On This Day, 1861 – Confederacy Attacks Fort Sumter, Civil War Begins

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


Akin Adelakun
Akin Adelakun6 years ago

Thanks for sharing this great article.

Tim Nadeau
Past Member 6 years ago

The worst incident in American history.

Sound Mind
Ronald E6 years ago

Margo A, your perspective is about 146 years out of date. Some of what you serve lip service to IS true, mostly fabrications, however. The civil war was started by a bunch of hot-headed confederates. It was ended by a failed alcoholic, as you stated. Kinda puts things in perspective, wouldn't you say?

PJ Granieri
.6 years ago


James M.
James M6 years ago

The author of a new analysis of the Civil War opined that it might have cost a third as much financially to buy the freedom of the slaves and purchase enough land for them to farm as it did to settle the dispute by war. Freeing the slaves we understand-but purchase land for them to farm? When the serfs were freed in Russia under Tsar Alexander II in 1861, they were given land, albeit not enough to be self-sufficient. My main point is that the War of the Rebellion is still going on with the reaction to civil rights gains which began with the election of Nixon. It might be cheaper to settle than fight. Robert Selph Henry in his history of the Confederacy argued that the "new nations" would never have acted in unison without a war, which people like CSA Secretary of War Toombs and Sam Houston in Texas warned the South could never win. Northerners might consider that Civil War heroes like Gen. Sherman and Sheridan would today be tried for crimes against humanity for what they did to the Native Americans. The abolitionists moralized about freedom. Fine. But nobody wanted to listen to the warning by Alexis de Toqueville, Steuart, and Washington (!) that slavery was an economic catastrophe for the nation. The North did not protect against reenslavement of former slaves by postbellum debt slavery and had its own form of racism, thank you. It is time for the descendents of both regions to accept reform and settle outside of combat.

Margo A.
Margo A6 years ago

Ulysses S. Grant was a buffoon and failed at everything he ever did or tried to do so, no wonder he was a major drunk. He and Robert E. Lee were night and day in their abilities as military men. The Yankee army wanted Robert E. Lee.. but, he stood true to his homeland and roots. He was brilliant!

The only thing that beat the south was the Union had the financial backing of the US government and the Confederate Army was starved and out of ammo. But, they kept fighting.. even if it was 40 degrees and they had no coats or shoes.. standing in a creek and throwing stones at their enemy. If you don't feed and clothe the most fierce fighting-force, they can be beaten and thats exactly what happened to the Confederate Army. They didn't have proper uniforms until 2 years into the war and each state of the Confederacy dressed to symbolize the state from which they hailed. The southern boys were top marksmen and equestrians.. far superior to the Yanks.

Also, the Yankee army would create havoc in the south, toward civilians.. raping the women and children.. stealing their food and belongings.. burning down their homes.

While slavery is wrong, it was indeed commonplace back in the day. The Yankees are the ones who brought slavery to the US in the beginning, the formation 13 colonies mostly Yankee states and tried to make the Confederacy seem wicked because of it. The War started because the south wanted independence and the north didn't wanna lose to revenue. Not about slavery.

Margo A.
Margo A6 years ago

The "history" (uh hmm!) is usually told by the 'victor' of a war.. therefore, they tell it how they want to tell it.. and it's usually (as in this case) told in the fashion of making themselves seem pious while making the Southerners seem anything but.

By todays standards, Lincoln would be considered as a White Supremacist. He had the idea that while the slaves were to be released, they should stick to their own kind.. that they were subordinate to whites in every way, especially intelligence.

While the Yankee army had their own segregated "colored" brigade.. the Confederate Army had Negros who fought side-by-side with their White brothers.. and all for the same cause of Southern Independence.

Lots of the Negro slaves did not want to leave the plantations they worked. They were part of the family and were treated as such... contrary to what Hollywood portrays.. and when they were finally made to leave.. some traveled up north to what they thought was an "oasis".. only to find out that the White tradesman would not ever work next to a Negro. They learned that White America, north of the Mason-Dixon was indeed very prejudice.

The Negro slaves were truly "African-Americans" after having arrived here in the US.. as they were born in Africa and became American citizens. The Black-folks born here in the USA are Americans, American-Negros or Americans of African decent.. not African-Americans. The ones brought over here for slavery were gathered and sold by their own p

Karen & Edward O.
Karen and Ed O6 years ago

Two of my heroes are Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant. These two men did more to keep the Union together than anyone else. Lincoln did not sign the Emancipation Proclamation because he was for seeing the black man as equal. He was born and raised in Kentucky and was taught that the black man was inferior. He always believed that. That is why he should be a hero. In spite of his belief he knew slavery was wrong.
Another myth is that Ulysses S. Grant was a drunk. True, he drank when he was unhappy, bored or lonely. When he was with his beloved wife or involved in a battle, he did not drink. Robert E. Lee was a brilliant general and Grant was up against a formidable foe. Grant's genius and persistance payed off and ended in Appomattox. What adds to his heroic stature to me is his compassion and respectful treatment of Lee and his men.

If any of you get a chance to visit Gettysburg, Antietam, Shiloh, Vicksburg, the Civil War Museum in Corinth, Mississippi, or any of the other sites that have been lovingly preserved, I can guarantee you a moving and fascinating experience.

Robert Orlando
Past Member 6 years ago

Fact#1 1830s, Andrew Jackson gets rid of the central bank
Banksters vow revenge
Fact#2 South=70% of All exports
North could not compete with Southern slave economy
Fact#3 Gould, Vanderbilt and other Northern wealth financed anti-slavery campaign
Fact#4 Before his presidency, Lincoln was the foremost lawyer for the railroad industry. He also won a case for a southern aristocrat that returned run-away slaves to their master.
Fact#5 End of Civil War gave birth to 'corporate amerika'
Fact#6 Within 30 years, corporations enjoy the Gilded Age
Fact#7 1890s-Otto Von Bismark says that the international banksters had made the decision, to put the USA into a civil war, as early as the 1840s, so as to gain control of the vast US money system again.
These are just a few facts of the secret Civil War history that does not get taught in high school or many colleges.

Rose Lynne
Rose L6 years ago

Did anyone read President Obama's one-sided Civil War Sesquicentennial proclamation yesterday?

"Those who lived in these times -- from the resolute African American soldier volunteering his life for the liberation of his fellow man to the determined President secure in the rightness of his cause -- brought a new birth of freedom to a country still mending its divisions."

Yes sir; its fine and well to acknowledge these people, but not one mention of the boys in gray? How predictable.

"Through the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, we would prohibit slavery and indentured servitude, establish equal protection under the law, and extend the right to vote to former slaves."

Giving the vote to the formerly enslaved? Great! But Obama failed to mention that at the same time, the "newly united" govt took away the rights of the former Confederates. Took away their vote. Their rights. Their power. Their property (and I do not mean the former slaves; I mean their homes & other belongings that weren't burned already).

"We have repaired our union" so wrote the President. Have we? I don't think so!

One-sided history, yet again. Here is a link to President Obama's proclamation: