A Collision May Occur at any Moment

President James Buchanan stuck to his unofficial agreement to not reinforce the Federal garrison at Charleston as long as the South Carolinians showed no aggression toward it. This outraged many northerners who felt that Buchanan, as commander-in-chief of the U.S., should do more for his isolated troops. It even led to Secretary of State Lewis Cass resigning from Buchanan’s cabinet.

Illinois Congressman Elihu B. Washburne, a personal acquaintance of both President-elect Abraham Lincoln and Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, told Lincoln that Scott was exasperated about Buchanan’s refusal to follow any of his (Scott’s) recommendations to bolster the Charleston garrison. Washburne said that Scott had told him, “I wish to God that Mr. Lincoln was in office. I do not know him, but I believe him a true, honest and conservative man.” When Washburne assured Scott that Lincoln was “a firm man,” Scott sighed, “All is not lost.” Lincoln asked Washburne to say to Scott, “I shall be obliged to him to be as well prepared as he can to either hold, or retake, the forts, as the case may require, at, and after the inauguration.”

Down in Charleston, Captain John G. Foster, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Major Robert Anderson’s Federal garrison, caused a row by taking some muskets out of the Charleston arsenal when he went there to get equipment for the harbor forts. Word of this quickly went to Assistant Secretary of State William Henry Trescot, a South Carolinian, who was warned that if Foster did not return the weapons, “a collision may occur at any moment.” Trescot hurried to the home of Secretary of War John B. Floyd and got him out of bed to write a telegram ordering Major Anderson to return them.

This did not fully satisfy South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens, who sent Major D.H. Hamilton of the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Regiment to Washington to demand that Anderson leave Fort Sumter, the empty installation in the harbor, to the South Carolinians. Pickens warned: “If something of the kind be not done, I cannot answer for the consequences.” After Hamilton delivered this demand to Buchanan, the president wrote a furious letter of refusal to Pickens. Before he sent it, Trescot urged Pickens to withdraw his demand or else it could force Buchanan to join the Unionists. Pickens complied, and Buchanan withdrew the letter.

The secession of South Carolina on the 20th further complicated the relationship between the state and the Federal forces in the harbor. With South Carolina now an independent nation, Anderson and his men had become foreign invaders, whose presence was not only no longer wanted but now seen as a threat to the new nation’s existence. South Carolina could not properly represent herself as a sovereign nation if she allowed foreign military forces to remain stationed on her soil.

From Anderson’s point of view, he was still under orders from Washington to hold and defend the Federal property (i.e., the forts) in the harbor. South Carolinians were now watching the Federals very closely to make sure they remained at Fort Moultrie and Castle Pinckney; they especially worried that Anderson might move to the more defensible Fort Sumter. Anderson had no plans to move, but he reported to Colonel Samuel Cooper, the U.S. adjutant general, on the 22nd:

“I have heard from several sources that last night and the night before a steamer was stationed between this island and Fort Sumter. That the authorities of South Carolina are determined to prevent, if possible, any troops from being placed in that fort, and that they will seize upon that most important work as soon as they think there is reasonable ground for a doubt whether it will be turned over to the State, I do not doubt. I think that I could, however, were I to receive instructions so to do, throw my garrison into that work, but I should have to sacrifice the greater part of my stores, as it is now too late to attempt their removal…”

Meanwhile, Anderson received a confidential letter from Secretary of War John B. Floyd that included an amended version of the instructions Anderson had received from Major Don Carlos Buell. Buell told Anderson to “defend yourself to the last extremity,” but at Buchanan’s urging, Floyd now wrote:

“It is neither expected nor desired that you should expose your own life or that of your men in a hopeless conflict in defense of these forts. If they are invested or attacked by a force so superior that resistance would, in your judgment, be a useless waste of life, it will be your duty to yield to necessity, and make the best terms in your power. This will be the conduct of an honorable, brave, and humane officer, and you will be fully justified in such action…”

At the secession convention, delegates approved a resolution declaring that Forts Moultrie and Sumter, Castle Pinckney, and the Federal arsenal in Charleston Harbor 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 to go issue to Washington and issue these demands.

By Christmas Day, the Charlestonians’ animosity toward the Federal garrison led Anderson to conclude that there was no way he could defend Fort Moultrie against a possible attack. He also believed that the animosity had reached the level to be, according to Buell’s orders, “tangible evidence of a design to proceed to a hostile act.” He therefore decided to follow the spirit of Buell’s order and take “defensive steps” to protect his garrison, which meant moving his men to Fort Sumter.

Anderson attended a Christmas party that night, during which he allowed a story to be leaked to the Charleston press that the women and children in his garrison would be transferred from Moultrie to Fort Johnson. This, he hoped, would divert the Charlestonians’ attention enough for him to make the main move to Sumter, a mile southwest of Moultrie in the harbor. But the fog was too heavy for such a move at the moment, so Anderson would have to wait and hope that nobody caught wind of his plans.



  • 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.
  • Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.
  • 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.
  • Thomas, Emory M., The Confederate Nation. HarperCollins e-books, Kindle Edition, 1976.
  • 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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