As many journalists might tell you, rarely does anything momentously newsworthy happen in the week around Christmas, when everyone is at home with their family, gathered ‘round the fireplace eating too much good food. For the most part, in America at least, business as usual stops for several days around Dec. 25. Yet that wasn’t the case in Charleston in 1860. Things were tense, everyone’s nerves on edge, that Christmas. Five days earlier, on Dec. 20, the Republic of South Carolina had seceded from the United States of America. Over the next several days, the Secession Convention considered what should be done with United States property within the new republic’s boundaries, particularly its Charleston military installations including the Arsenal on Ashley Avenue (today part of MUSC’s campus) and three forts: Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, Castle Pinckney on Shutes Folly, and the new Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. All of these forts had all been built to protect Charleston against naval attacks, their guns pointed seaward. They had never been designed to defend against an attack from their landward sides.
In December 1860, Castle Pinckney was essentially being used for storage, and Fort Sumter’s interior was still under construction. Only Fort Moultrie served as an active military fortress, garrisoned with 65 to 80 members (sources differ) of the 1 st U.S. Artillery Regiment under the command of Maj. Robert Anderson.

Believing secession was eminent, on Dec. 10 South Carolina’s congressmen met with President James Buchanan, demanding he surrender the forts and arsenal once the secession was announced. While Buchanan didn’t want to start a civil war during his final days in office, he also was unwilling to hand over the forts. In trying to find a way out of this sticky situation, Buchanan assured the South Carolinians that he would not reinforce Charleston’s forts until a peaceful transfer of the properties could be arranged, in return for the Carolinians’ promise that they would not attack the forts until those agreements had been successfully concluded.

Major Robert Anderson, photo by Mathew Brady
Also before the secession vote, Maj. Anderson had contacted Washington to express his concerns about the security of his position at Fort Moultrie and request more men and provisions to be sent as soon as possible. Buchanan’s response to Maj. Anderson on Dec. 11 was that he was to “hold possession of the forts in this harbor, and if attacked you are to defend yourself to the last extremity.” He also provided Anderson with an option to place his men in whichever fortification seemed safest, saying “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 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 many deem most proper to increase its power of resistance.” Buchanan ended his Dec. 11 instructions putting the ball squarely into Anderson’s court: “You are also authorized to take similar steps wherever you have tangible evidence of a design to proceed to a hostile act.” Let’s pause here for a moment to take a closer look at who Maj. Anderson was. While everyone remembers the “big” names of the Civil War conflict – Lincoln, Davis, Lee, Beauregard, Sherman – relatively few, other than historians and enthusiasts of military battles, know much about Maj. Robert Anderson. And yet, his decisions on Dec. 26 would redirect the course of American history.
Born on his family’s Kentucky estate near Louisville, Anderson’s father had been an aide- de-camp to the illustrious Marquis de Lafayette during the American Revolution. Anderson graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1825, where he would eventually return to teach military strategy. After distinguishing himself during the Mexican War, in which he was seriously wounded, he served in the Black Hawk War of 1832, where he coincidentally inducted a young Abraham Lincoln both into and out of military service. In another turn of fate, upon Black Hawk’s capture, Anderson and a colleague, Col. Jefferson Davis, escorted the prisoner for detention to Missouri.
Anderson with his wife, Eliza Bayard Anderson, and son, Robert Jr.
Anderson was a gifted strategist, a skill he employed as a professor at West Point. In 1839, he published a textbook titled Instruction for Field Artillery, Horse and Foot. One of his students was a promising young man named Pierre G.T. Beauregard. The teacher and his student developed a lasting respect for one another. In November 1860, within days of Lincoln’s election as President, Anderson was assigned command of U.S. forces in Charleston. Putting Anderson at Fort Moultrie had what today we would call “good optics.” His military record as a competent officer who took his duty seriously was impeccable. As a Kentuckian, he was a southerner who had married a young woman from Georgia and was himself a former slave owner. Though he was a staunch believer in maintaining the Union, he was known to be someone who was not personally opposed to slavery. Thus, on Christmas Day 1860, Anderson was carefully considering his options, given his last correspondence from President Buchanan on Dec. 11. As a military strategist, Anderson was keenly aware that Fort Moultrie was not defendable from a land attack, with his back to the sea, yet he was unaware of Buchanan’s and the South Carolina congressmen’s agreement to maintain the status quo – that is, to leave everything as is – until transfer agreements were finalized. Given the threatening mood of Charlestonians during that Christmas week, Maj. Anderson felt he had “tangible evidence” of a hostile attack, and in accord with the Dec. 11 directive, decided to move his men to Fort Sumter in the middle of Charleston Harbor, which he felt – given its island location in the harbor – was more defendable. Anderson alerted Washington of the move, adding that his men had about four months’ worth of food and other necessary supplies and asking again for reprovisions.

By the dark night of Dec. 26, Anderson and his men had packed up everything they could and boarded several schooners en route to Fort Sumter. Capt. Abner Doubleday, the man now generally – though perhaps incorrectly – credited with inventing the game of baseball, wrote: “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.

Captain, later Major General Abner Doubleday
Robert Anderson's telegram announcing the surrender of Fort Sumter
Doubleday goes on to note that 12 men and a surgeon stayed behind at Fort Moultrie to destroy the fort’s heavy cannon, which could not be moved, so that they could not be used by the Confederates. They also took down the fort’s flag staff. Charlestonians were livid, feeling that Anderson had acted provocatively in defiance of the agreement with Buchanan that everyone was to sit tight and maintain the status quo for the time being. Many Charlestonians felt Anderson’s move to be precipitous, the excuse they had been looking for to start a war.

President Buchanan seemed shaken by news of the move as well and called his cabinet together to discuss their options on Dec. 27, the same day Charleston militia rowed out to seize the small detachment of several officers and civilians at Castle Pinckney and the now- abandoned Fort Moultrie. The next day, Buchanan announced Washington’s refusal to surrender Fort Sumter. The die had been cast. Everyone held their breath awaiting what might come next.

Major Robert Anderson is honored with his likeness inscribed in a monument atop Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor