Understanding The Battle Of Fort Sumter [April 12–13, 1861] – War Has Begun!
The United States faced internal hostilities that escalated into a four year civil war beginning in the spring of 1861. In this article I will attempt to explain the key facts that led to the Confederate’s first victory during the Battle of Fort Sumter on April 13th,1861.
The Battle of Fort Sumter lasted thirty-four hours in an intense siege, playing a critical role in kicking off the United States into a civil war. This feud swept the nation into chaos and destruction, although for this battle in particular no deaths occurred. The U. S Government and the Union army was successful in keeping the eleven states that had seceded part of this country; however, not without consequence. Over six-hundred thousand lives were lost by the time the war came to an end.
Fort Sumter is an island fortification located just off Charleston Harbor in South Carolina. The military stronghold was one of many that had been created just after the War of 1812 to ensure The United States southern coast is protected. The previous war brought to light the countries lack of coastal defense. They designed Fort Sumter as a solution and military tactic to protect the people. The National Historical Park Of South Carolina explains that “Following the War of 1812, several major weaknesses in the American coastal defense system were identified. To fill these voids, Congress and the US Army Corps of Engineers planned the construction of around 200 fortifications, primarily located along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts from Maine to Louisiana. Over 40 fortifications were built before construction halted with the outbreak of the American Civil War. These forts are collectively known as the Third System of Seacoast Defense. Charleston Harbor made the list of sites vulnerable to attack, prompting the construction of Fort Sumter. Construction on the man-made island began in 1829.” The intent had been to make South Carolina and the nation safer and when the first battle of the civil war occurred Fort Sumter became a precious and strategic stronghold that both sides wanted.
U. S Major Robert Anderson maneuvered to take over the fort when South Carolina announced its secession. He and his men took occupation of Fort Sumter so the stronghold remained in possession of the Union. South Carolina requested that the general cease his command of the fort that now belonged to the Confederacy.
Below is a transcript found in the Library of Congress’s collection of newspapers by The Standard published on April 13th, 1861 in South Carolina. It summarizes all the suspense as the nation waited with bated breath to learn what would happen. Who would fire first? Until this point there had been no bloodshed.
“The Wilmington papers of Tuesday, and the Richmond papers of Wednesday last, contained the most startling reports in relation to the condition of affairs in Charleston harbor. It was stated that there were seven United States’ war vessels off Charleston harbor; that Fort Sumter was to be provisioned at all hazards; that new batteries had been erected near Charleston, and five thousand additional troops called out ; that a battle was certain in the course of a few hours, & The columns of the Petersburg and Richmond papers especially those of the Express were convulsed with articles breathing war, alarm, and terror. The Wilmington Journal of Tuesday said: ” WAR approaches rapidly. It is reported that Gov. Pickens has been officially notified that Fort Sumter is to be reinforced; that a squadron of steamers and war ships is now off the harbor of Charleston, and the fight may now be commencing… we confess we were somewhat startled by these reports. They appeared to be well founded. We began to apprehend that blood would be shed, and that our unfortunate country would be speedily plunged into deeper difficulties.”
Major Anderson took control of Fort Sumter while stationed with his men at Fort Moultrie by the harbors of Charleston. When the secession of South Carolina was announced, Major Anderson had to be decisive. He and his men remained loyal to the Union. Anderson ordered the move for the protection of those under his command and to secure Fort Sumter for the Union. They were vulnerable and open to an attack they could not win at Fort Moultrie. Once they occupied Fort Sumter, the move improved their situation little because the nation argued over the legality and appropriateness of Major Anderson’s actions. Those at Fort Sumter found they were caught in a bad position for the battle about to commence. They had enough food for only six weeks, limited supplies, and nowhere to go. The confederates demanded continuously that the Fort be surrendered to them since it was rightfully in their territory but Major Anderson absolutely refused to do any such thing. He had the full support of those serving under his command who agreed after being asked that surrender should not happen.
