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Igniting the Conflict: The Battle of Fort Sumter

At the end of the War of 1812, Congress agreed to establish several forts around Charleston Harbor to protect it from potential foreign threats. In 1829, the construction of a fort designed to contain a garrison of 650 soldiers and 135 pieces of artillery began on a 2.4-acre island in the harbor. This fort was named Fort Sumter, and it would later become one of the most important fortresses in North America.

The construction of Fort Sumter was met with so many delays that it was still incomplete in 1860. The only areas of the fort that were finished at that time were the outer fortifications; the interior still lacked necessities to enable it to be manned and defensible. As of late 1860, it only housed a single soldier to operate the lighthouse and a handful of engineers.

South Carolina officially announced its secession from the US on December 20, 1860 and immediately began to seize the Union property within its borders. Union Major Robert Anderson, under orders from the Department of War, relocated himself and his minute company of soldiers from the run-down Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter on December 26th so he would be less vulnerable to a land assault by the Confederate militia in the area.

Knowing that supplies would be running low, President Buchanan ordered the civilian merchant ship Star of the West to sail to Fort Sumter with 200 soldiers and additional supplies to reinforce Anderson’s position. Confederate artillery batteries opened fire on the ship on January 9, 1861 as it neared the fort and was then forced to retreat. After the failed resupply mission, South Carolina Governor Francis Pickens then ordered President Buchanan and Major Anderson to evacuate Fort Sumter. Both men refused to yield, leaving Major Anderson and his 85 men stranded on the island with dwindling supplies and incomplete defenses.

On March 5th, the day after Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration, Major Anderson sent a letter to the new president informing him that Fort Sumter only had enough supplies for another six weeks of occupation. Upon hearing this, President Lincoln informed Governor Pickens that he would be sending three unarmed ships to resupply Anderson. Once again, Pickens replied by demanding the fort be evacuated immediately and placed under Confederate control. The Governor’s demand fell on deaf ears, and Anderson remained in place with his garrison prepared to defend themselves despite the established Confederate positions on the banks overlooking the island fort.

One final request for Anderson to surrender and leave Fort Sumter was delivered from Confederate Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard on Thursday, April 11th. In response to being refused this last time, General Beauregard ordered his artillery to begin firing just after 4:30am on April 12th. Mary Chesnut, the wife of Confederate Colonel James Chesnut, wrote in her diary of the first shots fired, saying: “I sprang out of bed. And on my knees – prostrate – I prayed as I never prayed before.”

In the opening hours of Friday’s assault, as civilians of Charleston flooded the streets and rooftops to view the action, there was no return fire from Fort Sumter. It wasn’t until 7am that Captain Abner Doubleday ordered his artillery to begin shooting at the Confederate positions. They maintained steady fire with their six available cannons, even though they were no match for the Confederate batteries. They were restricted to using solid cannonballs as they were lacking the proper fuses for their explosive rounds.

As the battle raged, barracks and other structures were set ablaze by the cannon fire but were quickly extinguished by rain and the efforts of a few damage control soldiers. At one point during the middle of the day, their flagpole was hit, dropping the Union flag into the mud at its base. A young Lieutenant Norman J. Hall rushed over to the flag and hoisted it once more in an act to preserve morale.

By Saturday April 13, Confederate cannon fire had managed to break through the five-foot-thick fortress walls and topple the flag once more. With few alternatives, Major Anderson surrendered Fort Sumter to General Beauregard at 2 PM that afternoon. Over the course of the 34 hours of bombardment, it is estimated that the Confederate artillery launched approximately 3,000 cannonballs at the fort.

Incredibly, not a single soldier on either side was killed throughout the engagement. The first military casualties of the Civil War occurred the next day during an accident in Anderson’s artillery salute during the evacuation on April 14th. A pile of ammunition was ignited by a stray spark, which exploded and fatally wounded two Union privates and severely wounded another four. Just five days later, on April 19th, Union President Abraham Lincoln declared a blockade on the Confederacy and called for loyal states to send volunteers and soldiers to crush the rebellion, thus officially beginning the bloodiest four years in US history.

After the surrender of Fort Sumter to the Confederate army in April 1861, Union forces attempted to reclaim the fort by an amphibious assault in September 1863 but were unsuccessful. No further actions were undertaken to return the fort to Union control.

At the end of Major General William Tecumseh Sherman’s now-famous Savannah Campaign, he surrounded Charleston and its harbor, prompting the Confederate military stationed in Charleston and Fort Sumter to evacuate. On April 14, 1865, retired Major General Robert Anderson returned to Charleston so he could raise the Union flag he had taken during his evacuation on the flagpole in Fort Sumter once again.