April 13, 1861
The path that eventually led Robert Anderson to Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, in April, 1861, passed through Maine.
Anderson, born in Kentucky, and a West Point graduate, began his military career in 1825 as an artillery officer. Two years after he served as a colonel of Illinois volunteers during the Black Hawk War – where he twice mustered a Captain Abraham Lincoln in and out of Army service – Anderson was placed in temporary command of the Kennebec Arsenal in Augusta.
Later, like fellow officer Erasmus Darwin Keyes, Anderson became well regarded by General Winfield Scott, under whom he served as an assistant adjutant general in the Mexican War.
After the 1860 election, Scott advised out-going president James Buchanan, that Anderson, now a major, would be a good choice to take command of troops in Charleston. Although Anderson was a former slave owner, and was sympathetic to the southern states’ argument for slavery, Scott knew him to be loyal to the Army and to the Union.
Within a week after South Carolina followed through on the threat to secede, Anderson knew that he had to move the seven dozen men under his command to a place in Charleston safer than the exposed Fort Moultrie. Late at night on the day after Christmas, Anderson had the Fort Moultrie cannons disabled. He then he transferred his men to the unfinished but more secure Fort Sumter in the middle of Charleston harbor.
As war tensions increased, Anderson and his men became captives in their own fort. Weeks past, their supplies dwindled, and suspicions on shore mounted that the Fort might receive relief. Acting on that suspicion, on the night of April 12, the South Carolinians began firing upon the fort. No one was killed in the bombardment, but for 36 hours, cannonballs and mortar rounds struck at an average of more than one every minute. Outgunned, outnumbered nearly 7,000 to 85, and out of supplies, Anderson notified the Carolinians that he would abandon the fort.
Although Anderson and his men evacuated the fort, he did not surrender it or its flag. He took that with him when the garrison was allowed to leave. Anderson’s actions at Fort Sumter made him a hero. He went to New York City, where he participated in a patriotic rally, and was then sent on a recruiting tour for the Army through the northern states.
- Why did Anderson not surrender Fort Sumter?
- What difference would it have made if he had surrendered the fort?