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Posted at 7:44 AM ET, 12/27/2010

Scott Hartwig: Was Maj. Robert Anderson's decision to abandon Ft. Moultrie and move his troops to Ft. Sumter his best option?

By Scott Hartwig

Veteran of the National Park Service and Gettysburg National Military Park's supervisory historian


It was his only option unless he intended to surrender his command.

Anderson had 74 officers and men in two artillery companies at Ft.
Moultrie, but after deducting the noncombatants - musicians, sick and those under arrest for various reasons - his effective strength was about half that. Moultrie's purpose was for its guns to cover the channel leading from the open sea into Charleston harbor, not defend against an attack from the rear. The fort's defenses were so vulnerable to land attack that no competent army officer would have considered attempting to defend it. Wind had blown sand up so high against the fort's walls that cattle could climb up, walk through the embrasures and onto the parapet. Sand dunes east of the fort rose higher than the fort's walls and provided excellent firing positions for an attacker. All of the buildings in the fort except for the fortifications were wood and easily burned. There were private houses on the east side of the fort and cottages on the west side, which could provide additional cover for an attacker. But a competent attacker did not need to assault the fort. Sitting on a peninsula of Sullivan's Island it could easily be cut off and the garrison starved into surrender.

Following the December 20 secession of South Carolina, Anderson learned that preparations were underway to attack Moultrie if the negotiations between South Carolina's commissioners and the Buchanan administration failed to secure its surrender. Anderson already knew that Buchanan probably would not surrender the fort so it was necessary to act quickly. Fort Sumter was the only defensible point available to Anderson and his small garrison. It could not be attacked by land and could be reinforced and resupplied by water. On the evening of December 26, in a cleverly planned and executed operation, the garrison made the transfer from Moultrie to Sumter without incident. The garrison had been saved but the crisis in Charleston harbor had only begun.

By Scott Hartwig  | December 27, 2010; 7:44 AM ET
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