by Gerald Boerner
On that day a long time ago, a confrontation between the break-away Confederates attacked the Union fortress off the coast of South Carolina: Fort Sumter. The ensuing battle saw the Confederates overcome the Union forces and take control of the fortification for the rest of the Civil War. This battle started the armed struggle that often pitted one family member against another, with families losing their sons to both sides.
We can be all thankful that Abraham Lincoln was a healer that brought the country back together and ended the institution of slavery. So from the unfortunate beginning at Fort Sumter, we came out of this conflict as a whole nation.. GLB
“We shall be in one of the bloodiest civil wars that history has recorded.”
— Alexander Stephens
“So short lived has been the American Union that men who saw its rise may live to see its fall.”
— The London Times
“War consists not only in battles, but in well-considered movements which bring the same results.”
— John C. Fremont
“Army and Navy were like blades of shears — united, invincible; separated, almost useless.”
— Commodore Andrew H. Foote (U.S. Navy)
“You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is follu, madness, a crime against civilization!”
— William Tecumseh Sherman
“What a change now greets us! The Government is aroused, the dead North is alive, and its divided people united…The cry now is for war, vigorous war, war to the bitter end, and war till the traitors are effectually and permanently put down.”
— Frederick Douglass
“The firing on that fort will inaugurate a civil war greater than any the world has yet seen… you will lose us every friend at the North. You will wantonly strike a hornet’s nest which extends from mountains to ocean. Legions now quiet will swarm out and sting us to death. It is unnecessary. It puts us in the wrong. It is fatal.”
— Robert Toombs
“Abe Linkhorn, We received your proklamation, and as you have put us on very short notis, a few of us boys have conkluded to write you, and ax for a little more time. The fact is, we are most obleeged to have a few more days, for the way things are happening, it is utterly onpossible for us to disperse in twenty days. I tried my darndest yisterday to disperse and retire, but it was no go.”
— Bill Arp
The Start of the Civil War
Fort Sumter is a Third System masonry coastal fortification located in Charleston harbor, South Carolina. The fort is best known as the site upon which the shots initiating the American Civil War were fired, at the Battle of Fort Sumter.
Named after General Thomas Sumter, Revolutionary War hero, Fort Sumter was built following the War of 1812, as one of a series of fortifications on the southern U.S. coast. Construction began in 1827, and the structure was still unfinished in 1860, when the conflict began. Seventy thousand tons of granite were imported from New England to build up a sand bar in the entrance to Charleston harbor, which the site dominates. The fort was a five-sided brick structure, 170 to 190 feet (58 m) long, with walls five feet thick, standing 50 feet (15 m) over the low tide mark. It was designed to house 650 men and 135 guns in three tiers of gun emplacements, although it was never filled near its full capacity.
On December 26, 1860, six days after South Carolina declared its secession, U.S. Army Major Robert Anderson abandoned the indefensible Fort Moultrie and secretly relocated companies E and H (127 men, 13 of them musicians) of the 1st U.S. Artillery to Fort Sumter without orders from Washington, on his own initiative. He thought that providing a stronger defense would delay an attack by South Carolina militia. The Fort was not yet complete at the time and fewer than half of the cannons that should have been available were not, due to military downsizing by President James Buchanan. Over the next few months, repeated calls for the United States evacuation of Fort Sumter from the government of South Carolina and later Confederate Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard were ignored. United States attempts to resupply and reinforce the garrison were repulsed on January 9, 1861 when the first shots of the war prevented the steamer Star of the West, a ship hired by the Union to transport troops and supplies to Fort Sumter, from completing the task.
After realizing that Anderson’s command would run out of food by April 15, 1861, President Lincoln ordered a fleet of ships, under the command of Gustavus V. Fox, to attempt entry into Charleston Harbor and support Fort Sumter. The ships assigned were the steam sloop-of-war USS Pawnee, steam sloop-of-war USS Powhatan, transporting motorized launches and about 300 sailors (secretly removed from the Charleston fleet to join in the forced reinforcement of Fort Pickens, Pensacola, Fla.), armed screw steamer USS Pocahontas, Revenue Cutter USS Harriet Lane, steamer Baltic transporting about 200 troops, composed of companies C and D of the 2nd U.S. Artillery, and three hired tug boats with added protection against small arms fire to be used to tow troop and supply barges directly to Fort Sumter. By April 6, 1861 the first ships began to set sail for their rendezvous off the Charleston Bar. The first to arrive was the Harriet Lane, before midnight of April 11, 1861.
