The Evacuation of Fort Moultrie and Occupation of Fort Sumter by the U.S. Army in December 1860
On December 20th, 1860, a convention of South Carolina secessionists met in Charleston and voted unanimously to secede from the Union, the first state to do so. After this momentous–and ultimately fateful action–the convention then took up the issue of what to do with United States property that existed within South Carolina, in particular, U.S. military property in Charleston and Charleston harbor. This included the U.S. arsenal and three forts–Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, Fort Sumter on an island in the harbor, and Castle Pinckney, located on Shutes Folly Island in the harbor.
These fortifications had been built to repel an attack on Charleston by foreign navies, but with no threat from abroad at that time, only Fort Moultrie had a permanent garrison, and that was only about 65 officers and men of the 1st U.S. Artillery. Major Robert Anderson was in command of the U.S. forces in Charleston. Fort Moultrie was designed to defend against sea borne attacks, and was highly vulnerable to land based attacks, especially with a potential enemy sitting right outside its gates. With its location out in the harbor, Fort Sumter was more defendable and had a better chance of reinforcement and resupply.
Anderson understood this, and informed Washington even before South Carolina seceded. The major requested reinforcements to occupy the three garrisons, as well as more supplies and ammunition. President James Buchanan, who was serving the final months of his presidency, did not want to provoke the South Carolinians (who were deploying militiamen in Charleston) into a military response that would lead to war, but he also wasn’t prepared to just hand over the forts either. He promised a South Carolina delegation that he would not reinforce the U.S garrisons as negotiations for a peaceful transfer continued in exchange for a promise that the Carolinians would not attack them while the talks continued. On the other hand, Buchanan’s Secretary of War, John B. Floyd, was only too happy to see the forts turned over to South Carolina. Floyd, a southerner who would later become a general in the Confederate army, issued instructions allowing Anderson to surrender if he was attacked by a superior force and not to take action that would provoke a military response from the secessionists. Exactly what type of actions Anderson’s instructions allowed him to do in his defense were vague, as nearly everything except the status quo could be seen as provocative.
Eventually, Anderson concluded that while he hadn’t been given orders to move his command to Fort Sumter, he also was not prohibited from doing so if he felt an attack was forthcoming. The major decided to change his base to Fort Sumter, doing so as quietly as possible. Anderson had the post quartermaster, Lieutenant Norman J. Hall, to charter three schooners and some barges for the purpose of taking non combatants such as family members, away from Fort Moultrie and over to Fort Johnson, a no longer used military base that still had some buildings nominally suitable for housing. That was true in part; soldiers’ families were transferred to Fort Johnson with some of the boats but the rest of the vessels were loaded with supplies for the garrison’s relocation to Fort Sumter, and they would carry the troops as well.
On the evening of December 26th, Anderson told his officers to prepare to evacuate Fort Moultrie. Captain Abner Doubleday recalled:
Anderson approached me as I advanced, and said quietly, “I have determined to evacuate this post immediately, for the purpose of occupying Fort Sumter; I can only allow you twenty minutes to form your company and be in readiness to start.” I was surprised at this announcement, and realized the gravity of the situation at a glance. We were watched by spies and vigilance-committees, would undoubtedly open fire upon us as soon as they saw the object of the movement.
While most of the officers and men quietly walked to the beach and the waiting boats in the twilight, a small detachment remained at Fort Moultrie. This rear guard aimed the fort’s big guns out towards the harbor, prepared to fire on any secessionist guard boats that patrolled the harbor if they interfered with the crossing. One guard boat did approach Doubleday’s boat:
While the steamer was yet afar off, I took off my cap, and threw open my coat to conceal the buttons. I also made the men take off their coats, and use them to cover up their muskets, which were lying alongside the rowlocks. I hoped in this way that we might pass for a party of laborers returning to the fort. The paddle-wheels stopped within about a hundred yards of us; but, to out great relief, after a slight scrutiny, the steamer kept on its way.
