For months the Confederates trained dozens of guns on Fort Sumter.
But no one seemed eager for war.
After Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860, even as Southern states prepared to secede, war wasn’t inevitable. Many in the North and the South predicted a peaceful division of the country, which after all was not yet even a century old. James Chesnut Jr., a South Carolina lawyer and politician who quit the U.S. Senate after Lincoln’s election, declared that the Southern Confederacy would be created peacefully, with so little blood spilled that any man “might safely drink every drop shed.” Yet the question of whether Americans would take up arms against each other loomed darkly over the country, and particularly Chesnut’s home state. Even after South Carolina seceded on December 20, a U.S. Army garrison of some 80 men remained at one of several Federal forts that defended the port city of Charleston. These soldiers posed little threat; they were so short-handed that their wives once stood watch as sentries. But South Carolina believed the fort belonged to the state and the Federals should turn it over. Officials in Washington—first under the outgoing president James Buchanan, and later under Lincoln—refused.
The result was a tense standoff between the newly declared Rebels and the soldiers in the fort. Over the next few months, both sides prepared for battle, redoubling their defenses. Yet each moved warily. Neither wanted to touch off a war.
War arrived, of course. The Confederates fired the first shell over Fort Sumter at 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, a chilly, misty morning in Charleston. The moment is well documented, along with the events building toward it. Abner Doubleday, a U.S. Army captain posted in Charleston (years after he purportedly invented baseball), turned his experience into a book. So did Captain Samuel Crawford, the surgeon at the fort. Augustus Dickert, a Confederate teenage volunteer, recounted the bombardment in detail in a book about his years in the war. And Mary Boykin Chesnut, the 38-year-old wife of the secessionist senator, recorded high society’s conflicted attitudes toward the war in her diary, which was later edited and published by historian C. Vann Woodward, winning a 1982 Pulitzer Prize.
One hundred and fifty years after the event, the words of these and other eyewitnesses bring to life the sights and sounds of that time and evoke the agony of a nation going to war with itself. Just days after the first shot, Mary Chesnut wrote in her diary, “Our hearts are in doleful dumps, but we are as gay, as madly jolly, as sailors who break into the strong-room when the ship is going down.”
* * *
A few weeks after Lincoln’s election, Major Robert Anderson assumed command of the two depleted companies of the 1st U.S. Artillery garrisoned at Fort Moultrie, which stood on one of the barrier islands at the entrance to Charleston Harbor. At 55, with graying hair and a compact build, Anderson was a devout Christian respected for his integrity and intelligence. Born in Kentucky and married to the daughter of a prominent Georgia plantation owner, he had attended West Point with Jefferson Davis and counted the Southern leader as a friend. Though sympathetic to the South, Anderson resisted the push for war. “I think that killing people is a very poor way of settling National grievances,” he had written his wife from the Mexican War. Anderson’s divided loyalties worried Lincoln and irked Doubleday, an abolitionist who grew disgusted at his commander’s caution in the face of Southern aggression.
Abner Doubleday: “Major Anderson was neither timid nor irresolute, and he was fully aware of his duties and responsibilities. Unfortunately, he desired not only to save the Union, but to save slavery with it. Without this, he considered the contest as hopeless.
“In this spirit, he submitted to every thing, and delayed all action in the expectation that Congress would make some new and more binding compromise which would restore peace to the country. He could not read the signs of the times, and see that the conscience of the nation and the progress of civilization had already doomed slavery to destruction….
“I have no doubt he thought he was rendering a real service to his country. He knew the first shot fired by us would light the flames of a civil war that would convulse the world, and tried to put off the evil day as long as possible.”
* * *
Anderson knew that Moultrie was indefensible. The fort’s crumbling brick walls dated to the early 1800s. Built to defend Charleston against ships arriving from the sea, it lay open to attack from land, where South Carolina’s troops were gathering. Without telling his staff, he made plans to abandon Moultrie and move the garrison to Sumter, which squatted on a manmade island of granite at the mouth of the harbor.
