Friday, March 11, 2011

Secession Winter: The Forts

On the evening of December 20, 1860, the city of Charleston celebrated long past the curfew bells ushering blacks off the streets. Observing the commotion, James L. Petigru asked where the fire was. Reminded that his home state of South Carolina had just declared itself once again a sovereign state, Petigru issued a solemn warning. "I tell you there is a fire," he insisted. "They have set a burning torch to the temple of constitutional liberty, and please God, we shall have no more peace forever."

Back in the nation's capital, moderates of both major parties were working industriously to prove Petigru wrong. Union and peace, they hoped, would both prevail. As to the former, South Carolinians were past the point of compromise. Preserving the latter, in their view, required the withdrawal of all federal personnel from military installations located anywhere within their state. Soon after adoption of the ordinance of secession, the governor sent three commissioners to Washington to press this demand upon President James Buchanan.

The installations at issue were forts and arsenals in and around Charleston. A skeletal force of 74, half noncombatants, occupied Fort Moultrie near the entrance to the harbor. In command was Major Robert Anderson of Kentucky, a former slaveowner. Anderson had been contemplating retirement from the Army just a month earlier, but got the Charleston appointment instead when his superiors decided that his Southern sympathies would help appease the locals. No sooner had he arrived at his new post than he requisitioned several cases of Tums [notice the right hand in the photo, below]. The next six months would prove unsettling.

For one thing, Anderson did not have enough troops to secure all of Charleston's forts. For another, one month into his command the civilians went from being friendlies to being hostiles. Even before the official act of secession, Anderson had requested reinforcements. But President Buchanan, anxious not to inflame the situation, had held back. Meanwhile, as we have seen, Buchanan's Secretary of War was dealing arms to the state militia. Thanks, boss, Anderson thought to himself.

At the time of the secession celebration, Anderson's orders were somewhat vague. He was to play defense only, but was allowed some discretion as to where exactly to position himself. Fort Moultrie, situated on a peninsula, seemed a poor choice. Wind had blown sand so high up against the outer walls that the neighbor's cows could just walk right on up and over. Sand dunes just to the east exceeded the walls in elevation, which would enable attackers to shoot down into the fort. Nearby dwellings would provide them additional cover. And the fort's interior structures, made of wood, could be easily set ablaze. Sizing up all these deficiencies, Major Anderson could think only of that Southwest Airlines commercial.
Wanna get away?

Fort Sumter, a recently constructed island fortress across the harbor's main channel, was sitting empty. Anderson figured it made
beaucoup sense to move his contingent there, which he did under the cover of darkness on the night of December 26, but not before spiking Moultrie's heavy guns. On the morning of the 27th, South Carolinians were furious. Again. They thought they had extracted a promise from Buchanan to freeze all deployments pending negotiations. Anderson's cross-channel move, in their minds, was a double-cross. Charleston's newspapers had a field day. The Courier called Anderson's switcheroo a "gross breach of faith" amounting to an act of war. The Mercury blared that "the holding of Fort Sumter by United States troops was an invasion of South Carolina."

South Carolina retaliated during the next several days by seizing all federal properties in the area except Fort Sumter. Included were the now-vacated Fort Moultrie, Fort Johnson, Castle Pinckney, the U.S. Custom House, and the U.S. Arsenal, containing over 20,000 firearms. At the same time South Carolina's commissioners in Washington demanded that Anderson be ordered to return to Fort Moultrie, a move tantamount to surrender. Conciliatory though he had been up until this point, Buchanan was not about to relinquish all federal authority in South Carolina. On December 31, he informed the commissioners that Anderson would stay put at Fort Sumter.

More alarming to the commissioners were rumors in Washington on New Year's Day, 1861, that Buchanan would send reinforcements to Anderson's garrison at Fort Sumter, an even more egregious departure from the status quo. The commissioners phoned home, and the news was relayed to Georgia Governor Joseph Brown. Although South Carolina was the only state to have seceded at this point, Georgia was thinking about it. Elections for a secession convention were set to take place the very next day.

On the political front, Georgia's Robert Toombs [right], serving on the Senate's Committee of Thirteen, had warned the folks back home that negotiations for a national compromise were not going well. In a December 23 telegram, Toombs had described the Committee's proceedings as "controlled by the Black Republicans, who only seek to amuse you with delusive hope until your election, that you may defeat the friends of secession." The Committee's Republicans, urged by President-elect Abraham Lincoln to hold firm, were dead set against any amendment or resolution that would permit slavery in any U.S. territory, then or thereafter. "All further looking to the North for security for your constitutional rights in the Union," Toombs had concluded, "ought to be instantly abandoned." On December 31, the Committee tabled the Crittenden Compromise.

Now Governor Brown had a decision to make. Georgia had a federal fort of her own to worry about, Fort Pulaski, situated on an island near the mouth of the Savannah River. Forts Sumter and Pulaski, along with Fort Pickens off Pensacola, Florida, comprised a troika of million-dollar, brick-built, and currently unmanned island fortresses, engineered since the War of 1812 to protect major ports in the Deep South. There was a distinct possibility that the feds, newly ensconced at Fort Sumter, might decide to occupy Fort Pulaski as well. Georgians decided to get there first.

On January 3, the day after Georgia's elections, 125 volunteers entered Fort Pulaski unopposed. The fort secured, Brown secretly telegraphed the Gulf State governors, suggesting that they undertake a similar course of action. Since all of these states were still officially within the Union, the blossoming conspiracy could have been viewed as treason. Meaning this: if the governors were going to start taking forts, they had better confiscate all the hangin' rope as well--and save their necks from a little friction burn. During the next eleven days, eight forts and three arsenals containing 75,000 rifles were seized by state militias with zero loss of life on either side. The only unfinished business was at Fort Pickens, where an 82-man federal garrison took up residence after abandoning their mainland barracks at Pensacola.

Helping to accelerate events was Buchanan's decision to send help to Major Anderson at Fort Sumter. The War Department chartered a civilian steamship, the Star of the West, which left New York Harbor on January 5. Below decks were 200 soldiers, one hundred rifles, three months' worth of Hamburger Helper, and the beef to go with it. The vessel arrived just outside of Charleston's inner harbor after dark on January 8. Early the next morning, the Star began to approach Fort Sumter. Her movements were observed from nearby Morris Island [find Fort Wagner on the map, above] by cadets from The Citadel, who might have been taking their spring break early that year. They entertained themselves by lobbing a few shells across the Star's bow. The Star, in no way fitted to engage a bunch of college yahoos, turned around and sailed home.

Technically, those were the first shots of the Civil War. There was no physical damage, but the incident dealt a serious setback to the Union cause. Not all Southern states were in agreement as to when or whether secession should take place. But they were generally supportive of each state's
right to secede. They would be more likely to band together if the federal government were to add armed force to the equation. Buchanan had taken a needless risk with no effectual result at precisely the time that Deep South states were lining up their secession conventions.

Would southern Unionists be disarmed by the President's provocation?

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