Battle of Fort Sumter (April 12–13, 1861) was the
bombardment and surrender of Fort Sumter near Charleston, South Carolina, that started the American Civil War.
South Carolina adopted an ordinance
declaring its secession from the Union shortly after Abraham
Lincoln's victory in the presidential election of
1860, and by February 1861, six more Southern states had
adopted similar ordinances of
secession. On February 7, the seven states adopted a
provisional constitution for the Confederate States of America
and established their temporary capital at Montgomery,
Alabama. A pre-war February peace conference met in Washington,
D.C., in a failed attempt at resolving the
The remaining eight slave states rejected pleas to
join the Confederacy. Confederate forces seized all but four
Federal forts within their boundaries (they did not take Fort
Sumter); President Buchanan
protested but made no military response aside from a failed attempt
to resupply Fort Sumter via the ship Star of the West (the ship was fired
upon by Citadel cadets), and no serious military
preparations. However, governors in Massachusetts, New
York, and Pennsylvania quietly began buying weapons and training militia
On March 4, 1861, Abraham
was sworn in as President. In his inaugural address
argued that the purpose of the United States Constitution was "to
form a more
" than the Articles of Confederation
were explicitly perpetual, thus the Constitution too was perpetual.
He asked rhetorically that even were the Constitution a simple
contract, would it not require the agreement of all parties to
rescind it, and called any ordinances of secession "legally void".
He also stated he had no intent to invade Southern states, nor did
he intend to end slavery in states where it already was legal, but
that he would use force to maintain possession of federal property.
His speech closed with a plea for restoration of the bonds of
Others, however, including Jefferson
, who would become the President of the Confederate States of America
analogized the Constitution of the United
to a partnership
, which is terminated upon the withdrawal of any
partner from the partnership.
The South sent delegations to Washington D.C. and offered to pay
for the federal properties and enter into a peace treaty with the
United States. Lincoln rejected any negotiations with Confederate
agents on the grounds that the Confederacy was not a legitimate
government, and that making any treaty with it would be tantamount
to recognition of it as a sovereign government. However, Secretary
of State William H. Seward
engaged in unauthorized and
indirect negotiations that failed.
Siege and political maneuvers
Six days after the South Carolina government ratified an order of
secession, U.S. Army Major
Robert Anderson abandoned
the indefensible Fort
Moultrie and secretly
relocated the 85 men under his command, companies E and H of the
1st U.S. Artillery
, to Fort Sumter. Anderson had
been appointed to command the Charleston garrison that Fall because
of rising tensions. Anderson had been a protégé of Winfield Scott
, the senior general
in the U.S. Army at the time, and was thought more capable of
handling a crisis than the garrison's previous commander.
Throughout the autumn, South Carolina authorities considered both
secession and the expropriation of Federal property in the harbor
to be inevitable. As tensions mounted, the environment around the
fort—which was located in what was still technically a constituent
U.S. state—increasingly resembled a siege
the point that the South Carolina authorities placed picket ships
to observe the movements of the troops and threatened violence when
forty rifles were transferred to one of the harbor forts from the
in the city.
Many forts had been constructed in the harbor, including Fort
Sumter and Fort Moultrie. Fort Moultrie was the oldest and was the
headquarters of the garrison. However, it had been designed
essentially as a gun platform for defending the harbor, and its
defenses against land-based attacks were feeble; during the crisis,
the Charleston newspapers commented that sand dunes had grown up
against the walls in such a way that the wall could easily be
scaled. When the garrison began clearing away the dunes, the papers
objected. Fort Sumter, by contrast, dominated the entrance to
Charleston Harbor and was thought to be one of the strongest
fortresses in the world once its construction was completed; in the
autumn of 1860 work was nearly done, but the fortress was thus far
garrisoned by a single soldier, who functioned as a lighthouse
keeper. However, it was considerably stronger than Fort Moultrie,
and its location on a sandbar prevented the sort of land assault to
which Fort Moultrie was so vulnerable.
Fort Sumter before the battle
Fort Sumter in 1863
Model of Fort Sumter as it appeared in
1861 before the attack
Under the cover of darkness on December 26, 1860, Anderson spiked
at Fort Moultrie and moved his
command to Fort Sumter. South Carolina authorities considered this
a breach of faith and demanded that the fort be evacuated. At that
time President James Buchanan
still in office, pending Lincoln's inauguration on March 4, 1861.
