April 1861: The Civil War Begins

150 Years Ago in the Civil War

On April 5th 1861, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles ordered a Naval expedition to proceed to Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor for the purpose of resupplying the garrison there. At the end of March, President Abraham Lincoln decided that Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens at Pensacola, Florida would be held. On April 6th, Lincoln sent a message to South Carolina authorities that Fort Sumter would be supplied with provisions only, and that if no resistance was encountered, the garrison would not be reinforced.


 
Lincoln’s goal was to peacefully maintain the garrison at Fort Sumter, and defend Federal property only if attacked. Essentially, the president was placing the responsibility for firing the first shot of the war on the Confederacy. On April 9th, Confederate President Jefferson Davis issued an order to General P.G.T. Beauregard at Charleston that he was to take Fort Sumter before the relief vessels arrived. Davis’ cabinet gave its endorsement to the president’s order. 

On April 11th, South Carolina authorities called on Major Robert Anderson to demand the evacuation and surrender of Fort Sumter. Anderson replied he was running out of supplies and was prepared to evacuate on April 15th at noon unless resupplied or otherwise ordered by the U.S. government. With orders to reduce the fort before it could be resupplied by the relief expedition, the South Carolinians told Anderson his offer was unacceptable, and that the fort would be fired upon.

At 4:30 A.M. on April 12th, Confederate artillery opened fire on Fort Sumter. The Civil War had begun. The bombardment continued for 34 hours, with the Federal garrison returning fire from its batteries. Finally, with food and ammunition running out, and the relief expedition with supplies unable to enter the harbor, Anderson surrendered.

At the same time the bombardment of Fort Sumter was taking place, U.S. Army troops landed at Fort Pickens, securing that stronghold for the Union. It would remain under Federal control throughout the war.

Reaction in the north to the fall of Fort Sumter was swift. Lincoln called for 75,000 troops from the various states to serve 90 day enlistments to put down the insurrection. Response to the president’s call for volunteers was overwhelming. Many states far exceeded their quotas, and essentially had waiting lists of volunteer companies and regiments offering to serve. Training camps sprang up all over the northern states as the task of turning civilians into soldiers began.

In Virginia, an ordinance of secession was approved by a state convention on April 17th less than two weeks after a similar proposal was rejected. The ordinance was to be voted on by the people of Virginia on May 23rd, but for all intents and purposes, the state was out of the Union.  Virginia authorities began organizing state troops and Major General Robert E. Lee was given command of the forces of Virginia on April 23rd. Lee had resigned his U.S. Army commission on April 20th. 

With Virginia seceding, the security of Washington D.C. became a paramount concern.  Maryland had many southern sympathizers, particularly in Baltimore. When the Sixth Massachusetts Infantry stopped in Baltimore to change trains en route to Washington, a mob attacked the soldiers, and the attack escalated into a riot. When it was over, four soldiers and 12 civilians were dead in what was called the Baltimore Riot. Railroad bridges from Pennsylvania and telegraph lines running through Maryland to Washington were destroyed, and for a while the city was cut off from the north.  Troops began arriving via a different route on April 25th, and the tension eased.

On the day the rioting was occurring in Baltimore, Lincoln declared a naval blockade of the southern states. The U.S. Navy was too small to effectively carry out much of a blockade in April 1861, but as more and more ships were built and deployed, the blockade became more effective in cutting off imports of everything from household goods to military supplies as the war went on.

On April 18th, the U.S. Armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia was abandoned and burned by the Federals. Virginia state troops occupied the town. Much of the armory’s arms making machinery remained usable, and was taken by the Confederates to Richmond. U.S. Arsenals at Liberty, Missouri  and Fayetteville, North Carolina also were seized by state authorities or secessionist elements in the second half of April. Fort Smith in Arkansas was taken over by that state’s troops.

The U.S. Navy’s Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk, Virginia was abandoned and burned April 20th after its commander feared it was on the verge of being overrun. However, much of the facility remained in usable condition, and a large number of cannon fell into Confederate hands.  Several ships were burned including the steam frigate U.S.S. Merrimack. The hull of the Merrimack would be raised by the Confederates and converted into the ironclad C.S.S. Virginia.

On April 27th, a professor at the Virginia Military Institute, Colonel Thomas J. Jackson, was given command of the Virginia troops at Harper’s Ferry.  Here, Jackson began to form and train the 2nd, 4th, 5th, 27th and 33rd Virginia Infantry regiments. At the Battle of Bull Run in July of 1861, Jackson would earn the nickname “Stonewall” and this brigade of Virginia regiments would be named the “Stonewall Brigade”. The Stonewall Brigade would go on to become one of the more distinguished Confederate units.

The war had begun. Recruitment of soldiers both north and south was underway in what many on both sides thought would be a short war with little bloodshed.

They would be wrong.

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