At 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, Confederate artillery batteries surrounding Fort Sumter opened fire. It was the beginning of a war that consumed the nation for the next four years, left more than 620,000 dead, hundreds of thousands permanently maimed, and half the country lying in ruins. On this, the 150th anniversary of the start of the most calamitous war in American history, it is worth looking back on our attempt at national suicide and observing how far we have come since.
As a graduate of The Citadel, which is located only a few miles from Fort Sumter, I have had a personal interest in the fight that started the Civil War ever since one of my professors mentioned that the school’s senior class was given a choice between taking finals or manning the guns surrounding Fort Sumter. In fact, my alma mater collected nine battle streamers during the course of the war, something it mentions with tremendous pride to this day. I still remember the time during my freshman year when an upperclassman dangled the streamers in front of me and asked, “What do these mean to you?” My reply — that they were evidence that The Citadel was the first college to commit treason against the United States of America — is not numbered among the wisest answers I ever gave.
By then, though, such an answer, even from a Brooklyn-born Yankee, was taken in good humor. It would not have been a few generations earlier. But by the late 1970s the great rift between the North and the South was mostly healed. A country that just a century before could be reunited only through force had been reforged into a single nation in the bloody crucible of two world wars. Today, it is hard even to imagine the depth of the political and social rifts that in 1861 made war unavoidable.
Still, the Civil War was unavoidable, because despite much shared history, by the middle of the 19th century two widely divergent economic and political systems, bound by a single constitution, were finding their differences irreconcilable. Either both sides had to agree to go their separate ways, or one of the two systems had to be destroyed. When, less than a month after his inauguration, Abraham Lincoln notified South Carolina’s governor, Francis Pickens, that he planned to resupply Fort Sumter, the die was cast.
Inside the fort there were only 85 out of the 650 men required to fully man the guns, commanded by Major Robert Anderson. In an ironic twist, Anderson’s father had been an officer in the Revolutionary War, charged with defending Charleston harbor from British assault. After the city fell, he spent nine months in a British prison at nearby Fort Moultrie.
The younger Anderson was a seasoned officer with considerable experience in war. He was also a slaveholder who, despite his strong southern sympathies, remained loyal to the Union. Moreover, he had strong ties to the other key players in the unfolding drama. He was a close personal friend of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, and had been since their student days at West Point. He was also well acquainted with Abraham Lincoln, whom he had recruited for the Black Hawk War of 1832. Finally, the Confederate general besieging Fort Sumter, Pierre Beauregard, had been a student of Anderson’s at West Point, and the two had later fought together during the Mexican–American War.