Despite his own views on the matter of secession, Major Robert Anderson was full of vigor and fight in the immediate aftermath of the move of his troops into Fort Sumter.

While President James Buchanan had received the news of Major Robert Anderson’s move to occupy Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, Anderson had his own new problems with which to deal. On the morning after the move, South Carolina Governor Francis Pickens sent Colonel John Pettigrew and Major Ellison Capers to meet with the major. Upon being escorted into the newly established officers’ quarters at Fort Sumter, Pettigrew demanded an audience with Anderson. “Their looks were full of wrath,” Abner Doubleday remembered, “and they bowed stiffly and indignantly in answer to our smiling salutations.”[1] Surrounded by several of his officers, Anderson arrived.[2] Anderson told the guests in no uncertain terms that as commander of the harbor, he had command over each of the forts and could move his troops where he so pleased. Pettigrew accused Anderson of violating a sacred pledge between the governor of South Carolina and the president of the United States. Anderson claimed, correctly, to know nothing of such an agreement. With such a threatening atmosphere created by South Carolina, Anderson argued, he had moved his men to protect them. “I removed [the command] on my own responsibility,” he explained, “my sole object being to prevent bloodshed.”[3] Anderson, though, also discussed openly his personal feelings regarding the larger crisis. “In this controversy,” he said, “between the North and the South, my sympathies are entirely with the South.” In the presence of his officers, Anderson announced that his officers understood this. But, they also understood that Anderson’s first duty, as he knew it, was to them and the Union. When Pettigrew demanded that Anderson vacate the fort by the request of Pickens, Anderson replied, “Make my compliments to the Governor, and say to him that I decline to accede to his request; I cannot and will not go back.” With Anderson’s final answer, Pettigrew and Capers departed.[4]

Infuriated by the Governor’s demands and the behavior of his aides, Doubleday had taken the trouble to speak with the rower, telling him of the great defenses of the fort and the “shells which we had prepared to throw down on the heads of an attacking party.” Ever the realist, Doubleday hoped the rower would repeat his words to the South Carolinian officers. “It might have some effect in deterring an immediate assault.”[5]

As Doubleday understood, the men under Anderson’s command would need all the deterrents possible, for the fort was in poor shape. “The interior was filled with building materials, guns, carriages, shot, shell, derricks, timbers, blocks and tackle, and coils of rope in great confusions,” James Chester remembered. “Few guns were mounted, and these few were chiefly on the lowest tier. The work was intended for three tiers of guns, but the embrasures of the second tier were incomplete, and guns could be mounted on the first and third tiers only.”[6] All of the men, including several of the non-secessionist workmen, began improvements and reinforcements on Fort Sumter the morning of its occupation, December 27.[7] “In a few days, I hope, God willing, that I shall be so strong here that they will hardly be foolish enough to attack me,” Anderson wrote.[8] On December 30, Anderson estimated that his men needed seven days to ready the fort for an assault.[9]

Despite his own personal views on the matter of secession, Anderson was full of vigor and fight in the immediate aftermath of the move. The governor, Anderson wrote to his superior on December 28, “knows not how entirely the city of Charleston is in my power. I can cut his communication off from the sea, and thereby prevent the reception of supplies, and close the harbor, even at night, by destroying the light-houses.”[10] The following day, Anderson wrote to a good friend of his, Robert N. Gourdin, one of the South Carolinian leaders of the secession movement. The “commerce and intercourse of Charleston by sea are in my power,” he wrote. “I could, if so disposed, annoy and embarrass the Charlestonians much more than they can me.”[11] Two days later, Anderson noted that “The more I reflect upon the matter the stronger are my convictions that I was right in coming here.” Though slightly inconvenienced by the lack of some supplies, such as soap, candles, and coal, the fort could now be re-supplied and reinforced by the federal government “at its leisure.”[12]

