On Christmas Day 1860, Major Robert Anderson, commanding Fort Moutrie probably glanced a few times across the channel entering Charleston Harbor toward Fort Sumter.
That early winter day, Anderson’s view of the channel would have been cold and forbidding (unlike my mild South Carolina spring view above). But the channel offered perhaps more promise than the fiery political storm raging at that time.
Positioned at the south-west end of Sullivan’s Island at the mouth of Charleston Harbor, Fort Moultrie was the only U.S. Army post in the state with a garrison worth mentioning. And at that only around 75 men. When South Carolina seceded on December 20, 1860, Anderson and his command were, from the strategic perspective, isolated. Tactically, what made Anderson’s position most tenuous was the condition of Fort Moultrie.
Sand dunes banked up against the walls of the fort on the sea-facing sides. Early in December, Captain J. G. Foster, engineer assigned to the fort, cut out passages in the walls to build a set of bastions or caponnieres. Armed with flanking howitzers, these strengthened the defenses but were not enough.
Foster and others complained that civilian dwellings near the fort dominated the fort. (Note the overlook balcony on the modern house to the left of the gun’s muzzle.) But without orders, even with a direct threat, the garrison could not destroy civilian property. There wasn’t a war going on… yet.
The civilians living nearby were familiar to the garrison. Many of the work crews working on the fort lived nearby. Stella Maris Roman Catholic Church, used by many of the Irish immigrants working on the fort, stood just west of Fort Moultrie. (The church in the photo is a post-war structure, built between the original wood structure and the fort.) Anderson could not afford a confrontation which might involve the work crew, or families of the fort’s garrison.
Anderson faced a bleak situation, which could easily spin out of control. What he needed was time. Time for his leaders to negotiate away from confrontation. So Anderson traded space….
… for time.
And Anderson would buy some time by moving his garrison on the day after Christmas, 1860.