Sunday, July 24, 2016

Joseph Holt to Major Robert Anderson, February 23, 1861

WAR DEPARTMENT, February 23, 1861.
First Artillery, Commanding Fort Sumter, Charleston Harbor, S.C.:

SIR: It is proper I should state distinctly that you hold Fort Sumter as you held Fort Moultrie, under the verbal orders communicated by Major Buell,* subsequently modified by instructions addressed to you from this Department, under date of the 21st of December, 1860.

In your letter to Adjutant-General Cooper, of the 16th instant, you say:

I should like to be instructed on a question which may present itself in reference to the floating battery, viz: What course would it be proper for me to take if, without a declaration of war or a notification of hostilities, I should see them approaching  my fort with that battery? They may attempt placing it within good distance before a declaration of hostile intention.

It is not easy to answer satisfactorily this important question at this distance from the scene of action. In my letter to you of the 10th of January I said:

You will continue, as heretofore, to act strictly on the defensive, and to avoid, by all means compatible with the safety of your command, a collision with the hostile forces by which you are surrounded.

The policy thus indicated must still govern your conduct.

The President is not disposed at the present moment to change the instructions under which you have been heretofore acting, or to occupy any other than a defensive position. If, however, you are convinced by sufficient evidence that the raft of which you speak is advancing for the purpose of making an assault upon the fort, then you would be justified on the principle of self-defense in not awaiting its actual arrival there, but in repelling force by force on its approach. If, on the other hand, you have reason to believe that it is approaching merely to take up a position at a good distance should the pending question be not amicably settled, then, unless your safety is so clearly endangered as to render resistance an act of necessary self-defense and protection, you will act with that forbearance which has distinguished you heretofore in permitting the South Carolinians to strengthen Fort Moultrie and erect new batteries for the defense of the harbor. This will be but a redemption of the implied pledge contained in my letter on behalf of the President to Colonel Hayne, in which, when speaking of Fort Sumter, it is said:

The attitude of that garrison, as has been often declared, is neither menacing, nor defiant, nor unfriendly. It is acting under orders to stand strictly on the defensive, and the government and people of South Carolina must know that they can never  receive aught but shelter from its guns, unless, in the absence of all provocation, they should assault it and seek its destruction.

A dispatch received in this city a few days since from Governor Pickens, connected with the declaration on the part of those convened at Montgomery, claiming to act on behalf of South Carolina as well as the other seceded States, that the question of the possession of the forts and other public property therein had been taken from the decision of the individual States and would probably be preceded in its settlement by negotiation with the Government of the United States, has impressed the President with a belief that there will be no immediate attack on Fort Sumter, and the hope is indulged that wise and patriotic counsels may prevail and prevent it altogether.

The labors of the Peace Congress have not yet closed, and the presence of that body here adds another to the powerful motives already existing for the adoption of every measure, except in necessary self-defense, for avoiding a collision with the forces that surround you.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

SOURCES: Samuel Wylie Crawford, The Genesis of the Civil War: The Story of Sumter, 1860-1861, p. 293-4; The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume 1 (Serial No. 1), p. 182-3.

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