Last modified on June 27, 2016, at 04:20

Battle of Fort Sumter

Battle of Fort Sumter

12 April 1861


14 April 1861


Charleston County, South Carolina


Lower Seaboard Theater


Charleston Campaign


Confederate victory

33 star flag.png
Conf Navy Jack.png

Harbor garrison

Provisional Confederate forces


Robert Anderson
Major, USA

P.G.T. Beauregard
Brigadier General, CSA



500 est.





The Battle of Fort Sumter of April 12–13, 1861 is considered the first military action in the American Civil War.

Description of the fort

Fort Sumter was built upon an artificial island in the middle of Charleston Harbor, South Carolina beginning in the late 1820's, and by December 1860 it was a five-sided brick masonry fort designed for three tiers of guns. It had walls which were five feet thick and stood about fifty feet tall at low tide; the fort enclosed a parade ground of about an acre in size. Two tiers of arched gunrooms were built into four of the walls, while the fifth wall (facing the city) was armed only on the parapet. Officers' quarters lined this wall, which was nicknamed the "gorge". This wall was to be armed only along the parapet. At the center of the gorge was the sally port, which opened on a 25-1/2-foot-wide stone esplanade that extended the length of the wall and on a 171-foot wharf.

Of the 135 guns planned for the gunrooms and the parapet, only 15 had been mounted by December 20, 1860 when South Carolina seceded from the Union. Most of these mounted guns were "32 pounders"; none was heavier. Various details of the interior finish of barracks, quarters, and gunrooms were incomplete. Congressional economies had had their effect, as much as difficulties of construction. Work that had been planned for years to strengthen the fort was intermittent at best, and as late as 1858 and 1859 it had been virtually at a standstill for lack of funds.

First moves toward hostilities

Major Robert Anderson, Fort Sumter's commander.

On December 26, 1860, the fort's commander, Major Robert Anderson, removed the small garrison from nearby Fort Moultrie and placed it within Fort Sumter; the move created rage and anger within the city of Charleston, which believed Anderson reneged on a pledge to keep the status quo. It also angered Washington; President James Buchanan stated it was against his policy for the move. An emergency meeting of the cabinet was called, and on December 27 the Secretary of War Floyd wired Major Anderson:

"Intelligence has reached here this morning that you have abandoned Fort Moultrie...and gone to Fort Sumter. It is not believed, because there is no order for any such movement. Explain the meaning of this report."

Calling it an "outrageous breach of faith," as well as an act of aggression, the governor of South Carolina demanded that the United States government evacuate Charleston Harbor. President Buchanan, anxious to conciliate as well as maintain authority, wavered. Cabinet pressures were brought to bear. Meanwhile, on the 27th, South Carolina volunteers seized Castle Pinckney and the empty Fort Moultrie. On the 28th, the President refused to accede to South Carolina's demand, causing cheers in the North and a vote of approval for Anderson's act within Congress.

But the situation at Fort Sumter was bleak. Anderson had two companies of the First United States Artillery — about 85 officers and men in a fortification intended for as many as 650. He had only "about 4 months" supply of provisions for his command. Reinforcement and supply could now come only by sea, with the openings to the harbor now mounting Confederate guns. How to supply Anderson without triggering a general war would trouble the remaining days of the Buchanan administration.

Relief ships

Buchanan was persuaded to send off a relief expedition almost immediately. At first, it was decided to send a naval warship, USS Brooklyn, to provide the needed supplies, but this was changed to a merchant vessel as it was less-provocative as well as practical: the South Carolinians had sunk several ships in the harbor entrance as soon as they heard the deep-draft Brooklyn was being sent. The lighter-draft Star of the West — a ship which regularly sailed southward from New York and was familiar in Charleston — was chartered. Two hundred men, small arms and ammunition, and several months' provisions were placed aboard. The men were to remain below deck on entering Charleston Harbor; the Brooklyn would follow behind, in case the Star of the West were fired upon and disabled. On January 9, 1861, the ship was fired upon by cadets from the Citadel on Cummings Point as she was about to enter the harbor. Although unscathed, the Star of the West turned about and headed back to sea.

