Thursday, December 30, 2010

Sesquicentennial, Part IX: A Point Of No Return?


Officers, as we've already discussed, do not take an oath to follow orders. They hold their commission from the President, they are sworn to defend the Constitution, and they can (and are) sacked if they flout authority. Direct orders are given great weight in their thought. But, absent orders, American soldiers have been known to draw up their own as they see fit. It's a trait that bedeviled Soviet military planners, one of whom wrote: "The difficulty in countering American military doctrine is that their officers do not feel compelled to follow it." It was just as true in 1860 as in 1980.

Major Robert Anderson woke up to one hell of a problem on Christmas Day, 1860. He had command of fewer than 100 soldiers, and held the responsibility to defend Federal property in the harbor of Charleston. Charleston, you will remember, now held itself no longer part of the Union. Four days had passed since the declaration of December 20th, and no orders had come from Washington as to what to do about it. What he needed were reinforcements, and soon. But the Secretary of War, John Floyd, was dead-set against it. Big surprise there, he said sarcastically ... Floyd's sympathies were quite plainly with the secessionists, as his deployment orders the previous summer hinted. What Floyd really wanted, but dared not commit to paper, was for Major Anderson to pack up and head North.

Major Anderson packed up, all right. On the night of the 26th, Major Anderson spiked the guns at Fort Moultrie, gathered up his garrison, and lit out for Fort Sumter. His reasoning was simple, and militarily very sound. Fort Moultrie could not be held against a determined assault, not with only 100 men. And certainly not against a landward assault. Being a harbor fort, it was never built with landward defenses. Fort Sumter, on the other hand, was surrounded by water, and very much defensible. Given provisions and ammunition, 100 men could hold Fort Sumter for months. Maybe even indefinitely, if reinforcements and provisions could be had promptly.

He had no orders from Washington to do this. But neither did he have orders to yield up his garrison unfought. In the absence of orders either way, Major Anderson took the action he deemed best, and sought out the most defensible position he could find.

Secretary Floyd was not amused. The news arrived at Washington as fast as a telegraph wire could carry it, and by nightfall on the 27th Floyd had issued a stern telegram to Major Anderson demanding explanation: Intelligence has reached here this morning that you have abandoned Fort Moultrie, spiked your guns, burned the carriages, and gone to Fort Sumter. It is not believed, because there is no order for any such movement. Explain the meaning.

Major Anderson, outnumbered easily 100-to-1, was even less amused, and his reply showed it: Answer – the telegram is correct. I abandoned Fort Moultrie because I was certain that if attacked my men must have been sacrificed and the command of the harbor lost. I spiked the guns and destroyed the carriages to keep the guns from being used against us. If attacked, the garrison would never have surrendered without a fight. Unwritten, but obviously implied: You idiot.

Now, this message traffic went directly from Secretary Floyd to Major Anderson, cutting out the man who was at least nominally Major Anderson's commanding officer, Lieutenant General Winfield Scott. At age 74, General Scott was hardly amused by anything anymore, but these shenanigans annoyed him no end. It was clear to Scott that the harbor forts, being Federal property, must be defended. He was old, and ill, and tired; but nonetheless he had a duty to perform. On the morning of December 30, a Sunday, he dictated a hasty note to President Buchanan.

Lieutenant General Scott begs the President of the United States to pardon the irregularity of this communication.

It is Sunday; the weather is bad, and General Scott is not well enough to go to church. But matters of the highest national importance seem to forbid a moment’s delay, and if misled by zeal, he hopes the President’s forgiveness.


Will the President permit General Scott, without reference to the War Department and otherwise, as secretly as possible, to send two hundred and fifty recruits from New York Harbor to re-enforce Fort Sumter, together with some extra muskets of rifles, ammunition, and subsistence stores?

It is hoped that a sloop of war and a cutter may be ordered for the same purpose as early as to-morrow.

General Scott will wait upon the President at any moment he may be called for.

The President’s most obedient servant,


These reinforcements, if done promptly, would have given Major Anderson a force of battalion strength with which to hold Fort Sumter, and provisions to last a prolonged siege. The South Carolina militia will not yet have fortified the harbor against reinforcement. Prompt action could save the fort.

Prompt action ... wasn't Buchanan's strong suit.

Nevertheless, one Union major's spontaneous act made it Federal policy that Federal property would be defended with force of arms if need be. Neither Floyd nor Buchanan could gainsay that at this point. Looking back, it seems clear that this was the point of no return. Each side had staked a position from which they would not back down. There would be no negotiation, there would be no settlement, and now it was perfectly clear where the conflagration would begin. The only remaining question was, when?

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