150 Years Ago: The Civil War Begins

Confederate imprint
Original copy of the very first Confederate imprint defining the moment that the first southern state formally seceded from the United States of America. Wikimedia Commons

“At 4:30 AM, 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,” writes Smithsonian writer Fergus Bordewich in his April issue feature story “Fort Sumter: The Civil War Begins.” “Confederate batteries on Morris Island opened up, then others from Sullivan’s Island, until Sumter was surrounded by a ring of fire.”

It was April 12, 1861—150 years ago today—when the Civil War officially began with the bombardment of the garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. “They were choking on smoke,” says Bordewich, who read accounts written by soldiers. “They were in cramped, almost airless brick compartments, being fired at from different directions. They were essentially in a trap.” After 34 hours of attack, the fort was forced to surrender to the Confederates.

It was not surprising that the Union and Confederate forces first came to blows in South Carolina. On December 20, 1860, the state became the first to declare its independence from the Union. South Carolina encouraged other southern states to join the cause, and like dominoes, Mississippi (January 9, 1861), Florida (January 10), Alabama (January 11), Georgia (January 19), Louisiana (January 26) and Texas (February 1) announced their secession. South Carolina’s decision was announced in the Charleston Mercury—“The Union is dissolved!” The famous handbill is part of the National Portrait Gallery’s permanent American Origins exhibition.

The attack on Fort Sumter ultimately led to four years of war and about 620,000 casualties. Across the Smithsonian Institution are many other Civil War artifacts, from Abraham Lincoln’s top hat to the Appomattox tables and chairs, where Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee negotiated the final surrender on April 9, 1865. For some reflection on the war at its sesquicentennial, visit "The Civil War at 150," a collection of stories culled from Smithsonian magazine's archives.

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