Brigadier General P. G. T. Beauregard, a confederate officer, had been put in charge of the military command in Charleston by the Confederate’s appointed president, a man named Jefferson Davis. He and the South Carolina’s Governor Francis Pickens had multiple times sent messages to Major Anderson to surrender the Fort to the Confederate Army. The answer came back no each time. They were offered the terms of a safe evacuation which included being allowed to take their supplies and weapons with them. They were told they could salute the American Flag on their way out. The answer was still however, no. Major Anderson wrote that “It is a demand with which I regret that my sense of honor, and of my obligation to my government, prevent my compliance.”
This was very much a tipping point. Everything hung on the line.
President Lincoln was receiving reports that the people occupying Fort Sumter needed supplies and food. All negotiations regarding this siege were being handled up in Washington through Lincoln. The Union attempted to send a merchant ship called Star of the West with supplies. The ship was fired upon before they could reach Fort Sumter. The ship turned around. All Anderson could do was watch as the ship fled. He was under very strict orders to not fire the first shot against the Confederates. This is where it gets very interesting. Governor Pickens received a lot of backlash and criticism for not allowing the supplies to arrive when starvation became even more acute for those holed up. Pickens in an act of civility sent food to Fort Sumter; however, Anderson refused to accept anything. It was not long after this that Governor Pickens allowed the evacuation of forty-five women and children from Fort Sumter. They could safely leave which made things much easier for the men under Major Anderson’s command.
President Lincoln sent out once again another relief attempt. As mentioned, this was a significant tilting place on whether the country was going into Civil War or not. Washington would let the Confederates decide if it was war or not. So the nation waited. It would all depend on if the Union’s supply ship or the fort was fired upon. The U. S had no intentions of giving up Fort Sumter.
It was vital for the Confederates to keep control of Fort Sumter. This was crucial if they would ever remain their own country. The world would not take them seriously and Europe would not be any support if they as a country did not have sovereignty over their own territories. The fact that this enormous fort located smack in the middle of their land was still under U. S control effectively told the entire world that the Confederate States of America were not an independent country all on its own. This needed to be resolved.
General Beauregard sent Major Anderson a request to know when they planned to surrender. Anderson wrote they would be leaving at noon on the 15th, writing in the message “I will not in the meantime open my fire upon your forces unless compelled to do so by some hostile act against this fort or the flag of my Government.”
This was not accepted. General Beauregard would not provide any amount of time. He was a loyal man to his cause, and time was racing. An envoy was sent to Major Anderson with the following message “Sir: By authority of Brigadier-General Beauregard, commanding the provisional forces of the Confederate States, we have the honor to notify you that he will open the fire of his batteries on Fort Sumter in one hour from this time.”
General Anderson began preparations for this oncoming attack he and his men faced while occupying Fort Sumter. At exactly 4:30 AM the fire began. The first shots came from Fort Johnson located right on James Island then more came from Morris Island. The men at Fort Sumter made no attempts to return the fire they were receiving. This was to save needed supplies and ammunition. After Fort Johnson and Morris Island’s attack more came from Sullivan’s Island. The result was Fort Sumter was surrounded by a circle of fire that the newspapers the next day would deem as a “Splendid Pyrotechnic Exhibition.”
The following are telegrams describing the surrender of Fort Sumter. This collection of telegrams was first published in The Weekly Vincennes Western Sun on April 20, 1861. This Vincennes, Indiana newspaper, published from 1857 to 1865 is part of the Accessible Archive’s Midwestern Perspective on the Civil War Collection and contains news of the war as it unfolded.
Charleston, April 13, 1pm
Fort Sumter is undoubtedly on fire — the flames are raging all around it. Maj. Anderson has thrown out a raft loaded with men, who are passing up buckets of water to extinguish the fire. The fort is scarcely discernible. The men on the raft are now objects of fire from Morris Island– with glasses ball can be seen skipping over the water striking the unprotected raft. Much panic is crated among the poor fellows — is is surmised that Maj. Anderson is gradually blowing up the fort. He scarcely fires a gun. At half-past eleven o’clock flames were bursting from all the port holes. The destruction of Fort Sumter is inevitable.Four vessels, two of them large steamers, are in sight over the bar. The largest appears to be engaging Morris Island. The flames have nearly subsided in Sumter; but Maj. Anderson does not fire any guns.
