In November 1860, Major Anderson took command of the Federal forces in Charleston Harbor, which totaled about eighty men. They were primarily garrisoned in Fort Moultrie as Fort Sumter was still under construction. Fort Moultrie, an 1809 brick fort on Sullivan’s Island, housed the First US Artillery. Fort Sumter, begun in 1829, still stood unfinished but commanded the center of Charleston Harbor. Castle Pinckney was manned by a lieutenant and a single ordnance sergeant with his family. Anderson had been selected for this difficult command, given the growing tensions since Abraham Lincoln’s victory in the 1860 presidential election, for his competence, southern roots, sympathy for slavery, and his loyalty to the Union.
South Carolina’s secession from the Union on December 20, 1860 and resulting security risks at Fort Moultrie prompted Major Anderson to make the difficult decision to relocate his command to Fort Sumter. He successfully transferred his men to Fort Sumter under cover of darkness on December 26, 1860 and raised the Stars and Stripes over the fort the following day, a 20 x 36 foot garrison flag.
Major Anderson led his men admirably during months of uncertainty until the Civil War erupted on April 12, 1861. After a thirty-four hour bombardment, which had set the fort aflame, Major Anderson agreed to evacuation terms and lowered the Stars and Stripes on April 14, 1861. Greeted a hero upon his arrival in New York City on April 19, Anderson was later assigned to command the Department of Kentucky, but his failing health compelled him to retire from active service in 1863.
Brevet Major General Anderson returned to Fort Sumter on April 14, 1865 to participate in a victory ceremony. Before he raised the 33-star American flag that flew over the fort in 1861, he addressed the crowd:
Hoping to restore his deteriorating health, Anderson sailed for France in 1869. He died in Nice on October 26, 1871; France honored Anderson with a military funeral, after which his body was sent to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York for interment. Despite his Southern sympathies, Robert Anderson faithfully discharged his duty to the United States during a time of great turmoil. He was mourned as the first hero of the Civil War."I am here, my friends and fellow-citizens, and brother soldiers, to perform an act of duty which is dear to my heart, and which all of you present appreciate and feel. Did I listen to the promptings of my own heart, I would not attempt to speak; but I have been desired by the Secretary of War to make a few remarks. By the considerate appointment of the honored Secretary of War to fulfill the cherished wish of my heart through four long years of bloody war -- to restore to its proper place this very flag which floated here during peace before the first act of this cruel rebellion -- I thank God I have lived to see this day, to be here to perform this perhaps the last act of duty to my country in this life."