The American Civil War Erupts: The Attack on Fort Sumter
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Robert Anderson

Title: Robert Anderson
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Robert Anderson was born near Louisville, Kentucky, the son of a Revolutionary War officer. He graduated from West Point, fifteenth in a class of thirty-seven, in 1825, and was commissioned a lieutenant with the 3d U.S. Artillery. Anderson went on to distinguish himself by fighting in the Black Hawk War of 1832, winning a brevet promotion to captain; he also earned praise for his performance against the Seminole Indians from 1836 to 1838.

Anderson subsequently served as assistant adjutant general in the Eastern Division, 1838-1841, where he rose to captain. During the Mexican-American War, he campaigned under Winfield Scott throughout the advance upon Mexico City in 1847. Valorous behavior at Molino del Rey brought him a second brevet promotion to major and a severe wound. After the war, Anderson fulfilled a number of routine assignments without fanfare, and sought to supplement his meager income by translating several French artillery texts for the army. By 1857 he had risen to the rank of major and gained a reputation as a deeply religious, highly conscientious soldier. In 1845 he married Elizabeth Bayard Clinch of Georgia and came into possession of several slaves. Moreover, like many officers of Southern birth (his family was originally Virginian), he espoused pro-slavery and pro-Southern sympathies. As events would prove, the slight, nondescript Anderson was also possessed of an unimpeachable sense of loyalty and devotion to the United States.

By November 1860, the escalating tide of secession emboldened Southern resentment toward the North, and isolated army garrisons became objects of derision. Such was the state of affairs around Charleston, South Carolina, when the War Department ordered Anderson to take charge of the three small forts in the harbor. His appointment was a calculated move, for they anticipated that a pro-Southern officer would use tact and discretion in dealing with Charleston authorities. Although he accepted the assignment, Anderson keenly felt the weight of his predicament and was determined not to initiate any moves that might precipitate a war.

In his dealings with local authorities, Anderson proved polite, even sympathetic, but to no avail. He also believed that it was only a matter of time before the government ordered him to hand his post over to the Southerners. However, attitudes hardened toward the presence of a Union garrison after December 20, 1860, when an ordinance of secession was passed. Anderson at this point deemed his position untenable, and on the night of December 26 he abandoned Fort Moultrie and Castle Pinckney, spiking the guns. He then relocated the 137 men of his command to Fort Sumter, an unfinished work on an island in the middle of Charleston harbor. The beleaguered garrison set about fortifying their position while awaiting further instructions from Washington.

As events unfolded, the administration of James Buchanan proved unable to handle the growing secession crisis. They ignored or overlooked Anderson's pleas for both reinforcements and supplies throughout the winter and early spring of 1861. Bereft of orders, Anderson took it upon himself to maintain the status quo as long as his possession of Fort Sumter was not compromised. He politely rebuffed Confederate demands for his surrender, but in a most conciliatory fashion. His determination to avoid provoking hostilities was underscored on January 9, 1861, when Confederate shore batteries fired upon and drove off the much-needed supply ship Star of the West. This greatly exacerbated his logistical problems, and he went so far as to advise Southern emissaries that he would be forced to capitulate on April 15, 1861 if supplies were not forthcoming.

It fell upon the newly installed administration of Abraham Lincoln to break the impasse. The president probably realized that Anderson's garrison was doomed in the event of war, so he orchestrated a scheme to maximize political benefit from their demise. He thereupon declared that an expedition was being mounted for the express purpose of resupplying Fort Sumter and not reinforcing it. If the Confederates had the audacity to violate this humane mission, he expected Southern aggression to mobilize and unify his Northern political base.

Lincoln's reasoning proved correct. Unwilling to tolerate a Union garrison further, and determined to prevent its being supplied, on April 12, 1861 General Pierre G. T. Beauregard sent an ultimatum to Anderson demanding his immediate surrender. Anderson, unmoved as always, politely declined. One hour later, at 4:30 A.M., Confederate gunners fired the first shots of the Civil War. Discarding his past deference, Anderson replied in kind and allowed his subordinate, Captain Abner Doubleday, the honor of returning the first Union shot. The ensuing 36-hour bombardment severely damaged Fort Sumter before Anderson struck his colors on April 14, 1861. The garrison then surrendered with honors of war and was paroled and allowed to leave. Miraculously, Union forces sustained only two fatalities--a gunner who died when his cannon exploded as it fired a salute to the lowering American flag and another soldier mortally wounded by the explosion. But, as Lincoln anticipated, the Confederates were tarred as aggressors and bolstered Northern sentiment for war.

Anderson's stand at Fort Sumter made him a national hero overnight, and he was promoted to brigadier general on May 15, 1861. He subsequently commanded the Department of Kentucky (later the Department of the Cumberland) for several months as the neutrality of that essential border state hung in the balance. Anderson worked carefully on behalf of the federal government until his health gave out and he was replaced by General William T. Sherman on October 8, 1861. He saw no further action until April 1865, when he donned the uniform of a brevet major general of volunteers and hoisted the American flag over Fort Sumter after the Confederate surrender. Anderson then relocated to Europe in an attempt to improve his health; he died in Nice, France, and was interred at West Point.

John C. Fredriksen
From ABC-CLIO's Encyclopedia of the American Civil War, David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, editors


Further Reading
Klein, Maury. Days of Defiance: Sumter, Secession, and the Coming of the Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997; Garrison, Webb S. Lincoln's Little War: How His Carefully Crafted Plans Went Astray. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997.
 

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