Country over cause: Robert Anderson at Fort Sumter

In a speech to the Massachusetts Antislavery Society days before the end of the Civil War, Frederick Douglass said that the conflict began “in the interest of slavery on both sides. The South was fighting to take slavery out of the Union, and the North was fighting to keep it in the Union; the South fighting to get it beyond the limits of the United States Constitution, and the North fighting to retain it within those limits;”

Frederick Douglass Sculpture and Water Wall in Harlem, author’s photo

At the outset of the war, Federal military goals merely included restoring the Union to its prewar status, with emancipation often explicitly rejected as a war aim much to the dismay of abolitionists like Douglass. Though President Lincoln drastically altered war aims to include military emancipation and arming Black volunteers when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation January 1, 1863, the first year and a half of the Civil War featured few Black soldiers in combat and was viewed, especially within the racial caste system of the United States, as a “white man’s conflict.”

So perhaps it’s fitting that the first shots of this rebellion to preserve and extend slavery were defended by a proslavery Kentuckian who surprisingly chose country over cause according to historian Jennifer Murray (p. 14). After South Carolina seceded in December 1860, former slaveholder Robert Anderson was handpicked by outgoing Secretary of War John B. Floyd to manage U.S. Army garrisons in Charleston harbor.

The first shots of the Civil War were fired from Fort Johnson at left, author’s photo

Secretary of War Floyd, who would soon join the Confederate Army, knew Maj. Anderson was hopelessly outnumbered & hoped the Southern sympathizer would follow instructions to hand over U.S. forts to the Rebels if confronted with overwhelming force. He was wrong.

Originally stationed at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, Anderson removed his command to Fort Sumter on December 26, 1860 in a move that outraged Secretary of War Floyd. As Southern sympathizers in outgoing President James Buchanan’s Cabinet informed Southern forces of Federal moves to resupply Anderson’s beleaguered garrison, an uneasy truce settled over Charleston harbor over the next three months.

Fort Sumter interior parade ground, author’s photo

After President Abraham Lincoln vowed to “hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government” in his March 4, 1861 First Inaugural Address, the uneasy truce was broken. The president hoped to provoke the Confederates into casting the first blow, explicitly saying so to close the address: “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect, and defend it.”

interpretive panel Fort Sumter visitor center, author’s photo

Lincoln’s political provocation continued in the form of ordering a Federal relief squadron to re-provision the fort on April 6, 1861. Not recognizing the Southern Confederacy as a sovereign nation, Lincoln notified South Carolina Governor Francis Pickens about the Federal relief expedition as opposed to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Pickens quickly conferred with the local Confederate commander, who was ordered by President Davis to demand Anderson surrender, and if denied, reduce the fort.

author’s video recorded February 20, 2022

When Confederates under Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard demanded the surrender of the 128-soldier garrison Fort Sumter on April 11, 1861, Maj. Anderson refused, writing in response: “I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your communication demanding the evacuation of this Fort; and to say in reply thereto that it is a demand with which I regret that my sense of honor and my obligations to my Government, prevent my compliance.”

Negotiations stalled while Anderson awaited provisions, and Rebels at nearby Fort Johnson opened up a 34 hour artillery bombardment at 4:30 AM on April 12, 1861. Anderson finally surrendered the fort the next afternoon after sustaining 5,000 artillery rounds. Federal counter-battery fire was ineffective because Maj. Anderson refused to use the fort’s heavy-caliber guns on the exposed parapet. Additionally, he had improper fuses that forced him to rely on round shot, or cannon balls (Symonds, 1993, p. xv). Anderson’s undermanned Fort Sumter fired 1,000 mostly useless artillery rounds in response during the barrage, outgunned 5:1.

200-lb. Parrott Rifle at Fort Sumter, author’s photo

The aggressive bombardment of a Federal military installation by Southern Rebels enraged a previously war-reluctant northern populace. Shortly thereafter, four more Southern states seceded and Anderson received a promotion to brigadier general, hailed as a hero by a suddenly nationalist North.

Fort Sumter monument commemorating Anderson’s 1st U.S. Artillery who garrisoned Fort Sumter, author’s photo

Of the members of the recently formed Cabinet of the Confederate States of America, only Secretary of State Robert Toombs opposed the bombardment, telling President Davis: “it is suicide, murder, and will lose us every friend at the North. You will wantonly strike a hornet’s nest…Legions now quiet will swarm out and sting us to death. It is unnecessary. It puts us in the wrong. It is fatal,” (McPherson, 1990, p. 6). He was right.

