Fought from April 12-13, 1861, the Battle of Fort Sumter was the first engagement of the American Civil War.
On November 6, 1860, American voters elected Republican Party-candidate Abraham Lincoln as the sixteenth President of the United States of America. During the campaign, Lincoln stressed that he had no intention to interfere with the institution of slavery in states where it already existed. Still, he and the Republican Party platform denied “the authority of Congress, of a territorial legislature, or of any individuals, to give legal existence to slavery in any Territory of the United States.” Viewing Lincoln’s election as an impending threat to the South’s peculiar institution, the South Carolina legislature enacted an ordinance of secession on December 20, 1860. Within the span of approximately two months, six other Southern states followed suit.
As the Union started to dissolve, the seceding state governments began seizing Federal property within their borders, including forts and arsenals. Accordingly, South Carolina Governor Francis Pickens came under extreme pressure from his constituents to do something about four Federal properties located within Charleston Harbor.
- Fort Johnson was originally constructed in 1708 on James Island near the southern opening of Charleston Harbor. It came into Federal hands during the War of 1812 but was abandoned during the 1820s.
- Fort Moultrie was built in 1776 on Sullivan’s Island across the harbor from Fort Johnson as a deterrent against British invasion during the American Revolution. At the time of the secession crisis, it was lightly defended by fewer than one hundred men commanded by Major Robert Anderson.
- Between 1797 and 1804, Castle Pinckney was originally constructed on a small island within the harbor, nearer to the city of Charleston. Destroyed by a severe hurricane the same year it was completed, the fortress was reconstructed from 1809 to 1810. Garrisoned during the War of 1812, it was afterward abandoned and re-garrisoned during the 1830s.
- Fort Sumter was built on an artificially-created island between Fort Moultrie and Fort Johnson near the entrance to Charleston Harbor. Construction of the facility began in 1829, but was yet unfinished in 1860. Although garrisoned by only one soldier who served as a lighthouse keeper, Fort Sumter was considered to be one of the more formidable bastions in the world.
Hoping to negotiate a peaceful takeover of the Federal facilities in Charleston Harbor, Pickens dispatched envoys to Washington, DC, to meet with members of President James Buchanan’s administration after South Carolina seceded. While President Buchanan also wished to avoid bloodshed, he balked at the idea of handing over Federal property to South Carolina. As early as December 11, the War Department instructed Major Anderson that “… you are to hold possession of the forts in this harbor, and if attacked you are to defend yourself to the last extremity.”
As negotiations appeared to stall, Anderson decided that his position at Fort Moultrie was indefensible against a land attack by the South Carolina Militia. During the night of December 26, 1860, Anderson abandoned Fort Moultrie, spiking the guns before he left. Under cover of darkness, he consolidated his command, consisting of two companies of the First Artillery, plus the regimental band (a total of eighty-four officers and men) to the more formidable Fort Sumter.
An outraged Pickens considered Anderson’s actions as a breach of faith. The next day, he ordered the South Carolina Militia to occupy the abandoned Castle Pinckney and Fort Moultrie. The militia quickly began erecting batteries around Charleston Harbor that were capable of reaching Fort Sumter with artillery fire. When Anderson refused to heed Pickens’s demands to abandon the fort, the governor resolved to besiege the Federals, rebuffing any attempts to provision or to reinforce the garrison. Pickens proved that he meant business on January 9, 1861, when his militia fired on the Star of the West, an unarmed merchant ship the Buchanan administration had dispatched to deliver supplies and reinforcements to Fort Sumter. Hit by two shells, the ship was forced to withdraw.
On February 4, 1861, delegates from seven Deep-South states, meeting at the Confederate Provisional Congress in Montgomery, Alabama, voted to form a union that would become the Confederate States of America. On February 8, the delegates adopted a provisional constitution. The next day, they selected former United States Senator and Secretary of War Jefferson Davis as provisional president of the newly-formed government. One week later, on February 15, the Provisional Congress authorized Davis to occupy Fort Sumter by force if necessary. Davis then dispatched Brigadier-General P. G. T. Beauregard, on March 3, to assume control of military affairs at Charleston. The next day, Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as President of the United States.
The day after his inauguration, Lincoln was shown a message from Anderson, estimating that the garrison at Fort Sumter had only enough provisions to last through April 15. The president faced the first crisis of his new administration. At first brush, the situation appeared to demand that he either evacuate the fort, or that he attempt to reinforce the garrison and hold it by force. The former would be seen as a sign of weakness, while the latter might be perceived as a sign of aggression, especially in the Upper South, where six states were still on the fence regarding secession.
