The Story of Fort Sumter
At approximately 4:30 am on April 12, 1861, Lieutenant Henry S. Farley of the 1st S.C. Artillery pulled the lanyard on his 10-inch mortar that was located in the “beach battery” at Fort Johnson on Charleston’s James Island. With a thundering discharge the projectile raced skyward lighting up the pre-dawn sky as it burst above the beleaguered U.S. Army troops occupying Fort Sumter. This single, solemn shot marked the beginning of the greatest tragedy in U.S. history, the American Civil War. Our civil conflict bears the sad distinction of being America’s bloodiest war, with more than 600,000 lives lost and an equal number wounded.
The Politics of Secession
On November 6, 1860, Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican President in U.S. History, was narrowly elected. He won in a crowded field of candidates that included Democrat Stephen A. Douglas (IL), Southern Democrat John C. Breckenridge (KY), and Constitutional Union candidate John A. Bell (TN). While only capturing 40% of the popular vote, Lincoln garnered 180 Electoral College votes, a majority.
When the state of South Carolina learned of Lincoln’s election, a Secession Convention was called. 169 delegates initially met in the state capital of Columbia but moved to Charleston due to fear of a smallpox epidemic. There on December 20, 1860 all of the 169 delegates voted unanimously to have South Carolina leave the United States and form their own country. It was the only state in what would become the Confederacy where the vote to secede was unanimous.
“That this General Assembly is satisfied that Abram Lincoln has already been elected President of the United States, and that said election has been based upon principles of open and avowed hostility to the social organization and peculiar interests of the slave holding states of this Confederacy. Resolved, that it is the sense of this General Assembly that South Carolina is now ready to dissolve her connection with the government of the United States, and earnestly desires and hereby solicits the cooperation of her sister slave-holding states in such movement.”
– Resolution to Call the Election of Abraham Lincoln A Hostile Act, Written by John Winsmith of the House of Representatives of the General Assembly
Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas quickly followed suit forming the Confederate States of America. By February 28, 1861, the new Confederate government, under President Jefferson Davis, called for an army to be raised. The peacetime U.S. Army numbered approximately 14,000 troops at the time, but by war’s end, participation was approximately 1,000,000 Confederate and 2,000,000 Union troops.
The Fort Sumter Standoff
In December of 1860, Fort Sumter was a three-story brick bastion located on an island guarding the entrance to Charleston Harbor. Construction of the fort was started in 1829 but was not complete. It was designed to house 650 troops and 135 guns. Only 15 cannons were mounted.
Major Robert Anderson, a former West Point artillery professor from a Louisville, KY slave holding family, was in command of elements of the 1st U.S. Artillery stationed at Sullivan’s Island’s Fort Moultrie located a quarter mile from Fort Sumter. On December 26th, Major Anderson and his men slipped across the harbor entrance to occupy Fort Sumter, disguising themselves as laborers to escape detection. They had about 30 days’ worth of supplies to sustain the garrison of 127 men.
When the Confederates realized that Fort Sumter was occupied, they fortified the harbor and surrounding sea islands with guns pointed at the fort and aimed seaward to prevent any attempt to resupply Anderson and his men. On March 3, 1861, the South’s first General, Pierre Gustuav Toutant-Beauregard, arrived in Charleston and took command of the Confederate forces there. Beauregard had been a student of Anderson’s while at West Point, and they were friends.
Conditions for Anderson and the 1st U.S. Artillery soon became desperate. Food, blankets, and beds were in short supply, as was ammunition. There were few sources of comfort during the windy coastal winter. A boat traveling daily between Sumter and Fort Moultrie made mail deliveries possible. Anderson’s men had access to the local newspaper, the Charleston Mercury. Unfortunately the news was ominous and threatening for this small band surrounded by approximately 3,000 confederate troops and their 19 artillery batteries.
The soldiers on Sumter desperately needed supplies from the U.S. government and official instructions regarding fort defense. Neither came. There was a feeble attempt to supply Sumter on January 9, 1861. A merchant ship, the Star of the West, arrived to offer relief supplies. When in range, it was promptly fired on by Cadets from The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina, who were manning the Citadel Battery on Morris Island. The ship was struck by the cannon fire three times and forced to flee with no casualties.
