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TIME MACHINE: Bombardment of Fort Sumter


This month marked the 150th anniversary of the bombardment of Fort Sumter, near Charleston, South Carolina. Following this attack, the United States found itself plunged into a civil war that lasted four years.

Following Abraham Lincoln's election as the 16th president of the United States in November 1860, several Southern states threatened to secede from the Union, fearful that a Republican administration would pose threats to the political, social and financial agendas of their region. The one thing they generally feared was that Lincoln and his administration would abolish slavery, undermining both their social and financial power.

Nearly two months after Lincoln's victory at the polls, South Carolina became the first state to declare its secession from the Union on December 20, 1860. Within a month, six more states seceded - Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. Not long after South Carolina's secession, the state demanded that the U.S. Army abandon its facilities in Charleston Harbor. Realizing that his command might be in danger, Major Robert Anderson moved his command from the indefensible Fort Moultrie, a more substantial fortress that controlled the entrance to Charleston Harbor. Lame duck President James Buchanan sent an unarmed merchant ship named the Star of the West to deliver supplies and reinforcement troops to Major Anderson's command on in early January. But on January 9, 1861; cadets from The Citadel, stationed at the Morris Island battery, fired upon the steamer as it tried to enter Charleston Harbor. The Star of the West was hit three times before it turned around at headed back to its home port in New York.

South Carolina authorities then seized all Federal property in the Charleston area, following the Star of the West incident. Only Fort Sumter remained outside its grasp. However, the commander eventually found itself besieged by South Carolina military forces throughout the winter of 1861. In late February, the Confederate States of America was formed, with Jefferson Davis (formerly a senator from Mississippi) named as its president. The following month, two events occurred. Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as President of the United States. And Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, the first commissioned general officer of the Confederate Army, was placed in command of Confederate forces in Charleston. Beauregard immediately began strengthening the batteries around Charleston harbor, aimed at Fort Sumter. Conditions in the fort grew dire as Major Anderson found himself short of men, food, and supplies.

On April 4, President Lincoln had sent a naval expedition led by former captain Gustavus V. Fox, who had proposed a plan for nighttime landings of vessels smaller than the Star of the West. Fox's orders were to land at Sumter with supplies only. And if he was opposed by the Confederates, he was to respond with the U.S. Navy vessels following and to then land both supplies and men. This time, Major Anderson was informed of the impending expedition, although the arrival date was not revealed to him. President Lincoln informed South Carolina governor, Francis W. Pickens, that he planned to send supply ships to Fort Sumter. The Confederate government responded by sending an ultimatum to the Lincoln administration that Anderson and his men must evacuate Fort Sumter immediately. Anderson refused to surrender. On April 12, at 4:30 a.m., Confederates bombarded the fort from artillery batteries surrounding the harbor.

Lieutenant Henry S. Farley, acting upon the command of Captain George S. James, fired a single 10-inch mortar round from Fort Johnson. James had offered the first shot to Virginia secessionist Roger Pryor. But the latter declined, stating that he could not fire the first gun of the war. The shell exploded over Fort Sumter as a signal to open the general bombardment from 43 guns and mortars at Fort Moultrie, Fort Johnson, the floating battery, and Cummings Point. General Beauregard ordered the guns fired in a counterclockwise sequence around the harbor, with 2 minutes between each shot. He wanted to conserve ammunition, which he calculated would last for only 48 hours. Edmund Ruffin, another Virginia secessionist, had traveled to Charleston in order to be present for the beginning of the war, and fired one of the first shots at Sumter after the signal round - a 64-pound shell from the Iron Battery at Cummings Point. The shelling of Fort Sumter from the batteries ringing the harbor awakened Charleston's residents, including diarist Mary Chesnut.

Major Anderson withheld his fire, awaiting daylight. His troops reported for roll call at 6 a.m. and then had breakfast. At 7 a.m., Captain Abner Doubleday fired a shot at the Ironclad Battery at Cummings Point. He missed. Given the available manpower, Anderson could not take advantage of all of his 60 guns. Although the Federals had moved as many of their supplies to Fort Sumter as they could manage, the fort was nearly out of ammunition at the end of the 34-hour bombardment. Because of the shortages, Major Anderson reduced his firing to only six guns - two aimed at Cummings Point, two at Fort Moultrie, and two at the Sullivan's Island batteries.

Ships from Gustave Fox's relief expedition began to arrive on April 12. Although Fox himself arrived at 3 a.m. on his steamer Baltic, most of the rest of his fleet was delayed until 6 p.m. One of the two warships, USS Powhatan, never did arrive. Unbeknownst to Fox, it had been ordered to the relief of Fort Pickens in Florida. As landing craft were sent toward the fort with supplies, the artillery fire deterred them and they pulled back. Fox decided to wait until after dark and for the arrival of his warships. But heavy seas made it difficult to load the small boats with men and supplies on the next day. Fox was left with the hope that Anderson and his men could hold out until dark on April 13.

On April 13, Fort Sumter's central flagpole was knocked down at 1 p.m., raising doubts among the Confederates about whether the fort was ready to surrender. Colonel Louis Wigfall, a former U.S. senator, had been observing the battle and decided that this indicated the fort had had enough punishment. He commandeered a small boat and proceeded from Morris Island, waving a white handkerchief from his sword, dodging incoming rounds from Sullivan's Island. He met with Major Anderson and indicated that the latter had did all that was possible to defend the fort. He suggested that Anderson surrender, before any blood was shed. Encouraged that Wigfall had used the word "evacuate" instead of "surrender", Anderson agreed to a truce. He knew that his command was low on ammunition and his men, hungry and exhausted. He ordered that one of his men raise Wigfall's white handkerchief on its flagpole as the former senator departed in his small boat back to Morris Island. The handkerchief was spotted in Charleston and a delegation of officers that included Beauregard; Stephen D. Lee; Porcher Miles, a former mayor of Charleston, and Roger Pryor; sailed to Sumter, unaware of Wigfall's visit. Anderson was outraged when these officers disavowed Wigfall's authority, telling him that the former senator had not spoken with Beauregard for two days. He threatened to resume firing. General Beauregard sent a second set of officers, offering essentially the same terms that Wigfall had presented. And the Anderson-Wigfall agreement was reinstated.

After 34 hours, Major Anderson agreed to evacuate on April 14, at 2:30 p.m. There had been no loss of life on either side as a direct result of this engagement. During the 100-gun salute to the U.S. flag - Anderson's one condition for withdrawal - a pile of cartridges blew up from a spark, killing 36 year-old Irish born Private Daniel Hough instantly and mortally injuring another member of the gun crew, Private Edward Gallway. Hugh and Gallway were the first fatalities of the American Civil War. The salute stopped at fifty shots. Gallway died a few days later at a hospital at Charleston. The rest of Anderson's troops spent the night aboard a Confederate steamer named the Isabel. The next morning, they were transported to Gustave Fox's relief ship Baltic, resting outside the harbor bar. Major Anderson carried the Fort Sumter flag with him North, where it became a widely known symbol of the battle and a rallying point for supporters of the Union.

The bombardment of Fort Sumter became the first military action of the American Civil War. Following the surrender, Northerners rallied behind Lincoln's call of arms to recapture the fort and preserve the Union. This call for 75,000 volunteers triggered four additional states - Arkansas, Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina - to join the Confederacy. The ensuing war lasted four years. Fort Sumter officially returned to Union hands on April 14, 1865; with Robert Anderson in attendance (who was by then, retired). The war effectively ended on April 9, 1865; with the surrender of General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, in Virginia.



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