On December 20, 1860, after decades of sectional conflict, the people of South Carolina responded to the election of the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, by voting unanimously in convention to secede from the Union. Within six weeks five other States -- Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana -- followed South Carolina's example. Early in February 1861 they met in Montgomery, Ala., adopted a constitution, set up a provisional government -- the Confederate States of America -- and elected Jefferson Davis their president. By March 2, when Texas officially joined the Confederacy, nearly all of the Federal forts and navy yards in the seven States had been seized by the new government. Fort Sumter was one of the few that remained in Federal hands.
When South Carolina seceded, there were four Federal installations around Charleston Harbor: Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island, Castle Pinckney on Shute's Folly Island near the city, Fort Johnson on James Island across from Moultrie, and Fort Sumter at the harbor entrance (text continues after map below).
The only post garrisoned by more than a nominal number of soldiers was Fort Moultrie, where Maj. Robert Anderson commanded two companies, 85 men, of the First U.S. Artillery. Six days after the secession ordinance, Anderson concluded that Moultrie and the other works were indefensible and secretly transferred the Federal troops to Fort Sumter, a mile away. Charlestonians were angered by Anderson's action. On December 27 South Carolina volunteers occupied Forts Moultrie and Johnson and Castle Pinckney, and began erecting batteries elsewhere around the harbor. The State regarded Anderson's move as a breach of faith and demanded that the U.S. Government evacuate Charleston Harbor. President James Buchanan refused.
In January Buchanan attempted a relief expedition, but South Carolina shore batteries turned back the unarmed mechant vessel, "Star of the West," carrying 200 men and several months' provisions, as it tried to enter the harbor. Early in March, Brig. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard took command of the Confederate troops at Charleston and pushed work on fortifying the harbor. As the weeks passed, Fort Sumter gradually became the focal point of tensions between North and South. When Abraham Lincoln assumed office as President of the United States on March 4, 1861, he made it clear in a firm but conciliatory address that he would uphold the national authority. The Government, he said, would not assail anyone, but neither would it consent to a division of the Union. "The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government." Lincoln plainly meant to hold Fort Sumter. Unfortunately circumstances were such that this could not be done without an overt act on his part.
Ft. Sumter as it appeared c.1861
By April 4 Lincoln believed that a relief expedition was feasible and ordered merchant steamers, protected by ships of war, to carry "subsistence and other supplies" to Anderson. He also notified Governor Francis W. Pickens of South Carolina that an attempt would be made to resupply the fort. After debate -- and some disagreement -- the Confederate cabinet telegraphed Beauregard on April 10 to fire on Sumter if absolutely necessary to prevent reinforcement.
On April 11 Beauregard demanded that Anderson surrender Sumter. Anderson refused, but said he would be starved out in a few days anyway. Beauregard then asked the major precisely when he would be forced to evacuate the fort. In a carefully worded reply, Anderson said that he would leave Sumter by noon, April 15, unless before that time he should receive either instructions from Washington or additional supplies.
The Confederates rejected his answer. At 3:20 a.m., on April 12, they informed Anderson that their batteries would open fire in one hour. At ten minutes past the allotted hour, Capt. George S. James, commanding Fort Johnson's east mortar battery, ordered the firing of a signal shell. Within moments Edmund Ruffin of Virginia, firebrand and hero of the secessionist movement, touched off a gun in the ironclad battery at Cummings Point. By daybreak batteries at Forts Johnson and Moultrie, Cummings Point, and elsewhere were assailing Sumter.
Photo: Ft. Johnson cannons with Ft. Sumter in the distance; c.1865
Major Anderson withheld his fire until 7 o'clock. Though some 60 guns stood ready for action, most never got into the fight. Nine or ten casemate guns returned the fire, but by noon only six remained in action. At no time during the battle did the guns of Fort Sumter greatly damage Confederate positions. And, sheltered in Sumter's brick caverns, only five Federal soldiers suffered injuries.
The cannonade continued throughout the night. The next morning a hot shot from Fort Moultrie set fire to the officers' quarters. In early afternoon the flagstaff was shot away (to see the original Union flag from Ft. Sumter, click here). About 2 p.m., Anderson agreed to a truce. That evening he surrendered his garrison. Miraculously, no one on either side had been killed during the engagement.
On Sunday, April 14, Major Anderson and his garrison marched out of the fort and boarded ship for transport to New York. They had defended Sumter for 34 hours, until "the quarters were entirely burned, the main gates destroyed by fire, the gorge walls seriously injured, the magazines surrounded by flames." Civil war, so long dreaded, had begun.