 367-368.

[28] Gaillard Hunt, ed., “Narrative and Letter of William Henry Trescot, Concerning the Negotiations between South Carolina and President Buchanan in December, 1860,” American Historical Review 13 (April 1908), 533.

[29] O.R., vol. 1, 73; Doubleday, Reminiscences, 41; Crawford, Genesis, 60; and Lawton, Major Robert Anderson, 3.

[30] James Chester, “Inside Sumter in ’61,” in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War vol. 1 (1887), 50.

[31] Swanberg, First Blood, 38.

[32] O.R., vol. 1, 117; and Doubleday, Reminiscences, 50.

[33] O.R., vol. 1, 75.

[34] Anderson, December 21, 1861, in “Letters from Major Anderson,” New York Times (January 18, 1861), 3.

[35] Doubleday, Reminiscences, 50.

[36] Doubleday, Reminiscences, 44.

[37] “Report of Major General J.G. Foster,” 6.

[38] See Harris, The Record of Fort Sumter, 7-10; Hunt, ed., “Narrative and Letter of William Henry Trescot,” 541; and Edmunds, Francis W. Pickens, 154.

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