Many neoconfederates will claim that by moving his garrison to Fort Sumter, Major Robert Anderson violated his orders.
Even though they’re wrong, they have a historical basis for this belief. Secretary of War John B. Floyd, who would soon join the rebellion, thought Anderson did violate his orders. You can see his reaction here. Floyd wanted Anderson ordered back to Fort Moultrie.
So did he violate his orders?
Major Don Carlos Buell verbally transmitted orders to Anderson from the Secretary of War and the President. Buell then gave Anderson a written memorandum of the orders, bringing back a copy of that memorandum to the War Department.
Here is the important part that authorizes Anderson’s movement to Sumter:
“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 may deem most proper to increase its power of resistance. You are also authorized to take similar steps whenever you have tangible evidence of a design to proceed to a hostile act.” [OR Series I, Vol 1, p. 90]
So Anderson was authorized to occupy any of the three forts in Charleston Harbor–Moultrie, Anderson, or Johnson–if there is an attack or an attempt to take possession of any of them, or, and this is important, if Anderson had “tangible evidence” that an attack was going to take place. Floyd, by the way, sent a copy to the President with his endorsement saying, “This is in conformity to my instructions to Major Buell.” [Samuel W. Crawford, The Genesis of the Civil War: The Story of Sumter, 1860-61, p. 74]
Did Anderson have “tangible evidence” that an attack was going to take place? Yes.
Buell himself believed an attack was likely.
“Major Buell had remained over Sunday in Charleston, and became impressed with the feeling manifested. There was no noisy demonstration, but ‘there was everywhere evidence,’ he thought, ‘of a settled purpose.’ The determination to obtain possession of the forts was with them as fixed as the act of secession itself.
“All the indications and all the information he could obtain convinced him ‘that Fort Sumter would be seized, with or without the State authorities, unless the Government should occupy it,’ and these considerations largely influenced him in his interpretation of the instructions of the Secretary of War, and which were expressed in the memorandum order.
“He thought, too, that ‘it was evident Fort Moultrie would any day be liable to assault and reduction unless Sumter was occupied by a Government garrison,’ and he thought that Anderson ‘fully realized the fact.’
“After some suggestions to Anderson, ‘all looking to the contemplated transfer of his command,’ Major Buell returned at once to Washington with a copy of the memorandum he had given to him. His report to the Secretary was verbal, but he left with the chief clerk, Mr. W. R. Drinkard, who enjoyed confidential relations with the Secretary, a copy of the memorandum for the files of the War Department. Whether the Secretary ever read it until it was called for by the President is questionable.” [Samuel W. Crawford, The Genesis of the Civil War: The Story of Sumter, 1860-61, p. 74]
As to what the garrison believed, see here, pages 92-117:
One can read Major Anderson’s assessment here:
His engineer, Capt Foster, here (3 pages):
Capt Foster here again (3 pages):
Anderson again here:
Foster again here:
And Major Anderson reporting the reasons for moving to Fort Sumter here:
That all makes it obvious Anderson, who was the man on the scene charged with making the assessment, saw a plan to attack Fort Moultrie and, in accordance with the authorization contained in his orders from Buell, moved his men to Fort Sumter and thus kept the peace in Charleston Harbor for the time being.
Anderson’s move was calculated by him to be one that would preserve peace. He moved because he was certain Fort Moultrie was about to be attacked. Before the move he had implored the War Department to send more troops to garrison both Fort Sumter and Castle Pinckney.
On 23 November 1860 he described Fort Sumter as “the key to the entrance of this harbor; its guns command this work [Fort Moultrie], and could soon drive out its occupants,” [OR Series I, Vol I, p. 74] the “occupants” he was referring to, of course, was his own garrison. His next sentence shows his purpose: “It should be garrisoned at once.” He wanted reinforcements sent to garrison Fort Sumter to prevent South Carolinians from taking it and using it against him and his men at Fort Moultrie. He also wanted a garrison in Castle Pinckney, which was then occupied by only an ordnance sergeant.