Preparations for war

P.G.T Beauregard

Although he had held his fire, Major Anderson commenced to building up his defences. Thirty-eight guns were mounted in the first tier of casemates and up along the parapet, including heavier "42 pounders" and Columbiads. Five Columbiads were mounted in the parade as mortars and three howitzers about the sally port in the gorge. By April 12, a total of 60 guns was ready. Bombproof shelters and splinter-proof traverses were constructed on the parade ground and along the parapet. Overhanging galleries were built out from the parapet at strategic points for dropping shells on an assaulting force. Special protection was given the gateway. Left unarmed, however, was the second tier of casemates; the 8-foot-square openings in the outer wall were bricked up. The small size of Major Anderson's garrison did not permit manning it.

Charleston, too, prepared. In addition to routine preparations at Castle Pinckney and Fort Moultrie, additional batteries were prepared on Sullivan's Island, at Cummings Point on Morris Island - which also included an "ironclad" battery - and outside Fort Johnson. Incredibly, Governor Pickens - hostile as ever to the presence of the U.S. flag on Southern soil - permitted Anderson to buy fresh meat and vegetables in town to supplement his garrison supply.

On February 4, 1861 delegates from the first six seceded states (South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana) formed the Confederate government at Montgomery, Alabama; days later a new constitution was drafted and Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president. Texas joined the Confederacy on March 2 as Federal forts, naval yards, and arsenals were seized within the Southern states. Four of these forts were not seized: three in Florida, and Sumter, which by then had become a major symbol within a city known as the "hotbed of secession".

On March 3 Brigadier General P. G. T. Beauregard took command of the Confederate troops at Charleston. A veteran of the Mexican War and a former superintendent of West Point, Beauregard was once - ironically - a student under Anderson. The next day Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as president of the United States; in words clearly directed at the Suthern states he stated in his inaugural address that the national authority must be upheld against the threat of disunion. As to the Federal forts and property in the seceded States he said: "The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government ..." He did not say "repossess." Furthermore, there needed to be "no bloodshed or violence" as the result of this policy "unless it be forced upon the national authority." Lincoln concluded:

"In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to 'preserve, protect, and defend' it."

It was on this same morning that the outgoing Secretary of War received a dispatch from Major Anderson indicating that his rations brought over from Fort Moultrie in December would last only a few more weeks. His guess at the number of reinforcements needed to face a hostile Charleston army was 20,000 men; the entire United States army number less than 16,000 men. It was only a matter of time before Anderson would have his local "fresh food" supply cut off by Confederate authorities; and on both sides evacuation seemed the only conclusion.

On April 4, President Lincoln opted to preserve the status quo, and ordered a relief expedition to resupply the fort. Merchant steamers under cover of Naval warships would carry "subsistence and other supplies" to Anderson; the ships of war (with troop reenforcements) would be used only if a peaceable landing were opposed. Capt. G. V. Fox, long an advocate of a relief expedition, would command. Meanwhile, in accordance with pledge already given, the Governor of South Carolina would be carefully informed in advance. The Confederate capital at Montgomery was informed as well, setting up fresh debate within the cabinet; the order was given to Beauregard to demand the evacuation of the fort, and if that demand were refused, to "reduce it." On the afternoon of April 11, three of Beauregard's aides visited the fort under a flag of truce and presented the ultimatum. Major Anderson refused compliance, but at the same time he said, "Gentlemen, if you do not batter the fort to pieces about us, we shall be starved out in a few days." Still reluctant to initiate conflict, the Montgomery government telegraphed:

"Do not desire needlessly to bombard Fort Sumter. If Major Anderson will state the time at which . . . he will evacuate, and agree that in the meantime he will not use his guns against us unless ours should be employed against Fort Sumter, you are authorized thus to avoid the effusion of blood. If this or its equivalent be refused, reduce the fort...."

The battle begins

Fort Sumter under the Confederate flag several days after the battle.

Shortly after midnight on April 12, four Confederate officers confronted Major Anderson again. About 3 hours later, in a carefully worded reply, the Union commander agreed to evacuate "by noon on the 15th" unless he should receive prior to that time "controlling instructions from my Government or additional supplies." But it was expected in Charleston that the Federal supply ships would arrive before the 15th. Major Anderson's reply was rejected by the Confederate officers, who proceeded at once to Fort Johnson to give the order to open fire.

