A gray fog rolled through Charleston on Christmas Day, a thick, wet blanket that cast a pall over the entire city.

Cold rain blowing in from the harbor kept most people indoors, save for those children who were able to "escape the parental roof" and sneak outside, roaming damp sidewalks to gaze at the festive decorations in misty shop windows.

It seemed, the Charleston Mercury reported, that "the elements had conspired to make the merriest day of all the year the most gloomy and forbidding."

The city had been quiet in the week following the secession vote. Other than the occasional unveiling of a new flag or banner, most of Charleston's attention had turned to the holidays. It appeared the remainder of 1860 would pass quietly.

To be sure, the ramifications of South Carolina's secession continued to spread across the country. Robert Barnwell Rhett and other delegates had departed for Washington, where they hoped to negotiate a peaceful transfer of federal property within the state's borders.

Across South Carolina, more federal employees resigned their commissions every day. Slowly, the state was cutting all ties to the Union.

The news in the Mercury reinforced local opinion that the state would not stand alone for long. Every day Charleston residents read reports that other states were planning their own secession conventions -- six in January alone. Florida would meet just after the New Year, while Mississippi and Alabama would meet concurrently on Jan. 7.

Texas, Georgia and Louisiana would follow by the month's end. North Carolina was still pondering its next move.

For the moment, however, South Carolina was in a state of limbo, its future as murky as Charleston's streets. The Mercury noted that this did nothing to quell the holiday spirit for most of the city's residents.

"Within doors there was the usual frolic and enjoyment, and the fact that they were no longer people of the United States did not diminish a whit of the zest with which people relished their turkeys and demolished their plum puddings and mince pies," the paper reported. "We venture to predict that next Christmas they will eat them with a still keener enjoyment."

It would be the last peaceful Christmas in Charleston for many years. Within two days, the entire city would be consumed by rumors of a coming war.

A more defensible fort

Maj. Robert Anderson felt a sense of unease.

The new commander at Fort Moultrie had been on the job little more than a month, and in that time everything had changed. He had monitored the events in Charleston closely and was disturbed by the animosity toward the United States -- and its military.

Still, he kept the fort's gates open to anyone who wanted to wander in, a symbolic gesture perhaps.

But in the days following the secession vote, rumors circulating on Sullivan's Island forced Anderson to reconsider. First, he heard that the state's militias had moved cannons to the north end of the island.

Others claimed that 2,000 riflemen had been dispatched to the houses and sand dunes surrounding Moultrie, their guns trained on the fort's parapet, ready to shoot at the first sign of action.

Even if Anderson dismissed those stories as fanciful conspiracies, he could not ignore the Mercury. The newspaper had begun to publish detailed diagrams of the harbor forts on its front pages -- this in a newspaper that seldom, if ever, used illustrations. What purpose could that serve, Anderson wondered?

Nothing good, he concluded.

Anderson, 56, was a Southerner to the core. A native of Kentucky, he had fought the Seminoles in Florida more than 20 years earlier. Before that, he had served with Abraham Lincoln in the Black Hawk Indian war of 1832.

Personally, Anderson had much in common with South Carolinians, save for the fact that his loyalty to the United States was unwavering. The military man thought this secession business was dangerous, the action of extremists. And he worried about what sort of extremism these secessionists might inspire next.

Whether the rumors were true, it was a reasonable assumption that Moultrie might be a target. The fort dated back to colonial times, had famously repelled the British in the early days of the American Revolution. Fort Moultrie was a symbol of the state and its independence.

The latest incarnation of the fort was more than 50 years old but still a potent force. Situated on the southern end of Sullivan's, it was in perfect position to defend the channel leading into Charleston Harbor.

But it was not built to defend itself from the very people it was supposed to protect.

The walls at Moultrie were notoriously low, and dunes had built up against some walls to the point that an occasional cow wandered onto the parapet. Even worse, Anderson was woefully undermanned. Designed to house 300 men, there were fewer than 100 U.S. soldiers stationed at the fort in December 1860.

As capable as Moultrie was, Anderson felt the more defensible position lay just across the channel.

Fort Sumter was an intimidating presence. Built on a man-made island, the walls of the five-sided giant towered 50 feet over the water, as if they had sprung from the sea.

Built to hold 650 soldiers and more than 130 guns, Sumter was solid and menacing. And it was surrounded by a natural moat -- Charleston Harbor. The only trouble was, it had not been finished.

Construction of the fort, named for Revolutionary War hero Thomas Sumter (the Carolina Gamecock), had begun in 1829. But more than 30 years later, it sat unoccupied. And, following the secession vote, that is exactly how South Carolina expected it to remain. State officials said they had assurances from the federal government that no troops would occupy Sumter.

Anderson later would say he knew nothing of any such agreement.

Late on the afternoon of Dec. 26, 1860, Anderson told Capt. Abner Doubleday, one of Moultrie's two battery commanders, to gather his men -- they were moving to Sumter. They had 20 minutes to prepare.

Anderson had finally had enough. The rumors, if they were just rumors, were distressing enough. If Moultrie was attacked, he knew it would be a slaughter. So despite the diplomatic implications, Anderson made the decision -- on his own, he later maintained -- to move his base of operations to Sumter.

Until the last possible moment, Anderson kept the decision largely to himself, telling only a few officers charged with getting the women and children out of the fort. He wanted to move fast and make sure that word of their plans would not leak.

