On March 5, 1861, the day after his inauguration as president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln received a message from Maj. Robert Anderson, commander of the U.S. troops holding Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. The message stated that there was less than a six week supply of food left in the fort.
Attempts by the Confederate government to settle its differences with the Union were spurned by Lincoln, and the Confederacy felt it could no longer tolerate the presense of a foreign force in its territory. Believing a conflict to be inevitable, Lincoln ingeniously devised a plan that would cause the Confederates to fire the first shot and thus, he hoped, inspire the states that had not yet seceded to unite in the effort to restore the Union.
On April 8, Lincoln notified Gov. Francis Pickens of South Carolina that he would attempt to resupply the fort. The Confederate commander at Charleston, Gen.P.G.T. Beauregard, was ordered by the Confederate government to demand the evacuation of the fort and if refused, to force its evacuation. On April 11, General Beauregard delivered the ultimatum to Anderson, who replied, “Gentlemen, if you do not batter the fort to pieces about us, we shall be starved out in a few days.” On direction of the Confederate government in Montgomery, Beauregard notified Anderson that if he would state the time of his evacuation, the Southern forces would hold their fire. Anderson replied that he would evacuate by noon on April 15 unless he received other instructions or additional supplies from his government. (The supply ships were expected before that time.) Told that his answer was unacceptable and that Beauregard would open fire in one hour, Anderson shook the hands of the messengers and said in parting, “If we do not meet again in this world, I hope we may meet in the better one.” At 4:30 A.M. on April 12, 1861, 43 Confederate guns in a ring around Fort Sumter began the bombardment that initiated the bloodiest war in American history.
In her Charleston hotel room, diarist Mary Chesnet heard the opening shot. “I sprang out of bed.” she wrote. “And on my knees–prostrate–I prayed as I never prayed before.” The shelling of Fort Sumter from the batteries ringing the harbor awakened Charleston’s residents, who rushed out into the predawn darkness to watch the shells arc over the water and burst inside the fort. Mary Chesnut went to the roof of her hotel, where the men were cheering the batteries and the women were praying and crying. Her husband, Col. James Chesnut, had delivered Beauregard’s message to the fort. “I knew my husband was rowing around in a boat somewhere in that dark bay,” she wrote, “and who could tell what each volley accomplished of death and destruction?”
Inside the fort, no effort was made to return the fire for more than two hours. The fort’s supply of ammunition was ill-suited for the task at hand, and because there were no fuses for their explosive shells, only solid shot could be used against the Rebel batteries. The fort’s biggest guns, heavy Columbiads and eight-inch howitzers, were on the top tier of the fort and there were no masonry casemates to protect the gunners, so Anderson opted to use only the casemated guns on the lower tier. About 7:00 A.M., Capt. Abner Doubleday, the fort’s second in command, was given the honor of firing the first shot in defense of the fort. The firing continued all day, the federals firing slowly to conserve ammunition. At night the fire from the fort stopped, but the confederates still lobbed an occasional shell in Sumter.
Although they had been confined inside Fort Sumter for more than three months, unsupplied and poorly nourished, the men of the Union garrison vigorously defended their post from the Confederate bombardment that began on the morning of April 12, 1861. Several times, red-hod cannonballs had lodged in the fort’s wooden barracks and started fires. But each time, the Yankee soldiers, with a little help from an evening rainstorm, had extinguished the flames. The Union garrison managed to return fire all day long, but because of a shortage of cloth gunpowder cartridges, they used just six of their cannon and fired slowly.
The men got little sleep that night as the Confederate fire continued, and guards kept a sharp lookout for a Confederate attack or relief boats. Union supply ships just outside the harbor had been spotted by the garrison, and the men were disappointed that the ships made no attempt to come to their relief.
After another breakfast of rice and salt pork on the morning of April 13, the exhausted Union garrison again began returning cannon fire, but only one round every 10 minutes. Soon the barracks again caught fire from the Rebel hot shot, and despite the men’s efforts to douse the flames, by 10:00 A.M. the barracks were burning out of control. Shortly thereafter, every wooden structure in the fort was ablaze, and a magazine containing 300 pounds of gunpowder was in danger of exploding. “We came very near being stifled with the dense livid smoke from the burning buildings,” recalled one officer. “The men lay prostrate on the ground, with wet hankerchiefs over their mouths and eyes, gasping for breath.”
The Confederate gunners saw the smoke and were well aware of the wild uproar they were causing in the island fort. They openly showed their admiration for the bravery of the Union garrison by cheering and applauding when, after a prolonged stillness, the garrison sent a solid shot screaming in their direction.
“The crasing of the shot, the bursting of the shells, the falling of the walls, and the roar of the flames, made a pandemonium of the fort,” wrote Capt. Abner Doubleday on the afternoon of April 13, 1861. He was one of the Union garrison inside Fort Sumter in the middle of South Carolina’s Charleston harbor. The fort’s large flag staff was hit by fire from the surrounding Confederate batteries, and the colors fell to the ground. Lt. Norman J. Hall braved shot and shell to race across the parade ground to retrieve the flag. Then he and two others found a substitute flagpole and raised the Stars and Stripes once more above the fort.
Once the flag came down, Gen. P.G.T. Beaugregard, who commanded the Confederate forces, sent three of his aides to offer the fort’s commander, Union Maj. Robert Anderson, assistance in extinguishing the fires. Before they arrived they saw the garrison’s flag raised again, and then it was replaced with a white flag. Arriving at the fort, Beaugregard’s aides were informed that the garrison had just surrendered to Louis T. Wigfall, a former U.S. senator from Texas. Wigfall, completely unauthorized, had rowed out to the fort from Morris Island, where he was serving as a volunteer aide, and received the surrender of the fort. The terms were soon worked out, and Fort Sumter, after having braved 33 hours of bombardment, its food and ammunition nearly exhausted, fell on April 13, 1861, to the curshing fire power of the Rebels. Miraculously, no one on either side had been killed or seriously wounded.
The generous terms of surrender allowed Anderson to run up his flag for a hunderd-gun salute before he and his men evacuated the fort the next day. The salute began at 2:00 P.M. on April 14, but was cut short to 50 guns after an accidental explosion killed one of the gunners and mortally wounded another. Carrying their tattered banner, the men marched out of the fort and boarded a boat that ferried them to the Union ships outside the harbor. They were greeted as heroes on their return to the North.