A dramatic and important manuscript report by South Carolina brigadier James Simons, written at a moment when the future of the Union hung in the balance. Simons the tactical situation in Charleston Harbor, just prior to the attack on Fort Sumter that touched off the Civil War. Illustrated by a large plan of Fort Moultrie.
James Simons, commander of the 4th Brigade of Charleston Militia, writes to Governor Pickens five days after U.S. Army Major Robert Anderson’s occupation of Fort Sumter. Simons’s report and the accompanying plan of Fort Moultrie alerted state authorities to the implications of Anderson’s move, but its pessimism elicited outrage from Governor Pickens. His frank and detailed exposition provides information about the disposition of militia forces in the early days of the confrontation, the risks South Carolina faced if open war was commenced in early 1861, and the anxiety provoked by the Union occupation of the fort. This report was later published in a very scarce 1862 pamphlet titled The Record of Fort Sumter, though to my knowledge the plan was never published.
Following South Carolina’s secession on December 21, 1860 the situation in Charleston Harbor was tense and fluid. On the 27th Union Major Robert Anderson and his men abandoned the undefendable Fort Moultrie and occupied Fort Sumter, situated in the center of the Harbor and thought to be one of the strongest fortresses in the world. In response Governor Pickens ordered South Carolina militia to occupy and/or reinforce the now-empty Fort Moultrie as well as Fort Johnson and Castle Pinckney, and to establish a new battery at Morris’s Island to command the entrance to the harbor. On December 31 he placed Major General Schnierle in charge of the whole, seconded by General Simons, with orders to prevent the reinforcement of Fort Sumter by any means necessary.
Simons’ report and plan of Fort Moultrie
The specific impetus for Simons’ report is unclear, though the opening suggests that he submitted it of his own volition, rather than as a reply to a request for a report on the tactical situation: “I can not sacrifice to matter of etiquette, questions and issues of such momentous importance as now surround us. I feel it to be my duty to report to you my opinion of the military movements which have been initiated.” (p. 1) His conclusions are that the occupation of Fort Sumter gave the Union control over the most vital fortification in Charleston Harbor, that it was not possible to prevent Union reinforcements, and that the other fortifications were vulnerable should Sumter be fully garrisoned. Further, even if the situation in the harbor could be resolved favorably, Southern ships would not be able to break the Union blockade outside the harbor, and one of the most important ports in the South would be effectively lost. In short,
“I feel it to be my duty, under all the circumstances above mentioned, to express my conviction of the inexpediency of commencing actual hostilities on our side, in our present wholly unprepared state, with raw, undisciplined troops, without equipments, munitions or proper arms required to work armaments that need the highest skill and training-nothing but bloody discomfiture must attend the opening campaign.” (p. 5)
Simons’ letter is accompanied by a large manuscript plan of Fort Moultrie. The fort was actually the third on that site, the first having been built in the 1770s and famously withstood British Admiral Parker’s attack in June 1776. The second was constructed in the 1790s during tensions with France and Great Britain, but was destroyed in an 1804 hurricane. The third fort, which still stands today, was erected in 1809.
The plan is annotated to explain the armament and fields of fire of the fort’s various “faces,” demonstrating how these combine with those at Fort Sumter to yield complete control of the Harbor:
“By the map which accompanies this paper, it will appear that your lines of communication with these points, as at present established, are directly within the range, and effective power of Fort Sumter-the Citadel of the Harbour, controuling every point. At the first return fire from Fort Sumter, your lines of communication are cut off with every single post.” (p. 1)
Though professionally executed, the plan appears to have been produced without the benefit of actual survey. A number of the notes are approximate in nature, such as “a dead angle of about 15 or 20 [degrees]” at the southwest face, suggesting that the plan was drawn in a hurry as Simons rushed to complete his report to Governor Pickens in time to influence events.
When Pickens read this report he was furious, writing:
“The conclusions of that report I consider would be to order troops from Fort Moultrie and Sullivan’s Island and Pinckney, and to abandon the attempt to keep our reinforcements, and in fact yield without a struggle on every point, and thus break down the spirit of our people, and cover our cause with imbecility and probable ruin. I shall do no such thing, nor shall I hold any Council of War that may drive me to such conclusions!” (Record of Fort Sumter, pp. 20-21).
Pickens must have been desperately short of able military officers, for on January 2-the day after receiving Simons’ report-he ordered Simons to take command of the Harbor forts after General Schnierle was felled by a “sudden illness.” (Record of Fort Sumter, p. 19)
Simons’ report was unnecessarily pessimistic. It was true that South Carolina could not, by itself, attack Fort Sumter, though his report makes clear the absolute necessity of doing so. But the Federal government was unwilling to risk war by an all-out effort to reinforce the Fort, leaving Anderson on his own for months. By February 1, however, six other Southern states had seceded, joining in the creation of a provisional Confederate government in Montgomery, Alabama. Later that month the Provisional Congress voted to seize Fort Sumter, by force if necessary. The bombardment of the Fort began on April 12, and it surrendered just two days later.
Provenance and references
Forest G. Sweet auction at Parke-Bernet (Oct. 23, 1957), lot #333. Sothebys Auctions New York, sale N08037 (Dec. 3, 2004), lot #350; Chapel Hill Books; and Bloomsbury Auctions New York, sale 9 (Apr. 9, 2008), lot #25. W.A. Harris, The Record of Fort Sumter from Its Occupation by Major Anderson to Its Reduction by South Carolina Troops (1862).
Old folds, else excellent