At 4:30 a. m., a mortar at Fort Johnson fired a shell which arched across the sky and burst almost directly over Fort Sumter. This was the signal for opening the bombardment. Within a few minutes, a ring of guns and mortars about the harbor — 43 in all — were firing at Sumter.

Major Anderson withheld his own fire until about 7 o'clock. Then Captain Abner Doubleday fired a shot at the ironclad battery on Cummings Point, which bounced off harmlessly. But most of the mounted guns were left unmanned, either to save on gunpowder or to keep gun crews from being needless casualties. At most, ten guns were actually used.

All Charleston watched. Business was entirely suspended. King Street was deserted. The Battery, the wharves and shipping, and "every steeple and cupalo in the city" were crowded with anxious spectators. And "never before had such crowds of ladies without attendants" visited the streets of Charleston. "The women were wild" on the housetops. In the darkness before dawn there were "Prayers from the women and imprecations from the men; and then a shell would light up the scene." As the day advanced, the city became rife with rumors: "Tonight, they say, the forces are to attempt to land. The Harriet Lane had her wheel house smashed and put back to sea. . . . We hear nothing, can listen to nothing. Boom boom goes the cannon all the time. The nervous strain is awful. . . ." Volunteers rushed to join their companies. There was "Stark Means marching under the piazza at the head of his regiment . . . ," his proud mother leaning over the balcony rail "looking with tearful eyes." Two members of the Palmetto Guards paid $50 for a boat to carry them to Morris Island.

The damage to Fort Sumter during the bombardment was extensive. One gun on the parapet was dismounted; another damaged. The wall about one embrasure was shattered to a depth of 20 inches. The quarters on the gorge were completely riddled. When night descended, dark and stormy, Fort Sumter's fire ceased entirely. The naval force that came with the expedition could do nothing more than sit and watch from off the bar. Throughout the night the men had taken apart cloth and used it to make new cartridge bags.

The battle resumed on the morning of the 13th, and by mid-morning the officer's quarters was burning, which spread to the barracks ad threatened the powder magazine; by noon the fort was an uninhabitable wreck. About ninety minutes later the flag was shot down, leading to speculation from the Confederates that Anderson had surrendered. Colonel Louis T. Wigfall, an aide to Beauregard stationed at Morris Island as well as a former United States senator, set out in a small boat to Sumter to see if in fact Anderson did surrender. Although the flag was put back up, Wigfall made his way to the fort to offer any terms he wanted, provided Beauregard approved. Anderson accepted on the basis of Beauregard's original terms: evacuation with his command, taking arms and all private and company property, saluting the United States flag as it was lowered, and being conveyed, if desired, to a Northern port. The white flag went up again; the firing ceased. Wigfall departed confident that Anderson had surrendered unconditionally. He and his boatman were borne ashore "in triumph."

Meanwhile, other officers had arrived at the fort direct from General Beauregard's headquarters in Charleston. From these men Anderson learned that Wigfall's action was unauthorized; the colonel had not seen Beauregard since the start of the battle. From another party of officers he learned Beauregard's exact terms of surrender, which were essentially those Anderson believed he had accepted from Wigfall, except for the salute to the flag. Impetuously, Anderson had first declared he would run up his flag again. Then, restrained by Beauregard's aides, he waited while his request for permission to salute the flag was conveyed to the Commanding General. In the course of the afternoon, General Beauregard courteously sent over a fire engine from the city. About 7:30 that evening, Beauregard's chief of staff returned with word that Major Anderson's request would be granted and the terms offered on the 11th would be faithfully adhered to.

On Sunday, April 14, Major Anderson and his garrison matched out of the fort with drums beating and colors flying and boarded ship to join the Federal fleet off the bar. A one hundred-gun salute was begun, but on the fiftieth round a gun discharged prematurely, causing the explosion of a pile of cartridges and killing Private Daniel Hough, the first fatality of the American Civil War. Two others were injured, of which one would die a few days later in a Charleston hospital. The remaining men of Fort Sumter boarded the steamer Isabel and left for New York.