Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Evacuation of Fort Moultrie - December 26, 1860

Fort Moultrie, South Carolina
One of the first military events of the Civil War took place 150 years ago tonight when Major Robert Anderson and the U.S. garrison of Fort Moultrie, South Carolina, slipped across Charleston Harbor and occupied Fort Sumter.

It was a move, in Anderson's words, meant to "prevent the effusion in blood." In reality, it would lead to the outbreak of the bloodiest war in American history.

Fort Moultrie, located on Sullivan's Island across from Charleston, had long been the primary post for U.S. troops maintaining and garrisoning the forts that guarded the South Carolina harbor. Soldiers from William Tecumseh Sherman to Edgar Allen Poe had been stationed there and during the 1830s it had served as the prison for the famed Seminole warrior Osceola. His grave, in fact, can still be seen just outside the walls of the old brick fort.

1860 Sketch of Evacuation of Fort Moultrie
When South Carolina became the first Southern state to secede from the Union on December 20, 1860, Fort Moultrie was held by a small garrison of men from two companies of the First U.S. Artillery. A report of the time listed their number as no more than 65 in all. They were commanded by Major Robert Anderson, a Kentucky-born graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point who had served in the U.S. Army for more than 30 years and been severely wounded at the Battle of Molino del Rey during the Mexican War.

The author of a textbook on field artillery tactics, Anderson knew he could not hope to hold Fort Moultrie against any determined assault by South Carolina militia. The fort had been designed to sweep the channel of the harbor and its land defenses were minimal. If he hoped to maintain the U.S. presence in Charleston Harbor, his one option was to move his men across the channel to Fort Sumter.

Fort Sumter in distance from Fort Moultrie
Still incomplete in 1860, Fort Sumter was located on a small man-made island in the harbor and could be much more easily defended since any attacking force would have to approach by boat under the guns of the fort. Although the conditions there were much less comfortable than at Fort Moultrie, Anderson made the decision to move his men over.

Led by Anderson in person, the bulk of his force went over to Fort Sumter in boats on the night of December 26, 1860. Left behind were twelve men and a surgeon, commanded by Captain J.G. Foster of the engineers, who were ordered to spike the heavy guns in Fort Moultrie and destroy their carriages. This work was accomplished during the night of the 26th and the fort's flagstaff was also cut down.

To learn more about Fort Moultrie, now a national park area and open to the public daily, please visit

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