What Was the Food Situation at Fort Sumter?

Specifically, what was the food situation at Fort Sumter as far as Lincoln knew?

On taking office after his inauguration, Lincoln was presented with two letters from Fort Sumter.

The first was a letter from Major Anderson dated February 28, 1861:

No. 58.

Fort Sumter, S. C.

Feby 28th, 1861.

Colonel:

I have the honor to report that they are continuing the work reported in my communication No 57.  I send, herewith, Memoranda, hastily prepared, by the officers of this command, giving their individual opinions as to the number of men which would be required to re-enforce us.  The problem is one of considerable difficulty — as the Southern Confederacy have the advantage of knowing the intentions, even, of our Government, and are thus enabled to make suitable preparations–  These gentlemen were directed to consider the harbour closed — it is fair to consider that all of the channels would be closed as soon as information is received of the intentions of the Government.

I confess that I would not be willing to risk my reputation on an attempt to throw reenforcements into this harbour, within the time for our relief rendered necessary by the limited supply of our provisions, and with a view of holding possession of the same, with a force of less than twenty thousand good and well disciplined men.

Enclosed is also a sketch of the present appearance of the works on Cummings Point, prepared by Capt Seymour.

I am Colonel,

Very Respectfully,

Your obdt Svt.

Robert Anderson

Major 1st Artillery, Commanding.

It included a memorandum from Truman Seymour to Anderson:

Fort Sumter,

February 28th, 1861.

Memorandum.

1st. It is not more than  possible to supply this Fort, by ruse, with a few men or a small amount of provisions–  Such is the unceasing vigilance employed to prevent it.

2d. To do so, openly, by vessels alone, unless they are shot-proof, is virtually impossible — so numerous and powerful are the opposing Batteries: and no vessel can lay near the Fort without being exposed to continual fire.  And the Harbor could, and probably would, whenever necessary, be effectually closed — as one channel has already been.

3d. A projected attack, in large force, would draw to this Harbor all the available resources, in men and materiel, of the contiguous States.  Batteries, of guns of heavy calibre, would be mulitplied rapidly and indefinitely: at least 20.000 men, good marksmen and trained for months past with a view to this very contingency, would be concentrated here before the attacking force could leave Northern ports.  The Harbor would be closed: a landing must be effected at some distance from our guns, which could give no aid.  Charleston Harbor would be a Sebastopol in such a conflict, and unlimited means would probably be required to ensure success: before which time the garrison of Fort Sumter would be starved out.

T. Seymour.

Bvt Capt & 1st Lieut.

The second was a letter from Anderson dated March 2, 1861 with an enclosure detailing the provisions available at Fort Sumter.

According to Anderson’s report, the provisions would last six weeks (at full rations).

On March 22, 1861, Anderson sent an update on the status of his provisions.

The garrison at this time was purchasing fresh meat and vegetables in Charleston.

On March 31, Anderson said their provisions were “very nearly exhausted.”  How could this be if they were getting fresh meat and vegetables?  As Kenneth M. Stampp tells us, the fort was running short of staples:  “pork, flour, beans, coffee, sugar, and salt.” [Kenneth M. Stampp, And the War Came: The North and the Secession Crisis, p. 264, fn 2]  While they were getting 48 hours worth of fresh meat and vegetables, they were not able to preserve their food.

Samuel W. Crawford discusses the food situation also, on pages 203, 211, and 399.

Here is what General Scott told Lincoln regarding Fort Sumter’s food situation:

From Winfield Scott to Abraham Lincoln1, March 11, 1861

Fort Sumter.

The President has done me the honor to address to me certain professional questions, to which he desires answers.  I proceed with them categorically.

“1. To what point of time can Major Anderson maintain his position, at Fort Sumter, without fresh supplies or reinforcements?”

