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.
General Beauregard, an unabashed dandy, was a soldier of great energy but middling talent. Still, his abilities as an engineer and artilleryman were sufficient for the task at hand. He had surrounded Sumter with 43 heavy guns, and he had over 6,000 men for use in an assault on the fort if it should prove necessary.
On April 11, Beauregard delivered an ultimatum to Anderson, who replied, “I shall await the first shot, and if you do not batter us to pieces, we shall be starved out in a few days.” Later, Beauregard asked Anderson to state the date of his departure, and said that he would order his forces to hold their fire if Anderson did so. Anderson replied that he would evacuate Sumter on April 15 unless he received supplies. Knowing that a Union supply trip was due before then, Beauregard announced that he would open fire in one hour. Anderson sent the Confederate messengers away, stating, “If we do not meet again in this world, I hope we may meet in the better one.”
On April 12, at 4:30 a.m., the Confederate guns began the bombardment that initiated the bloodiest war in American history. Capt. George S. James fired the first shot of the war from Fort Johnson. He had earlier offered the honor to Roger Pryor, a noted Virginia secessionist, who had come to Charleston to be on hand for the opening act of war. Pryor declined, saying, “I could not fire the first gun of the war.” Fort Sumter, needing to conserve ammunition, did not return fire for two hours. When the defenders’ first shot came, it was fired by Abner Doubleday, the disputed founder of baseball.
For the next 32 hours the Confederates pounded Sumter, while the small garrison responded as best it could. Because the garrison was short on cloth gunpowder cartridges, Anderson was soon forced to limit his return fire to six guns, one firing every ten minutes. Before they were done, the garrison was reduced to frantically sewing Anderson’s extra socks together so as to create a few extra cartridge bags.
With his food exhausted, his guns silent, and fires burning out of control, Anderson agreed to a truce at 2:00 p.m. on the 13th. The next day, Fort Sumter was officially surrendered, and Anderson’s men marched out to a 100-gun salute — Anderson’s only demand. The salute was cut short, however, when a pile of cartridges accidentally exploded, killing Private Daniel Hough and mortally wounding Private Edward Gallway — the first fatalities of the war.
Anderson returned north, fully expecting to be court-martialed for surrendering the fort. Instead, he was greeted as a hero and promoted to brigadier general. In 1863, poor health forced his retirement from the Army.
On April 14, 1865, Anderson put on his uniform one final time to raise the Union flag over a battered Fort Sumter. That same night Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth.
Between the opening shots at Fort Sumter and the final Confederate surrender, the United States endured a true trial by fire. It met that test, eventually healed its material and psychic wounds, and came out stronger. That the country could survive such a trial is what gives me faith that this great nation will see its way through today’s crises, as it will any we may face in an uncertain future.
— Jim Lacey is professor of strategic studies at the Marine War College and author of the forthcoming book The First Clash.