The Clouds Are Threatening and the Storm may Break

Major Robert Anderson had come to hostile South Carolina to command the harbor defenses on the 21st. These mainly consisted of four installations:

  • Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island at the harbor entrance, manned by two companies
  • Fort Sumter, south of Moultrie on an island between Sullivan’s and James’s islands, undefended
  • Fort Johnson on James Island, manned by a token force
  • Castle Pinckney on Folly Island, closer to Charleston within the harbor, manned by a token force

Anderson spent the next two days inspecting these installations to determine whether they were strong enough to fend off possible attacks by secessionists. He then reported his findings to Washington. Anderson stated that, “should nothing unforeseen occur to prevent” it, Moultrie “will be capable of making a very handsome defense” once the defensive works were completed, which would take about two weeks. But he added: “The garrison now in it is so weak as to invite an attack, which is openly and publicly threatened.”

Most valuable to Anderson’s defense was Sumter, which he called “the key to the entrance of this harbor… It should be garrisoned at once.” Of Pinckney, Anderson wrote that it was “a small casemated work, perfectly commanding the city of Charleston, is in excellent condition, with the exception of a few repairs… It is, in my opinion, essentially important that this castle should be immediately occupied by a garrison… The Charlestonians would not venture to attack this place when they knew that their city was at the mercy of the commander of Castle Pinckney.” Anderson declared: “Fort Sumter and Castle Pinckney must be garrisoned immediately if the Government determines to keep command of this harbor.” Anderson’s message then turned ominous:

“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… The clouds are threatening, and the storm may break upon us at any moment… I firmly believe that as soon as the people of South Carolina learn that I have demanded re-enforcements, and that they have been ordered, they will occupy Castle Pinckney and attack this fort (Moultrie). It is therefore of vital importance that the troops embarked [say in war steamers] shall be designated for other duty.”

Buchanan received Anderson’s message the next day. It was stunning because Anderson was making the exact same requests that his predecessor, Bvt. Col. John L. Gardner, had made, and Gardner had been removed from his post for being too indelicate. To illustrate the opposite sides in which Buchanan was being pulled, he also received a letter from Robert Barnwell Rhett, secessionist editor of the Charleston Mercury: “South Carolina, I have not a doubt, will go out of the Union–and it is in your power to make this event peaceful or bloody. If you send any more troops into Charleston Bay, it will be bloody.”

The president initially decided to defy Rhett’s warning and send troops to reinforce Anderson. But Secretary of War John B. Floyd, a southerner, persuaded Buchanan to hold the order until General-in-Chief Winfield Scott could get to Washington. Scott was scheduled to come down from New York on December 12. Floyd then arranged for Assistant Secretary of State William Henry Trescot, a South Carolinian, to assure Governor William H. Gist that the Federal government would take no offensive action at this time.

While the Buchanan administration maintained a holding pattern, Anderson’s anxiety grew. He wrote again on the 28th:

“I presume that my letter of the 23d has been received, and that the Department is now in possession of my views in reference to the measures I deem advisable and necessary for keeping this work (Fort Moultrie) and this harbor… I cannot but remark that I think its security from attack would be more greatly increased by throwing garrisons into Castle Pinckney and Fort Sumter than by anything that can be done in strengthening the defenses of this work. There are several intelligent and efficient men in this community, who, by intimate intercourse with our Army officers, have become perfectly well acquainted with this fort, its weak points, and the best means of attack. There appears to be a romantic desire urging the South Carolinians to have possession of this work, which was so nobly defended by their ancestors in 1776…”

The next day, Governor Gist responded to Trescot’s letter promising that no Federal troops would be coming anytime soon:

“I have found great difficulty in restraining the people of Charleston from seizing the forts, and have only been able to restrain them by the assurance that no additional troops would be sent to the forts, or any munitions of war. Everything is now quiet, and will remain so until the ordinance (of secession) is passed, if no more soldiers or munitions of war are sent on. That is to say, I will use my utmost efforts to effect that object, and believe I will succeed; but the Legislature and myself would be powerless to prevent a collision if a single soldier or another gun or ammunition is sent on to be placed in the forts.”

Gist asked Buchanan not to “light the torch of discord which will only be quenched in blood.” This merely delayed the inevitable conflict between the U.S. government and the state of South Carolina.


  • 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.

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