There were a number of very vocal Americans who were dissatisfied with the result of the Election of 1860. There were many threats, but nothing catastrophic had happened. No state had left the Union yet, but the Buchanan administration was worried. Early in November they sent an inspector to the center of secessionism, Charleston, South Carolina, both to gauge public opinion and take note of the harbor defenses.
On November 13, 1860, the inspector’s report reached Washington. The harbor was defended by three forts: Fort Sumter, which was still unfinished, Castle Pinckney, and Fort Moultrie. At that time, five company officers, 64 artillerymen, nine musicians, and a hospital steward garrisoned Fort Moultrie, while the aged Lieutenant Colonel John L. Gardner commanded the force. Most disturbingly, reported the inspector, Fort Moultrie was especially vulnerable. It had been designed to ward off a seaward attack; if the people of Charleston attacked the Moultrie, they might be successful.
Two days after receiving the report, the administration ordered Major Robert Anderson to replace Col. Gardner.
Anderson had impressive credentials. He was a graduate of West Point (class of ’25), he had served in the Black Hawk War (where he mustered Abraham Lincoln in and out of army service), and he was a veteran of the Mexican War. More importantly, however, Anderson was a Southerner by birth and marriage. He was born in Louisville, Kentucky and married into a prominent slaveholding family from Georgia. Furthermore, he was unquestionably loyal to the United States. If anyone could calm the secessionists in Charleston Harbor, the Buchanan administration believed Anderson was the one.
After arriving in Charleston, Anderson sent word to Washington. He feared that secessionists would soon turn violent. Like the inspector, he felt vulnerable in Fort Moultrie. He suspected that the secessionists would make a move to capture Fort Sumter and use it to bombard his men at Moultrie. He wanted reinforcements, both for Fort Moultrie and more men to garrison in Fort Sumter and Castle Pinckney.
But the administration would not send reinforcements. Instead, on this date in 1860, Secretary of War John Floyd sent General Don Carlos Buell to speak with Anderson in Charleston. Here is a memorandum of Buell’s instructions:
Memorandum of verbal instructions to Major Anderson, 1st Artillery, commanding at Fort Moultrie, South Carolina:
You are aware of the great anxiety of the Secretary of War that a collision of the troops with the people of this State shall be avoided, and of his studied determination to pursue a course with reference to the military force and forts in this harbor which shall guard against such a collision. He has, therefore, carefully abstained from increasing the force at this point, or taking any measures which might add to the present excited state of the public mind, or which would throw any doubt on the confidence he feels that South Carolina will not attempt by violence to obtain possession of the public works or interfere with their occupancy. But as the counsel and acts of rash and impulsive persons may possibly disappoint these expectations of the Government, he deems it proper that you shall be prepared with instructions to meet so unhappy a contingency. He has, therefore, directed me verbally to give you such instructions.
You are carefully to avoid every act which would needlessly tend to provoke aggression, and for that reason you are not, without evident and imminent necessity, to take up any position which could be construed into the assumption of a hostile attitude. But you are to hold possession of the forts in this harbor, and if attacked you are to defend yourself to the last extremity. The smallness of your force will not permit you, perhaps, to occupy more than one of the three forts, but an attack on or attempt to take possession of either one of them will be regarded as an act of hostility, and you may then put your command into either of them which you may deem most proper, to increase its power of resistance. You are also authorized to take similar defensive steps whenever you have tangible evidence of a design to proceed to a hostile act.
D. C. Buell, Assistant Adjutant-General.
FORT MOULTRIE, S.C.,
December 11, 1860.
This is in conformity to my instructions to Major Buell.
John B. Floyd, Secretary of War.