Attack on Fort Sumter: The American Civil War Begins
At 4:30 a.m. on Friday, April 12, 1861, rebel artillery roared, unleashing a furious bombardment of shot and shell against the Federal garrison holding Fort Sumter at the entrance to the bay of Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. Prior to this attack, authorities from the newly formed Confederate States of America had demanded that United States property in the seven states that constituted the Confederacy be turned over. That was not going to happen under the watch of Abraham Lincoln, the recently inaugurated 16th President of the United States, who was determined to “hold, occupy and possess” property belonging to the Federal government.
Fort Sumter became the symbol of this standoff between Lincoln and the C.S.A. under President Jefferson Davis. Careful not to provoke the fight that seemed closer and closer to becoming a reality, but also unwilling to abandon the instillation, Lincoln sent word to South Carolina Governor Francis Pickens on April 6 that “an attempt will be made to supply Fort-Sumter with provisions only; and that, if such attempt be not resisted, no effort to throw in men, arms, or ammunition will be made, without further notice, or in case of an attack on the Fort.”
Fort Sumter as it appears today. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
On April 8, Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, the commander of the rebel forces at Charleston, was instructed not to allow provisions to be sent to the fort. This was followed by another telegram two days later: “You will at once demand its evacuation, and if this is refused proceed . . . to reduce it.” After Fort Sumter’s commander, Major Robert Anderson, refused to capitulate, Beauregard carried out his orders and opened fire.
The Confederate gunners furiously worked their guns, firing 4,000 shot and shell at the 80 Federal soldiers huddled in the fort. Although Major Anderson eventually ordered his men to seek cover in Sumter's lower casemates, one soldier refused to sit still. Frustrated by the very one-sided duel, Sergeant John Carmody raced back up to the parapet and proceeded to fire the entire line of Federal guns.
The Flag and the Union Imperiled by Mort Künstler, depicting Sergeant John Carmody withstanding the rebel bombardment as he bravely mans the federal guns atop Fort Sumter's parapet. (Photo Credit: Mort Künstler)
After enduring 33 hours of bombardment, Major Anderson finally surrendered at 2:30 p.m. on April 13. Despite the intensity of the Confederate barrage and the 1,000 rounds Anderson’s men fired in return, no soldier on either side was killed during the exchange. According to historian Bruce Catton, “The only lives lost at Sumter were lost after the surrender, when Major Anderson was firing a last salute to his flag; a powder charge exploded and killed two men.” On April 14, Anderson grabbed Old Glory and boarded a steamer bound for New York with his men. As they sailed away, the Stars and Stripes flying over Fort Sumter were gone, replaced by the national flag of the Confederacy, the Stars and Bars. The American Civil War had begun.
Less than a week after being on the frontlines of the opening shots of the Civil War, Major Anderson and the American flag he had rescued from Fort Sumter were honored by an estimated crowd of 100,000 people in Manhattan’s Union Square Park. Revered as a national hero for his defense of Charleston Harbor, Anderson and the Fort Sumter flag went on a tour across the North, playing a part in recruiting military volunteers and raising money for the Union war effort. Four long, bloody years later, on the fourth anniversary of the day he had been forced to lower Old Glory and evacuate Sumter with his men, Anderson, who was now a major general, once again raised that very same American flag over the ruined remains of the fort.
American Battlefield Trust: Fort Sumter.
Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson.
Mort Künstler's Civil War: The North by Mort Künstler.
The Civil War by Bruce Catton.
Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief by James M. McPherson.