Bombardment of Fort Sumter, Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, 1863, 1886, by William Aiken Walker at Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, author’s photo

When Fort Sumter was evacuated on April 14, 1861 enslaved people composed almost 60% of South Carolina’s population. By the time of Frederick Douglass’s April 1865 speech referenced earlier in this post, Black soldiers had marched through the streets of liberated Charleston singing “John Brown’s Body,” Congress had passed the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery and Army of Northern Virginia commander Robert E. Lee was on the verge of surrendering the largest Confederate army in the field.

Four years to the date of the fort’s surrender on April 14, 1865, executed 1822 Charleston slave revolt planner Denmark Vesey’s son Robert attended a flag raising ceremony at Sumter with Maj. Anderson.

33-star Fort Sumter flag at NPS visitor center, author’s photo

Works Cited

McPherson, James M., “Fort Sumter” in The Civil War Battlefield Guide, Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston, 1990.

Symonds, Craig L., A Battlefield Atlas of the Civil War, Nautical and Aviation Publishing Company of America: Baltimore, 1983.

“the black warriors of Port Hudson & Olustee”

Black and white Federals fought side by side in segregated regiments at the American Civil War battle of Olustee 45 miles west of Jacksonville, Florida on February 20, 1864. Federal goals for the military expedition were to get Florida back into the Union in time to seat Republican electors for the 1864 election, disrupt rail lines, and recruit enslaved men: nearly half of the state’s population. Three Federal brigades were halted near Olustee Station by 5,000 dug-in Confederates in open pine woods between two swamps.

Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park, author’s photo taken December 23, 2021

After quickly dispatching the 7th New Hampshire and their defective muskets, the Rebels set their sights on the 8th USCT, a new regiment of Black soldiers. Predictably, they were mauled by their veteran opponents, suffering a 50% casualty rate. Under sustained fire for 3 hours, the green 8th USCT was praised by their white officers. 1st Lt. Oliver Norton wrote, “Military men say that it takes veteran troops to maneuver under fire, but our regiment with knapsacks on and unloaded pieces….formed a line under the most destructive fire I ever knew.” Their regimental surgeon wrote, “I have no doubt as to the verdict of every man who has gratitude for the defenders of his country, white or black.”

Interpretive sign along mile-long trail at Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park, author’s photo

A Federal brigade of three white regiments advanced on the Union right and engaged the Confederates for four hours before falling back outnumbered. Fearful of being outflanked, Union Gen. Truman Seymour extended his line south by sending his final two Black regiments into the fight: the 1st North Carolina and 54th Massachusetts, of Glory fame. Their advance covered ground that now houses a state prison and a United Daughters of the Confederacy monument.

interpretive illustration from battlefield showing movements on Union left beyond modern UDC monument, author’s photo

While their regimental band played the Star Spangled Banner, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment entered the fight with a battle cry of, “Three cheers for Massachusetts and seven dollars a month!” a protest referencing the higher pay white soldiers received. At one point on the Union right, the 1st North Carolina managed to make it within 20 yards of the Confederate line, but Rebel small arms fire from front and flanks with sharpshooters in the trees was too much to handle.

author’s photo showing ground covered in previous illustration

Since the Union wounded were left on the battlefield during a hasty retreat, Confederate soldiers incensed at the “indignity” of having to fight Black soldiers committed a number of race-based murders, though historians dispute the scale. Despite committing the massacre, even Confederates praised the conduct of the Black soldiers in battle. “You Black soldiers fight like the devil. It is twice we met you: once at James Island and the other day at Olustee. We know all the Massachusetts flags. You peppered us like hell,” said three rebel stragglers who arrived in Union camp. Soldiers of the 54th submitted this exchange to the Weekly Anglo-African in the hopes that it would reduce prejudice: “the curse of the north as slavery is the curse of the South.”

Democratic newspapers seized on a comment in the New York Times made by a Rhode Island lieutenant who blamed the Black regiments for the Union defeat, saying: “It was our misfortune to have as support a negro regiment who by running caused us to lose our five abandoned artillery pieces.”

President Lincoln disagreed, the battle acting as a further catalyst of his evolving racial views, saying in an August 1864 White House meeting: “There have been men who have proposed to me to return to slavery the black warriors of Port Hudson & Olustee to their masters to conciliate the South. I should be damned in time & in eternity for so doing. The world shall know that I will keep my faith to friends & enemies, come what will.”

battlefield state park entrance, author’s photo

The Union striking force at Olustee lost 1,828 men killed, wounded, or 34%: the same casualty rate suffered at Fort Wagner.

