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American Collections blog

13 April 2011

Major Robert Anderson, Hero of Fort Sumter

Maps_71495_54_major_anderso 
[detail, Maps.71495.(54)]

Many people's sympathies were divided by secession in 1861.  Major Anderson, who had served as an artillery officer in the Black Hawk, Seminole and Mexican wars, was born in Jefferson County, Kentucky, and owned a few enslaved African Americans in his wife's state of Georgia.  Believing that secession was ultimately inevitable, he wrote that, 'In this controversy between the North and the South, my sympathies are entirely with the South.'  Nonetheless, his commitment to the Union and the constitution of the United States ensured he remained loyal to Washington, and he was placed in command of the three federal forts at Charleston, South Carolina.  When that state seceded on 20 December, he realised that only Fort Sumter, an island in Charleston Harbor, was defensible, and secretly moved there during the night of 26 December. 

There then began a long blockade by confederate forces, in which Anderson faced dwindling supplies and the worry that he might be responsible for starting a war.   Soon, the entire, but divided, nation, was watching the standoff.

On 11 April, his former student, the confederate brigadier general Pierre Beauragard demanded his surrender. Anderson refused, at at 4:30 a.m. on 12 April, bombardment of the fort began.  The barrage continued for 34 hours.  Along with 127 officers and men, and 43 civilians, Anderson defended the fort until he they were finally forced to surrender on 13 April, and the banner was lowered on April 14. 

His defence made him the Union's first war hero, celebrated in portraits such as the one above, taken from a contemporary map, which placed him alongside images of Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln.  After serving in Kentucky and Tennessee, he returned to Fort Sumter on 14 April 1865, where he once again raised the Union flag.

He died in Nice, in 1871.  His letters to his wife during the Mexican War are published in An Artillery Officer in the Mexican War, 1846-7. Letters of Robert Anderson ... (G. P. Putnam's Sons: New York & London, 1911) [9555.v.2]

 

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