Battle for Fort Sumter and the Beginning of the Civil War

Introduction

Fort Sumter was the last point the Union forces occupied in South Carolina after the state declared secession and lived the Union. Therefore, the battle for Fort Sumter became a starting point for subsequent military actions between the Confederates and the Union. It was also a defining point at the beginning of the Civil War. The construction of Fort Sumter began after the end of the Second War of Independence. It was named after General Thomas Sumter and was meant to protect the Southern Coast of the United States. This paper aims to discuss the battle for Fort Sumter and analyze the reasons for the Civil War.

Lincoln’s Victory

When Abraham Lincoln won the election in 1860, as a candidate from the Republican Party, not the whole country supported him. Since the Republican Party included many politicians who opposed slavery, shortly after the victory, Lincoln announced that he was going to ban slavery in the new states that will join the United States in the future. The president was speaking about the uninhabited lands of the central part of the continent – the territories of Nebraska, Dakota, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Washington, Nevada, and New Mexico.1 Notably, the ban on slavery was primarily aimed at strengthening the power of the central government since the economy of the Northern states concentrated mainly on the production of industrial enterprises where migrants worked.

Thus, Lincoln’s declaration aroused concerns among the governors of the Southern states, populated mainly by slave-owning planters, since their economy could not withstand the abolition of slavery at that time. Representatives of the South were also afraid that the ban would shake the balance between the agrarian South and the industrial North and allow the Northerners to have an advantage on conflict issues in Congress. In particular, the controversies in Congress concerned taxes imposed on Southern goods, the autonomy of the state governments, the spread of slavery, and the policy of settling unoccupied western lands. Besides, the Northern states supported the central government in Washington, to a greater extent than the Southern.

South Carolina’s Declaration of Secession

Given the preceding, after the new law was presented, several states announced secession and left the United States. The first state to declare secession on December 20, 1860, was South Carolina. The Mississippi state declared secession on January 9, 1861, Florida – on January 10, Alabama – on January 11, Georgia – on January 19, and Louisiana on January 26; Texas announced independence on March 1.2 This move must have come as a surprise to the central government since the US Constitution did not directly permit the secession of states, although this was not prohibited as well. As a result, the listed states formed their country, the Confederate States of America, and adopted the Constitution at the Provisional Congress session. The Confederates elected former Mississippi senator Jefferson Davis as their president and declared Montgomery, Alabama, the provisional capital.

Attempts of Seizing Federal Property in South Carolina

By the autumn of 1860, the leaders of South Carolina, who planned to secede from the Union if Republicans won the election, decided to seize the defensive structures – the forts built in Charleston Harbor. In their opinion, those forts should have been confiscated in favor of South Carolina. Therefore, after the secession was signed, South Carolina representatives demanded that the federal government transfer forts, including the fortresses of Sumter, Moultrie, and Pickens, but their inquiry was refused.

Fort Sumter Blockade

Tensions between the South and the North were growing, and the forts of Charleston Harbor ended up in a blockade. The oldest, Fort Moultrie, was the headquarters of the federal garrison. However, it had many tactical drawbacks since its primary task was to protect the harbor from attacks from the sea, whereas the fortress was completely open from the land.3 At the same time, Fort Sumter was considered the most powerful in the world, and also had the opportunity to fire back in the direction of the coastline.4 By the end of 1860, the construction of Fort Sumter was completed, but it was empty since, in the blockade, the Union forces could not send soldiers there.5 The garrison consisted of the only volunteer who served the lighthouse and a dozen builders.

After the Confederation state was formed, its government started to discuss Fort Sumter’s jurisdiction. Governor of South Carolina Francis Pickens insisted on the position that the Fort should belong to the state. Pickens also believed that the rest of the federal property of Charleston Harbor should be transferred to South Carolina. However, Jefferson Davis understood that any manifestation of aggression in a precarious situation could raise the antipathies of potential allies. In particular, the image of the “aggressor” could renounce the sympathies of the undecided states of Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Kentucky.6 Lincoln maintained the same position and even proposed the evacuation of Fort Sumter in exchange for Virginia’s loyalty.

Actions of Major Robert Anderson

Therefore, when South Carolina announced the secession, there were several fortifications in the state. However, these citadels were practically empty since the United States did not lead any military operations and did not need to maintain the garrisons. In particular, when Robert Andersen arrived in Charleston Harbor on December 26, 1860, only 85 soldiers based at Fort Moultrie were under his command. Because of the tactical advantages of Fort Sumter, the commander made an unexpected and bold decision – under cover of night, he ordered the soldiers to board the boats and transported the garrison to Fort Sumter.7 Interestingly, the soldiers disguised themselves as construction workers to confuse the Confederates.

After the South Carolina government was informed of this relocation, it immediately demanded that the Union evacuate the garrison. However, President James Buchanan, the predecessor of Lincoln, who still had authority at that time, refused to leave. Moreover, in January 1861, he organized the first auxiliary expedition to provide the soldiers with supplies and weapons. Buchanan also decided to appoint Robert Anderson as commander of the garrison, and there were reasons for that. In particular, the president considered Andersen a neutral figure that would not cause hostility among the South representatives. Andersen was from Kentucky, and his wife was from Georgia. Moreover, he was not opposed to slavery, was restrained and sensible, and not inclined to create provocations. Besides, Andersen had a good military reputation and was personally acquainted with Lincoln.

