Fort Sumter was one of a string of forts built along the American coast after the War of 1812, to protect the coast against attack by European navies. As the threat of attack receded, work on most of the forts slowed or stopped. When they regained their importance at the start of the secession crisis, most were unfinished or lacked most of their guns.
Fort Sumter was one of three fortifications that had been built to defend Charleston, South Carolina. In 1860 they were garrisoned by 73 men (8 of whom were in the band!). Castle Pinckney, clossest to Charleston, was occupied by a single man. Fort Sumter was completely empty, and in need of serious work if it was to be made defensible. The small garrison was based in Fort Moultrie, on Sullivans Island, north of the harbour entrance. Fort Moultrie was totally vulnerable to any attack from the land. All of its guns faced out to sea, from where any attack had been expected.
Fort Sumter was potentially stronger. It had been built on an artificial island on the south side of the entrance to Charleston Bay, and had been designed to hold 146 guns, in three tiers, capable of firing in every direction. However, the fort was not complete, and even if it had been, required a garrison of 650 men to make it entirely secure.
As the secession crisis developed, the Charleston forts inevitably moved to centre stage. South Carolina was the heart of the secession movement. If any attempt was made to maintain Federal possession of the forts, then a confrontation was bound to develop.
On 6 November Abraham Lincoln was elected as the Sixteenth President of the United States. South Carolina immediately prepared to secede. She was not alone. Six other southern states also began to make moves towards secession. While the secession movement gained momentum, Lincoln could do nothing. It would be four months before he was inaugurated, leaving President Buchanan to deal with the developing crisis.
Buchanan’s chief concern appears to have been to make sure that the fighting did not start until he was safely out of office. Other members of his cabinet were not so neutral. Secretary of War John B. Floyd, soon to be a Confederate general, made repeated attempts to have the forts abandoned, finally resigning from the cabinet on 28 December after Buchanan refused to do so.
Buchanan had made one conciliatory gesture, appointing Major Robert Anderson, of Kentucky to replaced Colonel John L. Gardner, of Boston. If Floyd expected Anderson to be pro-secession, he would soon be disappointed. Anderson reached Charleston on 21 November, and immediately requested funds to make the forts more defensible. While he was indeed sympathetic to the south, he was loyal to his country.
Before resigning, Floyd had finally found some funds for work on the forts, confident that they would soon be in southern hands. Inevitably, the workmen employed to carry out this work were largely pro-secession, just another problem for Anderson to deal with.
His biggest problem was that on 20 December South Carolina officially seceded from the Union. His tiny garrison was now surrounded by a hostile and agitated population. Fort Moultrie was clearly no longer safe, and so six days later, on 26 December 1860, Anderson moved his garrison into the relative safety of Fort Sumter. The pro-secession workmen were rounded up, and shipped back to Charleston.
Anderson’s move was greeted with howls of protest from across the south, and general acclaim in the north. It helped trigger the resignation of Secretary of War Floyd, just in time to prevent his impeachment in a fraud scandal.
With Floyd and most other southerners gone, Buchanan gained some backbone. Early in 1861 he even authorised an attempt to reinforce Fort Sumter. That attempted failed, when on 9 January the merchant steamship Star of the West was forced back by gunfire from Charleston. Anderson had been sent orders to fire on any guns that fired on the Star of the West, but had not received them.
The Confederate States of America officially came into being on 4 February 1861. Fort Sumter became one of their first problems. On 1 March they sent General Beauregard to Charleston to take command. He arrived just in time for the peak of the crisis. On 4 March Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as President of the United States. Amongst the first documents he read the following morning was a report from Anderson. The supply situation at Fort Sumter was now critical. If he wasn’t re-supplied urgently, then he would be forced to surrender.
Lincoln’s response to the crisis was brilliant. If he took no action to reinforce Fort Sumter, then he would be accused of weakness in the North, and would be seen to have tacitly acknowledged southern secession. If he sent more troops to the fort, then he would become the aggressor. Anti-war Democrats across the north would be given a rallying call. Instead, Lincoln decided to send supplies, but no reinforcements. News of this decision reached Charleston on 8 April. The Confederate government was now faced with the problem. If they allowed this attempt to peacefully re-supply Fort Sumter then their secession would lose credibility. If they fired on the supply ships, then they would be the aggressor. Lincoln would be gifted with a united North.
The Confederate government had very little choice by this point. The momentum towards confrontation at Charleston would have been very hard to stop. In any case, very few of the political leaders of the Confederacy were willing to back down this early. Many were worried that if they did not take dramatic action soon, then they would lose the next Confederate elections to pro-Union candidates. Accordingly, on 10 April Beauregard was given orders to attack Fort Sumter if he believed that an attempt was about to be made to re-supply the fort.
The next day Beauregard demanded the surrender of Fort Sumter. Anderson refused to surrender, but made it clear that he would soon run out of supplies. Beauregard saw that this gave him a chance to escape from Lincoln’s trap, and from the responsibility of having to fire the first shots of a civil war. However, time was tight. The Federal supply fleet was closing on Charleston. Once it arrived, Beauregard would have no choice but to attack.
Just after midnight on 12 April, Beauregard sent another negotiating party to Fort Sumter. They had two objectives. First, to get Anderson to agree to a fixed date for the surrender if he was not re-supplied and second to get him to agree not to fire unless he was first fired on. This second demand was aimed at prevent Anderson from aiding any relief ships that arrived at Charleston. Anderson realised this. He agreed that the fort would surrender on 15 April, but refused the second demand. The negotiations lasted until 3:20 a.m., at which time the Confederate emissaries informed Anderson that his answer was unacceptable, and that they would open fire on Fort Sumter after a delay of one hour.
That bombardment began at 4:30. The first shot was fired by Edmund Ruffin, a sixty-seven year old fire eating secessionist. Over the next two days 4,000 shells were fired at the fort. In response, Anderson’s men were only able to fire off 1,000 shells, limited both by the danger of firing some of their more vulnerable guns and by some shortages of supply.
That evening the supply fleet appeared outside Charleston Bay, but heavy seas prevented them from helping the defenders. The next morning the bombardment was renewed. This continued until the middle of the afternoon, by which time the position of the defenders was hopeless. The final surrender was confused by the antics of one of Beauregard’s aides, Louis T. Wigfall, who made an un-authorised appearance at the fort, but eventually the confusion was cleared up. At 7 p.m. the terms of the surrender were finally agreed on.
Ironically, the only death on either side occurred on the next day. One of Anderson’s conditions had been the right to fire a 100 gun salute to the flag. Half way through the salute a gun exploding, killing Private Daniel Hough, making him the first casualty of the Civil War.
The attack on Fort Sumter provoked a dramatic reaction across the North. A rash of public meetings helped fuel a massive boom in recruitment. On 15 April Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to serve for three months in the militia. That call was massively over-subscribed, producing a pool of men that was needed soon enough. Lincoln’s call for volunteers tipped several border states into the Confederacy – most significantly Virginia, although it is doubtful that any action other than total surrender to southern demands would have kept them in the Union. The south too began to arm in the aftermath of Fort Sumter as it finally began to dawn on them that the North would fight. After the fighting in Charleston Harbour, war was inevitable.
The siege had a postscript. Four years to the day after lowering the Union flag over Fort Sumter, Anderson, by then a retired major-general, returned to Charleston. On 14 April 1865 he raised the exact same flag over the ruins of Fort Sumter. Where the Confederate guns had done superficial damage to the fort, the guns of the United States navy had almost reduced it to rubble.