April 12, 1861: Fort Sumter is Fired Upon and the War Begins

On December 20th, 1860 representatives at the South Carolina Secession Convention voted 169-0 in favor of seceding from the United States.  It was the first state to do so.  Tensions were running high in Charleston, S.C. where the U.S. Government maintained a small military presence.  Seeing problems ahead, Major Robert Anderson of the United States Army, moved his small garrison from Fort Moultrie on the Charleston shore to Fort Sumter, out in Charleston harbor on the night of December 26th.  Fort Sumter, though unfinished, was much more defensible than Fort Moultrie.  Anderson began to fortify Sumter.  Sumter had plenty of artillery, but the garrison consisted of  just 85 officers and enlisted men.  Anderson prepared his defenses and waited for reinforcements and supplies.

In January 1861, the merchant steamer Star of the West attempted to bring supplies and 200 troops to Fort Sumter.  It had been thought that a merchant vessel would have a better chance to carry out the mission than a warship, but Confederate batteries on Morris Island fired on her, and the unarmed vessel had little choice other than to turn back.

So the garrison sat while Washington dealt with a whole range of issues. More states were seceding. The presidential administration changed on March 4th, when Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as the 16th President of the United States. The Confederate States of America inaugurated Jefferson Davis as its President in Montgomery, Alabama. The Confederate capitol later would move to Richmond, but Virginia had not yet left the Union and would not do so until May 23rd. All the while, opinion in the U.S. government was divided as to if Sumter should be held or evacuated.

Finally, on March 29th, Lincoln decided to send a Naval expedition to Charleston to resupply the garrison with provisions.  The Fort Sumter defenders would run out of food by the middle of April, so the options were limited:  resupply, or evacuate.  On April 6th Lincoln informed the governor of South Carolina that an attempt would be made to supply provisions, but the fort would not be reinforced unless there was resistance.  But the Confederate War Department would not allow Sumter to be resupplied.  Secretary of War L.P. Walker’s orders to the commanding officer at Charleston, General Pierre G.T.  Beauregard, were that if an attempt was made to resupply Sumter, he was to “demand it’s evacuation, and if this is refused proceed, in such manner as you determine, to reduce it.”

The evacuation demand was delivered to Anderson on April 11th.  Anderson replied he would evacuate April 15th, unless resupplied.   The Naval supply ships were just outside the harbor, and the Confederate authorities would not allow the garrison to remain and receive provisions.  Anderson was informed that Confederate forces would fire on Fort Sumter at 4:30 A.M. on April 12th. The bombardment began at that hour, and the Civil War had begun.  The Fort Sumter defenders returned fire from their artillery.  The exchange continued until approximately 2:30 in the afternoon of April 13th.  The bombardment had started fires in the fort, and with the food gone, and ammunition running low, Anderson agreed to surrender.  The Union fleet remained outside the harbor and took no action during the fight.

A formal surrender took place the next day.  There had been no fatalities on either side during the 34 hour artillery exchange, but one man was killed and another mortally wounded on the Federal side during the 50 gun salute held as part of thesurrender ceremony.  The defenders of Sumter were allowed to leave after turning over the Fort to the Confederates. 

The war had begun.  There was no turning back now.

On  April 14th, 1865, four years to the day that he had lowered the flag in surrender, Robert Anderson returned to Fort Sumter for a ceremony raising the Stars and Stripes  over the fort once again.  Robert E. Lee had surrendered his forces at Appomattox Courthouse a few days earlier, and Americans were grateful that the carnage and death that had torn the country apart for four long years was finally coming to an end.  But 450 miles to the north, in Washington DC, President Lincoln is enjoying a night at the theatre that April 14th evening, when actor John Wilkes Booth fires one fatal shot that again plunges the country into despair.

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