Formation of the Confederate States Army and Fort Sumter Siege

After the southern states announced their withdrawal from the Union, the Confederates began to prepare for military action. However, so far, they have not announced a general mobilization because of the need to maintain the appearance of peace. Besides, by March 1861, the Confederates made several assignments to military posts. General Pierre Beauregard was appointed commander of the Charleston forces, whom Jefferson Davis also assigned to command the siege of Fort Sumter.8 The Union continued to supply the Fort with food, and Beauregard managed to block these supplies.9 He also officially demanded the evacuation of the Fort, which he was again denied. Thus, in March 1861, Beauregard’s army was openly preparing for battle.10 Davis made it clear that the general had to prepare for the seizure of Fort Sumter, and Beauregard, who had once served with Andersen, had to obey.

Resupplying the Fort with Food and Guns

To illustrate the nature of the blockade, and emphasize the importance of the question ‘who will fire the first shot,’ one incident should be presented. After Major Robert Andersen occupied Fort Sumter, General Beauregard was ordered to keep the Fort under siege. As a result, Andersen had problems with the supply of food and drinking water. Noteworthy, Fort Sumter was built right on the sea and did not have direct access to the mainland, which belonged to the state of South Carolina. Moreover, General Beauregard and his soldiers were stationed on the shore.

Therefore, the federal government tried to use various tricks to arrange supplies without resorting to ‘acts of aggression.’ One of these tricks was the decision to send the “Star of the West” passenger steamship to Fort Sumter on January 9, 1861.11 There were food supplies and 200 soldiers on board to strengthen the garrison.12 However, the trick failed – Beauregard, obeying Davis’s order, opened fire against an unarmed ship, which was going to break through the blockade. The “Star of the West” failed to reach Fort Sumter. At the same time, Andersen did not dare to retaliate since Secretary of Defense John Floyd instructed him to avoid any provocation of aggression.13 It is noteworthy that after Florida declared secession, the federal government decided to send soldiers to Fort Pickens located in the state.

President Lincoln’s Notification

After the “Star of the West” mission failed, the food situation became increasingly depressing. Andersen informed Lincoln about this on March 5, but it was not until March 29 that the new US president managed to develop a plan.14 It was decided to organize a naval convoy of several merchant ships under cover of warships and send them to Fort Sumter; Gustav Fox was appointed commander of the expedition.15 To maintain the semblance of good intentions, Lincoln notified the Governor of South Carolina, Francis Pickens, of attempting to supply Fort Sumter with food. He also emphasized that “there would be no attempt to bring people, weapons, or equipment there without notice unless the fort was attacked”.16 Despite the declaration of a peaceful mission, Lincoln also equipped another convoy led by John Worden, intending to station soldiers at Fort Pickens in Florida; both expeditions had a secret military character.

For the Confederation, Lincoln’s decision on another food supply looked like an attempt to break the blockade. At the same time, the continuation of the siege no longer made sense. Therefore, the expedition served as an occasion for the Confederates to assemble a meeting, where it was decided to open fire on Fort Sumter, to force it to surrender before Fox’s convoy arrives. As a result, the ships met resistance when approaching Charleston Harbor and the entrance to the bay was impossible for them.

Refusal to Evacuate from the Fort

On the same day, General Beauregard was instructed to demand an immediate evacuation if the Fort received military reinforcements. In case of refusal to evacuate, Davis ordered Beauregard to “proceed in such manner as you may determine to reduce it”.17 Thus, on April 11, Beauregard announced Fort Sumter an ultimatum, to which Andersen refused, relying on the arrival of Fox’s ships.18 However, Beauregard did not dare to start shelling the Fort before the arrival of the Federation warships in Charleston Harbor, for fear of falling under cross-fire.

Confederates Bombing Fort Sumter

Therefore, as soon as Beauregard became aware that Fox’s convoy had arrived, but could not enter the harbor, he opened fire on Fort Sumter. The shelling began at 4:30 on April 12, 1861, of which Andersen was warned, under military laws.19 Fort Sumter was bombed from Fort Johnson and Fort Moultrie, from floating batteries in Charleston Harbor and from Cummings Point.20 Andersen did not fire back, as he was waiting for Fox’s warships. It turned out that the convoy approached Charleston at 3:00, but could not enter the harbor due to a strong storm that began in the evening.21 However, already at 7:00, Sumter began returning shelling of the battery at Cummings Point.22 Shooting continued all day until the next morning, and the storm did not stop, blocking the way for the Union’s warships. On the same day, Warden’s expedition managed to land at Fort Pickens.