Construction of the fort had begun in 1829, yet work crews still labored to finish it. “Sumter was far from being in a defensible condition,” Private John Thompson wrote later, “very few guns were mounted, and everything was in admirable confusion.” But it was better armed than Moultrie and enjoyed a strategic location: Every vessel entering or leaving the harbor passed directly under its guns.
Anderson decided to move at night, hoping darkness would hide his men from Southern patrol boats. On the evening of December 26, when Doubleday sought him out for tea, the major greeted his second in command with a surprise.
Abner Doubleday: “Anderson approached me as I advanced, and said quietly, ‘I have determined to evacuate this post immediately for the purpose of occupying Fort Sumter; I can only allow you twenty minutes to form your company and be in readiness to start.’
“I was surprised at this announcement, and realized the gravity of the situation at a glance. We were watched by spies and vigilance-committees, who would undoubtedly open fire upon us as soon as they saw the object of the movement….
“I hoped there would be time for my party to cross before the [Rebel] steamer could overhaul us; but as among my men there were a number of unskillful oarsmen, we made but slow progress, and it soon became evident that we would be overtaken in mid-channel. It was after sunset, and the twilight had deepened, so that there was a fair chance for us to escape. While the steamer was yet afar off, I took off my cap, and threw open my coat to conceal [its] buttons. I also made the men take off their coats, and use them to cover up their muskets, which were lying alongside the rowlocks. I hoped in this way that we might pass for a party of laborers returning to the fort. The [steamer’s] paddle-wheels stopped within about a hundred yards of us; but, to our great relief, after a slight scrutiny, the steamer kept on its way….
“As we ascended the steps of the wharf [to the fort], crowds of workmen rushed out to meet us, most of them wearing secessionist emblems. One or two Union men among them cheered lustily, but the majority called out angrily, ‘What are these soldiers doing here?’ I at once formed my men inside the fort, charged bayonets, drove the tumultuous mass inside the fort, and seized the guard-room, which commanded the main entrance.”
* * *
Samuel Crawford: “Crowds collected in the streets and open places of the city, and loud and violent were the expressions of feeling against Major Anderson and his action. Military organizations paraded the streets, and threats were made that they would be heard from before twenty-four hours, and that bloodshed was now unavoidable. Anderson was pronounced a traitor.”
Augustus Dickert: “The city of Charleston was ablaze with excitement, flags waved from the house tops, the heavy tread of the embryo soldiers could be heard in the streets, the corridors of hotels, and in all the public places. The beautiful park on the water front, called the ‘Battery,’ was thronged with people of every age and sex, straining their eyes or looking through glasses out at Sumter, whose bristling front was surmounted with cannon, her flags waving defiance. Small boats and steamers dotted the waters of the bay. Ordnance and ammunition were being hurried to the island. The one continual talk was ‘Anderson,’ ‘Fort Sumter,’ and ‘war.’”
A Charleston resident in a letter printed in Harper’s Weekly: “Every man in the State is a soldier and will fight to death on this question. You can form no idea of the feeling that exists here. Major Anderson will be driven out of Fort Sumter if it costs 10,000 lives.”
John Thompson, private, 1st U.S. Artillery: “In spite of all their bluster I am almost sure they never will fire a shot at us, indeed I think they are only too glad to be left alone.”
A Charleston resident quoted in “Charleston Under Arms,” Atlantic Monthly: “We shall never attack Fort Sumter. Don’t you see why? I have a son in the trenches, my next neighbor has one, everybody in the city has one. Well, we shan’t let our boys fight; we can’t bear to lose them. We don’t want to risk our handsome, genteel, educated young fellows against a gang of Irishmen, Germans, British deserters, and New York roughs, not worth killing, and yet instructed to kill to the best advantage. We can’t endure it, and we shan’t do it.”
Mary Chesnut: “Those who want a row are in high glee. Those who dread it are glum and thoughtful enough.”
