Fort Sumter is a tempting prize

As December began, Major Robert Anderson and most of his men were stationed at Fort Moultrie in Charleston Harbor. A Federal detachment under Captain John G. Foster occupied Castle Pinckney, which was much closer to Charleston than Moultrie and therefore more vulnerable to potential attack. Fort Sumter, a man-made island in the harbor about a mile southwest of Moultrie and three miles east of Charleston, was unoccupied.

In a letter to Washington written on the 1st, Anderson opened by reporting “that things look more gloomy than the day at the date of my last communication (November 28).” Federals who had interacted with Charlestonians “say that anything which indicates a determination on the part of the General Government to act with an unusual degree of vigor in putting these works in a better state of defense will be regarded as an act of aggression, and will… cause an attack to be made on this fort.”

The next day, Anderson reported that Foster was in the process of strengthening Castle Pinckney, and once completed, “I shall feel that, by the blessing of God, even my little command will be enabled to make such a resistance that the authorities of South Carolina will, though they may surround, hardly venture to attack us.” Anderson also noted: “We expect a full supply of provisions about the 10th of the month. I trust that such arrangements will be made to secure their delivery, as well as that of the supply of ordnance and ordnance stores recently required.”

Up in Washington, a delegation of South Carolina congressmen met with President James Buchanan to try to get him to pledge that if the South Carolinians did not attack Anderson, Buchanan would not reinforce him. A state convention was slated to open on the 20th, at which time South Carolina would most likely secede from the Union. As such, the congressmen proposed opening negotiations to turn the harbor forts and other public property over to South Carolina authorities. Buchanan fended them off by asking them to put their proposals in writing, and they did so the next day:

“In compliance with our statement to you yesterday, we now express to you our strong convictions that neither the constituted authorities nor any body of the people of the State of South Carolina will either attack or molest the U.S. Forts in the harbor of Charleston previously to the action of the convention, and we hope & believe not until an offer has been made through an accredited Representative to negotiate for an amicable arrangement of all matters between the State and the Federal government, provided that no reinforcements shall be sent into those Forts & their relative military status remains as at present.”

Under this agreement, the South Carolinians would leave Anderson alone. But if Buchanan reinforced Anderson or allowed him to move to a more defensible position, like Fort Sumter for example, the deal would be off. The delegation considered Buchanan to be bound by this unofficial pact, but Buchanan felt that any agreements, unofficial or otherwise, would be nullified if the delegates at the South Carolina convention voted to secede.

At this time, Buchanan could do nothing except try to delay South Carolina’s exit from the Union. He sent Assistant Secretary of State William Henry Trescot, a South Carolinian, to see if that was possible, and Trescot quickly learned that it was not. Governor William Gist even warned him that any Federal attempt to interfere with the secession convention would result in South Carolinians attacking Anderson’s garrison as soon as the state seceded.

Back in Charleston Harbor, Major Anderson reported to U.S. Adjutant-General Samuel Cooper:

“I hear that the attention of the South Carolinians appears to be turned more toward Fort Sumter than it was, and it is deemed probable that their first act will be to take possession of that work… Fort Sumter is a tempting prize, the value of which is well known to the Charlestonians, and once in their possession, with its ammunition and armaments and walls uninjured and garrisoned properly, it would set our Navy at defiance, compel me to abandon this work, and give them the perfect command of this harbor.”

Anderson also noted that supplies, due to arrive on the 10th, had not yet arrived, adding: “I hope that it will soon be in. If we do not hear of it in a few days, I shall have to direct the A.A. commissary to make some purchases in Charleston.”

Secretary of War John B. Floyd, a southerner, was apprehensive about making any move that might be construed as provoking the South Carolinians. He sent Major Don Carlos Buell to Charleston to consult with Anderson on the situation there and to deliver verbal orders from Floyd that consisted more of overall policy guidelines than specific directions.

Buell explained that Floyd would not be sending him reinforcements because South Carolina might consider that an act of aggression. However, Anderson was authorized to defend himself in case of attack with the men he had on hand. Buell inspected Anderson’s defensive works and realized that Floyd’s instructions weren’t feasible. So when Anderson asked him to put the instructions in writing, Buell added more than just what he had committed to memory.

Buell wrote that Floyd was anxious “that a collision of the troops with the people of this State shall be avoided,” and he “has therefore carefully abstained from increasing the force at this point, or taking any measures which might add to the present excited state of the public mind.” On Floyd’s authority, Buell wrote:

“You are carefully to avoid every act which would needlessly tend to provoke aggression; and for that reason you are not… to take up any position which could be construed into the assumption of a hostile attitude. But you are to hold possession of the forts in this harbor, and if attacked you are to defend yourself to the last extremity… You are also authorized to take similar defensive steps, whenever you have tangible evidence of a design to proceed to a hostile act.”

This last sentence was Buell’s interpretation of Floyd’s verbal orders. The written document was referred to as a “memorandum,” not as official orders from Floyd. Later, when Buell returned to Washington and handed Buchanan a copy of this “memorandum,” the president balked at ordering Anderson to hold his position “to the last extremity.” Buchanan revised this by telling Anderson that if he felt hopelessly overpowered, he could honorably surrender, “and you will be fully justified in such action.”

Buell handed the “memorandum” to Anderson and said, “This is all I am authorized to say to you, but my personal advice is, that you do not allow the opportunity to escape you.” Although Floyd did not authorize it, the implication was clear: if Anderson felt threatened, he had permission to move his garrison to the more defensible Fort Sumter.



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