On Wednesday, December 26, 1860, Major Robert Anderson moved his small garrison from Fort Moultrie to the unfinished Fort Sumter.
Anderson had been pressing the War Department for orders since taking command of the Charleston garrison in mid-November. About all he had been told was that he could defend himself if attacked. Anderson's main concern was Fort Sumter. It sat on a man-made granite island in the middle of the mouth of Charleston harbor and was empty except for some civilian workmen. It could be easily captured by South Carolina militia, and would give them complete control of the harbor, leaving Washington unable to send supplies and reinforcements to the garrison.
Finally, Secretary of War John B. Floyd sent Major Don Carlos Buell to Charleston to give Anderson some instruction. The orders -- "a broad explanation of general policy rather than explicit orders" -- were given to Buell verbally.
On December 11, once he had visited the garrison and made his own appraisal, Buell put Anderson's orders in writing. Anderson was not to do anything to provoke the people of Charleston, but, if attacked, he could move his men into whichever fort was the most defensible. Buell went farther: "You are also authorized to take similar steps whenever you have tangible evidence of a design to proceed to a hostile act." As Charleston was a hotbed of "tangible evidence," Anderson, if he interpreted his orders liberally, now had permission to move to Fort Sumter whenever he thought necessary.
After dark on December 26, Anderson evacuated Fort Moultrie. The wives and children of the enlisted men were transported to Fort Johnson, on the south side of the harbor. The two small companies of the garrison marched down to the wharf and boarded boats that took them to Fort Sumter.
Anderson's move touched off a major crisis. After declaring its independence, South Carolina had sent a group of commissioners to Washington to negotiate for the Charleston forts and arsenal. These commissioners reached Washington at about the same time as the news of Anderson's move. The group was indignant, accusing President Buchanan of breaking the agreement he had reached earlier with the South Carolina congressmen. They demanded that Anderson be ordered to return to Fort Moultie. Buchanan almost capitulated, but a few cabinet meetings strengthened his resolve and he sent the commissioners on their way. He even decided to reinforce Anderson.
South Carolina authorities quickly took possession of the now empty Fort Moultrie, Castle Pinckney, the arsenal, the customs house and the post office. Every Federal official in the state, from judges to postmaster, resigned.
"The row is fast and furious now. They say if we had been left out in the cold alone, we might have sulked a while, but back we would have had to go, and would merely have fretted and fumed and quarreled among ourselves. We needed a little wholesome neglect. Anderson had blocked that game, but now our sister States have joined us and we are strong. I give the condensed essence of the table talk: 'Anderson has united the Cotton States. Now for Virginia!' Those who want a row are in high glee. Those who dread it are glum and thoughtful enough." -- Mary Boykin Chesnut