John William De Forest, in his essay “Charleston Under Arms,” Atlantic Monthly: “During the ten days of my sojourn, Charleston was full of surprising reports and painful expectations. If a door slammed, we stopped talking and looked at each other; and if the sound was repeated, we went to the window and listened for Fort Sumter. Every strange noise was metamorphosed by the watchful ear into the roar of cannon or the rush of soldiery.”
* * *
Both sides prepared for battle. The men at Sumter mounted the fort’s guns and bricked up embrasures, fearing the enemy would land an assault force. The Southerners, meanwhile, seized Fort Moultrie and built shore batteries trained on both Sumter and the shipping lanes, expecting Union reinforcements to arrive.
In early January, President Buchanan approved a secret mission to reinforce Sumter. The Star of the West, a commercial steamer hired by the army at $1,250 a day, entered Charleston Harbor after dawn on January 9 with 200 Union soldiers hidden below deck. Its arrival was no surprise; news of the relief expedition had leaked and been reported widely by Charleston newspapers. When the ship passed Morris Island at the entrance to the harbor, a hidden battery manned by cadets from the Citadel opened fire.
A reporter on the Star of the West: “Suddenly, whizz! comes a ricochet shot from Morris Island. It plunges into the water and skips along, but falls short of our steamer. The line was forward of our bow, and was, of course, an invitation to stop. But we are not ready to accept the proffered hospitality, and the captain pays no attention to it, except to run up the stars and stripes at the masthead—a garrison flag which was on board….
“On we go, and—whizz! again goes the smaller gun first fired, and another ricochet shot skips along the water and falls short of us. ‘Booh!’ exclaims the captain. ‘You must give us bigger guns than that, boys, or you can not hurt us.’”
John McGowan, captain, Star of the West: “We continued on under the fire of the battery for over ten minutes, several of the shots going clean over us. One passed just clear of the pilot-house. Another passed between the smoke-stack and walking beams of the engine. Another struck the ship just abaft the fore-rigging, and stove in the planking; and another came within an ace of carrying away the rudder. At the same time there was a movement of two steamers from near Fort Moultrie—one of them towing a schooner (I presume an armed schooner)—with the intention of cutting us off….
“Having no cannon to defend ourselves from the attack of the vessel, we concluded that, to avoid certain capture or destruction, we would endeavor to get to sea. Consequently, we wore round and steamed down the channel, the battery firing upon us until their shot fell short.”
A reporter on the Star of the West: “Why does not Major Anderson open fire upon that battery and save us? We look in vain for help; the American flag flies from Fort Sumter, and the American flag at our bow and stern is fired upon, yet there is not the slightest recognition of our presence from the fort from which we look for protection.”
* * *
By many accounts, these were the first shots of the Civil War. Yet Anderson, under strict orders not to initiate conflict, declined to return fire. What if the secessionists had fired without orders? he wondered. Sumter’s response would surely kick off war, he thought, and perhaps without cause.
Anderson’s caution—which he demonstrated again two months later when the Rebels fired on a civilian schooner from Boston—unsettled his men and angered some, including Doubleday. Feeling deserted by Washington, Anderson later wrote to superiors: “God grant that neither I nor any other officer of our Army may be again placed in a position of such mortification and humiliation.”
The day after the Star of the West incident, Jefferson Davis declared the country “on the verge of civil war.” But Davis and other Southern leaders were not eager for the South to be seen as the aggressor. The stalemate at Sumter continued.
Over the next few months, six states joined South Carolina in secession and formed the Confederate States of America, with Davis as president. Pierre G. T. Beauregard, the Confederacy’s first brigadier general, was put in command of the Southern forces in South Carolina. Families of the soldiers at Sumter were evacuated. Supplies ran short; the men tore down barracks and other structures for firewood and rationed their remaining foodstuffs, largely salt pork and crackers.
