Much to the South Carolinians’ chagrin, the federal military presence in the city—a small garrison of 82 men—remained behind the walls of Fort Moultrie on Charleston’s Sullivan’s Island. In an attempt to calm the heightened nerves and keep the peace, Buchanan promised that he wouldn’t send Major Robert Anderson, the garrison’s commander, any reinforcements. But as tensions rose, Anderson feared that Fort Moultrie’s position was indefensible against potential attack from organized militias or unorganized mobs. Under cover of darkness on December 26, 1860, Anderson removed his garrison from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter, located on a purpose-built island in the middle of the harbor. He hoped the distance and isolation would lessen tensions. It did not.
South Carolinians saw the move as a broken promise and demanded surrender of the garrison now safely behind the walls of Fort Sumter. Perhaps he didn’t like to be called a liar. Perhaps Buchanan decided it was time to protect the men who called him Commander in Chief. No matter. He had finally found his backbone. He said “No.”
Actually, it was more like a “heck no”. He hadn’t broken his promise…there were still the same number of federal soldiers in Charleston as before Anderson moved. Anderson was commander of not only Forts Moultrie and Sumter but also Castle Pickney and as such, it was well within his authority to move from one fort to another as he saw fit.
But Buchanan wasn’t done with his newly acquired backbone. Now he would send reinforcements to the garrison, thankyouverymuch.
The civilian steamer, the Star of the West, was chartered, loaded with 200 men, medical supplies and food, and headed out to reinforce the garrison at Fort Sumter. The unarmed and unescorted ship was underway by the time the Secretary of War, Joseph Holt, received notice from Anderson that he and his men we safe and didn’t need any supplies or help. Unfortunately, the Star of the West would not get that message and continued on its mission…
…until on January 9th, when it had Fort Sumter in its sights. And in turn, came into the sights of cadets from The Citadel manning the guns on Morris Island. When the ship came within range, the cadets opened fire. Two shots missed and a third caused minor damage. The civilian captain decided the experience was above his pay grade. The Star of the West turned back.
These could have been the first shots of the Civil War, but Buchanan, satisfied with his momentary show of strength, stowed his backbone for another time, ignored the fact that the flag of the United States had been fired upon, and handed an even worse situation to his successor, Abraham Lincoln. It would be 3 months and 3 days later when shots would again ring out in Charleston Harbor, and when they did, they would not be ignored.
Toni is a wife, mom and history buff who loves bringing the Civil War to life for family members of all ages.