The American Civil War Erupts: The Attack on Fort Sumter
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Battle of Fort Sumter: American Civil War

Title: Fort Sumter bombardment
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A five-sided fort situated on a manmade island guarding the main ship channel into Charleston Harbor, Fort Sumter had been under construction off and on for over thirty years when it became the site for the beginning of the American Civil War. Troops occupying the forts protecting the Charleston harbor at the end of 1860 were commanded by Kentuckian Major Robert Anderson. During the secession crisis following the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860, numerous threats were made against Anderson and his men, most of whom occupied Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island. As soon as Lincoln was elected, Anderson began asking for reinforcements from the War Department. He also began contemplating moving his men from Fort Moultrie, which was almost indefensible from land, to the more secure Castle Pinckney on an island closer to Charleston or to the unfinished Fort Sumter near the entrance to the harbor.

Despite assurance from South Carolina political leaders that no effort would be made to secure Federal posts in the Charleston area until after secession, Anderson was nervous. It was apparent to him and his men that militiamen in the area were arming and that such activity could be for only one purpose.

December 20, 1860–January 6, 1861
South Carolina seceded on December 20, 1860, and pressure was exerted immediately on Gov. Francis Pickens to do something about Anderson and his men. Pickens believed he had an unwritten agreement with the James Buchanan administration that Anderson would remain at Fort Moultrie. There was concern among some South Carolinians that Anderson might not abide by that agreement and move his men to Fort Sumter. Unbeknownst to them and even to Buchanan, Anderson had been authorized to do just that when Buchanan endorsed without thoroughly reading a recommendation to that effect. Even before secession occurred, Anderson was preparing to move.

Still, Pickens hoped to secure the forts through negotiation rather than by military force. On December 24, he sent Robert W. Barnwell, James H. Adams, and James L. Orr to Washington to negotiate with the federal government. Anderson, in the meantime, was making his final preparations to move and kept his plans secret from everyone but his officers. On the night of December 26, all of the men at Fort Moultrie were assembled without notice, loaded onto boats, and rowed to Fort Sumter. Upon arrival they surprised the construction workers there who, along with the soldiers, set about to make the fort more defensible.

The following morning, Charleston awoke to an occupied Fort Sumter, news the people learned from some of the Southern workmen at the fort who refused to continue their labors and returned to Charleston. Pickens, who had moved his seat of government to Charleston in the midst of the crisis, was very upset by this turn of events. He was immediately attacked in the press for not anticipating the move. The governor responded by sending his military aide, Colonel J. Johnston Pettigrew, to confer with Anderson and to request that he return to Fort Moultrie. Anderson refused.

Pickens later that day sent Pettigrew with some militiamen to seize Castle Pinckney. The only people there were Lieutenant R. K. Meade, a private, and some workmen. Meade, of course, had no choice but to surrender. Later that day, Carolina troops also occupied empty Fort Moultrie.

On December 27, the South Carolina commissioners in Washington heard about the events in Charleston. They accused the administration of bad faith, an accusation that must have surprised Buchanan, since he had no idea that Anderson had planned such a move. The cabinet met to discuss the matter, and after much deliberation in which Buchanan considered ordering Anderson back to Fort Moultrie, the president was persuaded to leave Anderson where he was.

One of the reasons for the division within the cabinet was the presence of Virginian John Floyd as secretary of war. Floyd resigned during this crisis, however, and was replaced by Postmaster General Joseph Holt, who favored holding Fort Sumter. Once it had been decided that Anderson should stay at Fort Sumter, the question of the reinforcements requested by Anderson arose. On January 2, Buchanan decided to reinforce Anderson but to send the men aboard an unarmed merchant vessel, the Star of the West, so as not to be overly provocative to the South Carolina authorities. The vessel was chartered by the government and was loaded with 200 relatively new recruits dressed as civilians so as to maintain the secrecy of the ship's mission. However, shortly after the ship left New York City on January 5, 1861, word leaked as to its mission and destination.

In the meantime, Pickens had begun to erect batteries on Morris Island. He also temporarily cut Fort Sumter's communications with the outside world, including mail. Still the garrison's infrequent contact with Charleston allowed the rumors about the Star of the West to reach them.

January 7–March 4, 1861
The ship arrived off of Charleston on the night of January 8. On the morning of January 9, prominently flying the U.S. flag, it began moving past the batteries of Morris Island. The newly erected guns opened up on the unarmed ship. The firing caused the garrison of Fort Sumter to ascend the ramparts to watch the show. The ship made it past Morris Island but had to come within range of the guns from Fort Moultrie to reach Fort Sumter. When the guns of that fort opened up on the merchantman, some of Anderson's officers wanted to return fire, but Anderson, under orders from Washington to remain on the defensive, refused. Star of the West could not make it past the guns of Fort Moultrie and had to turn back.