Lincoln, meanwhile, signaled his intention toward Sumter in his March 4 inaugural address, promising “to hold, occupy and possess the property and places belonging to the government.” But the next day, Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, the Mexican War hero and head of the U.S. Army, recommended the evacuation of Sumter; he would later estimate that as many as 25,000 men might be needed to defend the fort. The president appeared to accept Scott’s recommendation, and newspapers reported that Anderson and his men would soon give up the fort.
Within a few weeks, however, the new commander in chief was making plans for an expedition to provision and reinforce Sumter. By early April, a Union fleet commanded by Gustavus Fox, assistant secretary of the navy and a former naval officer, was headed to Charleston.
Davis met with his cabinet, then ordered that Anderson be given an ultimatum: evacuate, or be fired upon. On April 11 at 3:45 p.m. Beauregard sent three aides to Sumter and presented the demand for surrender to Anderson. The major consulted with his officers, then refused. The three Southerners returned after midnight on April 12 and presented Anderson with slightly different terms. The major again declined. The Southerners in turn announced that the Confederate batteries would open fire in approximately one hour, at 4:30 a.m.
The news shook Anderson, according to Captain Stephen Dill Lee, one of the three Confederates. “Escorting us to the boat at the wharf,” Lee wrote later, “he cordially pressed our hands in farewell, remarking, ‘If we never meet in this world again, God grant that we may meet in the next.’”
In the hours before the firing commenced, citizens and soldiers prepared for the war they once thought could be avoided. Charleston residents expected the bombardment to begin around 4 a.m.; at Sumter, Anderson’s men could only wait.
Mary Chesnut: “I do not pretend to go to sleep. How can I? If Anderson does not accept terms at four, the orders are, he shall be fired upon. I count four, St. Michael’s bells chime out and I begin to hope.”
Augustus Dickert: “Men watched with breathless interest the hands on the dials as they slowly moved around to the hour of four, the time set to open the fire. At that hour gunners stood with lanyards in their hands. Men peered through the darkness in the direction of Sumter, as looking for some invisible object.”
Abner Doubleday: “About 4 a.m. on the 12th, I was awakened by someone groping about my room in the dark and calling out my name. It proved to be Anderson, who came to announce to me that he had just received a dispatch from Beauregard, dated 3:20 a.m., to the effect that he should open fire upon us in an hour. Finding it was determined not to return the fire until after breakfast, I remained in bed. As we had no lights, we could in fact do nothing before that time, except to wander around in the darkness, and fire without an accurate view of the enemy’s works.”
* * *
Beauregard had ordered Confederate batteries on James Island, on the south end of the harbor, to fire a shot to signal the other guns ringing Sumter, including some on Morris Island’s Cummings Point. Captain George James waited by a mortar on the island’s beach until his pocket watch showed 4:30 a.m., and then gave the order to fire.
Augustus Dickert: “The great mortar belched forth, a bright flash, and the shell went curving over in a kind of semi-circle, the lit fuse trailing behind, showing a glimmering light, like the wings of a fire fly, bursting over the silent old Sumter. This was the signal gun that unchained the great bull-dogs of war around the whole circle of forts….Along the water fronts, and from all the forts, now a perfect sheet of flame flashed out, a deafening roar, a rumbling deadening sound, and the war was on.”
Abner Doubleday: “Almost immediately afterward a ball from Cummings Point lodged in the magazine wall, and by the sound seemed to bury itself in the masonry about a foot from my head, in very unpleasant proximity to my right ear.”
Mary Chesnut: “At half-past four the heavy booming of a cannon. I sprang out of bed, and on my knees prostrate I prayed as I never prayed before.”
Felix de Fontaine, correspondent, New York Herald: “Lights flash on as if by magic from the windows of every house, and in the twinkling of an eye, as it were, an agitated mass of people are rushing impetuously toward the water front of the city. Grave citizens, whose dignity under ordinary circumstances is unimpeachable, are at the top of their speed dressing as they run, and sending up wild hurrahs as if they must have some such safety-valve for their enthusiasm or be suffocated. There are men sans coats, women sans crinoline, and children in their night-gowns.”
