Liberty Poles and Palmetto Flags: The Ball Rolls On

Brevet Colonel John L. Gardner commanded the Federal installations in the harbor, and he had served in the Army since the War of 1812. But the Buchanan administration had three misgivings about him:

  1. He was from Massachusetts, which produced simmering resentment among the already hostile South Carolinians.
  2. He had tried to transfer weapons from the Charleston arsenal to Fort Moultrie; this almost provoked a fight as angry locals refused to allow the Federals into the arsenal.
  3. He displeased Secretary of War John B. Floyd, a southerner, by making a potentially provocative request for reinforcements to occupy the empty Fort Sumter.

Major Fitz John Porter, whom Floyd had sent to Charleston to inspect defenses, reported that the garrison consisted of just 74 officers and men, with just 36 men ready for duty. Of the installations, Fort Moultrie was in such poor condition that it “invites attack, if such design exists.” Fort Sumter showed more promise as a defensible base, but its construction was not yet completed.

Porter recommended strengthening Fort Moultrie, but he warned of the “inflammable and impulsive state of the public mind in Charleston—to a great extent characteristic of the feeling manifested throughout the State.” As such, “much delicacy must be practiced” by the garrison commander “in all transactions which may bear upon the relations of the Federal Government to the State of South Carolina and of the Army to our citizens.”

Since Gardner had already shown that he couldn’t practice much delicacy, Brevet Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, general-in-chief of the U.S. Army, issued Special Orders No. 137:

“Major Robert Anderson, First Artillery, will forthwith proceed to Fort Moultrie, and immediately relieve Bvt Col John L. Gardner, lieutenant-colonel of First Artillery, in command thereof; who, on being relieved, will repair without delay to San Antonio, Texas, and report to the commanding officer of the Department of Texas for duty, with that portion of his regiment serving therein.”

Floyd thought that Charlestonians would be less hostile toward Anderson, a former slaveholder from Kentucky whose wife was from Georgia. He had served with distinction in the Mexican-American War, where he was severely wounded. He was a former staff member of General Scott, he had translated French military texts, and he had taught artillery at West Point; his students included future generals George G. Meade, William T. Sherman, Irvin McDowell, Braxton Bragg, Jubal Early, and P.G.T. Beauregard.

Anderson reported to Scott’s headquarters in New York for orders, but Scott explained that he had none since Floyd kept military intelligence regarding Charleston Harbor closely guarded. In fact, Scott was disgruntled with the administration for ignoring his recommendations; in a letter to Senator John J. Crittenden of Kentucky, Scott wrote, “My suggestions seem to have no good effect at Washington; in other words, I have had no acknowledgement from either President or Secretary; nor has a single step been taken.” Scott unofficially told Anderson what he knew about the situation in Charleston, adding that the garrison may need to be moved to Fort Sumter at some point.

Maj. Robert Anderson | Image Credit: Harpers Weekly, 12 Jan 1861

As Anderson headed for Charleston to take on his new assignment, the secessionist frenzy there continued. The Charleston Mercury, one of the strongest advocates for disunion, published an article titled “The Ball Rolls On.” The article reported that a volunteer militia unit from Augusta, Georgia, had notified the Charleston-based Washington Light Infantry, “We are ready to go with you.” The Minute-Men of Virginia also pledged their services to South Carolina or “any state that the Federal government may attempt to coerce into submission.”

Northern correspondents telegraphed their newspapers that “flags were increasing bravely” in Charleston. “In fact, so rapidly have representations of the Palmetto and ‘Lone Stars’ made their appearance on our thoroughfares, that we have been unable to keep up with them.” A flag bearing a blue star for each southern state flew over the Mercury building, and three guns were fired in salute of a new palmetto flag raised over the railroad depot.

A flag bearing the inscription “Semper Parati” (Always Prepared) was raised over the fire company headquarters. Another flag unfurled over the theater was “made out of the finest fabric. It is composed of three stripes, blue, white and red.–The blue and red ground each bears a star.–On the white stands a Palmetto, resting on two bales of cotton. Above the tree is a large brilliant star, which represents South Carolina. Underneath the tree is the following apothegm, Dieuet Nos Droits (God and Our Rights).”

The palmetto flag was raised atop a new “Liberty Pole” in front of the Charleston Hotel. According to reports, “The pole was made of Carolina pine, one hundred feet high, and surmounted by the cap of liberty. Cables were stretched across the streets to prevent the passage of vehicles. There was a dense crowd, extending over two squares on Meeting street.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Henry Trescot, a South Carolinian lawyer and planter, kept the officials of his state informed on what was happening in Washington. He wrote, “I have no idea that any intention to use coercive measures (to keep South Carolina in the Union) is entertained.” He told another state official that due to the strong southern influence in President Buchanan’s cabinet, “no action has been taken which seriously affects the position of any Southern State.” These assurances emboldened South Carolinians to lean ever closer toward leaving the Union.

A shipment of 1,200 kegs of gunpowder and 84 boxes of ammunition arrived on the 19th and was closely guarded at the arsenal by the Washington Light Infantry. According to the Richmond Daily Dispatch: “It is generally believed that the pretext about this being a precaution against popular or servile outbreak is all fudge. The fact is, that an immense quantity of ammunition is stored there, and people believe the public good requires that it should not be removed. Any attempt to remove it would almost certainly precipitate revolution and bloodshed.”

Two days later, Anderson replaced Gardner and began inspecting his new command and the harbor defenses. That same day, South Carolinians observed a day of fasting and prayer, and some attending church services were urged to pray “for the people and their leaders to realize how long the Northern government had tried to undermine slavery.” Clergymen argued that slavery was sanctioned by the Bible, and if it was abolished, a new form of slavery would take its place in which the people would become subservient to government.

The secession talk affected South Carolinians outside the state as well. Seven cadets attending the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York, met and resolved that if their home state seceded, they would “be found fighting under her banner.” The young men declared:

“Though the reception of a diploma here at the National Academy is certainly to be desired by all of us, yet we cannot so stifle our convictions of duty as to serve the remainder of our time here under such a man as Mr. Lincoln as commander-in-chief, and to be subjected at all times to the orders of a government the administration of which must be necessarily unfriendly to the Commonwealth which has, so far, preserved a spotless record, and of which we are justly proud. We hereby swear to be true to her lone star in the present path of rectitude, and if, by chance, she goes astray, we will be with her still. All we desire is a field for making ourselves useful.”


  • Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), The Coming Fury. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1961.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
  • Sears, Stephen W., Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, (Kindle Edition), 2017.
  • United States War Department, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1 – Vol. 1. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1880-1902.

Leave a Reply