Freedom for themselves and their race forever: The Battle of New Market Heights

At the Battle of New Market Heights outside Richmond, Virginia on September 29, 1864, white Brig. Gen. Thomas Paine commanded a strike force of Black soldiers from Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler’s U.S. Army of the James in an attempt to divert Confederate attention from the Petersburg defenses and possibly capture the Rebel capital. 14 of the 16 Medals of Honor awarded to Black soldiers during the Civil War were given for actions here.

The 4th and 6th USCT from Col. Samuel Duncan’s 3rd Brigade attacked Confederate earthworks along New Market Road south of Richmond at 5:30AM with little chance of success. After advancing across a rising plain and swampy creek under fire from enemy pickets, they had to get through a double line of abatis, felled trees with tangled branches, and outward projecting spiky palisades called fraise. If anyone made it through all of this, 16 yards remained to the five-foot high Confederate breastwork with a 10-foot ditch in front (Field, 2013).

Remnants of Confederate earthworks, though difficult to see, can still be seen in the leaf-covered section across the road in this author’s photo

‪Sgt. Maj. Christian Fleetwood earned the Medal of Honor for ensuring the National flag continued to wave during the attack. The 24 year old free Black Baltimorean wrote that the battle proved doubters of Black soldiers wrong, later writing, they “stood in the full glare of the greatest searchlight, part and parcel of the grandest armies ever mustered on this continent,” competing “with the bravest and the best and losing nothing by comparison,” (Davis, 1986). The 4th & 6th USCT lost 387 of 750 soldiers in 40 minutes.

the leaf-covered slight rise dominating the bottom of the photo contains remnants of Confederate earthworks from the battle, author’s photo

Former Antietam National Battlefield Chief Historian Ted Alexander (R.I.P.) was a mentor of mine during a grad school field study. Given that the field study was in 2016, we often clashed about politics, though always in a friendly way. A Vietnam War Vet, Ted had a strong devotion to the American flag. He wrote in his History Press book on the battle: “In the twenty-first century, there is often much debate over how we treat the flag. In the Civil War, there was none. Many soldiers were willing to give their lives for that flag.”

Perhaps the best examples of this confounding devotion to the American flag can be seen in the soldiers at New Market Heights, who time and time again rescued the flag of a country that displayed outright racial hatred towards many of them. In addition to Sgt. Maj. Fleetwood’s actions, Sgt. Alfred Hilton of the 4th USCT continued to hold the colors up after being shot through the leg and Cpl. Charles Veal also seized them before they touched the ground. 1st Lt. Nathan Edgerton came across the body of 2nd Lt. Frederick Meyers near the spot below. Meyers had already been killed, but the regimental flag of the 6th USCT was still “gripped in his lifeless fingers.” (Field, 2013).

author’s photo of New Market Heights Ln and VA-5 intersection. This is the closest you can get to where actual fighting took place until the American Battlefield Trust clears out the land to the wartime appearance and adds interpretive signage per a prospective plan, author’s photo

A few Federals in the first assault breached the Rebel works, but fell back due to small arms fire of 2,000 veteran troops. A revitalized assault two hours later by the other USCT brigades of Charles Paine’s Division, with the 5th USCT in the lead, carried the works and opened the New Market Road to Richmond.

‪But the Union left wing became disorganized and according to National Park Service Ranger and Historian Mike Gorman, “The other prong of the assault, the XVIII Corps did not do all that they might. And so instead of finding an open door to Richmond which would have ended the war on September 29, 1864 with African American troops leading the way!..instead just led to another bloody battle and more time in the lines which will stretch until Richmond is evacuated on April 2, 1865.”

Observing the casualty-filled field after the battle, Army of the James commander Benjamin Butler, a former proslavery Democrat who supported Jefferson Davis for president at the 1860 Democratic National Convention, was visibly touched by the Black soldiers’ performance, saying “I felt in my inmost heart that the capacity of the Negro race for soldiers had then and there been fully settled forever.” He continued in a letter to his wife the next morning: “Poor fellows, They seem to have so little to fight for in this contest, with the weight of prejudice loaded upon them. To us, there is patriotism, fame, love of country, pride, ambition, all to spur us on …. But there is one boon they love to fight for, freedom for themselves and their race forever.”

Works Cited

Davis, William C. Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg. Time-Life Books, Alexandria, Virginia, 1986.

Field, Ron. Union Infantryman vs Confederate Infantryman: Eastern Theater 1861-65, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2013.