The American Civil War Erupts: The Attack on Fort Sumter
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Title: Fort Sumter, South Carolina
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The contest for Fort Sumter ignited the Civil War. Strategically located on an island in Charleston Harbor, the fort was still incomplete at the time of South Carolina's secession from the Union on December 20, 1860. With tensions mounting, U.S. Army major Robert Anderson decided to move his command—127 men from companies E and H of the 1st U.S. Artillery—from the indefensible Fort Moultrie to nearby Fort Sumter on December 26.

Anderson and his men soon found themselves under siege. After seceding, South Carolinians had placed artillery around Charleston Harbor to prevent ships from bringing supplies to Fort Sumter. Secessionist hotheads called for action. A Virginia politician begged a Charleston crowd to "strike a blow!" so that Virginia and the other still neutral Southern states would join the Confederacy. The Charleston Mercury agreed: "Border southern States will never join us until... we have proven that a garrison of seventy men cannot hold the portal of our commerce...The Fate of the Southern Confederacy hangs by the ensign halliards of Fort Sumter." Such inflammatory language initially failed to provoke conflict.

Title: Lincoln's orders
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The day after his inauguration, President Abraham Lincoln received a dispatch from Anderson stating that there was only enough food to last another six weeks. Lincoln faced a tough decision: should he order a force to carry supplies to Fort Sumter and risk provoking a civil war? Lincoln devised a clever strategy designed both to appease wavering neutral states and to attract sympathy from European nations.

On April 6, 1861, Lincoln ordered a naval expedition to relieve Fort Sumter. He informed the governor of South Carolina that this expedition was only carrying food. There would be no attempt to reinforce the fort with men or weapons. Lincoln had shrewdly put Confederate leaders in a bind. Either they would have to back down from their threats or fire at a ship carrying food to hungry men.

Title: Confederates bombard Fort Sumter
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Thus, Lincoln forced Confederate president Jefferson Davis and his cabinet to make a momentous decision. Confederate secretary of state Robert Toombs was a fire-eater, a politician who had helped push his state to secede. Yet he understood the significance of the issue when he said, "The firing on that fort will inaugurate a civil war greater than any the world has yet seen." Davis believed that the entire world would realize that it was Lincoln who had forced the issue by sending the relief fleet. The neutral states would see that Lincoln had been the aggressor. The Confederate president sent orders to Brigadier General P. G. T. Beauregard to open fire against the fort.

At 4:30 a.m. on Friday, April 12, 1861, the first gun fired. Soon there were 47 artillery pieces bombarding Fort Sumter. The defenders could survive only by staying inside the brick casemates where the smoke was so thick that they had to breathe through wet handkerchiefs. The defenders fired back to show defiance even though they knew their return fire was ineffective. Confederate gunners pounded Fort Sumter with more than 4,000 shots.

There could be no doubt about the outcome. Having satisfied honor, Anderson surrendered the fort. No one had been killed in the fighting. An accident after the surrender, however, caused an explosion that killed a Union private named Daniel Hough. Hough's death was the first fatality in a war that would claim more than 620,000 soldiers' lives.

Title: Spectators watch bombardment of Fort Sumter
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At Fort Sumter, Lincoln had skillfully maneuvered the rebellious states into firing the first shot. The rash Confederate attack removed many difficulties from Lincoln's effort to preserve the Union. On April 15, 1861, Lincoln requested loyal states to supply 75,000 militia to put down the rebellion. His call roused the nation to action. Just as Lincoln had hoped, it united patriots in the North. Republicans and Democrats, bitter foes just six months earlier, found common ground. Lincoln's old rival, Stephen Douglas, told a large crowd in Chicago: "Every man must be for the United States or against it. There can be no neutrals in this war, only patriots—or traitors." New York City, which had a pro-South tradition, held a huge patriotic parade. New Yorkers flew the Stars and Stripes from nearly every rooftop, dome, and steeple. "The change in public sentiment here is wonderful," wrote one businessman. A New York woman observed that there was so much excitement that the "time before Sumter" was like another century.

Northern states quickly enrolled the required number of militia and more. Lincoln asked Indiana for 6 regiments; the governor offered 12. Ohio's governor telegraphed Lincoln to plead for permission to enlist additional units because so many men were volunteering. More than 100,000 volunteers responded to Lincoln's initial call.

Title: Fort Sumter storm flag
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The vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, cried: "Lincoln may bring his 75,000 troops against us. We fight for our homes, our fathers and mothers, our wives, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters! We can call out a million of peoples if need be, and when they are cut down we can call another, and still another, until the last man of the South finds a bloody grave." President Davis was more restrained. He announced, "All we ask is to be let alone."

However, Lincoln's request backfired in the South. It caused a bitter outcry from the four southern states that had yet to secede. The governor of Virginia replied that Lincoln had chosen to begin civil war; he would send no troops. The governor of Arkansas answered that his people "will defend to the last extremity their honor, lives, and property" against the North. In response to Lincoln's call, Virginia (April 17, 1861), Arkansas (May 6, 1861), North Carolina (May 20, 1861), and Tennessee (June 8, 1861) joined the Confederacy.

James R. Arnold and Roberta Wiener

James R. Arnold and Roberta Wiener
James R. Arnold is a military historian and the author of more than 20 books, including Grant Wins the War: Decision at Vicksburg and Jungle of Snakes: A Century of Counterinsurgency Warfare from the Philippines to Iraq. His newest books, The Moro War: How America Battled a Muslim Insurgency in the Philippine Jungle, 1902–1913 and Napoleon's Triumph: The 1807 Friedland Campaign, will be released in 2011.

Roberta Wiener is a contributor to several ABC-CLIO encyclopedias, including The Encyclopedia of North American Colonial Conflicts to 1775, and managing editor of The Journal of Military History.


Further Reading
Boatner, Mark Mayo, III. The Civil War Dictionary. New York: David McKay Co., 1959; Bostick, Douglas W. The Union is Dissolved!: Charleston and Fort Sumter in the Civil War. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2009; Bowman, Shearer Davis. At the Precipice: Americans North and South during the Secession Crisis. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2010; Burton, E. Milby. The Siege of Charleston 1861–1865. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1970; Catton, Bruce. The Coming Fury. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961.
 

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