Union’s Surrender of the Fort

Finally, as a result of the shelling, the central flagpole collapsed, and parliamentarians from the Confederates set off at a hasty pace. They asked if the disappearance of the flag meant that it had been lowered as a sign of surrender, and Andersen agreed to a ceasefire at 14:00.23 After the approval of the terms of surrender, Fort Sumter was commissioned at 14:30 on April 4, 1861.24 Not a single soldier was killed during the shelling of the Fort. However, Major Andersen put forward an unusual condition for surrender – a salute from 50 guns in honor of the US flag.25 In this salute process, several unused charges accidentally exploded, killing one soldier and injuring a group of gunners, one of whom died from wounds received. The salute was immediately stopped, the wounded were sent to the hospital, and the garrison was transferred to the ships of the expedition, waiting at the entrance to the bay.

The Aftermath of the Battle

The shelling and subsequent surrender of Fort Sumter served as a signal for the outbreak of the Civil War. The following day, April 15, President Lincoln’s proclamation to recruit 75,000 volunteers was published in the newspapers of the northern states.26 He also declared the Southern states were rebelling and announced the beginning of a naval blockade of the Confederate coast. Lincoln’s statement on volunteer recruitment shook the uncertain states of Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee, which decided to leave the Union and voted in favor of the secession in April-May 1861.27 In response, Jefferson Davis also announced the recruitment of volunteers.

Still, a number of states remained in the Union, including Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland, where slavery was not abolished. The Union’s population exceeded 23 million people, almost the entire industry of the country, 70% of the railways, and 81% of bank deposits belonged to its territory.28 After the representatives of South left Congress, the Republicans voted for bills that were previously blocked – the Morrill Tariff, the Morrill Act, the Homestead Act, the National Banks Act, and the Income Act 1861.29 Fort Sumter was recaptured from the Confederation only at the end of the war by the Union Army under the command of William Sherman.30 General Robert Andersen himself put the stripes and stars flag back on its place.

Conclusion

Thus, the battle for the Fort Sumter was analyzed, and the reasons for the beginning of the Civil War were named. To summarize, neither the Union nor the Confederation sought war. Still, it was inevitable because of the Southern states’ desire for autonomy and the economic pressure exerted by the North. The Battle of Fort Sumter was a turning point that marked the beginning of the Civil War. Although the shelling lasted quite a long time, not a single soldier was killed in the battle. It is also noteworthy that the commanders of the struggle previously served in the same troops, but had to fight. Besides, the Fort, which was considered one of the strongest fortifications, was not destroyed.

Bibliography

Burgan, Michael. Fort Sumter. Minneapolis, MN: Compass Point Books, 2006.

Crewe, Sabrina, and Michael V. Uschan. Fort Sumter: The Civil War Begins. Milwaukee, WI: Gareth Stevens Publishing LLLP, 2004.

Glazier, Willard. Battles for the Union. New York: Historical Studies, 2016.

Hendrix, Patrick. A History of Fort Sumter: Building a Civil War Landmark. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2014.

Johnson, William B. Lincoln’s First Crisis: Fort Sumter and the Betrayal of the President. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020.

Moody, Wesley. The Battle of Fort Sumter: The First Shots of the American Civil War. London: Routledge, 2016.

Newton-Matza, Mitchell. Historic Sites and Landmarks that Shaped America: From Acoma Pueblo to Ground Zero. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2016.

Otfinoski, Steven. The Split History of the Battle of Fort Sumter: A Perspectives Flip Book. Minnesota: Compass Point Books, 2018.

The Civil War on the Front Lines: From Fort Sumter to Appomattox. New York: Time Inc. Books, 2016.

Wood, Ira. Fort Sumter: Where the Civil War Began. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, 2006.

Footnotes

  1. Ibid.
  2. Ibid.
  3. William B. Johnson, Lincoln’s First Crisis: Fort Sumter and the Betrayal of the President (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020), 32.
  4. Ibid., 41.
  5. Ibid.
  6. The Civil War on the Front Lines: From Fort Sumter to Appomattox (New York: Time Inc. Books, 2016), 16.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Wesley Moody, The Battle of Fort Sumter: The First Shots of the American Civil War (London: Routledge, 2016), 94.
  9. Patrick Hendrix, A History of Fort Sumter: Building a Civil War Landmark (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2014), 63.
  10. Ibid., 65.
  11. Willard Glazier, Battles for the Union (New York: Historical Studies, 2016), 5.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Hendrix, A History of Fort Sumter, 65.
  15. Ibid., 69.
  16. Michael Burgan, Fort Sumter (Minneapolis, MN: Compass Point Books, 2006), 5.
  17. Hendrix, A History of Fort Sumter, 68.
  18. Ibid., 69.
  19. Mitchell Newton-Matza, Historic Sites and Landmarks that Shaped America: From Acoma Pueblo to Ground Zero (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2016), 206.
  20. Glazier, Battles for the Union, 6.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid., 8.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Newton-Matza, Historic Sites and Landmarks, 207.
  26. Sabrina Crewe and Michael V. Uschan, Fort Sumter: The Civil War Begins. (Milwaukee, WI: Gareth Stevens Publishing LLLP, 2004), 24.
  27. Ira Wood, Fort Sumter: Where the Civil War Began (New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, 2006), 13.
  28. Otfinoski, The Split History of the Battle, 25.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Newton-Matza, Historic Sites and Landmarks, 207.

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