Robert Anderson was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1805. He was born into a very prominent family line, whose relatives included Chief Justice John Marshall and Charles Anderson (Governor of Ohio), along with other high-ranking politicians and war heroes. Due to these connections, Anderson chose a military career and graduated from West Point in 1825 with full honors and was fifth in his class out of thirty-seven. He briefly served as a secretary to his brother, who was minister to Columbia. He was assigned to artillery school at the Fortress Monroe Artillery School, after which he went back to West Point as an artillery instructor. A few of his students included future USA & CSA military leaders such as William Tecumseh Sherman (USA), Jubal Early (CSA), Braxton Bragg (USA), George Meade (USA) and Joseph Hooker (USA). P.G.T. Beauregard (CSA) was not only a student, but became Anderson’s assistant.
Anderson’s first war experience was commanding volunteers in the Blackhawk War in Illinois. At the Battle of Bad Axe, he saved an infant Indian who had been in his mother’s arms as she was wounded by a bullet – a bullet that had also wounded the child. He was disgusted by the images of suffering he saw all around him. In 1837 he fought in the Seminole Wars, where he came down with a fever that ended up recurring throughout the rest of his life. In 1839 he translated a French manual on artillery, which was used to drastically improve U.S. military weapons and later would greatly increase their chances for victory in the Mexican War.
In 1842 Anderson married Eliza (Eba) Clinich; General Winfield Scott stood in as her father. In the Mexican War, Scott asked Anderson to serve on his staff but he declined; instead he opted to be in the field, though he could have excluded himself altogether due to his health. He was severely wounded in battle and was praised for his bravery. Halfway through the war he wrote to his wife that no scheme could be more absurd than the act of war to settle national difficulties; it was simply “killing each other to find out who is in the right.” After the war he was in several roles but by 1860 ironically spent the Summer and Fall on a commission with Jefferson Davis to examine the West Point curriculum and its discipline system.
At age 57 Anderson could have retired, but he received orders from General Scott to proceed to Fort Moultrie in South Carolina; eventually this fort would be evacuated and Anderson would move to Fort Sumter. Behind the scenes there was strong talk of secession and a lot of political maneuvering. The Southern states were working to put things in place to their own favor in case they decided to make a move. The Buchanan administration was aware of this but chose to do nothing. Anderson was known to be in support of slavery, and because he was from Kentucky most assumed he would have Southern sympathies. If something was to happen they assumed he would be on their side. There were a lot of professional military men who would eventually have to make the decision on what ruled their heart – duty to State & way of life, or duty to Country & union? The South counted on Anderson to be on their side, but when the war broke out at Fort Sumter Anderson chose to side with the Union, much to the disappointment of his many southern friends. This would way heavily on how he was handled during the Battle of Fort Sumter. Beauregard held him in such high esteem that he treated Anderson & his troops with great civility & care. Jefferson Davis would later speak very highly of Anderson and his actions at Fort Sumter in his memoirs.
Anderson liked to say that he lived by his “father’s religion and General Washington’s politics.” He needed only three documents to guide his path: The Ten Commandments, the Constitution and the book of army regulations. When he abandoned Fort Sumter he took the U.S. flag that had once hung there proudly to New York with him. For this he was considered a national hero.