Battle of Fort Sumter

Battle of Fort Sumter
Date April 12, 1861 – April 14, 1861
Location Charleston County, South Carolina
Victor Confederate victory
American Civil War Begins
Contenders
United States (Union) Confederate States
Military Leaders
Robert Anderson P. G. T. Beauregard
Military Units in Battle
1st United States Artillery Provisional Forces of the Confederate States
Unit Strength
85 500
Casualties and Deaths
1 died after the surrender 0
Part of the American Civil War

The Battle of Fort Sumter, which took place in April 1861, was the first military engagement in the American Civil War. It consisted of the bombardment of the unfinished sea fort by Confederate Forces, forcing the Union garrison to surrender. The main consequence of the defeat was the rallying of thousands of Northerners behind the Union cause, thereby precipitating a full-scale war that lasted for four years.

Background

After Abraham Lincoln had been elected President in November 1860, the secession crisis which followed led to Federal troops in southern forts receiving a considerable number of threats. Major Robert Anderson commanded Fort Moultrie, an awkwardly positioned fort opposite the city of Charleston, on Sullivan Island. He requested that the War Department provide him with additional troops, meanwhile planning to move his existing forces to a more easily defensible location on another island in the harbor. Castle Pinckney was one option, the other being Fort Sumter near the harbor mouth.

On December 20, 1860, South Carolina announced its secession from the Union. The governor, Francis Pickens, came under pressure to act against Anderson, on the grounds that he was intending to move out of Fort Moultrie and into a better-defended position. On Christmas Eve, Picken sent envoys to Washington, with directions to enter into negotiations regarding the forts and to make certain that Anderson remained in place. Two days later, however, Anderson loaded his men onto boats with their families and took them to Fort Sumter. The stage was set for an effective siege of the fort, as the lines of communication and supply were under Pickens’ control.

The Siege

On January 9, 1861, a merchant steamboat named the Star of the West approached Fort Sumter from New York, carrying reinforcements and other supplies intended for Anderson. However, the defenses in the harbor had been considerably enhanced by Pickens, and the ship was fired upon. Anderson could do nothing, as his orders were for strictly defensive action. Two days later, Pickens’ ultimatum to Anderson to surrender was turned down. By January 20, the fort was running so short of food that Pickens allowed food to be sent – although Anderson declined to accept it. He did, however, co-operate when Pickens suggested that a number of women and children should be evacuated.

On the first day of March, Charleston saw the arrival of Brigadier General P. G. T. Beauregard, who had been put in post by Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States, in order to take military command in Charleston. Coincidentally, Beauregard had studied under Anderson at the West Point military academy in pre-war days. Beauregard set about reinforcing the harbor’s gun emplacements and defensive structures. The guns pointed to Fort Sumter, making his intentions very clear to Anderson’s Union defenders.

Lincoln was inaugurated as President on March 4, and quickly sent men to the area in order to report back on what the situation was. Meanwhile, more official discussions between the two sides’ governments continued in Washington. Lincoln was told that Anderson’s food would last for little more than a month, a point underlined by Anderson himself in two letters. However, it was April 8 before he received a reply from Washington, which reassured him that relief was on its way. Lincoln’s administration decided that they would not make the first move regarding war, but would wait to see whether Confederate forces attacked the Union ship taking supplies to the fort.

The Battle

By this time, the Federal relief mission had become known to the Confederacy, so Beauregard was told to present the fort with a demand for surrender and to attack it if this was not forthcoming. He moved forces into position and sent word to Fort Sumter to demand its surrender. Anderson, after asking his men for their views, refused to comply. Beauregard was then told to determine the length of time it would be before Anderson’s food supplies were exhausted, after which there would be no choice but for him to surrender. When Beauregard’s envoys returned, Anderson informed them that the surrender would come on April 15. This delay was not acceptable to the Confederate commander, and hostilities began at half past four that morning.

The first shot came when Edmund Ruffin – a Virginian who had mounted a lengthy campaign for states’ rights – was granted the honor. There was no returning fire for more than two hours, since Anderson felt it necessary not to use too much ammunition, until a shot was fired by Captain Abner Doubleday. Anderson used only his lower guns, considering that this put his men at a lower risk of being hit. Before noon, the barracks were ablaze, necessitating the diversion of a number of men to fight the fire. A few hours later, three ships were spotted flying the United States flag, but the hopes that were raised by this were false: the ships were in fact en route to Florida.

The battle died away after nightfall, but picked up again the following morning. Again, the barracks caught fire, and the flagstaff was shot away in early afternoon, the flag having to be raised instead on a hastily put together staff on the ramparts. At this point, Louis Wigfall, a former U.S. senator and one of Beauregard’s aides, traveled to the fort, without his commander’s knowledge, to find out whether the fall of the flag was in fact a sign of surrender. Even though this was not Anderson’s idea initially, negotiations between the two men did result in a surrender, and the flag was lowered and replaced with a white sheet.

Aftermath

The terms of the surrender were finally agreed at midday on April 14, and many of the inhabitants of Charleston witnessed both the final surrender and the evacuation which followed it. Anderson had been allowed by the terms of the surrender to fire a 100-gun salute as he finally lowered the U.S. flag; he then left the scene. One man was killed when one of the surrender guns went off before its proper time, with the others being transferred to relief ships.

The following day, April 15, President Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 men to volunteer in order to put down the rebellion that was breaking out all across the South. The states which supported secession saw this as a direct threat, and were energized rather than scared off by Lincoln’s actions. This marked the effective beginning of the Civil War as a full-scale conflict of arms.

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