Buchanan refused their demand and mounted a relief expedition in
January 1861, but shore batteries fired on and repulsed the unarmed
merchant ship, Star of the
. The battery that fired was manned by cadets
from The Citadel, who were the only trained artillerists in the
service of South Carolina at the time.
the formation of the Confederacy in early February,
there was some internal debate among the secessionists as to
whether the capture of the fort was rightly a matter for the State
of South Carolina or the newly declared national government in
South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens
was among the states' rights
advocates who felt that all of
the property in Charleston harbor had reverted to South Carolina
upon that state's secession as an independent commonwealth. This
debate ran alongside another discussion as to how aggressively the
properties—including Forts Sumter and Pickens—should be obtained.
Jefferson Davis, like his counterpart in
D.C., preferred that his side not be seen as the
aggressor. Both sides believed that the first side to
use force would lose precious political support in the border
states, whose allegiance was undetermined; prior to Lincoln's
inauguration on March 4, five states had voted against
secession, including Virginia, and Lincoln openly offered to evacuate Fort Sumter
if it would guarantee Virginia's loyalty.
In March, Brig. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard
took command of South Carolina
forces in Charleston; on March 1, Davis had appointed him the first
in the armed forces of the
new Confederacy, specifically to take command of the siege.
Beauregard made repeated demands that the Union force either
surrender or withdraw and took steps to ensure that no supplies
from the city were available to the defenders, whose food was
running out. He also increased drills amongst the South Carolina
, training them to operate the guns
they manned. Ironically enough, Anderson had been
Beauregard's artillery instructor at West
Point; the two had been especially close, and Beauregard
had become Anderson's assistant after graduation.
spent the month of March drilling and improving their
fortifications to the best of their abilities.
By April 4, President Lincoln, discovering that supplies in the
fort were shorter than he had previously known, and believing a
relief expedition to be feasible, ordered merchant vessels escorted
by the United States Navy
Charleston. On April 6, 1861, Lincoln notified South Carolina
Governor Francis W. Pickens
that "an attempt will be made to
supply Fort Sumter with provisions only, and that if such attempt
be not resisted, no effort to throw in men, arms, or ammunition
will be made without further notice, [except] in case of an attack
on the fort."
In response, the Confederate cabinet, meeting in Montgomery,
decided on April 9 to open fire on Fort Sumter in an attempt to
force its surrender before the relief fleet arrived. Only Secretary
of State Robert Toombs
decision: he reportedly told Jefferson Davis the attack "will lose
us every friend at the North. You will wantonly strike a hornet's
nest. ... Legions now quiet will swarm out and sting us to death.
It is unnecessary. It puts us in the wrong. It is fatal."
The Confederate Secretary of War telegraphed Beauregard that if he
were certain that the fort was to be supplied by force, "You will
at once demand its evacuation, and if this is refused proceed, in
such a manner as you may determine, to reduce it." Beauregard
dispatched aides to Fort Sumter on April 11 and issued their
ultimatum. Anderson refused, though he reportedly commented, "Men,
if you do not batter the fort to pieces about us, we shall be
starved out in a few days."
Bombardment of the Fort by the Confederates.
Further discussions after midnight proved futile. At 3:20 a.m.,
April 12, 1861, the Confederates informed Anderson that they would
open fire in one hour. At 4:30 a.m., a single mortar round fired
from Fort Johnson exploded over Fort Sumter, making the start of
the bombardment from 43 guns and mortars at Fort Moultrie, Fort Johnson, the Floating Battery of
Charleston Harbor and Cummings Point. Edmund Ruffin
, a notable secessionist, had
traveled to Charleston in order to be present for the beginning of
the war, and was present to fire the first shot at Sumter after the
signal round. Anderson withheld his fire until 7:00 a.m., when
Capt. Abner Doubleday
fired a shot at the Ironclad
Battery at Cummings Point. But there was little Anderson could do
with his 60 guns; he deliberately avoided using guns that were
situated in the fort where casualties were likely. The fort's best
cannons were mounted on the uppermost of its three tiers, where his
troops were most exposed to enemy fire. The fort had been designed
to hold out against a naval assault, and naval warships of the time
did not mount guns capable of elevating to fire over the walls of
the fort; however, the land-based cannons manned by the South
Carolina militia were capable of landing such indirect fire on Fort
Sumter. Fort Sumter's garrison could only safely fire the guns on
the lower levels, which themselves, by virtue of being in stone
emplacements, were largely incapable of indirect fire that could
seriously threaten Fort Moultrie. Moreover, although the Federals
had moved as much of their supplies to Fort Sumter as they could
manage, the fort was quite low on ammunition, and was nearly out at
the end of the 34-hour bombardment. The shelling of Fort Sumter
from the batteries ringing the harbor awakened Charleston's
residents (including diarist Mary
), who rushed out into the predawn darkness to watch the
shells arc over the water and burst inside the fort. The
bombardment lasted through the night until the next morning, when a
shell hit the officers' quarters, starting a serious fire that
threatened the main magazine.
