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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At the height of the bombardment, Fox’s relief flotilla at last hove into sight from the north. To the federals’ dismay, however, Fox’s ships continued to wait off the coast, beyond range of rebel guns: their captains hadn’t bargained on finding themselves in the middle of an artillery duel. The sight of reinforcements so tantalizingly close was maddening to those on Sumter. But even Doubleday admitted that had the ships tried to enter the harbor, “this course would probably have resulted in the sinking of every vessel.”

The bombardment slackened during the rainy night but kept on at 15-minute intervals, and began again in earnest at 4 a.m. on the 13th. Roaring flames, dense masses of swirling smoke, exploding shells and the sound of falling masonry “made the fort a pandemonium,” recalled Doubleday. Wind drove smoke into the already claustrophobic casements, where Anderson’s gunners nearly suffocated. “Some lay down close to the ground, with handkerchiefs over their mouths, and others posted themselves near the embrasures, where the smoke was somewhat lessened by the draught of air,” recalled Doubleday. “Everyone suffered severely.”

At 1:30 p.m., the fort’s flagstaff was shot away, although the flag itself was soon reattached to a short spar and raised on the parapet, much to the disappointment of rebel marksmen. As fires crept toward the powder magazine, soldiers raced to remove hundreds of barrels of powder that threatened to blow the garrison into the cloudless sky. As the supply of cartridges steadily shrank, Sumter’s guns fell silent one by one.

Soon after the flagpole fell, Louis Wigfall, husband of Charlotte Wigfall and a former U.S. senator from Texas now serving under Beauregard, had himself rowed to the fort under a white flag to call again for Anderson’s surrender. The grandstanding Wigfall had no formal authority to negotiate, but he offered Anderson the same terms that Beauregard had offered a few days earlier: Anderson would be allowed to evacuate his command with dignity, arms in hand, and be given unimpeded transport to the North and permission to salute the Stars and Stripes.

“Instead of noon on the 15th, I will go now,” Anderson quietly replied. He had made his stand. He had virtually no powder cartridges left. His brave, hopelessly outgunned band of men had defended the national honor with their lives without respite for 34 hours. The outcome was not in question.

“Then the fort is to be ours?” Wig-fall eagerly inquired.

Anderson ordered a white flag to be raised. Firing from rebel batteries ceased.

The agreement nearly collapsed when three Confederate officers showed up to request a surrender. Anderson was so furious at having capitulated to the freelancing Wigfall that he was about to run up the flag yet again. However, he was persuaded to wait until confirmation of the terms of surrender, which arrived soon afterward from Beauregard.

When news of the surrender at last reached the besieging rebels, they vaulted onto the sand hills and cheered wildly; a horseman galloped at full speed along the beach at Morris Island, waving his cap and exulting at the tidings.

Fort Sumter lay in ruins. Flames smoldered amid the shot-pocked battlements, dismounted cannon and charred gun carriages. Astoundingly, despite an estimated 3,000 cannon shots fired at the fort, not a single soldier had been killed on either side. Only a handful of the fort’s defenders had even been injured by fragments of concrete and mortar.

Beauregard had agreed to permit the defenders to salute the U.S. flag before they departed. The next afternoon, Sunday, April 14, Fort Sumter’s remaining artillery began a rolling cannonade of what was meant to total 100 guns. Tragically, however, one cannon fired prematurely and blew off the right arm of a gunner, Pvt. Daniel Hough, killing him almost instantly and fatally wounding another Union soldier. The two men thus became the first fatalities of the Civil War.

At 4:30 p.m., Anderson handed over control of the fort to the South Carolina militia. The exhausted, blue-clad Union soldiers stood in formation on what remained of the parade ground, with flags flying and drums beating out the tune of “Yankee Doodle.” Within minutes, the flags of the Confederacy and South Carolina were snapping over the blasted ramparts. “Wonderful, miraculous, unheard of in history, a bloodless victory!” exclaimed Caroline Gilman in a letter to one of her daughters.


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