Today in History: The Civil War Begins at Fort Sumter

Wikimedia Commons.

Wikimedia Commons.

I had the privilege of visiting Fort Sumter a few summers ago. It was a beautiful day in a beautiful city full of history stretching back before the Revolution. Located in the harbor of Charleston South Carolina there are a series of small islands that back in the day were used as check points as entrances to the harbor. From Fort Sumter--on one side of the bay you have Charleston and on the opposite side of the bay was the entrance point for slave trading ships. Today it is the sight of huge beautiful houses but back in the day it was a place of sad business actions. It was there that the slaves were brought in and prepped for sale--they were then brought across the bay to Charleston to a building to be sold that is still visible on the skyline of Charleston. Someday i will do a post about the history of slavery in Charleston...

But 155 years ago today the Civil War began at the mouth of the Charleston Bay. Construction on the fort was started in 1829 but was only being finished in phases due to military cuts made the changing administrations. When the battle started on April 12th the fort had half of the cannons it was designed to employ. 

On December 20th 1860 South Carolina seceded from the Union, and by Abraham Lincolns inauguration in March of 1861 six more states had joined them.

Fort Sumter was unique in the 19th century because it is an ideal example of fortification defenses that had evolved over the United States short history. In Charleston harbor there where 3 major forts and a number of smaller islands set up as small defensive outposts. In the harbor there was Fort Sumter, Fort Moultrie (the site of the famous early battle of the Revolutionary War that prevented the British from getting a strong hold early on in the South), and Fort Johnson.  

By December 26th, the U.S. Army Major in charge of Fort Sumter at the time, Major Robert Anderson, ordered the abandoning of Fort Moultrie, another small fort in the bay to concentrate their defensive forces in Fort Sumter that could discourage the South Carolina Militia from attacking. On his way out of Fort Moultire he ordered the destruction of any weapons, ammunition, and food that they could not sneak out of the fort into Fort Sumter. All 127 men joined those already at Fort Sumter where they prepared for an attack by the south. They turned their cannons and guns on the city and waited as bureaucracy tried to delay a ticking time bomb.

The South Carolina Governor, Francis Wilkinson Pickens (the grandson of General Andrew Pickens who fought in the revolutionary war and served in the House of Representatives) demand that President Abraham Lincoln abandon Fort Sumter as it was apart of the state of South Carolina and therefore should be left to the confederacy as part of its property. Lincoln refused but the conversation remained for 5 months leading to the build up of tensions in early April 1861 (5 months later). Meanwhile, the South Carolina militia were starting to stockpile Fort Johnson another fort in the bay for an impending attack of Fort Sumter.

Letter from Wililam H. Seward to President Lincoln on the difficulties resupplying Fort Sumter. Wikimedia Commons.

Letter from Wililam H. Seward to President Lincoln on the difficulties resupplying Fort Sumter. Wikimedia Commons.

Lincoln and his administration determined that the Fort Sumter would run out of food by April 15th and so a small fleet was secretly assembled to get the fort the supplies that it needed. But word got to the Confederacy that a supply fleet was coming; so on the night of April 11th, Confederate Brigadier General Beauregard sent three aides to negotiate with Major Anderson, Anderson stalled for hours deliberating and trying to figure a way out of the situation without surrendering but when his conditions were proposed they were declined and the aides returned to Fort Johnson to open fire on Fort Sumter.

So starting at 4:30 a.m. on the morning of April 12th the confederates bombarded the small island fort with 34 straight hours of munitions.

Fort Sumter did not return fire until 7 am due to the fact that it did not have much ammunition to fire with, and the ammunition they did have was missing the fuses for the exploding shells and so the shells that were fired did not explode, just simply an iron ball crashing on to Fort Johnson.

After 34 hours of bombardment on April 13th Fort Sumnter surrendered.

The destruction inside Fort Sumter. Wikimedia Commons.

The destruction inside Fort Sumter. Wikimedia Commons.

Upon surrendering the Confederacy allowed for the honorable 100 gun salute of the Union soldier out of respect--it was on the 47th shot of the 100 gun salute that the first Union death of the Civil war happened. During the battle one confederate soldier died from a misfiring cannon. The fact that only two died in this conflict is incredible as Fort Sumter is on an island and there is not many places to go when it is being shelled for 34 straight hours.

Fort Sumter under Confederate control, 1861. Wikimedia Commons.

Fort Sumter under Confederate control, 1861. Wikimedia Commons.

The attack and destruction of the Fort in just a mere day and a half would be the beginning of a long realization that the use of forts was no longer an advantage as the technology in guns had gotten so good that having a permanent structure would no longer be in your best interest. Military leaders would be learning this for the rest of the 19th century and even as late as WWI when it took Germany only 11 days to destroy 12 state of the art Belgian forts along the Belgium/German boarder in the opening days of the war.

 

Fort Sumner flag, Anderson was allowed to keep the flag that was taken down to be replaced with a confederate flag. The flag became a national relic upon its arrival in New York days after the fort fell. Wikimedia Commons.

Fort Sumner flag, Anderson was allowed to keep the flag that was taken down to be replaced with a confederate flag. The flag became a national relic upon its arrival in New York days after the fort fell. Wikimedia Commons.