Answer.  In respect to subsistence, for the garrison, he has hard bread, flour & rice for about 26 days, & salt meat (pork) for about 48 days; but how long he could hold out against the whole means of attack which the South Carolinians have in, & about the city of Charleston & its Harbour, is a question that cannot be answered with absolute accuracy.  Reckoning the  batteries troops at 3,500 (now somewhat disciplined) & the batteries at 4 powerful  land, & at least one  floating — all mounting guns & mortars of large calibre, & of the best patterns; — & supposing those means to be skillfully & vigorously employed — Fort Sumter with its less than 100 men — including common laborers & musicians — ought to be taken by a single assault, & easily; if harrassed perseveringly for several previous days & nights by threats & false attacks, with the ability — from the force of overwhelming numbers — of converting one out of every three or four of those, into a real attack.

“2. Can you with all the means now in your control, supply or reinforce Fort Sumter within that time?”

Answer. No: Not within many months.  See answer to No. 3.

“3. If not, what amount of means, & of what description, in addition to that already at your control, would enable you to supply & reinforce that fortress within the time?”

Answer.  A fleet of war vessels & transports, 5,000 additional regular troops & 20,000 volunteers, in order to take all the batteries in the Harbor of Charleston (including Ft. Moultrie) after the capture of all the batteries in the approach or outer Bay.  And to raise, organize & discipline such an army, would require new acts of Congress & from six to eight months.

Respectfully submitted.

Winfield Scott.

Head Qrs. of the Army,

Washington, Mar. 11, 1861.

The fresh meat and vegetables, however, were cut off on April 7, 1861.

As of April 7, they had 48 hours of meat and vegetables, none preserved, and not able to get anymore, and they were almost out of all the other food stores.  Thus there was a need for them to be reprovisioned.

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7 comments

  1. This is one of the massive errors made in Adams’s “When in the Course of Human Events.” Richard Currant talks about this in “Lincoln and the First Shot.” Somewhere there is an accounting of the total food supplies in the fort a few days before the shooting began, and it amounts to a little bread and a few dried fish. I’ll see if I can find the precise text. Also important: When were the families and civilian workers removed from the fort? I don’t think they were there for the shooting, but would have constituted more mouths to feed.

    1. There are many, many massive errors in Adams’ screed, Jim. 🙂 Current does talk about the food situation, though not in the detail I’d like. I don’t believe any family members were in Fort Sumter. I think most of them had left while the garrison was at Moultrie, and the few remaining left Moultrie just as the garrison was moving to Fort Sumter.

    2. The families left Fort Sumter on February 3, 1861.

      Al, this is a great series, and well documented. I can say that reviewing my “Charleston” folders complied after a lifetime of study of the Civil War activity around that city, there is little you are leaving out! Great job!

      1. Thanks very much, Craig, and thanks also for the date the families left.

  2. […] What was the Food Situation At Fort Sumter? […]

  3. Al, great series of post. It is interesting to see how quiet Ms. Bass (Still wonder if this is not Connie Chastain/Ward) has become when you have moved into the finer details of the Sumter issue. With those details she is not able to level simple accusations at you or any of the other “yankee bloggers”.

    Keep up the good work.

    1. Thank you for your comments, Corey. The last question is a bit more complex, so I’m dividing it into parts and will post the parts separately. WordPress allows me to see the IP addresses of commenters, but I haven’t compared the two. My experience with Connie is that she’s honest at heart so that she’s not going to try to appear as someone else. I believe if she has something to say, she’ll say it as herself. I have no reason to believe Ms. Bass is anyone other than who she signs on as. I suspect she is quiet now because I’ve posted nothing to prompt a “defense of the south,” to use my words. Or perhaps she is preparing a more involved comment. Either way, I look forward to future comments from both ladies. I’ve asked each of them some questions to help our discussions along, but neither has yet to answer them, as is certainly their right. They’re not required to answer my questions, but it does disappoint me a little that we can’t have a sustained conversation.

      My apologies for taking so long with the last question in the series, but I am working on it. I also have some comments about the Wake Forest article Brooks highlighted in his blog, plus I have a report on the Virginia Sesquicentennial Signature Conference held last weekend.

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