Back To CourseAP US History: Help and Review
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In the early morning hours of April 12, 1861, a lone shot pierced the darkness covering Charleston, South Carolina. The newly formed Confederate Army had fired on Fort Sumter, an installation held by United States forces sitting in the middle of the harbor. That lone shot in the dawn hours was just the first of millions of shots that would be fired over the next four years. It was the start of the American Civil War. Let's learn more about Fort Sumter and how the Civil War began there in 1861.
Throughout the early 1800s, the United States saw increasing sectional tensions over the issue of slavery. Two separate societies formed around the presence of slavery in the South and the absence of it in the North. As new states were added to the Union, the question of whether they would be open for slavery was hotly debated. With the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, a Northern Republican dedicated to stopping the spread of slavery, the Southern states realized that they had become a sectional minority. Their solution was secession. In December 1860, South Carolina was the first to leave the Union. By the time Lincoln was inaugurated in March 1861, six more states had left, joining what became known as the Confederate States of America. This provided the dramatic backdrop for the crisis at Fort Sumter in April 1861.
Charleston, South Carolina, had long been one of the most important harbors in the United States. After the War of 1812, a series of forts were built in important coastal locations, such as Charleston, to protect the United States from future threats; Fort Sumter was one of these. It was named after Revolutionary War General Thomas Sumter. While work on the fort began in 1829, it was not yet complete by the time tensions began to escalate in 1861.
Across the harbor from Fort Sumter, Fort Moultrie was its land fort companion. In 1860, Moultrie was occupied and manned by Major Robert Anderson and a garrison of soldiers from the United States army. Anderson was a Kentucky native, and many thought his sympathies and loyalties would lie with the Southern states in the sectional crisis; however, Anderson was a loyal Union soldier. Shortly after South Carolina seceded, Anderson could see the handwriting on the wall. He abandoned Fort Moultrie in the middle of the night in late December 1860, moving his garrison to Fort Sumter. Anderson did this with no orders from Washington; he simply believed it was the best move.
This relocation caused alarm throughout Charleston. Officials in South Carolina requested that Anderson surrender Sumter. In January, cadets from the Citadel, a military academy based in Charleston (still active to this day) actually fired artillery rounds at the Star of the West, a ship sent to resupply Anderson's men. Some consider these to be the first shots of the war, but because they were only warning shots and never hit, the ship simply turned around and avoided hostilities.
Newly inaugurated President Abraham Lincoln inherited all of these problems in March 1861. One of his priorities was to figure out what to do about Fort Sumter. Lincoln and the War Department knew that Anderson's men could not hold out in the fort forever, but because it was United States military property, they did not want to abandon it to a secessionist army that they viewed as an insurrectionist force. So, Lincoln decided to resupply the fort and sent notification of his intentions to Confederate and South Carolina officials ahead of time in an attempt to avoid hostilities. Lincoln wanted to send several ships to resupply the fort, hoping that they would be allowed access.
In Charleston Harbor, Confederate Brigadier General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard had no intention of allowing Fort Sumter to be resupplied. Beauregard was overseeing Confederates in the harbor, and he sent several officers to the fort on April 11 to request its surrender. After being rebuffed, he sent them again later that day and gave one of them, Colonel James Chestnut Jr., the authority to determine whether they should fire on the fort. After this return mission, Chestnut determined that Anderson would not surrender.
At 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, the Confederate batteries on James Island fired the first shots of the American Civil War on United States troops at Fort Sumter. Anderson and his garrison at Sumter waited over two hours before firing back; it was reportedly Captain Abner Doubleday, a future Union general, who fired the first response from Sumter that morning.
As the battle raged, fires began to start within the fort. Despite the walls being made of brick, the inside of the fort had numerous wood buildings that caught fire when Confederates fired cannonballs that had been heated in ovens before they were fired. Anderson and his men struggled to put out the fires and to return fire, while not exhausting their ammunition. As darkness fell on the night of the 12th, Sumter remained defiant, although it had been weakened considerably.
Firing continued on the 13th, exacting a toll on the fort. Early that afternoon, the fort's flagpole was torn down by artillery fire, causing many to think the fort had surrendered. It had not.
It was on the afternoon of the 13th that Louis Wigfall, a colonel in the Confederate army who had, until recently, been a United States senator from Texas, went to the fort in a boat under a flag of truce to attempt to negotiate an end to the hostilities. Without Beauregard's permission, Wigfall offered to allow Anderson and his men to evacuate the fort and surrender it with no further firing. Anderson took the offer and raised a small white flag above the fort.
Beauregard, who was surprised by the white flag and the silence of the Federal guns, sent a delegation of officers to negotiate a surrender. He was unaware of Wigfall's prior visit. After initial confusion over the various visits and Beauregard's lack of knowledge of Wigfall's mission, the Confederate commander gave Anderson the same deal Wigfall had offered. The battle for Fort Sumter ended in Confederate victory.
On April 14, Anderson and his garrison officially surrendered Fort Sumter to Confederates. During their artillery salute, allowed by the Confederates so that Union forces could leave with honor, the first casualties of the war occurred. No men had been killed or wounded during the bombardment, but when a cannon exploded during the salute, several Union artillerymen were wounded, two of them mortally. Anderson was allowed to leave with the fort's flag, which became a symbol of the Union in the North, rallying many to support the Union cause in the war.
Following Fort Sumter, Lincoln put out a call for 75,000 volunteer soldiers to serve an enlistment of 90 days to put down the rebellion in the South. Because of this, four more states - Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Arkansas - seceded from the Union. The Confederacy now had 11 states, and both sides began gearing up for war. In July, the first major battle was fought at First Bull Run, where nearly 5,000 casualties fell in one day of fighting. While the days following Fort Sumter were filled with romantic views of war, by the end of 1861, both sides began to realize the difficult road that lay ahead.
The initial shots fired on Ft. Sumter on April 12, 1861, signaled the beginning of a very costly civil war over the questions of slavery and the future of the Union. Although tensions had been simmering for a few months beforehand, the actual battle for the fort lasted from April 12 to April 14, 1861, when Ft. Sumter was surrendered by Major Anderson to Confederate Brigadier General Beauregard. Charleston remained in Confederate hands throughout the rest of the war.
On April 14, 1865, exactly four years after Ft. Sumter was surrendered, Major General Robert Anderson returned to raise the same flag he had lowered above the fort once again. While it would be months until the final Confederate troops surrendered, the return of the Ft. Sumter flag was a sign that the war was coming to an end. Ironically, later that same day, President Lincoln was shot in Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C.
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Back To CourseAP US History: Help and Review
30 chapters | 478 lessons | 1 flashcard set