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The Battle of Fort Sumter Ignited the Civil War

When peace talks failed, this federal property tipped our divided nation into its bloodiest conflict.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Following Abraham Lincoln's presidential victory in 1860, South Carolina declared it was seceding from the United States of America. The state adopted this ordinance on December 20th, and by February, six other Southern states had followed suit. On February 8th, a provisional constitution was devised by the seven states, uniting them as the Confederate States of America. 

As peace talks in Washington, D.C. failed, federal properties within the states that had seceded were seized by the Confederacy. Though sitting President James Buchanan protested these seizures, he avoided taking action against them so as not to further heighten tensions and encourage any more slave states to leave the Union.

There were a handful of forts in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina that were not part of the initial seizure. Among these was Fort Sumter, and while it wasn't among the first targets of the Confederacy's reach for power, it would come to be a key factor in the outbreak of the American Civil War.

Fort Sumter dominated the entrance to Charleston Harbor. It was only partially finished, but it was designed to be one of the world's most formidable fortresses. Tensions arose when Major Robert Anderson of the 1st U.S. Artillery regiment moved his meager forces out of the indefensible Fort Moultrie into the more sturdy grounds of Fort Sumter. South Carolina governor Francis W. Pickens perceived this move to be a breach of faith between the Confederacy and the United States, and thus ordered all remaining federal positions, with the exception of Fort Sumter, to be immediately seized.

President Buchanan refused to bow to Pickens' demand to pull forces out of Charleston Harbor. However, the supplies of the garrison were severely limited. A relief expedition of supplies, small arms, and 200 soldiers was organized, but they couldn't be delivered by the Navy ship USS Brooklyn, as originally planned. The Confederates blocked the shipping channel into Charleston by sinking derelict ships, and there were worries that Brooklyn wouldn't be able to navigate these treacherous obstacles. Buchanan instead sent an unarmed civilian merchant ship, Star of the West, in hopes that it would be seen as less provocative to the Confederate forces.

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On January 9th, 1861, Star of the West neared the harbor entrance. The ship was fired upon by multiple batteries, until the vessel was forced to withdraw. On January 31st, Pickens demanded that Buchanan surrender Fort Sumter.

That winter, the conditions at Fort Sumter were extremely difficult. The rations were dwindling and there wasn't enough fuel for adequate heat. Through it all, however, the garrison rushed to finish construction on the defenses, which had been delayed for decades due to budget cuts.

Designed to mount 135 guns in total, the month of April saw the positioning of 60 guns. However, there weren't enough men at Fort Sumter to operate them all. On top of that, the fort was designed for harbor defense, meaning the guns were primarily aimed at the Atlantic, leaving little ability for the defenders to protect themselves from artillery fired from land.

Meanwhile, Brigadier General P. G. T. Beauregard was appointed the first general officer of the Confederate armed forces by Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Beauregard's focus was on the siege of Fort Sumter, and he piled on the efforts to prevent supplies from reaching the Union defenders. He also upped drills amongst the South Carolina militia to teach the Confederate forces how to operate the guns they manned. As Major Anderson had actually been Beauregard's artillery instructor at West Point, the pair's drilling preparations were a formidable match.

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  • Fort Sumter after the siege.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

President Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4th, 1861, and his first crisis was the surprise information that Major Anderson had only six weeks' worth of rations left at Fort Sumter. Lincoln and his cabinet struggled to decide whether or not to reinforce the fort, and if they were to proceed, how it would be done. They didn't want to take any action that would provoke further hostilities.

Among the Confederates, debate was brewing about whether the capture of Fort Sumter was a matter for South Carolina, or a responsibility for the newly declared national government in Montgomery, Alabama. Governor Pickens firmly believed all property in Charleston Harbor should belong to the state following its secession. However, like Lincoln, President Davis was reluctant to take any action that would make the Confederacy appear to be an aggressor.

The Union and the Confederacy both believed that whichever side displayed force first would squander the support of the border states, all but handing it over to the opposition. To foster peace, the Confederates sent a delegation to Washington, D.C. with offers to pay for the federal properties in the area and draw up a treaty with the United States. Lincoln, however, rejected any attempts to negotiate the matter, as he didn't consider the Confederacy to be a legitimate nation worthy of making a treaty with.