This ruse was entirely believable; at the time, civilian construction crews were working at Fort Sumter. The crossing “was successful beyond our most sanguine expectations, and we were highly elated” Doubleday recalled. The entire garrison was successfully transferred to Fort Sumter, and the rear guard spiked Fort Moultrie’s big guns, burned the gun carriages, and cut down the flag staff. Many of the workmen in Fort Sumter were secessionist sympathizers and they were placed under guard and sent back to Charleston.
After finding out on the morning of December 27th that Anderson’s command had successfully changed base and destroyed the guns of Fort Moultrie, the people of Charleston and other secessionists were outraged at what they saw as a breach of an agreement between the Buchanan Administration and South Carolina authorities State militia occupied both Fort Moultrie and Castle Pinckney. The Federal arsenal in Charleston was seized on December 30th. On the other hand, many in the north hailed Anderson as a hero.
Anderson sent this notice to the Adjutant General of the Army, Samuel Cooper (who would later hold the same position with the Confederate Army):
No. 11.] FORT SUMTER S. C., December 26, 1860–8 p.m.
(Received A. G. O., December 29.)
COLONEL: I have the honor to report that I have just completed, by the blessing of God, the removal to this fort of all of my garrison, except the surgeon, four non-commissioned officers, and seven men. We have one year’s supply of hospital stores and about four months’ supply of provisions for my command. I left orders to have all the guns at Fort Moultrie spiked, and the carriages of the 32-pounders, which are old, destroyed. I have sent orders to Captain Foster, who remains at Fort Moultrie, to destroy all the ammunition which he cannot send over. The step which I have taken was, in my opinion, necessary to prevent the effusion of blood.
Respectfully, your obedient servant,
Major, First Artillery, Commanding.
Col. S. COOPER,
Upon hearing the news, Secretary of War Floyd fired this telegram off to Anderson:
Adjutant-General’s Office, December 27, 1860.
Major ANDERSON, Fort Moultrie:
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.
J. B. FLOYD,
Secretary of War.
Anderson replied to Floyd, and then explained his actions to Cooper:
CHARLESTON, December 27, 1860.
Hon. J. B. FLOYD, Secretary of War:
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.
Major, First Artillery.
No. 12.] FORT SUMTER, S.C., December 27, 1860.
(Received A. G. O., December 31.)
COLONEL: I had the honor to reply this afternoon to the telegram of the honorable Secretary of War in reference to the abandonment of Fort Moultrie. In addition to the reasons given in my telegram and in my letter of last night, 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. The governor of this State sent down one of his aides to-day and demanded, “courteously, but peremptorily,” that I should return my command to Fort Moultrie. I replied that I could not and would not do so. He stated that when the governor came into office he found that there was an understanding between his predecessor and the President that no re-enforcements were to be sent to any of these forts, and particularly to this one, and that I had violated this agreement by having re-enforced this fort. 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. This afternoon an armed steamer, one of two which have been watching these two forts, between which they have been passing to and fro or anchored for the last ten nights, took possession by escalade of Castle Pinckney. Lieutenant Meade made no resistance. He is with us to-night. They also took possession to-night of Fort Moultrie, from which I withdrew the remainder of my men this afternoon, leaving the fort in charge of the overseer of the men employed by the Engineer Department. We have left about one month’s and a half of provisions in that fort; also some wood and coal and a small quantity of ammunition. We are engaged here to-day in mounting guns and in closing up some of the openings for the embrasures–temporarily closed by light boards, but which would offer but slight resistance to persons seeking entrance. If the workmen return to their work, which I doubt, we shall be enabled in three or four days to have a sufficient number of our guns mounted, and be ready for anything that may occur.
I am, colonel, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Major, First Artillery, Commanding.
Col. S. COOPER,
Fort Sumter would remain in U.S. hands until the U.S. garrison surrendered on April 14th, 1861, following the bombardment that opened the Civil War.
Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James McPherson
The Coming Fury by Bruce Catton
1861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart
“From Moultrie to Sumter” by Abner Doubleday. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume I, edited by Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume 1.
Reminiscences of Forts Sumter and Moultrie in 1860-61 by Abner Doubleday
Amazon affiliate links: We may earn a small commission from purchases made from Amazon.com links at no cost to our visitors. For more info, please read our affiliate disclosure.