Robert Anderson was a mild-tempered man, but not one that could be pushed around. His background was perfect for his most famous command: from Kentucky, he was personally in favor of slavery, a point in his favor in commanding the defenses of Charleston Harbor. But he was also completely loyal to the United States, and the secessionists could never make him waver.
He was a professional soldier, graduating from West Point in 1825 and beginning a slow rise through the artillery to Major by 1860. He was sent to Charleston in November 1860 and left to solve the problem himself: the Buchanan Administration didn’t have any answers.
Lincoln’s election raised the stakes, and South Carolina hardly paused for breath before breaking away from the United States. Anderson saw what was in the wind, and moved his tiny garrison from a small, decrepit fort on the mainland to Fort Sumter in the middle of the harbor.
He had snuck out in the middle of the night, and to make it possible had made some vague promises. Both, combined with the signal of resistance, enraged the South Carolinians. They began throwing up artillery batteries around the harbor, surrounding Fort Sumter, which was itself incomplete.
Anderson had to balance completing the fort (which required persuading the civilian workers), maintaining the morale of the isolated garrison, and avoiding provocation of the overwhelming Carolinians. He bit his tongue and held his fire when the Confederates fired on a supply ship in January. The conclusion was still months away, and it must have seemed an eternity marooned on the island in the middle of the harbor. Eventually, with rations running short Anderson admitted he’s have to surrender on April 15 – but not a moment sooner. That wasn’t good enough for the Confederates, who opened fire before dawn on the 12th.
Anderson held out as long as he could, but surrendered on the 13th. Part of the compromise was a 100-gun salute to the US flag – something the Confederates could agree, as it was honoring a foreign flag, and they could hope for reciprocity.
Instead, the firing was on the flag. Anderson was appointed a Brigadier General, and sent to Kentucky where he played a useful role in holding that state in the Union. He commanded administrative areas in Kentucky and along the Cumberland River until 1863, when his health had sunk too far. He retired late in October, but returned to Charleston in April 1865, hoisting the same flag he’d had to lower four years earlier.
Content provided by:
Eicher, John H. & David J. Civil War High Commands. Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 2001.
Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Blue - Lives of the Union Commanders.
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999.