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The Battle of Fort Sumter & the Start of the Civil War

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  • 0:06 Crisis at Fort Sumter
  • 2:40 The Fall of Fort Sumter
  • 5:10 Effects of Fort Sumter
  • 8:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

South Carolina's attack on a U.S. military outpost triggered the American Civil War. Learn more about the Battle of Fort Sumter and the consequences of the fort's surrender to the Confederacy.

Crisis At Fort Sumter

Major Anderson led Union soldiers during the Fort Sumter battle.
Major Robert Anderson

When South Carolina seceded from the United States in late December 1860, 87 soldiers in the U.S. Army stationed in Charleston were now trapped, in a sense, in a hostile country. Their commander, Major Robert Anderson, was himself a southern slave-owner but was still loyal to the Union. In the middle of the night, Anderson secretly moved his men from their indefensible position to the unfinished Fort Sumter, an island in the harbor. The South Carolina militia quickly seized their old garrison and claimed the arsenal located there as their own. On December 28, South Carolina demanded that all U.S. troops be evacuated from their territory, but President James Buchanan, in his last days in office, declared that he needed more time. Meanwhile, the South Carolina militia began to close in, capturing several federal positions and thousands of weapons. By early January, Major Anderson and his men were trapped inside Fort Sumter surrounded by 6,000 hostile militiamen.

On January 5, 1861, President Buchanan dispatched the merchant ship Star of the West to reinforce Fort Sumter with food and 250 troops. Though the ship was unarmed, the move was viewed as a federal violation of state sovereignty. After all, South Carolina had asked them to leave, not to resupply. Upon hearing the news of the resupply ship, Southern senators advised their states to secede and join forces with South Carolina. A few days later, when Star of the West neared Charleston Harbor, the South Carolina militia fired on the ship from shore, forcing it to return north without unloading. The U.S. troops inside had no choice but to tighten their belts and wait. Meanwhile, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas also approved secession.

In early February, representatives from most seceding states met to form the Confederate States of America (also called the Confederacy for the duration of the war). They chose Jefferson Davis as their president and selected a military commander. Soon, the militias of several Southern states (even some that had not yet seceded) began taking over federal military installations and weapons located within their borders. Many (but not all) southern soldiers deserted the U.S. Army and joined ranks with their state militias.

The Fall of Fort Sumter

On March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln took his oath of office as president of the United States. In his inaugural address, he extended an olive branch to the seceding states, insisting that he did not want to abolish slavery anywhere it already existed. And, while he did not want war, he could not accept secession.

Lincoln had also inherited the problem of Fort Sumter. He didn't want to provoke the South by attacking, yet he didn't want to appear weak by capitulating. When Confederate President Jefferson Davis sent delegates to Washington to negotiate the transfer of the fort, Lincoln sent them away, refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Confederate government. But, Major Anderson's troops were about to either starve or surrender. So, on April 6, 1861, Lincoln announced that he was going to send food to Fort Sumter - no men, no weapons. This put the ball in Davis's court.

The Confederacy considered their strategic advantages: the men inside were weak from hunger, and they had very limited ammunition. If South Carolina attacked before supplies arrived, they would surely win. But, if they waited, they might discover that Lincoln's resupply shipment included more than food. As soon as Lincoln dispatched the relief shipment, Davis ordered Major Anderson to surrender the fort; Anderson refused.

Images of the destruction at Fort Sumter
Fort Sumter Destruction

Two days later, jubilant civilians watched from their rooftops as Confederate forces opened fire, raining thousands of artillery shells on the fort. On the afternoon of the second day of bombardment, a former Senator secretly rowed out to Fort Sumter and asked Anderson what terms he would accept in exchange for evacuating the island. The fortress was in ruins and on fire, they were almost out of food and ammunition, but no one had been killed. Anderson decided it was time to leave; he asked only that the U.S. flag be offered a 100-gun salute out of respect. The two gentlemen agreed, and the Senator's tiny white handkerchief was raised over the fort. On April 14, 1861, Major Robert Anderson surrendered the garrison, but the 100-gun salute was cut short when a misfire killed two U.S. soldiers. Anderson took the fortress's tattered flag with him; the Confederate flag was raised. Fort Sumter had fallen to the Confederacy. The American Civil War had begun.

Effects of Fort Sumter

Map of the southern Confederacy states prior to West Virginia joining the Union
Confederate States Map

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