The Fort Sumter Controversy

December 26, 1860 – Major Robert Anderson completed the transfer of Federal troops in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina from Fort Moultrie on the shoreline to the stronger Fort Sumter on a harbor shoal.

On the day that South Carolina seceded from the U.S., Major Anderson, commanding Federal forces in the harbor, began preparing to secretly evacuate Fort Moultrie by spiking his guns. President James Buchanan had made a tacit agreement with South Carolinians that he would make no move in the harbor, but he also instructed Anderson to defend himself if threatened, which Anderson interpreted as being allowed to move to a less vulnerable position.

Since Moultrie could not be defended from the landward side in case of attack, Anderson opted to move to Sumter. Fort Sumter was constructed on an artificial island in the harbor in 1829 but never completed. Federal troops could defend this large, pentagon-shaped brick structure much easier from a potential landward attack.

Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor | Image Credit:

Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor | Image Credit:

Two days later after Anderson began his move, the Convention of the People of South Carolina approved a resolution declaring that the harbor forts and the Federal arsenal at Charleston should “be subject to the authority and control” of the state and “that the possession of said forts and arsenal should be restored to the State of South Carolina.”

Convention attendees appointed three delegates—Robert W. Barnwell, James H. Adams, and James L. Orr—to go to Washington and issue these demands. They reached the capital on the 26th, with instructions to:

“… treat with the Government of the United States for the delivery of the forts, magazines, lighthouses, and other real estate, with their appurtenances, within the limits of South Carolina, and also for an apportionment of the public debt, and for a division of all other property held by the Government of the United States, as agent of the confederated States, of which South Carolina was recently a member; and generally to negotiate as to all other measures and arrangements proper to be made and adopted in the existing relation of the parties, and for the continuance of peace and amity between this Commonwealth and the Government at Washington.”

That evening, Anderson completed his transfer to Fort Sumter. Finally realizing that he had moved after the transfer was done, South Carolinians reacted with outrage. Many believed that President Buchanan had betrayed them since he had supposedly promised he would not allow the Federals to make any moves in the harbor. Anderson explained he made the move because he had evidence of an imminent attack on Moultrie, and the “step which I have taken was, in my opinion, necessary to prevent the effusion of blood…”

As news of the stealth move spread, northerners mostly sided with Anderson. But southerners denounced him, crying that he had “secretly dismantled Fort Moultrie” and destroyed his guns and carriages before moving to Sumter. Many called for the complete removal of the Federal garrison from the harbor. Secretary of War John B. Floyd, a Virginian, argued that Anderson’s move violated the administration’s commitment to maintaining the status quo at Charleston.

Major Robert Anderson | Image Credit:

Major Robert Anderson | Image Credit:

Anderson raised the U.S. flag over Fort Sumter on the 27th as South Carolina militia quickly occupied Fort Moultrie and Castle Pinckney. State forces also compelled the U.S. revenue cutter William Aiken at Charleston to surrender. Buchanan met with southern congressmen protesting Anderson’s action. The president considered ordering Anderson to return to Moultrie, but that would have lost him all respect in the North. A New York Democrat said:

“Anderson’s course is universally approved and if he is recalled or if Sumter is surrendered… Northern sentiment will be unanimous in favor of hanging Buchanan… I am not joking—Never have I known the entire people more unanimous on any question. We are ruined if Anderson is disgraced or if Sumter is given up.”

Buchanan expressed surprise and regret to the angry congressmen, but he would not order Anderson to return.

At a cabinet meeting, Floyd strongly urged Buchanan to withdraw the entire garrison from Charleston. Interior Secretary Jacob Thompson of Mississippi sided with Floyd, while Secretary of State Jeremiah S. Black of Pennsylvania, Attorney General Edwin M. Stanton of Ohio, and Postmaster General Joseph Holt of Kentucky opposed Floyd. Buchanan privately feared that Anderson’s move would compel other southern states to aid South Carolina. Indeed, on the 27th, Georgia and Alabama offered to send troops to reinforce the South Carolina militia or possibly even join South Carolina in seceding before Congress could reach a compromise. Nevertheless, Buchanan would not approve Floyd’s plan.

Buchanan agreed to meet with the South Carolina delegation appointed by the state convention on the 28th, but only as “private gentlemen,” not representatives of a sovereign entity. The delegates announced that negotiations could begin only when they received redress for Major Anderson moving his garrison to Fort Sumter. They demanded the removal of all Federal troops from Charleston Harbor, but Buchanan replied that he needed time to consider it.

That same day, Brevet Lieutenant General Winfield Scott wrote to Floyd opposing the Federal evacuation of Fort Sumter and supporting sending reinforcements, supplies, and armed vessels. Meanwhile, Buchanan held another cabinet meeting to discuss the issue. Floyd said that Anderson’s move to Sumter violated an implied pledge not to make any movements in Charleston Harbor and urged the garrison’s withdrawal. A fist fight nearly erupted between Floyd and Stanton in the ensuing argument.

Two days later, South Carolina militia seized the Federal arsenal at Charleston. State officials now held all Federal property in the area except Fort Sumter. More cabinet officers threatened to resign if Buchanan did not act. Black and Stanton drafted a memorandum to Buchanan proposing that he:

  1. Refuse to negotiate with the South Carolina delegates since he had denied the right of secession
  2. Declare that he would not surrender Federal property in South Carolina
  3. Announce that the Federal government had the right to defend its property in the state
  4. Assert that Major Anderson had violated no orders in moving his garrison to Fort Sumter.

Officials suggested that Buchanan send warships to Charleston, and General Scott requested authorization to send 250 reinforcements and supplies to Fort Sumter. Buchanan did not respond to Scott, but he told the South Carolina delegates that Anderson would not evacuate Sumter, and Sumter would be defended “against hostile attacks from whatever quarter they may come.”

On the year’s last day, Buchanan met with the South Carolina delegation and announced:

  1. He was constitutionally bound to defer to Congress in defining relations between the Federal government and South Carolina
  2. He had not pledged to preserve the forts since South Carolinians seized Moultrie after Anderson left
  3. He would not withdraw Federal troops from South Carolina because they were defending what was left of Federal property; this included Fort Sumter, which would be defended “against hostile attacks from whatever quarter they may come.”

Then, without consulting Anderson, Buchanan ordered the War and Navy departments to send ships, supplies, and reinforcements to Fort Sumter.



  • Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 3745-54, 3757
  • Davis, William C., Brother Against Brother: The War Begins (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 125
  • Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 6-7
  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 297-98
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 14-18
  • McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 265
  • Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 42, 45
  • Schlesinger, Jr., Arthur M., The Almanac of American History (Greenwich, CT: Brompton Books Corp., 1993), p. 277
  • Wikipedia: James Buchanan; Timeline of Events Leading to the American Civil War

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3 thoughts on “The Fort Sumter Controversy

  1. […] evening, Major Robert Anderson completed transferring his Federal garrison from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter in Charleston […]


  2. […] Carolinians had protested the Federal presence in the harbor ever since Anderson moved his troops from Fort Moultrie to Sumter last month. President James Buchanan had refused demands from state […]


  3. […] evening, Major Robert Anderson completed transferring his Federal garrison from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter in Charleston […]


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