If Attacked You Are to Defend Yourself to the Last Extremity

Tuesday, December 11, 1860

In the fear that he would be acting without official orders, Major Anderson requested that Major Buell commit to writing the message that came from Secretary of War Floyd. Buell, who had spent the past two days at the Charleston defenses assessing the situation, agreed to put to paper what Floyd wanted only to be committed to memory and relayed verbally.1

Anderson was told that he was to “avoid every act which would needlessly tend to provoke aggression.” He was not to “take up any position which could be construed into the assumption of a hostile attitude.” Because such action should be avoided, he was also denied the reinforcements that he had requested several times – the Secretary “has therefore carefully abstained from increasing the force at this point….”

That said, Anderson was “to hold possession of the forts in this harbor, and if attacked you are to defend yourself to the last extremity.”

Because Anderson was denied reinforcements, his idea of holding all three forts (Sumter, Moultrie and Pinckney – Johnson had already been written off) would have to be consolidated. “The smallness of your force will not permit you, perhaps, to occupy more than one of the three forts,” wrote Buell, indicating for the first time that Pinckney and Moultrie should probably be abandoned and Sumter, which was much more defensible, should be his main attention.

However, even though two of the three forts were abandoned, “an attack on or attempt to take possession of any 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.”

Because an attack seemed inevitable at this point, whichever fort was threatened first, Anderson was expected to move his force there to defend it “to the last extremity.”2

These “orders” were not necessarily hard and fast orders, but simply a “memorandum.”


On the mainland, the term of South Carolina’s Governor, William Henry Gist, had come to an end. He would not be the secession governor. That honor would be bestowed upon Francis Pickens. In that state, the legislature, not the people, elected their governors. It took seven different votes to decide upon Pickens. Fire-eater secessionist, Robert Barnwell Rhett wanted the job, but eventually lost out to a compromise candidate.

Pickens was, nearly thirty years prior, a United States congressman and Minister to Russia. He appeared to oppose secession at first, but upon election, he changed his tune: “I would be willing to appeal to the god of battles, if need be, to cover the state with ruin, conflagration and blood rather than submit.”3

His inauguration day would be December 17 – the same day as the start of the Secession Convention.

  1. From Allegiance by David Detzer, Harcourt, 2001. []
  2. All quotes from Official Records, p 89-90. []
  3. Days of Defiance by Maury Klein. []
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If Attacked You Are to Defend Yourself to the Last Extremity by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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