The Clouds are Threatening: Anderson’s Reckoning of Sumter

Friday, November 23, 1860

After assessing the situation of the Charleston harbor defenses, Major Robert Anderson reported the conditions. Going into this, he knew that he didn’t have enough troops to defend the forts.

Fort Moultrie, on Sullivan’s Island at the mouth of the harbor, had but two companies of men and nine band members. It had been neglected since the Revolutionary War (during which, Major Anderson’s father had defended it). It was hardly more than a battery – the walls only a room height. Sand from the ocean had drifted against the outside walls, making it a common sight to see cows scaling the ramparts. Several years before the war, a request was put in to improve the fortifications, but Quartermaster General Joseph E. Joshnston (later a high-ranking Confederate General) said that it was not in his department.1

Castle Pinckney was too close to Charleston and would be the first target of any attack that may come from that city. Fort Johnson, on James Island, was vulnerable to a land assault even more than Moultrie was. Both Pinckney and Johnson were “garrisoned” by ordnance sergeants and their respective families.

Anderson could clearly see that the unfinished Sumter was the fort to defend. The eight to twelve feet walls were of brick and sixty feet high.2

In his report back to Washington, he was fairly optimistic. The shabby Fort Moultrie could be made into a “handsome defense” in about two weeks “should nothing unforeseen occur to prevent” it. About that, “the garrison now in it is so weak as to invite an attack, which is openly and publicly threatened.”

While there was no mention of Fort Johnson in Anderson’s report, he described Castle Pinckney as a “small casemated work perfectly commanding the city of Charleston, is in excellent condition.” A couple of its mortar guns had been taken to the city arsenal a few months ago. Anderson said that he would request that the commander of the arsenal return them. “It is, in my opinion, essentially important that this castle should be immediately occupied….” Thinking to the quickening future, he continued: “The Charlestonians would not venture to attack this place when they knew that their city was at the mercy of the commander of Castle Pinckney.”

Fort Sumter, of which much was known in Washington, could have been finished in about 17 days and was to be garrisoned at once.

Anderson knew that if Charleston caught wind of re-enforcements, they would probably capture Pinckney and attack Sumter and Moultrie. He suggested that it would be a good idea that these new men be “designated for other duty” in some attempt to fool the city into thinking that they weren’t re-enforcing the forts.

In summation, Anderson concluded, “Fort Sumter and Castle Pinckney must be garrisoned immediately if the Government determines to keep command of this harbor.”3

“I need not say how anxious I am indeed, determined, so far as honor will permit to avoid collision with the citizens of South Carolina. Nothing, however, will be better calculated to prevent bloodshed than our being found in such an attitude that it would be madness and folly to attack us. The clouds are threatening, and the storm may break upon us at any moment.”

  1. From Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. 1: “From Moultrie to Sumter” by Abner Doubleday, Brevet Major-General, USA, Retired, The Century Co., 1887. []
  2. From Days of Defiance; Sumter, Secession and the Coming of the Civil War by Maury Klein, Vintage Press, 1999. []
  3. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies Vol.1 (hereafter called “Official Records”) p74-76, Government Printing Office, 1880. []
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The Clouds are Threatening: Anderson’s Reckoning of Sumter by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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