Special Report

Fort Sumter: The Civil War Begins

Nearly a century of discord between North and South finally exploded in April 1861 with the bombardment of Fort Sumter

After Union troops refused to evacuate Fort Sumter, today a National Monument, Confederates opened fire. (Vincent Musi)
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In the early hours of April 12, approximately nine hours after the Confederates had first asked Anderson to evacuate Fort Sumter, the envoys were again rowed out to the garrison. They made an offer: if Anderson would state when he and his men intended to quit the fort, the Confederates would hold their fire. Anderson called a council of his officers: How long could they hold out? Five days at most, he was told, which meant three days with virtually no food. Although the men had managed to mount about 45 cannon, in addition to the original 15, not all of those could be trained on Confederate positions. Even so, every man at the table voted to reject immediate surrender to the Confederates.

Anderson sent back a message to the Confederate authorities, informing them that he would evacuate the fort, but not until noon on the 15th, adding, “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.”

But the Confederacy would tolerate no further delay. The envoys immediately handed Anderson a statement: “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.”

Anderson roused his men, informing them an attack was imminent. At 4:30 a.m., the heavy thud of a mortar broke the stillness. A single shell from Fort Johnson on James Island rose high into the still-starry sky, curved downward and burst directly over Fort Sumter. Confederate batteries on Morris Island opened up, then others from Sullivan’s Island, until Sumter was surrounded by a ring of fire. As geysers of brick and mortar spumed up where balls hit the ramparts, shouts of triumph rang from the rebel emplacements. In Charleston, families by the thousands rushed to rooftops, balconies and down to the waterfront to witness what the Charleston Mercury would describe as a “Splendid Pyrotechnic Exhibition.”

To conserve powder cartridges, the garrison endured the bombardment without reply for two and a half hours. At 7 a.m., Anderson directed Doubleday to return fire from about 20 guns, roughly one half as many as the Confederates. The Union volley sent vast flocks of water birds rocketing skyward from the surrounding marsh.

At about 10 a.m., Capt. Truman Seymour replaced Doubleday’s exhausted crew with a fresh detachment.

“Doubleday, what in the world is the matter here, and what is all this uproar about?” Seymour inquired dryly.

“There is a trifling difference of opinion between us and our neighbors opposite, and we are trying to settle it,” the New Yorker replied.

“Very well,” said Seymour, with mock graciousness. “Do you wish me to take a hand?”

“Yes,” Doubleday responded. “I would like to have you go in.”

At Fort Moultrie, now occupied by the Confederates, federal shots hit bales of cotton that rebel gunners were using as bulwarks. At each detonation, the rebels gleefully shouted, “Cotton is falling!” And when a shot exploded the kitchen, blowing loaves of bread into the air, they cried, “Breadstuffs are rising!”

Humor was less on display in the aristocratic homes of Charleston, where the roar of artillery began to rattle even the most devout secessionists. “Some of the anxious hearts lie on their beds and moan in solitary misery,” trying to reassure themselves that God was really on the Confederate side, recorded Chesnut.


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