Civil War: Battle of Fort Sumter

The Civil War Begins

Interior of Fort Sumter after the April 1861 battle.
Fort Sumter after its capture by the Confederates. Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

The Battle of Fort Sumter was fought April 12-14, 1861, and was the opening engagement of the American Civil War. With the secession of South Carolina in December 1860, the garrison of the US Army's harbor forts in Charleston, led by Major Robert Anderson, found itself isolated. Withdrawing to the island bastion of Fort Sumter, the it was soon besieged. While efforts to the relieve the fort moved forward in the North, the newly-formed Confederate government ordered Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard to fire on the fort on April 12, 1861. After a brief fight, Fort Sumter was compelled to surrender and would remain in Confederate hands until the final weeks of the war.


In the wake of President Abraham Lincoln's election in November 1860, the state of South Carolina began debating secession. On December 20, a vote was taken in which the state decided to leave the Union. Over the next several weeks, South Carolina's lead was followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas.

As each state left, local forces began seizing federal installations and property. Among those military installations to hold out were Forts Sumter and Pickens in Charleston, SC and Pensacola, FL. Concerned that aggressive action could lead the remaining states that allowed enslavement to secede, President James Buchanan elected not to resist the seizures. 

Situation in Charleston

In Charleston, the Union garrison was led by Major Robert Anderson. A capable officer, Anderson was a protégé of General Winfield Scott, the noted Mexican-American War commander. Placed in command of the Charleston defenses on November 15, 1860, Anderson was a native of Kentucky who was a former enslaver. In addition to his even temperament and skills as an officer, the administration hoped his appointment would be viewed as a diplomatic gesture.

Portrait of Robert Anderson
Major Robert Anderson. Library of Congress

Arriving as his new post, Anderson immediately faced heavy pressure from the local community as he attempted to improve the Charleston fortifications. Based at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island, Anderson was dissatisfied with its landward defenses which had been compromised by sand dunes. Nearly as tall as the fort's walls, the dunes could have facilitated any potential attack on the post. Moving to have the dunes cleared away, Anderson quickly came under fire from the Charleston newspapers and was criticized by city leaders.

Battle of Fort Sumter

A Near Siege

As the final weeks of the fall progressed, tensions in Charleston continued to rise and the garrison of the harbor forts was increasingly isolated. Additionally, the South Carolina authorities placed picket boats in the harbor to observe the activities of the soldiers. With the secession of South Carolina on December 20, the situation facing Anderson grew more grave. On December 26, feeling that his men would not be safe if they remained at Fort Moultrie, Anderson ordered them to spike its guns and burn the carriages. This done, he embarked his men in boats and directed them to sail out to Fort Sumter.

Located on a sand bar at the mouth of the harbor, Fort Sumter was believed to be one of the strongest fortresses in the world. Designed to house 650 men and 135 guns, construction of Fort Sumter had begun 1827 and was still not complete. Anderson's actions enraged Governor Francis W. Pickens who believed that Buchanan had promised that Fort Sumter would not be occupied. In actuality, Buchanan had made no such promise and had always carefully crafted his correspondence with Pickens to allow maximum flexibility of action in regard to the Charleston harbor forts.

From Anderson's standpoint, he was simply following orders from Secretary of War John B. Floyd which instructed him to shift his garrison to whichever fort "you may deem most proper to increase its power of resistance" should fighting commence. Despite this, the leadership of South Carolina viewed Anderson's actions to be a breach of faith and demanded that he turn over the fort. Refusing, Anderson and his garrison settled in for what essentially became a siege.

Resupply Attempts Fail

In an effort to resupply Fort Sumter, Buchanan ordered the ship Star of the West to proceed to Charleston. On January 9, 1861, the ship was fired upon by Confederate batteries, manned by cadets from the Citadel, as it attempted to enter the harbor. Turning to depart, it was hit by two shells from Fort Moultrie before escaping. As Anderson's men held the fort through February and March, the new Confederate government in Montgomery, AL debated how to handle the situation. In March, newly elected Confederate President Jefferson Davis placed Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard in charge of the siege.

Portrait of P.G.T. Beauregard
General P.G.T. Beauregard. Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

Working to improve his forces, Beauregard conducted drills and training to teach the South Carolina militia how to operate the guns in the other harbor forts. On April 4, having learned that Anderson only had food to last until the fifteenth, Lincoln ordered a relief expedition assembled with an escort provided by the US Navy. In an attempt to ease tensions, Lincoln contacted South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens two days later and informed him of the effort.

Lincoln stressed that as long as the relief expedition was allowed to proceed, only food would be delivered, however, if attacked, efforts would be made to reinforce the fort. In response, the Confederate government decided to open fire on the fort with the goal of forcing its surrender before the Union fleet could arrive. Alerting Beauregard, he dispatched a delegation to the fort on April 11 to again demand its surrender. Refused, further discussions after midnight failed to resolve the situation. Around 3:20 AM on April 12, Confederate authorities alerted Anderson that they would open fire in one hour.

The Civil War Begins

At 4:30 AM on April 12, a single mortar round fired by Lieutenant Henry S. Farley burst over Fort Sumter signaling the other harbor forts to open fire. Anderson did not reply until 7:00 when Captain Abner Doubleday fired the first shot for the Union. Low on food and ammunition, Anderson endeavored to protect his men and minimize their exposure to danger. As a result, he restricted them to only using the fort's lower, casemated guns which were not situated to effectively damage the other harbor forts.

Portrait of Abner Doubleday
Major General Abner Doubleday. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Bombarded for thirty-four hours, Fort Sumter's officers' quarters caught on fire and its main flag pole was felled. While Union troops were rigging a new pole, the Confederates dispatched a delegation to inquire if the fort was surrendering. With his ammunition almost exhausted, Anderson agreed to a truce at 2:00 PM on April 13.

Prior to evacuating, Anderson was permitted to fire a 100-gun salute to the US flag. During this salute a pile of cartridges caught fire and exploded, killing Private Daniel Hough and mortally wounding Private Edward Galloway. The two men were the only fatalities to occur during the bombardment. Surrendering the fort at 2:30 PM on April 14, Anderson's men were later transported to the relief squadron, then offshore, and placed aboard the steamer Baltic.


Union losses in the battle numbered two killed and the loss of the fort while the Confederates reported four wounded. The bombardment of Fort Sumter was the opening battle of the Civil War and launched the nation into four years of bloody fighting. Anderson returned north and toured as a national hero. During the war, several attempts were made to recapture the fort with no success. Union forces finally took possession of the fort after Major General William T. Sherman's troops captured Charleston in February 1865. On April 14, 1865, Anderson returned to the fort to re-hoist the flag he had been forced to lower four years earlier.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "Civil War: Battle of Fort Sumter." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). Civil War: Battle of Fort Sumter. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Civil War: Battle of Fort Sumter." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).