Gen. Beauregard left the wharf just now in a boat for Morris Island. The excitement, if anything is increasing.I have received a letter from SC Boyleston, dated Moultrie, 6 o’clock, this A.M. He says not one man was killed or wounded.The iron batteries had been damaged. The rifled cannon of the battery did great execution on Sumter and were all aimed into Andersons port holes. Three of Sumter’s Barbette guns were dismounted, one of which was a ten-inch Columbiad. A corner of Fort Sumter, opposite Moultrie, was knocked off. The steamers Water Witch, Mowhawk, and Pawnee, it was thought, were the three fort vessels seen in the offing. Another correspondent says the bombardment has closed. Maj. Anderson has drawn down the stars and stripes and displayed a white flag, which has been answered from the city, as a boat is on the way to Sumter.
Charleston, April 13 noon – Third Dispatch
Fort Sumter has been unconditionally surrendered. The people are wild with joy. No Carolinians were hurt.Two thousand shots were fired altogether. Anderson and men were conveyed to Morris Island under guard. Maj. Anderson has reached the city, the guest of Gen. Beauregard. The people sympathise with Anderson but abhor those in the steamers in sight who did not even attempt to reinforce Sumter.The wood-work and officers quarters of Fort Sumter are all burnt. No officers were wounded. The fort was taken possession of to-night
Charleston, April 13, 1:30pm
The firing has ceased and an unconditional surrender made. The Carolinians are surprized that the fight is over so soon after the flag staff was shot over.Wigfall was sent by Gen. Beauregard to Sumter with a white flag, to offer assistance to subdue the flames. He was met by Maj. Anderson, who said he had just displayed a white flag, but the batteries had not stopped firing. Wigfall replied that Anderson must haul down the American flag — surrender or fight was the word. Maj. Anderson then hauled the flag down. Several of General Beauregard’s staff came over and stipulated that the surrender be unconditional for the present, subject to the terms of Gen. Beauregard. Maj. Anderson was allowed to remain in actual possession at present.
Washington, April 13
In Mr Lincolns reply to the Virginia Commissioners, after expressing his regret that the public mind is still uncertain as to his course, and reaffirming the policy marked out in his inaugural address. But if, as it now appears to be true in the pursuit of a purpose to drive the U. States authorities from these places, an unprovoked assault has been made upon Sumter, and shall hold myself at liberty to repossess, if I can, like places which had bee seized before the Government was devolved upon me; and in any event, I shall, to the best of my ability, repel, force by force in case it proves true that Sumter has been assaulted, as is reported.
I shall perhaps cause the U.S. mails to be withdrawn from the States which claim to have seceded, believing that the commencement of actual war against the Government justifies and possibly demands it. Whatever else I may do for the purpose, I shall not attempt to collect the duties and imposts by any armed invasion of any part of the country; not meaning by this, however, that I may not land forces, if deemed necessary, to relieve a fort upon the border of the country.
- Battle of Fort Sumter Facts & Summary. (2020, February 14). Retrieved from https://www.battlefields.org/learn/civil-war/battles/fort-sumter
- “The News,” April 13, 1861. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://cwnc.omeka.chass.ncsu.edu/items/show/942
- National Endowment for the Humanities. (n.d.). Chronicling America: Library of Congress. Retrieved from https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/
- Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie National Historical Park (U.S. National Park Service). (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nps.gov/fosu/index.htm
- The battle of Fort Sumter and first victory of the Southern troops, April 13th, 1861 : full accounts of the bombardment, with sketches of the scenes, incidents, etc. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://digital.tcl.sc.edu/digital/collection/sclpam/id/1205/rec/2
- Primary Source Material from 18th and 19th Century Publications. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.accessible-archives.com/
- “Fort Sumter – Attack to Surrender: The April 13th Telegrams.” Accessible Archives Inc., 16 June 2012, www.accessible-archives.com/2011/04/fort-sumter-under-attack-the-april-13th-telegrams/