South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860, after which the state government considered itself to be that of a sovereign nation. Six days later, US Army Major Robert Anderson quietly moved his small command from the Revolution-era Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island to the as-yet to be completed Fort Sumter, a brick fortification at the mouth of Charleston Harbor.
President James Buchanan attempted to reinforce and resupply Anderson, via the unarmed merchant vessel “Star of the West”. Shore batteries opened up on the effort on January 9, 1861, effectively trapping Anderson and his garrison inside the only federal property in the vicinity.
The newly founded Confederate States of America couldn’t tolerate the presence of an armed federal force at the mouth of Charleston harbor, while secessionists debated whether this was South Carolina’s problem, or that of the national government, in Mobile.
Meanwhile, the Federal government refused to recognize the Confederacy, as an independent state. Neither side wanted to be seen as the aggressor, both needing the support of the border states.
Political opinion was so sharply divided at that time, that brothers literally wound up fighting against brothers. By the time the war got going, every seceding state but South Carolina sent regiments to fight for the Union. Even that state contributed troops. A surprising number of northern soldiers resigned commissions and fought for the south, including Barre, Massachusetts native Daniel Ruggles, Ohio Quaker Bushrod Johnson and New York native Samuel Cooper, to name a few. But I’m getting ahead of the story.
Confederate Brigadier General Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard (I love that name) was placed in charge of Charleston in March, and immediately began to strengthen the batteries surrounding the harbor.
Fort Sumter was designed for a garrison of 650 in the service of 130 guns, most of them pointed outward, positioned to defend the harbor against threats from the sea. In April 1861 there were only 60 guns, too much for Major Anderson’s 85-man garrison, almost half of whom were non-combatants: workmen or musicians.
When Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, the resupply of Fort Sumter became the first crisis for the new administration. Lincoln notified South Carolina Governor Francis Pickens that he was sending supply ships, resulting in Beauregard’s ultimatum: the Federal garrison was to evacuate immediately, or Confederate batteries would open fire.
Major Anderson’s response lacking acceptable specificity, shore batteries opened fire at 4:30 am on April 12th, 4003 guns firing in counter-clockwise rotation. Abner Doubleday, Federal 2nd in command and the man erroneously credited with the invention of baseball, later wrote “The crashing of the shot, the bursting of the shells, the falling of the walls, and the roar of the flames, made a pandemonium of the fort.”
Two years later at Gettysburg, Norman Jonathan Hall would lose over 200 men from his brigade, in furious fighting at a critical breach in Union lines, near the”copse of trees”. One day, a brass plaque would mark the spot of the “High Water Mark” of the Confederacy. On this day, Lieutenant Hall raced through flames to rescue the colors, after a direct hit on the main flagpole knocked the flag to the ground. His eyebrows were permanently burned off of his face, but Hall and two artillerymen were able to jury-rig the pole, so that once again, Old Glory flew over Fort Sumter.
Thousands of shells were fired at Fort Sumter over 34 hours. Federal forces fired back, though vastly outgunned. For all that, the only casualty was one Confederate mule.
The only fatalities in the whole mess, occurred after the Union surrender on April 13. Firing a 100-gun salute while lowering the flag, one cannon misfired, mortally wounding privates Daniel Hough and Edward Galloway.
The following day, Colonel Robert E. Lee resigned his commission in the United States Army.
The Civil War had begun, but there didn’t seem to be a single individual who understood what kind of demons had just been unleashed. Robert Rhett, the rabble rousing editor of the Charleston Mercury Newspaper, offered to personally eat the bodies of all the slain in the coming conflict. Not wanting to be outdone, former Senator James Chesnut, Jr. said “a lady’s thimble will hold all the blood that will be shed,” promising to personally drink any that might be spilled.
The war between the states would end the lives of more Americans than the Revolution, WWI, WWII, and the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, combined.