The lack of supplies at Fort Sumter reached a critical point on April 4th. Lincoln ordered a relief expedition to be carried out by vessels even smaller than the Star of the West during the night. The plan was to bring in only supplies, and if the effort was not resisted by the Confederates, then no additional arms, ammunition, or soldiers would be brought in. This was expressed to Pickens, who consulted with Beauregard on the matter. In response, Jefferson Davis passed down a reiteration for Sumter to be surrendered, with the threat that failure to do so would result in an attack on the fort before a relief expedition could arrive.

This ultimatum was dispatched on April 11th. Major Anderson initially refused these terms. After continued correspondence between Anderson and Beauregard, it was agreed that Anderson would evacuate Fort Sumter by noon on April 15th, unless given new orders or fresh supplies. But Colonel Chesnut of the Confederacy deemed the reply too conditional, and, at 3:20 AM on April 12th, he declared that Beauregard's forces would be opening fire within the hour.

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At 4:30 AM, a single 10-inch mortar round was fired by Lieutenant Henry S. Farley from Fort Johnson. As the shell exploded over Fort Sumter, it signaled to the guns at Fort Moultrie, Fort Johnson, the floating battery, and Cummings Point to begin their general bombardment. To conserve ammunition, Beauregard ordered two minutes between each shot as the guns fired in counterclockwise order around the harbor.

Inside the fort, Major Anderson held his fire until daylight. The first shot on the Union side was fired by Captain Abner Doubleday toward the Ironclad Battery at Cummings Point. It missed. Unable to utilize all 60 guns available to him due to a shortage in manpower, Anderson attempted to lower casualties by avoiding guns mounted in more precarious positions. Unfortunately, the best cannons of the fort were mounted on its upmost tier, where his troops would be most exposed to overhead fire.

The garrison at Fort Sumter could only safely fire 21 guns—guns which weren't much of a threat to the surrounding forts due to their low elevation. The fort was also low on ammunition, but a more urgent issue was the scarcity of gunpowder cartridges. The shortages reduced Anderson's forces to only six guns.

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  • The Confederate flag flying over Fort Sumter, 1861.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Inside Fort Sumter, the wooden buildings used for barracks and officer quarters were targeted by the Confederates. They used heated shot—cannonballs heated in a furnace until they burned red. The fires that erupted from this tactics could have been even more dangerous than the explosions of artillery. Luckily, late evening rain put out the flames.

As night fell, the Confederates cut their fire back to four shots per hour. However, the morning light brought the bombardment back to full power, complete with continued hot shot firing. Most of Fort Sumter's wooden building had caught fire by noon, and the flames were stretching towards the 300 barrels of gunpowder stored in the main ammunition magazine. After a failed attempt to move the barrels to safety, Anderson closed the magazine doors for the safety of his men.

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Anderson ordered his men to redouble their firing efforts, but the better equipped Confederates responded in kind. At 1 PM on April 13th, Fort Sumter's central flagpole was knocked down. Former U.S. senator Louis Wigfall took a small boat to Fort Sumter, waving a white handkerchief from his sword. He praised Anderson's noble defense of the fort, inquiring after his willingness to evacuate at that point. With nothing left to fight with after 34 hours of fire, the fort was formally surrendered to the Confederates.

Fortunately for both sides, no Union or Confederate deaths were incurred during the bombardment. However, during the ceremonial withdrawal, an explosion ended up killing two privates, making them the first military fatalities of the war. And it was a war indeed, the bombardment marking the first military action of the American Civil War.

Lincoln called for the states of the Union to send troops to recapture the forts lost to the South. While some states were supportive of this effort—particularly in the North—the demand caused four more slave states to secede from the Union. What started out as a small rebellion estimated to last 90 days turned into a brutal war that spanned four years. 

Throughout most of the Civil War, Charleston Harbor remained entirely in the grasp of the Confederates, leaving a weak spot in the Union's naval blockade. Though there were several attempts to recapture the fort by siege, Fort Sumter was only evacuated by the Confederates when Union Major General William T. Sherman outflanked the city in the Carolinas campaign in February of 1865. The South had claimed the first military victory of the conflict that would ultimately be won by the Union.