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Battle at Fort Sumter: Summary, Facts & Map

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  • 0:00 April 12, 1861
  • 0:35 Sectionalism and Secession
  • 1:30 The Fight at Fort Sumter
  • 6:25 Surrendering Sumter
  • 7:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
Fort Sumter was a U.S. military installation in Charleston Harbor where the first shots of the American Civil War were fired on April 12, 1861. The Fort, held by Union soldiers at the time, fell to Confederates the next day.

April 12, 1861

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.

Sectionalism and Secession

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.

The Fight at Fort Sumter

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.

Major Robert Anderson
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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.

Confederate Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard
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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.

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