Robert Anderson's telegram announcing
the surrender of Fort Sumter.
The fort's central flagpole also fell. During the period the flag
was down, before the garrison could improvise a replacement,
several Confederate envoys arrived to inquire whether the flag had
been lowered in surrender. Anderson agreed to a truce at 2:00 p.m.,
April 13, 1861.
Terms for the garrison's withdrawal were settled by that evening
and the Union garrison surrendered the fort to Confederate
personnel at 2:30 p.m., April 14. No one from either side was
killed during the bombardment. During the 100-gun salute to the
U.S. flag—Anderson's one condition for withdrawal—a pile of
cartridges blew up from a spark, killing one soldier instantly
(Private Daniel Hough) and seriously injuring the rest of the gun
crew, one mortally (Private Edward Galloway); these were the first
fatalities of the war. The salute was stopped at fifty shots.
Galloway and another injured crewman were sent to the hospital in
Charleston where Galloway died. The other crewman successfully
recovered and was sent North later without exchange. Union troops
were placed aboard a Confederate steamer where they spent the night
and were transported the next morning to the Union steamer
resting outside the harbor bar. The soldiers along
with the women and children were safely transported back to Union
territory by the U.S. Navy squadron whose anticipated arrival as a
relief fleet had prompted the barrage. Anderson carried the
Fort Sumter Flag
with him North,
where it became a widely known symbol of the battle, and rallying
point for supporters of the Union.
Confederate Flag flying in Fort Sumter
after the 1861 surrender
The bombardment of Fort Sumter was the first military action of the
American Civil War. Following the surrender, Northerners rallied
behind Lincoln's call for all of the states to send troops to
recapture the forts and preserve the Union. With the scale of the
rebellion apparently small so far, Lincoln called for 75,000
volunteers for 90 days. For months before that, several Northern
governors had discreetly readied their state militias; they began
to move forces the next day. The ensuing war lasted four years,
effectively ending in April 1865, with the surrender of General
Robert E. Lee
's Army of Northern Virginia
Charleston Harbor was completely in Confederate hands for the
four-year duration of the war, leaving a hole in the Union naval
blockade. Union forces retook the fort just days after Lee's
surrender and the collapse of the Confederacy. On April 14, 1865,
four years to the day after lowering the Fort Sumter Flag
in surrender, Anderson (by
then a major general
although ill and in retired status) raised it over the fort
the cannons used at Fort Sumter were later presented to Louisiana
State University by General William Tecumseh Sherman, who was
president of the university before the war began.
- National Park Service battle description
- Burgess, John Williams, The Civil War and the Constitution,
1859-1865, C. Scribner's Sons, 1901.
- Chesnut, Mary, Diary of Mary Chesnut, D. Appleton and
- Detzer, David, Allegiance: Fort Sumter, Charleston, and the
Beginning of the Civil War, Harcourt, 2001, ISBN
- Eicher, David J., The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil
War, Simon & Schuster, 2001, ISBN 0-684-84944-5.
- Eicher, John H., and Eicher, David
J., Civil War High Commands, Stanford
University Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8047-3641-3.
- Hendrickson, Robert, Sumter: The First Day of the Civil
War, Promontory Press, 1996, ISBN 0-88394-095-7.
- Klein, Maury, Days of Defiance: Sumter, Secession and the
Coming of the Civil War, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997, ISBN
- Ripley, Warren (1992). “War's First Death Accidental”. In
Wilcox, Arthur M. & Ripley, Warren, The Civil War at
Charleston, p. 20. Sixteenth Ed. Evening-Post Publishing
- Ward, Geoffrey C., Ric Burns and Ken Burns, The Civil War,
an Illustrated History, Alfred A. Knopf, 1990, ISBN
- The English documentary entitled "The American Civil War."
Shown on the UK History Channel.
- McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, pp. 264-66.
- First Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln, Monday,
March 4, 1861
- Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861
- David Potter, The Impending Crisis, pp. 572-73
- Detzer, page 212. When asked about that offer, Lincoln
commented, "A state for a fort is no bad business."
- Eicher, High Commands, p. 810.
- Ward, Burns, and Burns, p. 38.
- Chesnut, np.
- Eicher, Longest Night, p. 41.
- Ripley, p. 20.
- Burgess, p. 173.
- McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, p. 274
- Schouler, William, Massachusetts in the Civil War, 1868,
- Eicher, Longest Night, p. 834.
- Louisiana State University Army ROTC unit