James Chester, sergeant, 1st U.S. Artillery: “Shot and shell went screaming over Sumter as if an army of devils were swooping around it. As a rule the guns were aimed too high, but all the mortar practice was good. In a few minutes the novelty disappeared in a realizing sense of danger, and the watchers retired to the bomb-proofs, where they discussed probabilities until reveille.”
* * *
The Confederates fired on Sumter from more than a dozen points on shore. The Union did not answer the Confederate shells until just after 6:30 a.m. By then the Confederates had already fired some 200 cannonballs. The firing continued all day. Like many in Charleston, Mary Chesnut worried the battle might spark a rebellion among her slaves. The outmatched Sumter soldiers, meanwhile, fought any way they could; with so few men, they at times manned only a half dozen guns. Frustrated, a couple of them sent a shot toward civilians watching the battle in front of the Moultrie House hotel on Sullivan’s Island.
Mary Chesnut: “The sound of those guns makes regular meals impossible. None of us go to table. Tea-trays pervade the corridors going everywhere. Some of the anxious hearts lie on their beds and moan in solitary misery.
“Not by one word or look can we detect any change in the demeanor of these negro servants….You could not tell that they even heard the awful roar going on in the bay, though it has been dinning in their ears night and day. People talk before them as if they were chairs and tables. They make no sign. Are they stolidly stupid? Or wiser than we are; silent and strong, biding their time?”
Abner Doubleday: “Our firing now became regular, and was answered from the rebel guns which encircled us on the four sides of the pentagon upon which the fort was built. The other side faced the open sea. Showers of balls from ten-inch columbiads and forty-two-pounders, and shells from thirteen-inch mortars poured into the fort in one incessant stream, causing great flakes of masonry to fall in all directions. When the immense mortar shells, after sailing high in the air, came down in a vertical direction, and buried themselves in the parade-ground, their explosion shook the fort like an earthquake.…
“Our fort had been built with reference to the penetration of shot when the old system of smooth-bore guns prevailed. The balls from a new Blakely gun on Cummings Point, however, had force enough to go entirely through the wall which sheltered us, and some of the fragments of brick which were knocked out wounded several of my detachment.…
“They had a great advantage over us, as their fire was concentrated on the fort, which was in the centre of the circle, while ours was diffused over the circumference.”
James Chester: “The scarcity of cartridge-bags drove us to some strange makeshifts. During the bombardment several tailors were kept busy making cartridge-bags out of soldiers’ flannel shirts, and we fired away several dozen pairs of woolen socks belonging to Major Anderson….
“Doubleday’s men were not in the best of temper. They were irritated at the thought that they had been unable to inflict any serious damage on their adversary, and although they had suffered no damage in return, they were dissatisfied. The crowd of unsympathetic spectators was more than they could bear, and two veteran sergeants determined to stir them up a little.
“For this purpose they directed two 42-pounders on the crowd, and, when no officer was near, fired. The first shot struck about fifty yards short, and, bounding over the heads of the astonished spectators, went crashing through the Moultrie House. The second followed an almost identical course, doing no damage except to the Moultrie House, and the spectators scampered off in a rather undignified manner.”
* * *
Around 1 p.m., part of the Union fleet commanded by Gustavus Fox was spotted outside Charleston Harbor. Fox was surprised that fighting had already begun; thinking the first ships of his fleet were too lightly armed to run the gantlet of Confederate batteries, he decided to wait for the others before engaging. As the day’s light faded, his boats still lay outside the harbor, their inaction stirring anger among the men in the fort. At dark, the Federals halted their fire. The enemy, however, kept up a slow barrage. It was, wrote Chester, a night of “great anxiety.”
James Chester: “The fleet might send reenforcements; the enemy might attempt an assault. Both would come in boats; both would answer in English. It would be horrible to fire upon friends; it would be fatal not to fire upon enemies. The night was dark and chilly. Shells were dropping into the fort at regular intervals, and the men were tired, hungry, and out of temper. Any party that approached that night would have been rated as enemies upon general principles.”
