Fort Sumter: The First Shots of the Civil War

Fort Sumter: The First Shots of the Civil War

April 12, 1861 is the day that will forever be remembered as the opening day of hostilities between the North and South of the United States. This date marked the beginning of the bloodiest war in US history that would be called The Civil War, The War Between the States and even The War of Yankee Aggression.

The Battle of Fort Sumter
Date: April 12-13, 1861.
Location: Fort Sumter, a sea fort in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. Fort Sumter was one of the few remaining federal forts in the seceded states still under Union control.
Commanders: Major Robert Anderson commanded the Union garrison, and Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard led the Confederate forces.

The first shots of the Civil War took place at Fort Sumter, Charleston Harbor, Charleston, South Carolina, between Union Major Robert Anderson and Confederate Brigadier General Pierre G. T. Beauregard. They may have been the first shots, but they had been coming for a long time.

As far back as the Declaration of Independence in 1776, slavery and states rights were issues. While drafting the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson fought against slavery and his initial draft blamed King George III for it being in the colonies.

On July 13, 1787, the Continental Congress adopted the Northwest Ordinance banning slavery in territories northwest of the Ohio River.

The early fight for State’s Rights began in South Carolina in the 1820s. John Calhoun wrote about “Nullification.” The point of nullification was to give states the right to nullify or void any acts by Congress or the Federal Government that transgressed upon ANY right the state considered its own.

Events such as the Dred Scott Decision infuriated the people of the North. In this decision, the US Supreme Court in 1857 declared slaves as property with no rights to citizenship.

Then came the election of 1860 when Abraham Lincoln was elected president without a majority vote. This Republican President from Springfield, Illinois, was the eventual catalyst for the secession of the Southern states.

On December 20, 1860 South Carolina voted an ordinance of secession from the Union. In doing so it was repealing its 1788 ratification of the Constitution. December 24, 1860 marked the official day of secession.

Fort Sumter Today

In the months following, other states “joined the cause.”

  • Mississippi – January 9, 1861
  • Florida – January 10, 1861
  • Alabama – January 11, 1861
  • Georgia – January 19, 1861
  • Louisiana – January 26, 1861
  • Texas – February 1, 1861
  • Virginia – April 17, 1861
  • Arkansas – May 6, 1861
  • North Carolina – May 21, 1861
  • Tennessee – June 8, 1861

The first meeting of the Confederate Congress was held in Montgomery, Alabama, on February 4, 1861. Jefferson Davis of Mississippi was elected President, and Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia was Vice President.

In 1861, Charleston Harbor held several batteries, such as Fort Johnson, Castle Pinckney, and Fort Moultrie. Also in the harbor was Fort Sumter, which was under the command of Maj. Anderson. On November 9, 1860, the United States Flag was taken down at all the batteries, and the South Carolina state flag was raised. After seeing this, Maj. Anderson sent word to Washington asking for additional troops and started his men erecting defenses. His hopes of additional men were dashed as the Star Of The West, carrying two hundred men, was fired upon by both the battery on Morris Island and Fort Moultrie, striking it twice. The Star of the West turned and left Charleston Harbor.

On April 11, Gen. Beauregard sent his aides, Col. James Chestnut and Capt. Stephen Lee will deliver an ultimatum to Maj. Anderson. In it, Beauregard specified that he would facilitate the removal of weapons and supplies from the fort and send personal items to any location desired, but Anderson was to evacuate Sumter immediately. Anderson replied that his honor prevented him from doing so. He also informed Beauregard that the matter might be taken out of his hands anyway if they (the Confederates) didn’t batter down the walls; the Union soldiers would be starved out anyway in a few days.

This must have been an interesting exchange on the parts of both Beauregard and Anderson. Brig. Gen. Beauregard had graduated West Point in 1838 and it just so happened his artillery instructor was no other than Major. Robert Anderson.

Beauregard knew the Union had sent additional supplies to Fort Sumter and that they would be arriving anytime. Receiving word from the Confederate Secretary of War, Beauregard was told not to waste time in securing Fort Sumter.

At 3:20 am on April 12, 1861, Confederate officers under orders from Brig. Gen. Beauregard gave a written warning to Maj. Anderson that he would begin firing upon Fort Sumter in one hour’s time.

At 4:30 am, Capt. James stationed at Fort Johnson fired the signal gun that told the other batteries to begin firing upon Sumter. Each of the surrounding batteries quickly joined in but the Union guns didn’t return fire until 7:30 am.

Firing continued through the day and night of April 12th and on into the morning of April 13th.

It was at this time the flagstaff of the fort was shot down, and the barracks were on fire. In a strange sense of duty, honor, or irony, the Confederates sent Capt. Lee, Roger Pryor, and William Miles out toward Fort Sumter in a boat. When they were almost there, a new flag and flagstaff were raised. Deciding to turn back, they once again halted when a white flag of truce was raised.

The Confederates had come to ask Anderson if he needed assistance in putting out the fire. Anderson had only lowered the flag to find out what the men in the boat had wanted. Once the question had been asked, Maj. Anderson politely refused the offer and assured the Confederates his men were well able to handle the situation.

It would take two more attempts before Major Anderson would finally agree to the terms and surrender the fort. On April 14 he personally lowered the flag and evacuated the fort on steamers provided by Beauregard. Of the approximately five hundred and eighty men who participated on both sides at Fort Sumter, not a single life was lost.

For those who enjoy a nice piece of trivia, the United States flag would remain down from Fort Sumter until the anniversary of its lowering, April 14, 1865 when General Robert Anderson, the previous Major Anderson personally raised it once again.

Nancy Vawter
Nancy Vawter

Nancy Vawter has been a reporter and writer since shortly after her graduation from the University of Arizona. She spent seven years with the New York Post, working as a national feature writer in New York. She later taught journalism as an assistant professor at American University in Washington.