An important letter addressed to South Carolina Governor Pickens by Brigadier General James Simons. Writing on New Years Day 1861, early in the secession crisis, Simons reviews the tactical situation in Charleston Harbor and strongly recommends against any aggressive action against Fort Sumter, which had been occupied by Federal forces on December 27th. Simons’ frank and detailed exposition provides information about the disposition of militia forces in the early days of the confrontation, and conveys vividly the uncertain, highly-fluid situation in the months before the opening of hostilities.
Simons (1813-1879) was a Charleston lawyer, legislator and militia general. From 1842 to 1861 he represented St. Philip and St. Michael Parishes, and from 1850 to 1861 he was Speaker of the House. Having served as a militia officer since 1833, in 1858 he was appointed Brigadier General of the 4th Brigade of the South Carolina militia, stationed in Charleston.
Following South Carolina’s secession on December 21, 1860 the situation in Charleston Harbor was tense and fluid. On the 27th U.S. Army Major Robert Anderson and his men abandoned the indefensible 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.
Despite his long militia service, it seems that Simons was no lover of violence. Whatever his precise motives—and it is possible he was driven solely by what he believed to be a dispassionate analysis of the tactical situation—on January 1 he wrote Pickens the long letter offered here, offering a point-by-point objection to Pickens’ orders of December 31: “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)
In brief, Simons argues that Anderson’s occupation of Fort Sumter gave the Union complete control over Charleston Harbor. Referring to a map, sadly not present here, he writes:
“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.” (Simons, 1)
Further, he argues, it was impossible to prevent Union reinforcements; the other fortifications were vulnerable should Sumter be fully garrisoned; and in any event they were manned entirely by green South Carolina militia and cadets from the Citadel, none of whom had any experience with heavy weaponry. Further, even if the situation in the harbor could somehow 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[sic], 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)
The letter is signed with Simons’ distinctive signature, suggesting that this may be the actual letter sent by Simons to Pickens, rather than a retained copy. It should be noted that the letter was published during the War, in W. A. Harris’s Record of Fort Sumter (Columbia, S.C.: South Carolinian Steam Job Printing Office, 1862, pp. 14-17).
It is not clear whether other copies of the letter exist. The two primary repositories of James Simons’ papers appear to be at the University of South Carolina, which holds only two books of receipts and business records; and the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, which holds two of his letterpress copy books, but not covering the date this letter was written. UNC also holds a folder of miscellaneous papers dated 1859-1866, but these are not itemized in the finding aid. OCLC reveals nothing
When Governor Pickens read the letter 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!” (Harris, 20-21)
In the end Simons’ report was unnecessarily pessimistic, as he overestimated both Federal determination and the strength of Fort Sumter, while underestimating the capacities of the South Carolina militia. The Federal government was unwilling to risk war by an all-out effort to reinforce Major Anderson, leaving him on his own at Fort Sumter with a tiny garrison. Further, the fort was designed primarily for harbor defense and lacked defense against artillery emplaced either on James, Morris and Sullivan Island to the north and south. When the bombardment of Fort Sumter finally began on April 12, 1861, Anderson was forced to surrender the following day.
Simons commanded the fortifications at Morris’s Island during the bombardment, but his war service was brief and otherwise undistinguished: He resigned his command in a huff on July 10, 1861, due in part to ongoing controversy over his January 1 letter to Governor Pickens. In a July 15, 1861 letter to Pickens he writes:
“you have not shown that recognition which appeared to be due to me as a general officer. I detailed several instances, but confined myself to the facts, neither canvassing nor questioning your intuition or motive. You reply, that you do not think my reasons for resigning are sufficient, yet you adopt a line of argument to arrive at this conclusion, which not only admits the facts I have stated but is founded on a settled intention not to consult me, and why? Because on two occasions having been called into council & my opinion specially asked, I ventured to differ from you & express opinions not in conformity with yours. In other words my rank position & counsel as a public officer were to be overlooked, because I did not yield acquiescence to that which did not accord with my honest convictions.” (Simons ALS to Pickens, offered by Bartleby’s Books, accessed Jan. 2022 on AbeBooks.com)
Somewhat bizarrely, after resigning his commission Simons served for a time as a private in an artillery unit. Then, under authorization by Jefferson Davis, he made an abortive attempt to organize a Charleston legion, but ultimately spent most of the war focusing on his law practice. In this he seems to have prospered, enough so that from 1863-1869 he served as a Trustee of the University of South Carolina.
In all, a rich, fascinating and highly-controversial document from the earliest days of the Secession Crisis and the standoff in Charleston Harbor that ultimately ignited the Civil War.
Provenance and references
The letter has a long trail in the auction records, having changed hands at the Forest G. Sweet auction at Parke-Bernet (Oct. 23, 1957, lot #333) and then Sothebys New York, (Dec. 3, 2004, sale N08037, lot #350), where it was likely acquired by Chapel Hill Books. It then reappeared at Bloomsbury New York (sale 9, Apr. 9, 2008, lot #25. Each time the letter was accompanied by a manuscript plan of Fort Moultrie, incorrectly described as an enclosure or attachment to the letter.
Biographical background on Simons from Bruce S. Allardice, More Generals in Gray (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1995), pp. 209-210.