The Attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861 Began the American Civil War

First Battle of the Civil War Was the Shelling of a Fort in Charleston Harboor

Currier and Ives depiction of bombardment of Fort Sumter
Bombardment of Fort Sumter, as depicted in a lithograph by Currier and Ives. Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The shelling of Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861 marked the beginning of the American Civil War. With the booming of cannons over the harbor in Charleston, South Carolina, the secession crisis which had been gripping the country for months suddenly escalated into a shooting war.

The attack on the fort was the culmination of a simmering conflict in which a small garrison of Union troops in South Carolina found themselves isolated when the state seceded from the Union.

The action at Fort Sumter lasted less than two days and had no great tactical significance. And casualties were minor. But the symbolism was enormous on both sides.

Once Fort Sumter was fired upon there was no turning back. The North and the South were at war.

The Crisis Began With Lincoln's Election in 1860

Following the election of Abraham Lincoln, the candidate of the anti-slavery Republican Party, in 1860, the state of South Carolina announced its intention to secede from the Union in December 1860. Declaring itself independent of the United States, the state government demanded that federal troops leave.

Anticipating trouble, the administration of the outgoing president, James Buchanan, had ordered a reliable U.S. Army officer, Major Robert Anderson, to Charleston in late November 1860 to command the small outpost of federal troops guarding the harbor.

Major Anderson realized that his small garrison at Fort Moultrie was in danger as it could easily be overrun by infantry. On the night of December 26, 1860, Anderson surprised even members of his own staff by ordering a move to a fort situated on an island in Charleston Harbor, Fort Sumter.

Fort Sumter had been built after the War of 1812 to protect the city of Charleston from foreign invasion, and it was designed to repel a naval attack coming from the sea, not a bombardment from the city itself. But Major Anderson felt it was the safest place in which to place his command, which numbered less than 150 men.

The secessionist government of South Carolina was outraged by Anderson's move to Fort Sumter and demanded that he vacate the fort. Demands that all federal troops leave South Carolina intensified.

It was obvious that Major Anderson and his men couldn't hold out for long at Fort Sumter, so the Buchanan administration sent a merchant ship to Charleston to bring provisions to the fort. The ship, Star of the West, was fired on by secessionist shore batteries on January 9, 1861, and was unable to reach the fort.

The Crisis at Fort Sumter Intensified

While Major Anderson and his men were isolated at Fort Sumter, often cut off from any communication with their own government in Washington, DC, events were escalating elsewhere. Abraham Lincoln traveled from Illinois to Washington for his inauguration. It is believed that a plot to assassinate him on the way was foiled.

Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861, and was soon made aware of the seriousness of the crisis at Fort Sumter. Told that the fort would run out of provisions, Lincoln ordered ships of the U.S. Navy to sail to Charleston and supply the fort. Newspapers in the North were following the situation quite closely, as dispatches from Charleston arrived via telegraph.

The newly formed Confederate government kept up demands that Major Anderson surrender the fort and leave Charleston with his men. Anderson refused, and at 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, Confederate cannon positioned at various points on the mainland began shelling Fort Sumter.

The Battle of Fort Sumter

The shelling by Confederates from several positions surrounding Fort Sumter went unanswered until after daylight, when Union gunners began returning fire. Both sides exchanged cannon fire throughout the day of April 12, 1861.

By nightfall, the pace of the cannons had slowed, and a heavy rain pelted the harbor. When morning dawned clear the cannons roared again, and fires began to break out at Fort Sumter. With the fort in ruins, and with supplies running out, Major Anderson was forced to surrender.

Under the surrender terms, the federal troops at Fort Sumter would essentially pack up and sail to a northern port. On the afternoon of April 13, Major Anderson ordered a white flag to be raised over Fort Sumter.

The attack on Fort Sumter had produced no combat casualties, though two federal troops died during a freak accident at a ceremony after the surrender when a cannon misfired.

On April 13, the New York Tribune, one of the country's most influential newspapers, published a collection of dispatches from Charleston detailing what had happened.

The federal troops were able to board one of the U.S. Navy ships which had been sent to bring supplies to the fort, and they sailed to New York City. Upon arrival in New York, Major Anderson learned that he was considered a national hero for having defended the fort and the national flag at Fort Sumter. In the days since he had surrendered the fort, northerners had become outraged over the actions of the secessionists in Charleston.

Impact of the Attack on Fort Sumter

The citizens of the North were outraged by the attack on Fort Sumter. And Major Anderson, with the flag that had flown over the fort, appeared at a massive rally in New York City's Union Square on April 20, 1861. The New York Times estimated the crowd at more than 100,000 people.

Major Anderson also toured the northern states, recruiting troops. In the North, newspapers were publishing stories about men joining up to fight the rebels and regiments of soldiers heading southward. The attack on the fort had produced a patriotic wave.

In the South, feelings also ran high. The men who fired the cannons at Fort Sumter were considered heroes, and the newly formed Confederate government was emboldened to form an army and plan for war.

While the action at Fort Sumter had not amounted to much militarily, the symbolism of it was enormous. Intense feelings over the incident in Charleston propelled the nation into war. And, of course, no one at the time had any idea the war would last for four long and bloody years.

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McNamara, Robert. "The Attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861 Began the American Civil War." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, McNamara, Robert. (2023, April 5). The Attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861 Began the American Civil War. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "The Attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861 Began the American Civil War." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).