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American Civil War Life: The Union’s Path To War - The Situation Apr 1861

Updated on August 2, 2018
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I'm a Sr. Financial Analyst from Long Island, NY and am an American Civil War buff and Living Historian (Company H, 119th NY Volunteers).

The Situation: April 1861

Fort Sumter and its eighty-odd man garrison continued to hold out as the Spring of 1861 began, though it was running short of provisions. In fact, Lincoln made plans to resupply the garrison in April, and he notified South Carolina’s Governor Pickens of that decision.

South Carolina faced the fact that the fortress could hold out indefinitely if it were regularly resupplied. It also faced the very real possibility that it could be perceived as a weakness, on the world stage, if a United States military installation were maintained in a state in the novice Confederacy.

The forces of South Carolina had a decision to make: continued negotiation to persuade the garrison to evacuate the fort, or commence an artillery bombardment to compel its surrender, which was tantamount to war.

Fort Sumter
Fort Sumter

They chose war.

The South Carolina artillery batteries began firing on Fort Sumter at 4:30 am (0430) on April 12, 1861. The bombardment consisted of one round fired at the fort every two minutes in daylight, and one round every 15 minutes at night. One cannon fired, then after the allotted time passed, the cannon to its right fired, and so on, in a counterclockwise pattern. This slow pattern of fire was done in order to conserve ammunition for a very lengthy engagement.

The garrison in Sumter had much fewer cannon, and even less cannon in effective counter-fire positions, but it fought back as best as it could. Beginning about three hours after the first shot was fired against it, Sumter’s cannon began to roar in reply. Major Anderson did not order the cannon on the topmost casemate to be manned as they were the most exposed to incoming fire. Unfortunately, as these cannon were the ones with the best chances to hit the enemy positions, Sumter’s counter-fire was harmless. The only cannon firing from Sumter were the ones on the bottom casemate, closest to the waterline, and the cannon within the parade grounds. All of these cannon lacked the firing positions, or the ability to elevate the barrels high enough, to hit the South Carolina shore batteries. It also did not help matters that Sumter was built to resist a seaborne attack by foreign adversaries. Little thought was given to its one day needing to fire upon its own land.

South Carolina artillery bombards Fort Sumter
South Carolina artillery bombards Fort Sumter
Charleston Harbor positions of Fort Sumter and the South Carolina artillery batteries
Charleston Harbor positions of Fort Sumter and the South Carolina artillery batteries
Charleston civilians witness the bombardment
Charleston civilians witness the bombardment
Charleston civilians view the barrage from the beachfront
Charleston civilians view the barrage from the beachfront
Artillery in Fort Sumter's bottom casemate return fire
Artillery in Fort Sumter's bottom casemate return fire

The supply ships sent to Sumter were lying at anchor just outside Charleston Harbor when the bombardment commenced. Landing at the fort was impractical during the daytime bombardment. The ships, lying at anchor right next to the fort, would have been stationary and easily seen targets for enemy gunners. Heavy seas that first evening prevented nighttime landings as well. This meant the fort would eventually run out of ammunition and provisions regardless of how effective enemy fire proved to be against it. The hope was that Sumter could, somehow, hold out until the next evening when the next attempt to land supplies at the fort would be attempted.

Civil War Trust map of Fort Sumter and Charleston Harbor
Civil War Trust map of Fort Sumter and Charleston Harbor

As the barrage continued, the damage became more and more severe. Heated shot – cannon balls heated by oven-like fires before being loaded into the cannon - set wooden structures, like the barracks and the main entrance gate, ablaze. Rain during the first evening helped extinguish these fires, but during the next day, the structures were set afire again. The main entrance gate was soon destroyed by the fire, leading to fears that an enemy storming party could enter. The barracks were soon beyond salvation, and the smoke was making life hazardous for all defenders. The spreading flames threatened the ammunition magazines, where many barrels of gunpowder were stored. This threat eventually forced Anderson to close the metallic, fireproof doors and also to throw several barrels into the harbor. These barrels floated right back up to the fort. They were exposed to incoming shells as well as to sparks from the fires (which actually did ignite some of the barrels), so the fort was endangered at the waterline. These acts also drastically reduced the amount of ammunition that was available to Sumter’s gun crews.

Fort Sumter garrison member replaces the U.S. flag on the damaged flagpole, all the while under fire.
Fort Sumter garrison member replaces the U.S. flag on the damaged flagpole, all the while under fire.
Fires burn out of control in Fort Sumter
Fires burn out of control in Fort Sumter
Removal of barrels of gunpowder from the fort's magazine
Removal of barrels of gunpowder from the fort's magazine

With supplies and ammunition dangerously low, and possibilities of catastrophe growing ever greater, further resistance was eventually deemed useless. After 34 hours - less than two days - of bombardment, Major Anderson agreed to a truce at 2 pm (1400) on April 13, preparatory to the evacuation of his garrison and surrender of the fort about 24 hours later.

South Carolina officers ask if Fort Sumter's commander Major Anderson is about to surrender
South Carolina officers ask if Fort Sumter's commander Major Anderson is about to surrender
Post-bombardment damage 1
Post-bombardment damage 1
Post-bombardment damage 2
Post-bombardment damage 2

This battle, for all of its fury, ultimately resulted in no lives lost on either side. Regardless, the bombardment meant that the seceded states were in full-armed rebellion against the U.S. This bloodless first battle portended much greater slaughter in the days ahead.

Death of Daniel Hough - first fatality of American Civil War
Death of Daniel Hough - first fatality of American Civil War

Afterword

Of the garrison at Fort Sumter, two lives were lost during the surrender of the fort on April 14. During the 100 cannon-shot salute to the United States flag, allowed under the terms of surrender, a spark from the 47th cannon shot ignited a pile of ammunition nearby, killing or mortally wounding the two men. The salute was thus reduced to 50 shots and the garrison, after lowering its flag and carrying it with them, marched out of the fort. They then boarded a transport for New York. South Carolina forces ecstatically occupied the fort and constructed a temporary flagstaff (the original one had been cut down during the bombardment). Soon, the flag of the Confederacy, the Stars and Bars, was raised over the fort.

The next article in this series is called American Civil War Life: The Union’s Path To War – Northern Reaction To War.

Post-bombardment damage 3
Post-bombardment damage 3

© 2013 Gary Tameling

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    • Schoolmom24 profile image

      Schoolmom24 

      5 years ago from Oregon

      Very interesting...the Civil War has always fascinated me. Years ago, I went to several Re-enactment camps and my husband and I also spent a day at Gettysburg, something we'll never forget. I noticed that some sources list Luther C Ladd as the first fatality, but on April 19, several days after this battle, so Daniel Hough is probably the accurate one.

      Anyway, good job and look forward to reading more. I wrote a very short, fictional story last week here on Hubs relating to a drummer of the civil war....such an amazing era!

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