The History Cat Classroom
Firing on Fort Sumter
April 1861- July 1861
Hanging over the nation like a guillotine were questions such as would the Union respect the Fugitive Slave Act? Did the Confederate States have to pay back their debts? And most importantly, what would happen to federal property that was now technically on enemy soil? As soon the Confederacy was formed, they began taking over federal mints (and not the chocolate kind), arsenals, and forts that were now located on Confederate territory.
The Siege of Fort Sumter
"Sir, We Have the Honor to Notify You…
We Will Open Fire in One Hour."
Ah, the good old days…when a man would shake your hand before unloading grapeshot from a Parrott Gun into your backside. This was how Major Robert Anderson received word that his command at Fort Sumter was about to be attacked ushering in the opening salvo of the U.S. Civil War. How did a relatively small fort manned by only 127 men play such a pivotal role in the start of such a devastating conflict?
Ft. Sumter was built in 1829 and followed the most modern design plan for a coastal fortification. Built so that it jutted out into Charleston Harbor, its fifty foot high five sided walls were meant to allow cannon to be brought to bear on the decks of passing enemy ships. The fort was part of a series of land-based fortifications that protected the city of Charleston, South Carolina. The five foot thick walls had three levels for cannon and could boast up to 135 pieces. These were never put in place and the entire fortress was not even completed before the first shots rang out. But this does not explain why this particular fort was so important. It had to do with location.
South Carolina was one of seven states that seceded from the Union after the election of Abraham Lincoln. While James Buchanan was president he was unsure of his Constitutional role in regards to dealing with the rebellious southern states. He decided to take baby steps for fear of further antagonizing the newly established Confederacy. The wisdom of the placement of Washington D.C. probably weighed heavily on him at that point. He ordered the re-supply of Ft. Sumter when the Confederates threatened to overtake it. Major Anderson, on his own initiative, moved his men and supplies from their land base to Ft. Sumter and took stock of their supplies. The man who commanded the army in South Carolina was Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard a man who had just given up his position as commandant of West Point to fight for the Confederacy. Interestingly, General Beauregard had been a student in Major Anderson’s Artillery class at West Point. Spoiler Alert: Major Anderson was a good instructor.
The supply ships President Buchanan sent to the fort came under fire from the shore and were forced back. By the time Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office in March the fort had only six weeks of food left. This was the first crisis of Lincoln’s presidency. Neither side wanted to be seen as starting the war but southern delegations were rebuffed by the president as he felt they had no authority. Even the treasonous, secret meetings his Secretary of State William Seward had were of no avail. Lincoln pledged to resupply the fort. Major Anderson make a public refusal to surrender his post but privately he wrote “…we shall be starved out in a few days.”
The Confederates had no idea that the fort was so poorly manned and armed. Even the newly appointed Secretary of State said that attacking the fort “…will only strike a hornets nest.” But at 1 am on April 12th PGT Beauregard sent a message to the fort politely asking if the commander would, “…tell us when you will evacuate and we will abstain from firing on you.” The reply came, “We will evacuate on April 15th.” Southern hospitality notwithstanding, PGT Beauregard felt this was too late and must be a trick. When the last message was passed to Confederate officers, Major Anderson stoically added, “If we never meet in this world again, God grant that we meet in the next.” He then looked around to make certain someone wrote that bossness down. “We will open fire in…in one hour,” was the answer he received.
At 4:30 am Lt. Henry Farley fired a 10” mortar (siege cannon used for indirect fire) to signal everyone on shore to open up on Fort Sumter. Forty-Three cannon from two forts and even a barge commenced firing. Major Anderson refused to order his soldiers to their posts until they had eaten breakfast. At 7 am they started counter-battery fire. The first shot was made by Abner Doubleday, the fellow erroneously credited with inventing baseball. He struck out. They all did. The Union did not have fuses for their shot. Fuses make the cannon balls explode. Without fuses you are hitting your enemy with a ball of iron instead of an explosion of pancreas splintering shrapnel. It is a bit like trying to shoot a flying bird with a rifle. If you hit it, that bird is going to die but a shotgun is so much easier. Or how about this one? It is easier to kill an enemy with a grenade that explodes than forgetting to pull the pin and just throwing it really, really hard. Major Anderson also refused to let his soldiers man the best cannon on the top of the fortress. These cannon had the best range and could shoot down on the enemy. But the soldiers would be exposed to enemy fire and the Major feared for their safety. How quaint. They were forced to use shorter range cannon and only twenty one were facing in the right direction. It didn’t really matter, they did not have enough ammunition for an extended siege. Cannon back then were loaded with a cloth sack of powder which was rammed down the barrel along with the iron shot. They ran out of cloth so the gunners began using their socks. This is the origin of baseball teams named after socks. Remember the part about Abner Doubleday? O.K. that was historically inaccurate but I will make no more baseball jokes I am totally being World Serious about it. .
For a while Major Anderson’s plan seemed to work. No one had been hit yet and a naval relief expedition arrived to offer men and ammunition. They were forced back due to heavy fire and then had to wait another day due to rough seas. The Confederates changed tactics knowing that they had to deliver a killing blow before Sumter could be resupplied. They hit on the idea of “hot shot.” You take a solid iron cannon ball and heat it until it is red hot in an oven. Then you carefully put it in your cannon, light fuse and get away. This shot started the wooden buildings in Sumter on fire. By noon on April 13th the building the remaining ammunition was stored in caught fire. Soldiers bravely grabbed burning barrels of gunpowder and flung them into the sea. The current pushed then against the walls of the fortress and the Confederates had a field day acting like the guy in Doom II shooting barrels. At 1pm the flagpole in the center of the fort was shot down. There was confusion because no one yelled checkmate. A Confederate Colonel tied a white handkerchief on his sword and rowed out to Sumter. “You have defended your flag nobly” he yelled as he hiked up his pants that were just barely holding the steel testicles he must have had. The guns fell silent.
No less than 3000 enemy rounds had been fired at Fort Sumter. The formal surrender was agreed to at 2:30 pm on the 13th. To assuage his guilt for losing the fort Major Anderson asked for and received permission to fire a 100 gun salute, apparently fifty guys had not yet handed over their socks. Before they got to fifty one of the guns exploded and killed two soldiers and wounded others. Ironically these were the only deaths in the entire affair. Most of the Union soldiers were allowed to return home.
Fort Sumter became a symbol. For the Confederacy it showed that they could stand up to the Union, to the North it nudged them into action. The flag that flew during the battle was paraded around the north and volunteers flocked to join the war. It was said that 75,000 men tried to volunteer from Ohio alone while four southern states decided to join the Confederacy. The war was on…Or should I say, play ball?
Attempts to retake Fort Sumter for pride purposes alone were ineffective until General William Tecumseh Sherman marched his troops through the south and into South Carolina. The fort fell to the Union on February 17th, 1865 with little fanfare and almost as an afterthought. Fort Sumter was again rearmed when the war with Spain heated up but by then large caliber rifled naval guns made anything but the best fortresses glorified lighthouses.