When Abraham Lincoln won the national presidential election on November 6, 1860, relations between North and South, already dangerously strained, reached the breaking point. Lincoln, candidate of the Republican Party, was supported also by a radical element in the North and West that was demanding the abolition of slavery. Reaction in the South to the result of the election was immediate. Southern secessionists stirred the people of their section with fiery speeches and sought to withdraw their States from the Union. Southern conservatives tried to find a way out of political chaos by compromise, but their task was hopeless. A whole generation had failed to discover a successful plan by which the two sections of the country could live at peace. The struggle had now gone beyond the bounds of a political campaign; two divergent cultures stood face to face on the threshold of war.
With remarkable clarity of vision Gov. Joseph E. Brown of Georgia began to put his State in a condition of defense many months in advance of hostilities. The State volunteer military forces were re-organized and strengthened, and many new volunteer companies were formed. On his recommendation the legislature appropriated a million dollars for State defense, authorized the acceptance of 10,000 troops, and provided for a convention on January 16, 1861, to determine the future course of Georgia.
Meanwhile, Governor Brown continued to rush preparations for defense. He obtained from the War Department sample sets of U. S. Army infantry and cavalry equipment, which he proposed to manufacture in Georgia. The Secretary of War also described, on request, the type of rifled cannons and projectiles which the War Department had found superior. Orders for cannon and arms were placed in Northern States, and a bonus of $10,000 was offered by the State to anyone setting up a cannon factory in Georgia which could make 3 guns a week and could cast a 10-inch columbiad.
In the midst of these preparations came the announcement that South Carolina had seceded from the Union on December 20. The news of this action was received in Georgia with demonstrations of wild excitement. In Savannah, people wearing secession cockades made of palmetto leaves erected a platform in one of the principal squares on which they placed a large picture of a rattlesnake with the inscription, "Don't Tread on Me." On the evening of December 26, companies of militia and citizens marched with torch lights and transparencies through the streets of Savannah in honor of South Carolina, and houses all over the community were brilliantly illuminated. Simultaneously an event was taking place in Charleston, S. C., that was to have an almost immediate effect on the course of action in Georgia, and, in fact, on the destiny of the entire South.
On that same evening, Maj. Robert Anderson, in command of the United States troops stationed in Charleston Harbor, moved his small garrison from an insecure position at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island, to Fort Sumter, a strong fortification in the middle of the harbor. This unexpected move enraged not only the people of Charleston, but of all the slave-holding States. President James Buchanan, it was understood, had assured the Government of South Carolina that no change in the status of the United States forces at Charleston would be made until the difficulties between the State and Federal Governments had been settled. Major Anderson, however, fearing that an attack was imminent, evacuated Fort Moultrie with great secrecy, spiked the cannons and burned most of the gun carriages.
The news of the occupation of Fort Sumter, which reached Savannah by telegraph early Thursday morning, December 27, stunned the people, it is said, like "an electric shock." Groups of angry citizens gathered on the streets to discuss the news and to give vent to their feelings. "There is but one sentiment on the question," announced the Savannah Republican, "and that is of indignation and resistance . . . We might have been quieted by a milder course, but there are none of us so degraded as to submit to being whipped into submission."
Federal forces in possession of Fort Sumter had Charleston Harbor blocked. The same danger, it was argued at a meeting of civil and military leaders, threatened the Georgia seaport, for, if it was the policy of the United States to provoke a war, the Federal Government, in furtherance of that policy, would occupy and hold all forts commanding the harbors of the Southern States. For their own safety, therefore, the people of Savannah determined to seize Fort Pulaski before the Federal Government had time to send a garrison to defend it.
Military men in Savannah realized the gravity of taking so serious a step toward revolution as, no doubt, did thoughtful civilians, but the popular spirit of the mob had been stirred to the point of spontaneous action. On the night of December 31, the Savannah Republican received a copy of an ominous telegram to Alexander H. Stephens from United States Senator Robert Toombs, of Georgia. In this telegram Toombs warned the State of Georgia that a policy of coercion had been adopted by the Administration, that Joseph Holt, a bitter foe of the South, had been made Secretary of War, that the abolitionists were defiant, and that, in consequence, Fort Pulaski was in danger. The time had come for action.
Early next morning, Col. Alexander R. Lawton, in command of the 1st Volunteer Regiment of Georgia, telegraphed Governor Brown requesting him to come to Savannah at once. The Governor arrived about 9 p. in., and, after several meetings with leading citizens and military men, ordered the State militia to seize Fort Pulaski.
As there were no Federal troops garrisoned at Fort Pulaski, no difficulty was anticipated in seizing it, but the task of preparing an expedition in 24 hours for the purpose of occupying the stronghold was not a small matter. Arms, ammunition, and equipment had to be provided, commissary supplies purchased, and a steamboat for the transportation of men and baggage to Cockspur Island had to be secured. Detachments of 50 men each from the Savannah Volunteer Guards and the Oglethorpe Light Infantry and 34 men from the Chatham Artillery were selected to make the expedition. Each man was instructed to carry with him a knapsack containing a change of clothing, iron spoon, knife, fork, tin cup, clothesbrush, shoebrush, box of blacking, and a comb and brush.
Early next morning, January 3, 1861, the troops assembled in a pouring rain and marched through streets lined with cheering citizens to the wharf at the foot of West Broad Street, where they embarked on the U. S. Government sidewheel steamboat, Ida, for the journey down the river. In personal command was Colonel Lawton. This small expeditionary force is said to have carried enough baggage to have served a division later in the war. Every soldier had a trunk, a cot, and a roll of bedding, while to every 3 or 4 men there was a huge mess chest large enough for the cooking outfit of a full regiment. Aboard also was the battery of the Chatham Artillery, which consisted of two 12-pounder howitzers and four 6-pounder field guns, all bronze.
At noon, the Savannah troops reached Cockspur Island and marched into Fort Pulaski with drums beating and colors flying. Colonel Lawton took formal possession of the fortification and the flag of Georgia was raised above the ramparts and saluted. No resistance was encountered. As the troops marched out on the parade ground of the fort, clouds which had obscured the sky for nearly a week broke away and the sun shone brightly. This was taken as a good omen. Georgia was now in possession of the strong fortification at the mouth of the Savannah River. The Governor's orders were to hold it against all persons and to abandon it only under new orders from him or under compulsion by an overpowering hostile force.