On this day, April 12, 1861, Confederate forces opened fire on Fort Sumter, the nearly completed federal garrison positioned on a man-made island in South Carolina’s Charleston harbor. The date is considered the official starting point of Civil War.
During the tenuous weeks and months prior to the outbreak of the shooting war, Fort Sumter became a focal point of the secession crisis with important symbolism for those on either side of the conflict. For Confederate sympathizers, generally, Fort Sumter was a persistent visible reminder that South Carolina’s sovereignty — claimed for itself upon its secession, Dec. 20, 1860, just days after the election of Abraham Lincoln — was incomplete. Union supporters understandably empathized with the 80-plus ill-equipped soldiers under the command of Maj. Robert Anderson within Fort Sumter. Their plight was anxiously followed by the readers of Northern newspapers, most of whom would have characterized secession as treasonous and illegitimate under the U.S. Constitution.
President Lincoln articulated the Union position brilliantly within his first inaugural address, March 4, 1861. But before you read the relevant excerpt of Lincoln’s speech, provided below, consider the momentum already accumulated by the sectional crisis. By the time Lincoln was inaugurated; six state legislatures had voted to secede, numerous federal military installations were occupied or surrounded by Southern State militias, a Confederate Constitution adopted, and Jefferson Davis had been selected and inaugurated as the President of the Confederate States of America.
… no State upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union; that resolves and ordinances to that effect are legally void, and that acts of violence within any State or States against the authority of the United States are insurrectionary or revolutionary, according to circumstances.
I therefore consider that in view of the Constitution and the laws the Union is unbroken, and to the extent of my ability, I shall take care, as the Constitution itself expressly enjoins upon me, that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the States. Doing this I deem to be only a simple duty on my part, and I shall perform it so far as practicable unless my rightful masters, the American people, shall withhold the requisite means or in some authoritative manner direct the contrary. I trust this will not be regarded as a menace, but only as the declared purpose of the Union that it will constitutionally defend and maintain itself.
In doing this there needs to be no bloodshed or violence, and there shall be none unless it be forced upon the national authority. The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government and to collect the duties and imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere.
Clearly, Lincoln had concluded that he was constitutionally obligated to the maintenance of the Union. What remained to be seen was whether or not he’d be able to follow through on his commitment “to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government” without provoking violence.
Certainly, Fort Sumter qualified as property of the federal government, but occupying it and supplying its occupants presented the Lincoln administration with serious problem. The topic was the subject of intense debate within Lincoln’s cabinet. They knew that the Union was not ready for war. While the North was industrially superior and vastly more populous than the South, the majority of the nation’s soldiers and military brain power resided in Confederate states. Regardless, the fact remained that without the ability to provide Sumter and other Southern garrisons with provisions, their ability to hold these federal assets was fleeting.
Likewise, the Confederacy was ill prepared for war. Having more and superior troops was a tactical advantage, but they lacked guns, ammunition, and the industrial capacity to make them. Lincoln and Davis both needed more time, and both were anxious about doing anything to offend the leadership of States, not yet affiliated with either faction. As it happened, due to the dire situation within Fort Sumter, Lincoln ran out of time first.
However, Lincoln remained committed to the status quo in Charleston harbor. The President dispatched a messenger to the Davis administration, April 6, informing the Confederate leadership of intentions to supply Fort Sumter with “provisions, only.” On April 9 Davis and his cabinet, having convinced themselves that an attack on Sumter would sway the unaffiliated upper South to their cause, resolved to take the fort before it could be resupplied. The lone dissenting voice among Davis’ advisers proved prophetic:
Robert Toombs, then serving as Confederate secretary of state, warned President Jefferson Davis that firing on Fort Sumter “will inaugurate a civil war greater than any the world has yet seen. … It is suicide, murder, and will lose us every friend at the North. You will wantonly strike a hornet’s nest which extends from mountains to ocean, and legions now quiet will storm out and sting us to death. It is unnecessary; it puts us in the wrong; it is fatal.”
Toombs’ warning went unheeded. In the pre-dawn hours of April 12, Confederate forces under the command of Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard unloaded on Fort Sumter from four different directions. As the National Parks tour guide explains in the video below, the fort withstood the brunt of the artillery barrage. Beauregard forced Anderson’s surrender by lobbing heated cannon balls into the fort’s interior, causing it to catch fire. Strangely, no lives were lost during the battle of Fort Sumter, the opening conflict of the Civil War, which would drag on far longer than either side anticipated at the outset. By the end of the war, four years later, the Union was preserved, but it was at an enormous cost. Over 620,000 combatants and 50,000 civilians had lost their lives by war’s end, roughly two per-cent of the American population.
The Bombardment of Fort Sumter, 1861 - image via wikimedia commons