Most of Anderson's troops snuck out after nightfall, making their way to boats hidden behind a pile of rocks on the shore. Five men stayed on the island to cover the boats in case Southern troops tried to stop them. But no one would see.

The men who remained behind did their best to sabotage Fort Moultrie. They spiked the cannons, driving plugs into the guns' touch holes to prevent them from being fired, then burned their wooden carriages. They left the fort a wreck.

Finally, Anderson's troops sawed down Moultrie's flagstaff, then made their escape.

It was the next morning before Charleston noticed anything was amiss.

The Riot Act

On Dec. 27, the city awoke to panic.

Confusing and contradictory rumors drifted across the peninsula as residents made their way to The Battery to see what was happening on Sullivan's Island. Others raced to the tops of buildings and a few even climbed the Holy City's church steeples. A couple of men had their own telescopes.

At first, there was little to see -- the smoke pouring from the ramparts of Fort Moultrie covered the horizon. Through the haze, however, someone spotted a small group of men at Fort Sumter, unloading supplies from a schooner. Slowly, the picture was coming into focus.

A reporter from the Mercury reached Moultrie by the early afternoon. State troops already controlled the fort and refused to allow him inside. From what he could see, the journalist later reported, it looked as if Moultrie had been ransacked.

Sullivan's Island seemed oddly quiet that day, but that may have been because South Carolina officials were plotting their retaliation elsewhere.

That afternoon, Col. J.J. Pettigrew gathered 150 men at The Citadel. He told these troops -- some from the Washington Light Infantry, others from the Meagher Guards or the Carolina Infantry -- only that he had a mission for them and that he was acting on orders of Gov. Francis Pickens.

Pettigrew marched the men to a wharf on the Cooper River, where they boarded the steamer Nina. Shortly after the ship cast off, it became clear to most of the troops that they were headed directly for Castle Pinckney.

The small fort on Shutes' Folly Island stood barely a mile from the Charleston peninsula. On that day, the 1810-era fort was occupied only by Lt. R.K. Meade and a couple dozen laborers -- not exactly a fighting force. As the Nina approached the Shutes' Folly dock, the troops could see a man on shore waiting to greet them.

He was "observed holding what appeared to be a paper in his hand," the Mercury later reported. "This was said to be the Riot Act."

The gate to Pinckney was locked. Pettigrew sent a few men to fetch storming ladders from the Nina and, when they returned, he ordered them to scale the fort's walls. Soon the gate was opened and 150 South Carolina soldiers rushed inside to find the surprised laborers.

Pettigrew found Meade and immediately began to read Gov. Pickens' order, but Meade stopped him.

He would not recognize the governor's authority to take control of the fort, Meade said, but he would not fight it either. Pettigrew allowed the man to gather his personal belongings and watched as Meade set out in a small boat for Sumter.

It was a rather peaceful takeover, but historians later would cite the taking of Castle Pinckney as the first overt act of war between South Carolina and the federal government.

But the Southerners thought that Anderson's retreat was the first act of aggression and that they were only reacting to it.

First steps

The Charleston newspapers refused to speak ill of Anderson or question his decision from a military point of view -- perhaps it was Southern courtesy.

But the newspapers claimed the symbolism of his action spoke volumes about the state's predicament and proved the secessionists' claims that the United States harbored hostile attitudes toward the South.

"The events of the past few weeks, and the developments they have occasioned, have served, in a remarkable degree, to clear up and remove all doubts concerning the designs and temper of the North towards the South," the paper opined.

In the final days of 1860, the Mercury reiterated the secessionists' arguments against the United States: the North meant to force higher taxes upon the South and end slavery.

If the North was so opposed to the peculiar institution, the paper argued, secession should have relieved its consciences of the "dreadful moral responsibility - simply by quitting the connection."

Instead, it appeared that the North was determined to hold its ground and impose its will, and its whims, on the South.

"The question not only of self-respect, but of self-preservation, is forced upon the people of the Southern states," Rhett wrote.

Soon after South Carolina took Castle Pinckney, volunteer troops set up outside the U.S. Arsenal at Ashley Avenue and Mill Street to make sure no ammunition or weapons were sent to Anderson and Fort Sumter.

There had been rumors that some of the ammo had been destroyed by the federal troops barricaded inside, but the Mercury reported that those stories were "wholly without foundation."

The standoff lasted only a few days. On Dec. 30, Col. John Cunningham of the 17th Infantry Regiment delivered a message from Gov. Pickens to arsenal personnel: The governor demanded that the federal troops surrender the arsenal.

F.C. Humphreys, an ordnance sergeant temporarily in charge of the arsenal, admitted to Cunningham that he didn't have the manpower to fight. But he would comply only under protest -- and only if he could salute the U.S. flag as it was lowered.

Cunningham not only allowed the salute, he gave Humphreys permission to fire 32 guns as the flag went down, one for every state that remained in the Union. For the moment.

As 1860 ended, South Carolina was a nation unto itself. In addition to Moultrie, Pinckney and the arsenal, state troops had taken control of the U.S. Post Office and the Customhouse.

Even The Daily Courier, Charleston's more even- handed newspaper, could not ignore the implications.

On the final day of 1860, the Courier reported, "The people of South Carolina have thus taken the first step in civil war."