The Beginning of the American Civil War

Secession Becomes Rebellion and the First Shots Are Fired

Bridge during the Retreat from Manassas, First Battle of Bull Run, 1861

William Ridgway after Felix Octavius Carr Darley/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

On February 4, 1861, delegates from the seven seceded states (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas) met in Montgomery, AL and formed the Confederate States of America. Working through the month, they produced the Confederate States Constitution which was adopted on March 11. This document mirrored the US Constitution in many ways, but provided for the explicit protection of slavery as well as espoused a stronger philosophy of states' rights. To lead the new government, the convention selected Jefferson Davis of Mississippi as president and Alexander Stephens of Georgia as vice president. Davis, a Mexican-American War veteran, had previously served as a US Senator and Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. Moving quickly, Davis called for 100,000 volunteers to defend the Confederacy and directed that federal property in the seceded states immediately be seized.

Lincoln and the South

At his inauguration on March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln stated that the US Constitution was a binding contract and that the Southern states' secession had no legal basis. Continuing, he said that he had no intention of ending slavery where it already existed and did not plan on invading the South. Additionally, he commented that he would take no action that would give the South justification for armed rebellion, but would be willing to use force to retain possession of federal installations in the seceded states. As of April 1861, the US only retained control of a few forts in the South: Fort Pickens at Pensacola, FL and Fort Sumter in Charleston, SC as well as Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas and Fort Zachary Taylor at Key West, FL.

Attempts to Relieve Fort Sumter

Shortly after South Carolina seceded, the commander of the Charleston harbor defenses, Major Robert Anderson of the 1st US Artillery Regiment, moved his men from Fort Moultrie to the nearly-complete Fort Sumter, located on a sandbar in the middle of the harbor. A favorite of general in chief General Winfield Scott, Anderson was considered an able officer and capable of negotiating the increasing tensions in Charleston. Under increasingly siege-like conditions through early 1861, that included South Carolina picket boats observing the Union troops, Anderson's men worked to complete construction on the fort and emplace guns in its batteries. After refusing requests from the South Carolina government to vacate the fort, Anderson and the eighty-five men of his garrison settled in to await relief and resupply. In January 1861, President Buchanan attempted to resupply the fort, however, the supply ship, Star of the West, was driven away by guns manned by cadets from the Citadel.

First Shot Fired During Attack on Fort Sumter

During March 1861, a debate raged in the Confederate government regarding how forceful they should be in trying to take possession of Forts Sumter and Pickens. Davis, like Lincoln, did not wish to anger the border states by appearing as the aggressor. With supplies low, Lincoln informed the governor of South Carolina, Francis W. Pickens, that he intended to have the fort re-provisioned, but promised that no additional men or munitions would be sent. He did stipulate that should the relief expedition be attacked, efforts would be made to fully reinforce the garrison. This news was passed to Davis in Montgomery, where the decision was made to compel the fort's surrender before Lincoln's ships arrived.

This duty fell to Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard who had been given command of the siege by Davis. Ironically, Beauregard had previously been a protégé of Anderson. On April 11, Beauregard sent an aide to demand the fort's surrender. Anderson refused and further discussions after midnight failed to resolve the situation. At 4:30 am on April 12, a single mortar round burst over Fort Sumter signaling the other harbor forts to open fire. Anderson did not reply until 7:00 AM when Captain Abner Doubleday fired the first shot for the Union. Short on food and ammunition, Anderson sought to protect his men and limit their exposure to danger. As a result, he only permitted them to use the fort's lower, casemated guns which were not positioned to effectively damage the other forts in the harbor. Bombarded through the day and night, Fort Sumter's officers' quarters caught fire and its main flag pole was toppled. After a 34-hour bombardment, and with his ammunition almost exhausted, Anderson elected to surrender the fort.

Lincoln's Call for Volunteers & Further Secession

In response to the attack on Fort Sumter, Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 90-day volunteers to put the rebellion down and ordered the US Navy to blockade Southern ports. While the Northern states readily sent troops, those states in the upper South hesitated. Unwilling to fight fellow Southerners, the states of Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina opted to secede and joined the Confederacy. In response, the capital was moved from Montgomery to Richmond, VA. On April 19, 1861, the first Union troops arrived in Baltimore, MD on their way to Washington. While marching from one train station to another they were attacked by a pro-Southern mob. In the riot that ensued twelve civilians and four soldiers were killed. To pacify the city, protect Washington, and ensure that Maryland remained in the Union, Lincoln declared martial law in the state and sent troops.

The Anaconda Plan

Created by Mexican-American War hero and commanding general of the US Army Winfield Scott, the Anaconda Plan was designed to end the conflict as quickly and bloodlessly as possible. Scott called for the blockade of Southern ports and capture of the vital Mississippi River to split the Confederacy in two, as well as advised against a direct attack on Richmond. This approach was mocked by the press and public which believed that a rapid march against the Confederate capital would lead Southern resistance to collapse. Despite this ridicule, as the war unfolded over the next four years, many elements of the plan were implemented and ultimately led the Union to victory.

The First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas)

As troops gathered in Washington, Lincoln appointed Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell to organize them into the Army of Northeastern Virginia. Though concerned about his men's inexperience, McDowell was forced to advance south in July due to growing political pressure and the impending expiration of the volunteers' enlistments. Moving with 28,500 men, McDowell planned to attack a 21,900-man Confederate army under Beauregard near Manassas Junction. This was to be supported by Maj. Gen. Robert Patterson who was to march against an 8,900-man Confederate force commanded by Gen. Joseph Johnston in the western part of the state.

As McDowell approached Beauregard's position, he looked for a way to outflank his opponent. This led to a skirmish at Blackburn's Ford on July 18. To the west, Patterson had failed to pin down Johnston's men, allowing them to board trains and move east to reinforce Beauregard. On July 21, McDowell moved forward and attacked Beauregard. His troops succeeded in breaking the Confederate line and forcing them to fall back on their reserves. Rallying around Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Jackson's Virginia Brigade, the Confederates stopped the retreat and, with the addition of fresh troops, turned the tide of the battle, routing McDowell's army and forcing them to flee back to Washington. Casualties for the battle were 2,896 (460 killed, 1,124 wounded, 1,312 captured) for the Union and 982 (387 killed, 1,582 wounded, 13 missing) for the Confederates.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "The Beginning of the American Civil War." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). The Beginning of the American Civil War. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "The Beginning of the American Civil War." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).