His sixty-five men, plus some of the loyal workmen, closed many of the embrasures with brick. Further, the men piled flag-stones in front of the casements, to prevent splintering and exploding shrapnel upon ordinance impact. The men also used whatever scarce cloth, including several pairs of Anderson’s woolen socks, they could find to make cartridge bags. As soon as possible, Anderson’s men also mounted ten-inch Columbiads, the most powerful guns in the harbor. They placed powerful grenades and a few “bursting barrels” around the parameter of the fort, should South Carolina choose a marine assault. All in all, the men proved to be innovative and adept.[13] By January 6, exactly as Anderson had predicted, the fort could now fight “any force which can be brought against me, and it would enable me, in the event of a war, to annoy the South Carolinians by preventing them from throwing supplies into their new posts, except by the out-of-the-way passage through Stono River.”[14]

But, as mentioned above, even supplies were low. As of the first of January, Sumter only had enough cooking fuel for a month, no soap, and only a small number of candles.[15] To conserve resources and protect families, Anderson ordered the departure of some of the families on January 3. On January 8, many of the women left. With their departure, morale plummeted, as Doubleday recalled:

Their presence with us threw a momentary brightness over the scene, but after their departure every thing looked more gloomy and disheartening than before. The fort itself was a deep, dark, damp, gloomy-looking place, inclosed in high walls, where the sunlight rarely penetrated. If we ascended to the parapet, we saw nothing but uncouth State flags, representing palmettos, pelicans, and other strange devices. No echo seemed to come back from the loyal North to encourage us.[16]

Others, though, remained in better spirits than did Doubleday. Chester, for example, claimed that the men remained in fine form as they prepared the fort for battle, often singing songs such as “On the Plains of Mexico.”[17] Chester took this even further. “There never was a happier or more contented set of men in any garrison than the Sumter soldiers,” he wrote. “There was no sulkiness among them, and no grumbling until they had to try their teeth on spun yarn as a substitute for tobacco.”[18] Still, the men could see the bustle of Charleston, and each day that gave time to Sumter to prepare for war also gave South Carolina a day for war. And, South Carolina had more than sixty-five men at her disposal. She also had more materiel and food. In a private letter to Jefferson Davis, Pickens admitted that he needed much time to prepare. “The truth is that I have not been prepared to take Sumter. It is a very strong fortress, and in the most commanding position. I found everything in utter confusion, when I came into office, and really no military supplies,” he confided. Anderson’s move to Sumter “plunged me right into the highest and most scientific branches of modern warfare, and also the most expensive.”[19]

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

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] Doubleday, Reminiscences, 79.

[2] Crawford, Genesis, 110.

[3] Crawford, Genesis, 111.

[4] Crawford, Genesis, 111.

[5] Doubleday, Reminiscences, 80.

[6] Chester, “Inside Sumter in ’61,” 52.

[7] “Report of Major General J.G. Foster,” 7; and Doubleday, Reminiscences, 86.

[8] O.R., vol. 1, 113.

[9] Anderson to Colonel S. Cooper, December 30, 1860, in O.R. vol. 1, pg. 114.

[10] Anderson to Colonel S. Cooper, December 28, 1860, in O.R. vol. 1, pg. 113.

[11] Anderson to Robert N. Gourdin, December 29, 1860, in Crawford, Genesis, 129.

[12] Anderson to Colonel S. Cooper, December 31, 1860, in O.R. vol. 1, pg. 120.

[13] Chdester, “Inside Sumter in ’61,” 60.

[14] Anderson to Colonel S. Cooper, January 6, 1861, in O.R. vol. 1, pg. 133.

[15] O.R., vol. 1, 120; and Doubleday, Reminiscences, 89-90.

[16] Doubleday, Reminiscences, 100. The bulk of the families did not leave Sumter until the beginning of February. See “From Fort Sumter,” New York Times (February 7, 1861), pg. 1; and “The Disunion Crisis,” New York Times (February 7, 1861), pg. 2.

[17] Chester, “Inside Sumter in ’61,” 53-55.

[18] Chester, “Inside Sumter in ’61,” 56.

[19] F.W. Pickens to Jefferson Davis, January 23, 1861, in Dunbar Rowland, ed., Jefferson Davis, Constitutionalist: His Letters, Papers, and Speeches vol. 5 (Jackson: Mississippi Department of Archives and History, 1923) 45.

The featured image is a photograph of Major Robert Anderson taken by Matthew Brady. This image is in the public domain and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email