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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 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.

Rebel gunners firing on Fort Sumter. (Photo: Library of Congress)

The approximately 80 Federal soldiers stationed at Sumter were pummeled by Confederate guns firing 4,000 shot and shell for 33 hours before 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 bombardment. According to the late 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 and his men boarded a steamer bound for New York and 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.


American Battlefield Trust: Fort Sumter.

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson.

The Civil War by Bruce Catton.

Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief by James M. McPherson.