All this time, he had been eyeing Fort Sumter. He had clearance to move his command there if attacked or if he had “tangible evidence” of a coming attack.
By Christmas, he had made his decision.
Sumter, with its 60 guns, would provide security for his command. Occupied, its strength might give the enemy pause and might even defuse the crisis, he hoped.
As night fell on Dec. 26, 1860, Anderson slipped his garrison across the channel and into Fort Sumter.
There, the next morning, after kneeling in prayer, he raised Fort Moultrie’s giant, 36-foot-long garrison flag, which he had brought with him.
Ashore, Charlestonians were enraged. They thought they had an understanding with Buchanan that no such move would be undertaken.
“We have been treacherously dealt with,” one resident wrote, according to historian David Detzer’s account of the crisis. “The die has been cast and we may now look for civil war.”
The next three months saw a steady escalation of the tension.
Anderson’s provisions dwindled as the South Carolinians ringed Sumter with weaponry and Washington fumbled.
On Jan. 9, 1861, the Star of the West, a resupply and reinforcement ship Anderson didn’t know was coming, approached the harbor and was driven off by enemy gunfire while the Sumter garrison watched, afraid of sparking hostilities.
A story is told that a Union soldier’s wife, incensed at the timidity, lunged forward to fire a gun at the rebels and was restrained by an officer. Not all historians accept the account, however.
On March 1, the newly minted Confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard, 43, a former student of Anderson’s at West Point, took command of the Charleston forces, with orders to seize Fort Sumter as soon as possible.
Three days later, in Washington, Lincoln was inaugurated, declaring secession “void” and promising to “hold, occupy and possess” all government property.
The collision seemed inevitable.
By April 3, Anderson was down to a few days’ worth of bread. He pleaded for orders: “I . . . most respectfully and urgently ask for instructions what I am to do as soon as my provisions are exhausted.”
The same day, there was suddenly more shooting from the rebel batteries. A mystery ship showing the stars and stripes was entering the harbor. The fort went on alert. Anderson again held his fire.
But it was another bungle. The ship was the Rhoda H. Shannon, a schooner bound from Boston to Savannah with a cargo of ice.
Her clueless skipper, Joseph Marts, got lost in the weather, thought Charleston was Savannah — 100 miles to the south — and sailed into the middle of the standoff, almost igniting the Civil War.
The tension in Charleston was now unbearable. “One’s heart is in one’s mouth all the time,” Chesnut wrote.