Sound of cannon wasn’t exactly new in April 1861 in Charleston, South Carolina. A few months early on November 10, 1860, a celebration cannon had been fired on November 10, 1860, after the locals heard that the state’s legislature was convening a secession convention.
Secession was not a new word or concept in November 1860, either. John C. Calhoun had seen to that for decades prior as he argued on the national political scene for nullification, states rights, and slavery as a necessary evil. Though Calhoun had died in 1850, his ideas had influenced and shaped the next generation of South Carolina politicians and the majority of political thought in the state. Many of the city’s citizens openly showed their support of secession in the final weeks of 1860 by flying home-designed flags with symbolism like “don’t tread on me” snakes or Palmetto trees. The U.S. flag started disappearing from the streets, balconies, and boats in the harbor.
Major Robert Anderson’s arrival in Charleston on November 23, 1860, brought some additional changes. He discovered that the U.S. garrison at Fort Moultrie had been allowing citizens to visit the fort whenever they wanted, and cows grazed on the fort’s parapet. Sensing the mood of the city, Anderson didn’t think such loose regulations were appropriate, especially since he had only 81 men and officers at that time in the garrison and 50 guns total at Fort Moultrie. Assessing the situation and consulting with other officers, Anderson decided that Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor was the key position to hold and starting thinking about abandoning the shore fortifications.
Meanwhile, the South Carolina secession convention packed up from Columbia and moved to Charleston in an attempt to avoid a smallpox outbreak in the state’s capital city. This pulled more secession sentiment, almost all the states politicians, and national spotlight on the coastal city. On December 20, 1860, the secession convention met at St. Andrews Hall and voted unanimously in support of leaving the Union. Charleston crowds cheered when they heard the news. Local business closed for the day to celebrate. Again, celebratory cannons fired. The newspaper the Charleston Mercury threw broadsheets out of their office windows, announcing, “The Union is Dissolved!” Later, that same evening the South Carolina legislature and governor declared their state to be an independent republic.
Celebrations lasted for days, the state and national politicians figured out what to do next. One of the first steps was getting Federal property transferred to the “new independent republic.” Major Anderson’s removal of his garrison from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter altered some of the circumstances and discussions.
The situation escalated during the early winter, but Anderson was told by President Buchanan that lives should not be risked to defend Fort Sumter, despite it being a strategic position for the control of the harbor. Buchanan sent the message down the chain of command, saying, “It is neither expected nor desired that you should expose your own life, or that of your men, in a hopeless conflict in defense of the forts . . . it will be your duty to yield to necessity and make the best terms in your power.”
As Anderson contemplated moving his garrison to Fort Sumter and started repairs on that fortification, the South Carolinians built batteries around the harbor and patrolled the harbor to try to prevent a Federal movement. It didn’t work. On December 26, 1860, the garrison moved in the darkness from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter.
A month and few days later on January 31, 1861, President Buchanan heard from Governor Pickens of South Carolina, demanding the surrender of Fort Sumter. It was the crescendo of weeks of messages across the harbor with consistent refusals from Major Anderson and a resupply effort had failed. The situation in the harbor stalemated but communications stayed open. Recruits flocked to Charleston, ready for war and anxious defend the newly formed Confederacy.
By the beginning of April 1861, Charlestonians knew that a fleet of ships had been dispatched to enter the harbor and resupply Fort Sumter. The first ship was sighted on the evening of April 11th. A delegation was sent to Fort Sumter, demanding surrender. Anderson refused, knowing the threat that he would be attacked.
“Things are happening so fast,” wrote diarist Mary Chesnut on April 11, 1861. Perhaps that simple statement reflects much of Charleston’s military and political experience on the eve of war and the final hours just before the shots were fired at Fort Sumter.