Joan Waugh: Was Major Robert Anderson's decision to abandon Ft. Moultrie and move his troops to Ft. Sumter his best option?
Professor of history at UCLA
Kentucky-born Anderson, commander of the modestly sized United States garrison stationed in the Charleston, S.C. harbor, was in a difficult situation after Lincoln’s election in 1860.
Bereft of strong policy instructions by the Buchanan administration, Anderson began mulling his options that fateful November. He asked for reinforcements from the War Department, and began making contingency plans (kept in strict secrecy) to move his officers and men from the indefensible Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter, the unfinished man-made island standing guard over Charleston Harbor’s main channel. He believed that he had the President’s authorization to make this decision, if necessary.
South Carolina’s secession brought a new urgency to an already tense situation. Anderson and his men were now considered “foreign occupiers” by the seceded states, and Southern leaders were pressuring the governor, Francis Pickens, to remove the Federal troops from the Harbor as quickly as possible. Removal would send a powerful signal to the world confirming the legitimacy of Confederate nationality. Abandonment of the forts, on the other hand, would reveal the weakness of the United States in the face of rebellion.
On December 24, three representatives appointed by Governor Pickens arrived in Washington City to request negotiations for turning the forts over to South Carolina control. Unknown to them, to Pickens, and to the Buchanan administration, Major Anderson was putting the final touches on his escape. Under cover of night on December 26, he loaded all of his men onto boats, rowed across to Fort Sumter. Once landed, he immediately set his troops to work strengthening the island’s fortifications.
The next morning Charleston residents awoke to the stunning news of Anderson’s bold move to secure the federal presence in their Harbor. Refusing the governor’s request to abandon Fort Sumter, Anderson settled in, and waited for instructions from his superiors. Buchanan and his cabinet were equally stunned by Anderson’s action, but after deliberating for some time, decided to leave him on Fort Sumter. South Carolina troops seized control of Fort Moultrie and Castle Pinckney (the third fort in the Harbor) while Pickens ordered battery units assembled, preparing for attack if necessary. All the elements were now assembled for the dramatic decision the new president would have to make in the New Year.
Was Anderson’s move to Fort Sumter his best option? Yes. He was a realist, fully aware that he would have to surrender sooner or later. Anderson made the best decision he could for his country, preserving a symbol of United States sovereignty over South Carolina until the bitter end. Major Anderson found that his loyalty and patriotism for the Union were stronger than his ties to the southern cause.
- Scott Hartwig: Was Maj. Robert Anderson's decision to abandon Ft. Moultrie and move his troops to Ft. Sumter his best option...
- Frank J. Williams: Was Maj. Robert Anderson's decision to abandon Ft. Moultrie and move his troops to Ft. Sumter his best option...
| December 27, 2010; 7:45 AM ET
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