Secretary of War John B. Floyd had gotten himself into a mess. A transportation company that had done work for the War Department had agreed to accept $870,000 in Indian trust bonds in lieu of pay. Floyd gained nothing financially from this transaction, but it was illegal nonetheless, so President James Buchanan, through Vice President John C. Breckinridge, had asked Floyd to resign.
Floyd then issued an order transferring 115,000 improved muskets and rifles from the Springfield (Massachusetts) armory and Watervliet (New York) arsenal to arsenals in southern states that would likely secede. He also directed the commander of the Allegheny Arsenal in Pittsburgh to send 124 cannon to forts in Mississippi and Texas. The commander complied, but citizens raised a protest as the steamboat took the weapons away. A wire went to Buchanan reporting that “great excitement has been created in the public mind by this order.” If Buchanan did not rescind the order immediately, “we cannot be answerable for the consequences.” The Pittsburgh Gazette printed a scathing article excoriating the Buchanan administration:
“These facts go to show conclusively the treasonable purpose of the administration. Every Northern Arsenal has been stripped of arms and ordnance, and every Southern Arsenal crammed full and left in such condition as to give the Secessionists a chance to capture them, and provide themselves thoroughly with the accoutrements of war, at the expense of the government. The one hundred and odd cannon to be sent from here to Ship Island and Galveston are, without doubt, to be placed where they can be captured without a blow. The traitors of the South are thus being furnished by a government in league with them with all the ammunitions of war.”
Buchanan was shocked when he learned of Floyd’s orders. He immediately cancelled the Pittsburgh transfer, but it took two days for his directive to reach the arsenal. At the cabinet meeting on the 26th, Buchanan expressed his displeasure with Floyd, but Floyd would not yet resign, though he was clearly becoming an adversary to the president and some of the new cabinet members.
In South Carolina, the Charlestonians were becoming increasingly hostile toward Major Robert Anderson’s foreign command still stationed in the harbor. With the state militia getting stronger every day, Anderson no longer felt he could defend Moultrie against a landward attack. He therefore opted to move to Sumter. Fort Sumter was a brick, pentagon-shaped structure built on an artificial island in 1829 but never completed. From there, Anderson could see any hostile force approaching from any direction, thereby giving him a much more defensible position in the harbor.
The move was initially delayed due to fog, but Anderson finally decided he could not wait any longer. On the day after Christmas, the troops received orders to get ready to move, but the destination was kept secret. Most of the men thought they were going to Fort Johnson, where Anderson had sent the garrison’s women and children. But that had been just a diversion; the ships carrying them would be “unable” to land and would therefore have to detour to Fort Sumter. Then, under cover of darkness, the rest of the garrison would head there as well.
At 6 p.m., the first of two waves of Federal troops were ferried from Moultrie to Sumter, one mile to the southwest. A steamer patrolling the harbor approached the second wave, and a small force left behind at Moultrie prepared to fire on the vessel if necessary. But the ship’s crew apparently did not notice the boats quietly rowing to Sumter, so an armed conflict was avoided for now. The Federals left at Moultrie spiked their guns and burned their gun carriages so the South Carolinians could not use them, and they too then headed for Sumter.
Anderson sent a message from Fort Sumter to Washington at 8 p.m.: “I have the honor to report that I have just completed, by the blessing of God, the removal to this fort of all my garrison… We have one year’s supply of hospital stores and about four months’ supply of provisions for my command… The step which I have taken was, in my opinion, necessary to prevent the effusion of blood.” Anderson then wrote his wife, “Thanks be to God… for His having given me the will and shewn the way to bring my command to this Fort. I can now breathe freely.”
The transfer went unnoticed by the South Carolinians until morning, when they were horrified to see the U.S. flag waving over Fort Sumter while Fort Moultrie smoldered. President James Buchanan had assured them that he would not allow Anderson to make any moves in the harbor, but that was exactly what Anderson had done. As Charlestonians filled streets, balconies, steeples, and cupolas to get a glimpse of the Federals in the harbor, Robert Barnwell Rhett, Sr., editor of the fire-eating Charleston Mercury, denounced Anderson’s move as an “outrageous breach of faith.”
Telegraph lines soon carried this stunning news throughout the country.
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), The Coming Fury. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1961.
- Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005.
- Kennedy, Frances H. (ed.), The Civil War Battlefield Guide. James M. McPherson, The Conservation Fund, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- 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.
- Rhodes, James Ford, History of the Civil War, 1861-1865. New York: The MacMillan Company (Kindle Edition, Reservoir House, 2016), 1917.
- 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.