Anderson says, “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.” [Ibid., p. 75]
In that same dispatch, Anderson provides an evaluation of the situation at Fort Moultrie: “There are several sand hillocks within four hundred yards of our eastern wall, which offer admirable cover to approaching parties, and would be formidable points for sharpshooters. Two of them command our work. These I shall be compelled to level, at least sufficiently to render our position less insecure than it now is. When the outworks are completed, this fort, with its appropriate war garrison, will be capable of making a very handsome defense. It is so small that we shall have little space for storing our provisions, wood, &c. The garrison now in it is so weak as to invite an attack, which is openly and publicly threatened. We are about sixty, and have a line of rampart of 1,500 feet in length to defend. If beleaguered, as every man of the command must be either engaged or held on the alert, they will be exhausted and worn down in a few days and nights of such service as they would then have to undergo.” [Ibid., p. 74]
So from the beginning, Anderson is saying his position at Fort Moultrie is untenable unless he received full reinforcements, unless the construction of the outer works of Fort Moultrie were complete, unless he could level some surrounding sand dunes, and unless both Fort Sumter and Castle Pinckney were occupied by proper garrisons.
On 28 November Anderson again gave warning of imminent attack:
“I cannot but remark that I think its [Fort Moultrie’s] security from attack would be more greatly increased by throwing garrisons into Castle Pinckney and Fort Sumter than by anything that can be done in strengthening the defenses of this work [Fort Moultrie]. There are several intelligent and efficient men in this community, who, by intimate intercourse with our Army officers, have become perfectly well acquainted with this fort, its weak points, and the best means of attack. There appears to be a romantic desire urging the South Carolinians to have possession of this work, which was so nobly defended by their ancestors in 1776; and the State, if she determines to act on the aggressive, will exert herself to take this fort. The accompanying report exhibits the present state of my command. I think I can rely upon their doing their duty, but you will see how sadly deficient we are in numbers, whether to repel a coup de main or to maintain a siege.” [Ibid., p. 78]
On 1 December, Anderson sent the following: “I have seen Assistant Surgeon Crawford, who has also been in the city. He says that never until to-day did he believe that our position was critical. One of his friends told him that we would have trouble in less than fifteen days. He thinks that they will first attempt to take Fort Sumter, which they (justly) say will control this work. Castle Pinckney they regard as theirs already. Mr. King, the intendant of this island, told the doctor that as soon as the act of secession was passed a demand would be made on me to surrender this fort. All these remarks lead to the same conclusion–a fixed purpose to have thse works.” [Ibid., p. 81]
On 4 December, Anderson’s engineer, Capt. J. G. Foster, wrote to Col R. E. De Russy, the commander of the Corps of Engineers: “The plan of the leaders of this State appears to be, from all that I can see and hear, first, to demand the forts of the General Government after secession, and then, if refused, to take them by force of arms. A quite large party is in favor of not waiting to ask the General Government, but to summon the immediate commanders, and, if refused, to attack at once.” [Ibid., p. 85]
After Maj Anderson moved his garrison to Fort Sumter on 26 December, Capt Foster wrote again to Col De Russy: “To-day I went to town to negotiate a draft on New York to pay off the men employed on Fort Moultrie. I saw that an attack was to be made somewhere to-night, and also that it would not be safe for me to go to town again for some time. Returning, I brought my family to Fort Sumter, as all guard was withdrawn. At about 4 o’clock a steamer landed an armed force at Castle Pinckney, and effecting an entrance by scaling the walls with ladders, took forcible possession of the work. Lieutenant Meade was suffered to withdraw to this fort. Soon after dark two steamers landed an armed force at Fort Moultrie, and took forcible possession of that work. While in town the Palmetto flag was hoisted on the custom-house and saluted. Two companies were ordered to surround the arsenal. The movement of Major Anderson was made upon a firm conviction that an attack would be made, and that Fort Sumter would be seized first.” [pp. 108-109]
By moving to Fort Sumter, Anderson stalled the effort to start a war by attacking US troops at Fort Moultrie. He moved from an indefensible position to one that was eminently defensible.
Now, let’s go back to the Cabinet and Secretary of War Floyd’s expressed belief Anderson had violated his orders (and the rest of the Cabinet members from the south agreed with him), starting with an earlier meeting:
“Buchanan asked what exact orders Anderson had at Moultrie. Floyd wasn’t sure and had to send for his files to refresh his memory. He told the president that he had sent Major Don Carlos Buell to see Anderson and assess matters. From this visit had come a memorandum, dated December 11, summarizing instructions given verbally. Anderson was to avoid any at that might provoke aggression and make no hostile move, but he was also to ‘hold possession of the forts,’ and if attacked, he should defend himself ‘to the last extremity.’ Almost as an afterthought Buell acknowledged that Anderson had too few men to hold all the forts. An attack on any one of them would be regarded as an act of hostility, and he was authorized to concentrate his men into any one of the forts.