Anderson sent a note of protest to Pickens asking him to disavow the firing on the U.S. flag. If Pickens refused, Anderson asserted he would not allow any vessel to come within range of Fort Sumter's guns. Pickens refused to disavow the action.

Instead the governor began to increase measures to add more artillery coverage of Fort Sumter. Once the fort was thoroughly covered by land batteries, he sent a note on January 11, 1861, asking Anderson to surrender the fort. Anderson refused.

Pickens also sent another emissary, Isaac W. Hayne, to Washington to insist on the evacuation of Fort Sumter. The governor used the time taken during these unofficial negotiations to give South Carolina more time to build up Charleston's harbor defenses. The negotiations ended in early February, and Hayne returned home.

While these negotiations were going on, Fort Sumter was running low on supplies. The news that the men at the fort were low on food put Pickens in a bad light among moderates, and as a result he sent some food to the fort on January 20. Anderson sent the provisions back with a message that the men would do without until the garrison was allowed to purchase what it needed as it always had. To ease the food crisis Anderson received permission from Pickens to send 45 women and children to New York. Pickens also allowed mail to come and go from the fort once again.

Pickens was under a great deal of pressure from radicals to do something and from moderates to do nothing. President Buchanan, while also under pressure, was determined to leave the situation to his successor, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln's future secretary of state, William Henry Seward, thinking he was far more qualified to solve this problem than Lincoln, was already working on what he believed would be a peaceful solution. At the same time in Washington, the Peace Convention tried to work out a compromise that would restore the Union. While the convention deliberated, the Confederate States of America was being formed in Montgomery, Alabama.

There things stood, with Anderson sitting and waiting for instructions, when on March 1, 1861, new Confederate brigadier general P. G. T. Beauregard arrived in Charleston, sent from new Confederate president Jefferson Davis to take command of the military situation in Charleston. Ironically, Beauregard had been one of Anderson's artillery students at West Point.

March 4–April 10, 1861
On March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated President of the United States. Shortly after his inauguration, Lincoln received a report from Anderson that he was low on supplies and that he would need reinforcements and naval support to hold his position. Major General Winfield Scott, commanding general of the U.S. Army, recommended evacuation of the fort. Seward agreed, as did most of the cabinet, with the exception of Postmaster General Montgomery Blair.

In the meantime, the Confederate government had sent Martin J. Crawford, John Forsyth, and A. B. Roman as commissioners to Washington to negotiate the evacuation of the remaining forts in Confederate territory. Although he could not meet with these emissaries lest it be interpreted as official recognition, Seward began dealing with them through intermediaries. He gave the decided impression that at least Fort Sumter and possibly all of the forts would be evacuated. Seward made this implication while Lincoln was still mulling the question and under increasing pressure from Blair to reinforce Fort Sumter.

While all of these machinations were taking place in Washington, Beauregard continued the work of strengthening the defenses of the harbor entrance and the gun emplacements facing Fort Sumter. The garrison had briefly been allowed to buy food in Charleston, but by early March was no longer permitted to do so. The men were still receiving mail but had not heard anything from Lincoln's War Department. The unofficial reports that they were to be evacuated did reach the fort.

The Lincoln administration wanted to learn the condition of the fort and its occupants before reaching a decision, and so, during March 1861, it sent several unofficial emissaries to Charleston to determine the situation. Former naval officer Gustavus V. Fox, who had already proposed a reinforcement plan to the administration, came and was allowed to visit the fort. He learned after talking briefly with Anderson that the garrison would be out of food by about April 15. Lincoln's friend Ward Lamon also came and gained a good deal of information by claiming to be there to arrange the fort's evacuation.

Since the evacuation seemed imminent, Beauregard and Anderson began exchanging notes on how it would be handled, but, much to everyone's chagrin, no official instructions arrived from Washington. Anderson wrote anxiously to Washington on April 3 that the men were dangerously low on food, but still no instructions arrived.

Seward had been working almost nonstop in trying to persuade the president to remove the garrison from the fort. He argued that holding Fort Pickens at Pensacola would be enough of a symbolic gesture and that that fort should be reinforced. Instead of taking Seward's advice, however, the president decided to send relief expeditions to both forts. The Fort Sumter expedition was to be prepared under the direction of Fox.

On April 6, State Department clerk Robert L. Chew was sent to South Carolina to inform Pickens that a supply expedition was being sent to Fort Sumter, leaving it up to Confederate authorities as to whether there would be war. Chew arrived on the night of April 8 and immediately met with Pickens. Anderson also received a letter from Secretary of War Simon Cameron, his first, informing him of the relief expedition. Shortly afterward, mail was stopped to and from Fort Sumter.