As occupation of Fort Sumter continued, the Confederates were building a defense force. Cadets from The Citadel served as instructors to train green troops in artillery operations, marksmanship, and troop movement drills. Spirits were high in Charleston as troops marched through the city preparing for war. They were enthusiastically supported by the local population as was Secession, much to the chagrin and dismay of the garrison at Fort Sumter who could plainly see the aggressive activities ashore.
On March 4, 1861, Lincoln was inaugurated. He quickly made preparations to resupply Sumter. On April 4th he gave the order for four ships laden with supplies and 200 troops to sail for Charleston, and he made sure that the Confederates knew relief was on its way. Confederate forces knew they had to act before help arrived. On April 11th, two members of Beauregard’s staff (Aide-de-camp James Chestnut Jr. and Captain Stephen D. Lee) hand delivered a demand for surrender to Anderson who refused the demand and casually added…
“Gentlemen, if you do not batter the fort to pieces about us, we shall be starved out in a few days.”
– Major Robert Anderson
A second message was issued to Anderson on April 12th…
“FORT SUMTER, S.C., April 12, 1861, 3:20 A.M. - SIR: By authority of Brigadier-General Beauregard, commanding the Provisional Forces of the Confederate States, we have the honor to notify you that he will open the fire of his batteries on Fort Sumter in one hour from this time. We have the honor to be very respectfully, Your obedient servants, JAMES CHESNUT JR., Aide-de-camp. STEPHEN D. LEE, Captain C. S. Army, Aide-de-camp.”
– Notice from General Pierre Gustuav Toutant-Beauregard
Anderson replied verbally to Chesnut and Lee,
“If we never meet in this world again, God grant that we may meet in the next.”
Having spent the evening in a Charleston hotel, Mary Boykin Chesnut describes the night of April 11th in her diary (published as A Diary from Dixie)…
“I do not pretend to go to sleep. How can I? I count four St. Michael’s bells chime out and I begin to hope. At half past four the heavy booming of a cannon. I sprang out of bed, and on my knees prostrate I prayed as I have never prayed before.”
The gaiety surrounding war preparations gave way to the sights and sounds of armed conflict. Confederate cannon fired at two-minute intervals. The U.S. Army artillery did not respond until 7am as they tried to preserve their meager supply of powder and shot. During the conflict, Charleston residents and many curious visitors lined the Battery and roof tops along East Bay to watch the battle. Sentiments ranged from glee, to terror, to somber apprehension.
The Surrender of Fort Sumter
The battle at Fort Sumter lasted 34 hours. A fire had started, and one mule had been killed. Anderson knew further resistance would result in the sacrifice of his men so he raised the white flag of surrender. As part of the surrender terms, Anderson and his friend Beauregard planned a 100-gun salute to memorialize the battle as the country had just gone to war. Tragically on the 47th shot, an explosion occurred resulting in the deaths of two of Anderson’s men, Privates Daniel Hough and Edward Gallway.
An Ironic End
Anderson survived the war reaching the rank of Brevet Major General. He returned to Fort Sumter on April 14, 1865, after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender in Appomattox on April 9th. Anderson brought with him the flag that he had taken down in April 1861 and would use it in a flag-raising ceremony. Ironically, Abraham Lincoln was invited to attend that ceremony but opted for a night at Ford’s Theater in Washington DC where he was assassinated. Vice President Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency and pronounced a final end to the Civil War on May 9, 1865.
Book a Civil War & Slavery Tour in Charleston
A House Divided is one my most popular tours, and it is the only walking tour in Charleston, SC that is completely devoted to Civil War history and the Institution of Slavery. In addition to historical accounts, A House Divided incorporates some of my personal memories of the Civil Rights movement.
As you can tell, I am passionate about history and sincerely committed to inspiring curiosity in others. I truly believe that by learning this history, we hopefully can avoid repeating it. I look forward to an opportunity to meet and explore this subject together soon.