Three commissioners had been sent by the South Carolina secession convention to negotiate the transfer of Federal property to the newly seceded commonwealth. On the morning of the 27th, they met with William Henry Trescot, who had recently resigned as U.S. assistant secretary of state and now stayed in Washington to provide intelligence to his fellow South Carolinians. During the meeting, they were shocked by the news that Major Robert Anderson had “secretly dismantled Fort Moultrie” and moved his Federal garrison to Fort Sumter.
Trescot hurried to confront Secretary of War John B. Floyd, who assured him: “I will pledge my life, if it has been done, it has been done without orders.” Trescot then rushed to Capitol Hill to inform two leading southern senators, Jefferson Davis and R.M.T. Hunter. The three men went to the White House, where Davis told President James Buchanan what had happened. Buchanan sighed and said, “My God, are calamities never to come singly? I call God to witness, you gentlemen better than anybody know that this is not only without but against my orders. It is against my policy.” The men demanded that he order Anderson to go back to Moultrie, but Buchanan said he needed to consult with his cabinet first.
Meanwhile, Floyd wired Major Anderson: “Intelligence has reached here this morning that you have abandoned Fort Moultrie, spiked your guns, burned the carriages, and gone to Fort Sumter. It is not believed, because there is no order for any such movement. Explain the meaning of this report.”
Anderson replied: “The telegram is correct. I abandoned Fort Moultrie because I was certain that if attacked my men must have been sacrificed, and the command of the harbor lost. I spiked the guns and destroyed the carriages to keep the guns from being used against us. If attacked, the garrison would never have surrendered without a fight.” Anderson explained himself further to Colonel Samuel Cooper, the U.S. adjutant general:
“I will add as my opinion that many things convinced me that the authorities of the State designed to proceed to a hostile act. Under this impression I could not hesitate that it was my solemn duty to move my command from a fort which we could not probably have held longer than forty-eight or sixty hours, to this one, where my power of resistance is increased to a very great degree…”
Southerners demanded that Anderson pull out of the harbor, while northerners insisted that Anderson must hold firm. President Buchanan considered siding with the southerners, but that would have lost him any respect he still might have had in the North. As a New York Democrat put it: “Anderson’s course is universally approved and if he is recalled or if Sumter is surrendered… Northern sentiment will be unanimous in favor of hanging Buchanan… I am not joking—Never have I known the entire people more unanimous on any question. We are ruined if Anderson is disgraced or if Sumter is given up.”
South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens deemed the move an act of betrayal because he thought he had treated Anderson generously, only to have Anderson do this behind his back. Pickens sent Colonel James J. Pettigrew to Sumter to demand that Anderson explain himself and then “courteously but peremptorily” order him to return to Fort Moultrie. Pettigrew delivered Pickens’s message, which included an explanation of Buchanan’s pledge not to reinforce Sumter. Anderson refused to leave, and as he reported to Cooper:
“I remarked that I had not re-enforced this command, but that I had merely transferred my garrison from one fort to another, and that, as the commander of this harbor, I had a right to move my men into any fort I deemed proper. I told him that the removal was made on my own responsibility, and that I did it because we were in a position that we could not defend, and also under the firm belief that it was the best means of preventing bloodshed.”
Both Pettigrew and Pickens knew that Anderson’s new position was too strong to be attacked. But Moultrie was now unoccupied, and only two Federal officers held Castle Pinckney on Shutes Folly Island. So Pettigrew loaded a militia battalion on a steamer and went out to demand Pinckney’s surrender. When the Federal ignored them, Pettigrew’s force landed, pulled down the U.S. flag, and took the officers and their family off the island. Thus, Castle Pinckney became the first Federal installation forcefully seized by the South. The South Carolinians quickly occupied Fort Moultrie and seized the U.S. revenue cutter William Aiken as well. Now Anderson could not go back to his original position even if he wanted.
Pickens allowed mail to be delivered between Charleston and Fort Sumter, as well as the safe passage of women and children. But he prohibited any arms, ammunitions, or supplies to be sent, “done with a view to prevent irregular collisions, and to spare the unnecessary effusion of blood.” This placed Anderson’s garrison under virtual siege, and it meant that President Buchanan would finally have to become directly involved in what was now a crisis between the South Carolinians and Anderson’s Federals.
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