First Battle of Fort Sumter
On April 11, Beauregard sent three aides, Colonel James Chesnut, Jr., Captain Stephen D. Lee, and Lieutenant A. R. Chisolm to demand the surrender of the fort. Anderson declined, and the aides returned to report to Beauregard. After Beauregard had consulted the Secretary of War, Leroy Walker, he sent the aides back to the fort and authorized Chesnut to decide whether the fort should be taken by force. The aides waited for hours while Anderson considered his alternatives and played for time. At about 3 a.m., when Anderson finally announced his conditions, Colonel Chesnut, after conferring with the other aides, decided that they were “manifestly futile [..] and not within the scope of the instructions verbally given to us”. The aides then left the fort and proceeded to the nearby Fort Johnson. There Chesnut ordered the fort to open fire on Fort Sumter.
On April 12, 1861, at 4:30 a.m., Confederate batteries opened fire, firing for 34 straight hours, on the fort. Edmund Ruffin, noted Virginian agronomist and secessionist, claimed that he fired the first shot on Fort Sumter. His story has been widely believed, but Lieutenant Henry S. Farley, commanding a battery of two mortars on James Island fired the first shot at 4:30 A.M. (Detzer 2001, pp. 269–71). The garrison returned fire, but it was ineffective, in part because Major Anderson did not use the guns mounted on the highest tier, the barbette tier, where the gun detachments would be more exposed to Confederate fire. On April 13, the fort was surrendered and evacuated. During the attack, the Union colors fell. Lt. Norman J. Hall risked life and limb to put them back up, burning off his eyebrows permanently.
No Union soldiers died in the actual battle though a Confederate soldier bled to death having been wounded by a misfiring cannon. One Union soldier died and another was mortally wounded during the 47th shot of a 100 shot salute, allowed by the Confederacy. Afterwards the salute was shortened to 50 shots. Accounts, such as in the famous diary of Mary Chesnut, describe Charleston residents along what is now known as The Battery, sitting on balconies and drinking salutes to the start of the hostilities. The Fort Sumter Flag became a popular patriotic symbol after Maj. Anderson returned North with it. The flag is still displayed in the fort’s museum.
Union Siege of Fort Sumter
Union efforts to retake Charleston Harbor began on April 7, 1863, when Rear Admiral Samuel Francis Du Pont, commander of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, led the ironclad frigate New Ironsides, the tower ironclad Keokuk, and the monitors Weehawken, Passaic. Montauk, Patapsco, Nantucket, Catskill, and Nahant in an attack against the harbor’s defenses. The attack was unsuccessful, the New Ironsides never effectively engaged, and the ironclads fired only 154 rounds, while receiving 2,209 from the Confederate defenders (Wise 1994, p. 30). Due to damage received in the attack, the Keokuk sank the next day, 1,400 yards (1,300 m) off the southern tip of Morris Island. Over the next month, working at night to avoid the attention of the Federal squadron, the Confederates salvaged the Keokuk’s two XI-inch Dahlgren guns (Ripley 1984, pp. 93–6). One of the Dahlgren guns was placed in Fort Sumter.
The Confederates, in the mean time, were strengthening Fort Sumter. A workforce of just under 500 slaves, under the supervision of Confederate army engineers, were filling casemates with sand, protecting the gorge wall with sandbags, and building new traverse, blindages, and bombproofs. Some of Fort Sumter’s artillery had been removed, but 40 pieces still were mounted. Fort Sumter’s heaviest guns were mounted on the barbette, the fort’s highest level, where they had wide angles of fire and could fire down on approaching ships. The barbette was also more exposed to enemy gunfire than the casemates in the two lower levels of the fort.
A special military decoration, known as the Gillmore Medal, was later issued to all Union service members who had performed duty at Fort Sumter under the command of Major-General Quincy Adams Gillmore.
After the devastating bombardment, both General Quincy A. Gillmore and Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren, now commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, determined to launch a boat assault on Fort Sumter for the night of September 8–9, 1863. Cooperation between the Army and Navy were poor, Dahlgren refusing to place his sailors and marines under the command of an army officer. So two flotillas set out towards Fort Sumter that night. The army flotilla was detained off Morris Island by the low tide. By the time they could proceed, the navy assault had already been defeated and the army flotilla returned to shore.