“After hearing the instructions, Buchanan objected to the sentence calling for defense to the last extremity. Black insisted that a memorandum was not good enough; formal instructions were needed. He drafted a new version telling Anderson to exercise ‘sound military discretion on this subject. It is neither expected nor desired that you should expose your own life or that of your men in a hopeless conflict in defense of these forts.’ A compliant Floyd signed the message, and it was sent by courier to Anderson.” [Maury Klein, Days of Defiance: Sumter, Secession, and the Coming of the Civil War, pp. 148-149]
Here’s the message sent to Anderson which complemented, but did not replace the original instructions authorizing a move to any of the forts:
WAR DEPARTMENT, Washington, December 21, 1860. Major ANDERSON, First Artillery, Commanding Fort Moultrie, S.C.: SIR: In the verbal instructions communicated to you by Major Buell, you are directed to hold possession of the forts in the harbor of Charleston, and, if attacked, to defend yourself to the last extremity. Under these instructions, you might infer that you are required to make a vain and useless sacrifice of your own life and the lives of the men under your command, upon a mere point of honor. This is far from the President’s intentions. You are to exercise a sound military discretion on this subject. It is neither expected nor desired that you should expose your own life or that of your men in a hopeless conflict in defense of these forts. If they are invested or attacked by a force so superior that resistance would, in your judgment, be a useless waste of life, it will be your duty to yield to necessity, and make the best terms in your power. This will be the conduct of an honorable, brave, and humane officer, and you will be fully justified in such action. These orders are strictly confidential, and not to be communicated even to the officers under your command, without close necessity. Very respectfully, JOHN B. FLOYD. [OR, Series I, Vol 1, p. 103]
As we can see, this order merely amplified on the original orders, explaining that resistance didn’t need to be to the last man.
Now, it’s true the southern members of the cabinet, such as Floyd, believed Anderson’s move to Sumter was against orders. And Buchanan’s relative unfamiliarity with the orders, along with the protests of Jefferson Davis and RMT Hunter, caused his confusion.
But former Attorney-General Black, now the Secretary of State, was clear.
“Floyd spotted Major Don Carlos Buell. ‘This is a very unfortunate move of Major Anderson,’ Floyd said to him. ‘It has made war inevitable.’
” ‘I do not think so, sir,’ answered Buell. ‘ …I think that it will tend to avert war, if war can be averted.’
“Floyd was not convinced. As the meeting dragged on into evening, he blasted Anderson. ‘It is evident,’ he read from a paper in a quavering voice, ‘… that the solemn pledges of this Government have been violated by Major Anderson. … One remedy only is left, and that is to withdraw the garrison from the harbor of Charleston altogether. I hope the President will allow me to make that order at once. This order … can alone prevent bloodshed and civil war.’ When he finished, Thompson and Thomas supported him, while Black, Holt, and Stanton staunchly defended Anderson. Toucey as usual said little. The suggestion astonished Buchanan; even in his weakest moments the idea if withdrawal had not entered his mind.
“Black was livid. He sent for the recent order he had drafted for Floyd, read it aloud, and insisted that Anderson had acted ‘in precise accordance with his orders.’ He shook the order in Floyd’s face and shouted, ‘There never was a moment in the history of England when a minister of the Crown could have proposed to surrender a military post which might be defended, without bringing his head to the block!’ Floyd’s indignation pulled him up out of his chair, forcing Buchanan to restore order. Amid an uneasy calm the president conceded that the order seemed to give Anderson leeway to exercise his own discretion against any tangible evidence of a proposed attack on him. Nothing he had heard justified ordering Anderson back to Moultrie.” [Ibid., pp. 170-171]
“Major Anderson believed that he had such tangible evidence. What he heard were the almost daily threats that his position would be attacked; and these threats became more numerous and more positive after the State had passed the Ordinance of Secession. He knew that he could not long defend himself. What he saw was the nightly watch upon him lest he should transfer his command to the stronger and safer position of Fort Sumter. It was this latter action on the part of the State authorities–wholly in violation of any agreement that might have been made–that impressed him beyond all others and mainly influenced his actions.” [Samuel W. Crawford, The Genesis of the Civil War: The Story of Sumter, 1860-61, p. 100]