Not wishing to push any more states towards leaving the Union, Lincoln conceived a stratagem to resolve his dilemma. On April 6, 1861, the president informed Governor Pickens that he intended to resupply the beleaguered garrison at Fort Sumter. Lincoln addressed Pickens rather than Beauregard or Davis because the United States of America did not recognize the legitimacy of the Confederate States of America. The president went on to inform Pickens that the federal government would not use force or attempt to enlarge the garrison at Fort Sumter unless the effort to resupply the fort met with armed resistance. Characterizing the expedition as a relief effort, as opposed to a military mission, Lincoln believed that Southern resistance would cast the Confederacy in the role of aggressor should hostilities erupt.
On April 10, 1861, a second expedition to resupply Fort Sumter sailed from New York, New York. On the same day, after considerable debate within Davis’ cabinet, the Confederate president advised Beauregard to fire on any attempt to re-provision the fort. The next day, April 11, emissaries from Beauregard delivered a message to Anderson, demanding surrender of Fort Sumter. Anderson refused. Just after midnight on April 12, Beauregard dispatched another negotiating party to the fort. This time Anderson agreed to evacuate the facility by April 15, if his garrison was not resupplied before then. Unwilling to accept Anderson’s proviso regarding supplies, Beauregard’s envoys ended negotiations at 3:20 a.m. and informed the major that Confederate batteries would begin shelling Fort Sumter in one hour.
At 4:30 a.m., April 12, 1861, from the beach near Fort Johnson, Captain George S. James’s battery of the South Carolina Artillery fired a mortar shot over Fort Sumter, signaling the other harbor batteries to commence their bombardment. The American Civil War had begun. Over the next thirty-four hours, the Confederates proceeded to fire more than 3,000 shells at the fort.
The Federals began returning fire at 7 a.m. on April 12, but the reply was constrained to approximately 1,000 rounds, due a limited number of shells and fuses. Captain Abner Doubleday, Anderson’s second in command, was given the honor of firing the first shot from the fort.
During the first day of the bombardment, wooden barracks inside the fort caught fire on three occasions, but Anderson’s men were able to control the blazes. On the morning of April 13, a Confederate hot shot (a cannonball heated in a furnace before firing) started another fire that threatened to ignite the fort’s powder magazine. At approximately 1 p.m., a shell splintered the staff flying the United States flag. When Colonel Louis Wigfall, a former United States senator, observed that the colors were no longer flying over the stronghold, he commandeered a small boat on Morris Island and rowed to the fort waving a white flag of truce to inquire if Anderson intended to surrender. By then the combination of bombing, blazes, and a shortage of provisions had rendered the garrison helpless, so Anderson expressed his willingness to negotiate terms. Although Wigfall had no authority to do so, he struck an agreement at 2 p.m. for the defenders to evacuate the fort. The Federals then raised a white flag over the fort as a sign for the shelling to stop. Upon seeing the white flag, Beauregard dispatched envoys to negotiate terms of surrender, unaware that Wigfall had already done so. Unwilling to accept the terms Wigfall had mediated Beauregard’s emissaries concluded a new set of terms to end the shelling and to have Union forces evacuate the fort.
Beauregard’s terms were generous. He detained none of Anderson’s men as prisoners, and when the Federals marched out of Fort Sumter on Sunday, April 14, 1861, Anderson carried with him the American flag that had flown over the facility. In addition, Beauregard allowed Anderson to perform a one hundred-gun salute before evacuating the fort. Unfortunately, during the course of the ceremony a cannon misfired, instantly killing Private Daniel Hough and mortally wounding Private Edward Galloway, making them the first casualties of the American Civil War. Two other soldiers wounded during the explosion recovered from their wounds. Incredibly, there were no other casualties on either side during the course of the battle.
The Confederates held Fort Sumter throughout most of the war, until Major General William T. Sherman captured Charleston in February 1865. On April 14, 1865, Anderson (by then a brevet major-general) returned to Fort Sumter to ceremoniously raise the Stars and Stripes over the stronghold that he had been forced to evacuate earlier (four years to the day). Sadly, later that night, a bullet claimed one more victim of the epic struggle between North and South, when John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln in Washington, DC.