The Navy’s assault involved 400 sailors and marines in 25 boats. The operation was a fiasco from beginning to end. Poor reconnaissance, planning and communication all characterized the operation. Commander Thomas H. Stevens, commanding the monitor Patapsco, was placed in charge of the assault. When Commander Stevens protested that he “knew nothing of [the assault’s] organization “ and “made some remonstrances on this grounds and others.” Dahlgren replied “There is nothing but a corporal’s guard [about 6–10 men] in the fort, and all we have to do is go and take possession.” (Stevens 1902, p. 633). This underestimation of the Confederate forces on Dahlgren’s part may explain why he was hostile to a joint operation wishing to reserve the credit for the victory to the Navy. Less than half of the boats landed. Most of the boats that did land landed on the right flank or right gorge angle, rather than on the gorge where there was a passable breach. The Union sailors and marines who did land could not scale the wall.
The Confederates fired upon the landing party and as well as throwing hand grenades and masonry. The men in the boats that had not landed fired muskets and revolvers blindly at the fort, endangering the landing party more than the garrison. The landing party took shelter in shell holes in the wall of the fort. In response to a signal rocket fired by the garrison, Fort Johnson and the Confederate gunboat Chicora opened fire upon the boats and landing party. The boats that could withdraw withdrew, and the landing party surrendered. The Union casualties were 8 killed, 19 wounded, and 105 captured (including 15 of the wounded). The Confederates did not suffer any casualties in the assault.
After the unsuccessful boat assault, the bombardment recommenced and proceeded with varying degree of intensity, doing more damage to Fort Sumter until the end of the war. The garrison continued to suffer casualties. The Confederates continued to salvage guns and other material from the ruins and harassed the Union batteries on Morris Island with sharpshooters. The Confederates mounted four 10-inch (250 mm) columbiads, one 8-inch (200 mm) columbiad rifled, and two rifled 42-pounders, in the left face, bottom tier casemates. The Confederacy never surrendered Fort Sumter, but General William T. Sherman’s advance through South Carolina finally forced the Confederates to evacuate Charleston on February 17, 1865 and abandon Fort Sumter. The Federal government formally took possession of Fort Sumter on February 22, 1865 with a flag raising ceremony.
After the War
When the Civil War ended, Fort Sumter was in ruins. The U.S. Army worked to restore it as a useful military installation. The damaged walls were re-leveled to a lower height and partially rebuilt. The third tier of gun emplacements was removed. Eleven of the original first-tier gun rooms were restored with 100-pounder Parrott rifles.
From 1876 to 1897, Fort Sumter was used only as an unmanned lighthouse station. The start of the Spanish-American War prompted renewed interest in its military use and reconstruction commenced on the facilities that had further eroded over time. A new massive concrete blockhouse-style installation was built in 1898 inside the original walls. Named “Battery Huger” in honor of Revolutionary War General Isaac Huger, it never saw combat.
During World War I, a small garrison manned the two twelve-inch (305 mm) rifles at Battery Huger. Until World War II, the fort was unused except as a tourist destination; two 90 mm antiaircraft guns were then installed. Fort Sumter became a U.S. National Monument in 1948.
Other Events on this Day
- In 1776…
North Carolina issues the Halifax Resolves, the first act by a colony authorizing its Continental Congress delegates to vote for independence.
- In 1811…
Settlers sponsored by John Jacob Astor establish the first American outpost in the Pacific Northwest near present-day Astoria, Oregon.
- In 1861…
The Civil War begins at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina.
- In 1934…
The strongest wind gust on record, 231 miles per hour, hits Mount Washington, New Hampshire.
- In 1945…
Franklin D. Roosevelt dies of a cerebral hemorrhage in Warm Springs, Georgia.
- In 1981…
The first manned space shuttle flight begins as Columbia blasts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Dates and events based on:
William J. Bennett and John Cribb, (2008) The American Patriot’s Almanac Daily Readings on America. (Kindle Edition)
Background information is from Wikipedia articles on:
Wikipedia: Fort Sumter…
EIRCom.net: Shelby Foote Quotes — The Civil War…