The Battle of Fort Sumter - American Civil War

Learn About the Battle That Marked the Beginning of the Civil War

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. 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.

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 in fall 1860, Anderson immediately faced heavy pressure from the local community as he attempted to improve his fortifications. Based at Fort Moultrie, Anderson was dissatisfied with its landward defenses, however, attempts to improve them met with fierce criticism from city leaders.

Union Commanders

  • Major Robert Anderson
  • 85 men

Confederate Commanders

A Near Siege

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 evacuate 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. Believing Anderson's actions to be a breach of faith, South Carolina authorities 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, President James 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.

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 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.

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.

Aftermath of the Battle

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.