150th Anniversary of Fort Sumter – Don Carlos Buell’s Visit to Maj. Robert Anderson



Buell Sent on a Special Mission

Recommendation to Leave Fort Moultrie

By Maj. A. W. NELLIS Maysville, Kentucky

Published in the National Tribune, June 21, 1906

Maj. Robert Anderson the commandant at Fort Sumter was sick, aged, and irresolute. Had he been a strong man of determination the war might have begun three months earlier. The following is an interesting bit of history told by Gen. Buell. Along in the fall of 1887 my old friend Gen Don Carlos Buell who was at that time Pension Agent at Louisville wrote me. I may say not only a very friendly but also a very urgent letter telling me that I must come and see him.

From a correspondence reaching over quite a number of years, I Inferred that he wanted to talk with me about some of his varied experiences while In command here in Kentucky in 1861-62. I went down one Saturday in December and remained with the General a couple of days during which time he told me many interesting stories of which the following is to me the best. These are his words as nearly as I can remember.

I was a Major in the Adjutant-Generals Office in Washington at the time of the Presidential election in 1860. Just as soon as Mr. Lincoln’s election was assured South Carolina made ready to secede from the Union and the only thing that stood In the way was a handful of soldiers at Fort Moultrie in Charleston Harbor under command of Maj. Robert Anderson of the 1st U S Artillery. The Governor of South Carolina as well as the members of Congress from that State thinking they had things all their own way at once intimated to President Buchanan that it would be well to remove the troops. This not being done the malcontents made up their minds to take Fort Moultrie by force.

One Sunday early in December the Secretary of War John B Floyd sent for me to come to his house saying that he had been bidden to send me to Maj. Anderson with a verbal communication. I went to Floyd’s house and had a talk with him which extended over the whole afternoon and evening He said that the state of affairs in Charleston Harbor had caused him as well as the President and Lieut. Gen. Scott the deepest concern. It was plain to be seen that Maj. Anderson and his little band would soon fall victims to the fury of the fanatical Secessionists if something was not done for their relief. He had selected me to go to the fort and tell Maj. Anderson what to do and what not to do.

Strange to say the Secretary of War gave me no written instructions. Apparently, he was in deep trouble over the state of affairs in the South. War was at our doors and he did not know how to meet the coming storm. To me John B Floyd was a fine type of the old Virginia gentleman. Socially my relations with him were of the friendliest nature. Over the lapse of years there still remains the sweet fragrance of a warm friendship. If he was a Secessionist at heart he never told me so. He was terribly incensed at the doings of the hot heads and crazy politicians at Charleston and told me to say to Maj. Anderson that the President was very desirous that he should abstain from doing anything that might be made an excuse for the shedding of blood but if affairs came to the worst he must take care of himself the best he could with the means at his command in South Carolina.

The next day I started for Charleston. The very moment I passed the borders of South Carolina I realized that I was among a people who were insane about their political rights and wrongs and were determined to fight somebody or something. In the cars at the hotels and upon the streets I saw great crowds of excited men and women who with one voice protested their determination to live no longer under the National Flag. At Charleston I saw many men in uniform drilling with arms in their hands and although there was no martial law to obstruct my free movements, I was forcibly detained in the hotel for some hours before I was allowed to proceed to the place of my destination.

I found Maj. Anderson much excited in mind and depressed in spirits. He felt that the War Department had left him to his fate. He inquired anxiously if he commanded all the forts in the harbor and if he could move his command to Fort Sumter. Looking around I saw that Moultrie was nothing but a little sand battery mounting 25 or 30 guns all pointing seaward. Long neglected, it was much out of repair. The sea winds had piled up the sand all around it so that a child could climb unaided upon its ramparts. Some 300 yards away a street of houses afforded protection to any sharpshooter wishing to pick off the gunners. Of ammunition and provisions there were very little on hand. The garrison consisted of less than 100 all told beginning with the commanding officer and ending with the hospital steward. Accommodations were so poor that there was not even a spare bed In all of the fort and so the Major was compelled to share his bed with me.

