As a jittery electorate endured the suspense of the 1860 election that would bring Abraham Lincoln to the presidency, Americans must have looked back upon their young nation’s history and wondered how their leaders had brought them to the Rubicon of civil war. North and South had been united in their fight for independence against the British, as anti-slavery factions and slave owners met to forge a nation, hammer out its most sacred documents and carve an identity which allowed for regional differences. But less than one hundred years later, citizens discovered that their more perfect union was united no longer.
Geography was not necessarily an indicator of one’s loyalty to the Union, and prior ownership of slaves did not necessarily lead to secession. The man who led the Union forces at the first military encounter between North and South was an example of this duality. Major Robert Anderson, who had formerly owned slaves, was in command at Fort Sumter, South Carolina in January, 1861.
Major Robert Anderson was born in Kentucky, a state where slavery was legal. After graduation from the U.S. Military Academy, he served, as did Abraham Lincoln, in the Black Hawk War; ironically, he was the officer who mustered Lincoln in and out of his time of service. Until 1860, an officer’s state of origin did not reflect upon his loyalty but when he was sent to South Carolina to take command of the Charleston garrison’s forts, Robert Anderson’s Kentucky origins made some people nervous. Anderson was not an abolitionist and didn’t oppose the Sloth’s peculiar institution of slavery, but his loyalty to the Union was solid. He had no intention of surrendering to the Southern forces, but he knew he couldn’t hold out against them.
Anderson had moved his troops to Fort Sumter, which was located in the middle of Charleston Harbor, from Fort Moultrie, which couldn’t be defended, on the day after Christmas following South Carolina’s secession a few days before. Fort Sumter had walls that were eight feet thick and forty feet high. But its relatively new construction and its sturdy structure were not going to be able to withstand the military might assembling in the harbor. Anderson knew that he was in an untenable position and so did the ineffectual lame duck President James Buchannan, who sent supplies and soldiers to reinforce the commander. However, when the Star of the West was met by six thousand members of the South Carolina militia, the vessel thought better of it and left the harbor.
Having made his futile gesture, Buchanan ended his presidency as he had lived it, by doing nothing while seven Southern states seceded. By the time Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated in March, Fort Sumter was running out of supplies for its 128 soldiers. Outside the fort, the Southern forces, led by General Pierre Beauregard, a West Pointer who had been a student of Major Anderson’s, were building up the harbor defenses and drilling.
President Lincoln still cherished hopes that Virginia and North Carolina, which hadn’t yet left the Union, would refuse to join the Confederacy; if he mounted a military action in defense of the fort, the Southern states that hadn’t seceded might be driven away. But he had to do something; supplies were running low and it was his duty as president to defend his troops. President Lincoln sent word to South Carolina’s governor that he was sending supplies but not troops, weapons, or ammunition to the fort. However, if South Carolina attacked the fort, the troops would be forced to defend themselves. President Jefferson Davis didn’t want his newborn Confederate States of America to be the aggressor that started the war, as they would be if the firebrand South Carolinians attacked. Nor could he allow Lincoln to provide Fort Sumter, now an enemy post, to receive supplies.
On April 11, President Davis ordered Beauregard to demand that the Union troops evacuate the fort. Major Anderson refused, telling the messenger, “I will await the first shot, and if you do not batter us to pieces, we will be starved out in a few days.” He didn’t have long to wait. The next day, at 4:30 in the morning, Confederate forces began firing.
Over the course of three and a half days, the Confederates fired three thousand shells on the fort. When the barracks and the officers’ quarters ignited, Anderson had no choice but to throw fifty barrels of ammunition into the harbor to avoid an explosion that could be lethal. Anderson’s men were running out of ammunition. They had pork and water for breakfast. Death and injury threatened. Anderson had no option; he would not surrender, but he would evacuate.
A week later, the nation recognized Anderson for his dignified response to Fort Sumter. When he appeared in Union Square Park in New York with the Fort Sumter flag, 100,000 people gathered to honor him and the flag he had brought with him. Anderson was a symbol of Union resolution as he toured the North to promote military recruitment and raise funds for the war effort.
Fort Sumter came full circle on April 14, 1865, when, following the surrender at Appomattox, Major Anderson went back to Charleston to raise the flag he had rescued over the fort. The fort was in ruins but the nation was whole again. The drama of Fort Sumter’s second act was followed by the tragedy at Ford’s Theatre later that night, when President Lincoln was assassinated by the actor and Southern sympathizer John Wilke’s Booth.