Fox departed from New York on April 10, unaware that his best warship, USS Powhatan, due to the machinations of Seward, had been diverted to the Fort Pickens expedition.

April 11–15, 1861
Everything was happening very fast now. President Davis had been informed immediately regarding Lincoln's message to Pickens. After cabinet deliberations, Confederate secretary of war Leroy Pope Walker sent a telegram to Beauregard instructing him to demand the fort's surrender and to reduce it if the surrender request was refused. Before doing so, however, Beauregard began moving men and equipment around in preparation for the artillery assault on Fort Sumter and to prevent landings by the relief expedition.

Finally, on the afternoon of April 11, Beauregard sent James Chesnut, Captain Stephen D. Lee, and A. R. Chisolm to Fort Sumter to demand its surrender. After polling his officers, who unanimously opposed surrender, Anderson wrote out a refusal. Anderson then went with the emissaries to their boat and told them that the garrison was nearly out of food and would have to surrender soon anyway. When Beauregard learned of this, he telegraphed the news to Walker, who wanted to know exactly how long it would be before Anderson surrendered. As a result, the original commissioners were sent back to the fort a little after midnight on April 12 to ask how long the food could last. After lengthy discussions with his officers, Anderson, hoping that the relief expedition would arrive soon, said that he would surrender at noon on April 15. Chesnut replied that that was not soon enough and that firing would commence in about one hour, 4:30 a.m. The commissioners then left. After a signal gun was fired at 4:30 alerting all of the batteries, elderly Virginia fire-eater Edmund Ruffin was given the honor of firing the first gun at Fort Sumter.

Anderson had made the decision that only the guns from his lower casemates would be used in returning fire so as to minimize casualties. He had only nine officers, sixty-eight noncommissioned officers and privates, eight musicians, and forty-three construction workers in the fort. He could not afford to lose any of them if he was to defend the fort. He also needed to conserve ammunition. Therefore, the guns from Fort Sumter did not begin to return fire until a little before 7:00 a.m. on April 12. Captain Abner Doubleday fired the first return shot.

Later in the morning, the barracks caught fire and many of the men had to be used as a fire crew, but the end of the ordeal seemed in sight when in the afternoon the garrison spotted three ships flying the U.S. flag off the harbor bar. They believed that they would be reinforced and supplied during the night. Fox, out in the Atlantic watching the spectacular show in the harbor, did not realize that the Powhatan was not coming but did know that the ships he had could not make it past the harbor entrance batteries, so he waited.

During the night Anderson ceased firing, and the Confederates reduced their fire but resumed a full bombardment the next morning. Despite the fact that it was a rainy day, the barracks caught fire again and the flames threatened to spread to the magazine. The fire made life miserable for the men in the fort. At about 1:00 p.m. the flagstaff was shot away. The flag was retrieved and put up on the ramparts on a makeshift staff.

When he saw the flag shot away, Texas fire-eater and former U.S. senator Louis Wigfall, who had volunteered to serve as an aide to Beauregard, decided without consulting anyone to row out to Fort Sumter to determine if Anderson was trying to surrender. When he arrived, Wigfall was told that the fort was not surrendering, so he suggested to Anderson that he could surrender on the same terms as originally suggested. Such terms would allow the men to take their guns and property and to fire a salute to the U.S. flag. Anderson decided that further resistance was futile and that the fires were still a danger, so he agreed. Wigfall then left. At about 1:30 p.m. the U.S. flag was replaced with a white sheet. Meanwhile, Beauregard, who knew nothing of Wigfall's mission, sent Stephen D. Lee, Roger Pryor, and William Porcher Miles to the fort. When they found out about Wigfall's mission they told Anderson that Wigfall was not authorized to grant any terms. Anderson then said that he would not surrender under any other terms and that the fighting would continue. After some deliberation, the three commissioners agreed to the original terms and set the time for the surrender to occur the following day, April 14.

The people of Charleston, who had watched the bombardment from the city's battery and rooftops, now came out in boats on April 14 to watch the evacuation of the fort and the firing of the final salute. Halfway through what was to be a 100-gun salute, one of the cartridges exploded prematurely, killing Private Daniel Hough and mortally wounding Private Edward Galloway. After burying Hough at the fort, the remaining men marched out to the band playing "Yankee Doodle." They were then taken by boat out to the relief ships they had been watching with such hope and disappointment.

On April 15, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the rebellion.

David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler
From ABC-CLIO's Encyclopedia of the American Civil War, David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, editors


Further Reading
Klein, Maury. Days of Defiance: Sumter, Secession, and the Coming of the Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997; Swanberg, W. A. First Blood: The Story of Fort Sumter. New York: Scribner Press, 1957.
 

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