I was there some 30 hours during which time we talked over the situation together. I saw at once that Anderson was not the man for the place nor the emergency. He was quite an elderly man very religious and in very frail health and while a good Union man had no hope for the Union and the final triumph of the Flag. He even declared that the South would be sure to come out triumphant in the end. The war cloud that hung black and portentous over the whole land had no silver lining for him. I told him time and again to take care of himself and when he finally became satisfied that affairs were coming to a focus that he must leave Moultrie and take possession of Sumter. Upon my departure I thought It best to give him the following instructions in writing and it was well for me that I did.

Memorandum of verbal instructions to Maj. Anderson 1st U. S. Artillery commanding Fort Moultrie S C.

You are aware of the great anxiety of the Secretary of War that a collision of the troops with the people of this State shall be avoided and of his studied determination to pursue a course with reference to the military force and forts in this harbor which shall guard against such collision. He has therefore carefully abstained from increasing the force at this point or taking any measures which might add to the present excited state of the public mind. He feels that South Carolina will not attempt by violence to obtain possession of the works or interfere with their occupancy. But as the acts of rash and impulsive persons may possibly disappoint these expectations of the Government he deems it proper that you should be prepared with instructions to meet so unhappy a contingency.

You are carefully to avoid every act which would needlessly tend to provoke aggression and for that reason you are not without evident and imminent necessity to take up any position which could be construed into the assumption of a hostile attitude But you are to hold possession of the forts in this harbor and if attacked to defend yourself to the last extremity.

The smallness of your force will not permit you perhaps to occupy more than one of the three forts but an attack on or an attempt to take possession of any one of them will be regarded as an act of hostility and you may then put your command into either of them which you may deem most proper. You are also authorized to take similar steps whenever you have tangible evidence of a design to proceed to a hostile act.

D C Buell Assistant Adjutant General
Fort Moultrie, S C Dec. 11, I860

Returning at once to Washington, I called on the Secretary of War and submitted my report. He indorsed a copy of the paper I had given to Anderson saying that it was in accordance with his verbal instructions to me. On Dec. 20, South Carolina seceded from the Union. On the night of the 26th Anderson abandoned Moultrie spiking, the guns burning the gun carriages, cutting down the flagstaff and transferring his garrison, bag and baggage to Fort Sumter four miles down the bay. The next morning the whole country was electrified with the news, everybody in Washington being taken by surprise. Somebody meeting the Secretary of War on the street told him the report. He declared it could not be true for it was against the instructions communicated to Maj. Anderson through Maj. Buell.

There was great excitement everywhere. Many people rushed to the White House to see the President who protested that Anderson had gone without orders and against orders. The press all over the South demanded with one voice that Anderson should leave Sumter and go back into the death trap of Moultrie. A meeting of the Cabinet was called and there were long loud angry discussions over what was best to be done. The Secretary of War proclaimed in a loud voice that I had transcended my instructions and demanded that Anderson be compelled to retrace his steps. He threatened to leave the Cabinet if his wishes were not complied with.

A message was sent for me at the War Department to come at once to the White House. I compiled immediately taking with me a copy of my instructions to Anderson. I doubt if ever Floyd had read over that paper at all. There was quite a scene when he again threatened to leave the Cabinet. At first Buchanan seemed to waver when old Jerry Black jumped up and swore like a sailor that it was about time to take some steps to preserve the Union and the laws. Thereupon Floyd resigned his place only to follow his State into the terrible vortex of civil war. Strange to say President Buchanan had forgotten all about my having been sent to Moultrie to confer with Maj. Anderson. On the 9th of January 1861 the steamer Star of the West with reinforcements and supplies for Sumter was fired upon by the rebel batteries and driven back down the bay.

Anderson Instead of opening fire upon them called his officers together and asked their advice. It was then in his power to have shelled every rebel out of their sandpits. War should have begun right then and there. Anderson was not the man for that command or that emergency.

Note: Jeremiah “Jerry” Black was appointed Secretary of State in December 1860 when the Secession Crisis began. He was a strong Unionists and Buchanan appointed him to that position because of that.

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