* * *
Both sides resumed heavy firing after light the next day, April 13. By 8 a.m., hot shot from the Confederates had touched off a fire inside the fort; heavy smoke billowed over it.
Abner Doubleday: “By 11 a.m. the conflagration was terrible and disastrous. One-fifth of the fort was on fire, and the wind drove the smoke in dense masses into the angle where we had all taken refuge. It seemed impossible to escape suffocation. Some lay down close to the ground, with handkerchiefs over their mouths, and others posted themselves near the embrasures, where the smoke was somewhat lessened by the draught of air….
“The scene at this time was really terrific. The roaring and crackling of the flames, the dense masses of whirling smoke, the bursting of the enemy’s shells, and our own which were exploding in the burning rooms, the crashing of the shot, and the sound of masonry falling in every direction, made the fort a pandemonium.”
* * *
The fleet remained outside the harbor. Heavy seas prevented Fox from sending even rowboats of men to aid Sumter. About 1 p.m., the fort’s flagstaff fell. Soldiers rushed to create a makeshift staff and raise the flag again, but the Rebels sensed victory was near.
Augustus Dickert: “A shout of triumph rent the air from the thousands of spectators on the islands and the mainland. Flags and handkerchiefs waved from the hands of excited throngs in the city, as tokens of approval of eager watchers. Soldiers mount the ramparts and shout in exultation, throwing their caps in the air.”
Under a white flag, the Rebels approached Sumter—first, Louis Wigfall, a South Carolina politician, then three men sent by Beauregard, including his aide, Captain Stephen Lee.
Stephen Lee: “Fire was still raging in the barracks, and settling steadily over the magazine. All egress was cut off except through the lower embrasures. Many shells from the Confederate batteries, which had fallen in the fort and had not exploded, as well as the hand-grenades used for defense, were exploding as they were reached by the fire. The wind was driving the heat and smoke down into the fort and into the casemates, almost causing suffocation. Major Anderson, his officers, and men were blackened by smoke and cinders, and showed signs of fatigue and exhaustion.”
* * *
In the negotiations that followed, Anderson, low on ammunition, agreed to evacuate the next day, April 14. He and his men were promised safe transfer to New York. After 34 hours of shelling, the battle was over. Sumter had fired roughly 1,000 shots, the Confederates more than three times that. No one was killed (two Union men died when a cannon fired prematurely while the flag was being lowered). Confederates who had wanted to avoid spilling blood to gain independence could cheer.
Mary Chesnut: “Our flag is flying there. Fire-engines have been sent for to put out the fire. Everybody tells you half of something and then rushes off to tell something else or to hear the last news.
“In the afternoon, Mrs. Preston, Mrs. Joe Heyward, and I drove around the Battery. We were in an open carriage. What a changed scene—the very liveliest crowd I think I ever saw, everybody talking at once. All glasses were still turned on the grim old fort.”
New York Times: “Within Fort Sumter everything but the casemates is in utter ruin. The whole thing looks like a blackened mass of ruins….The wall looks like a honey-comb. Near the top is a breach as big as a cart….
“The scene in the city after the raising of the flag of truce and the surrender is indescribable; the people were perfectly wild. Men on horseback rode through the streets proclaiming the news, amid the greatest enthusiasm….The bells have been chiming all day, gun[s] firing, ladies waving handkerchiefs, people cheering, and citizens making themselves generally demonstrative. It is regarded as the greatest day in the history of South Carolina.”
* * *
The next day, around 4:30 p.m., the Sumter men marched through the ruined gate of the fort and boarded a steamer, Anderson with flag tucked under his arm, his company’s band playing “Yankee Doodle.” Fire still smoldered inside the fort, and smoke hung in the air. Boats had been bringing Southerners out all day to see the wrecked fort.
Abner Doubleday: “The bay was alive with floating craft of every description, filled with people from all parts of the South in their holiday attire….As we went on board the Isabel, with the drums beating the national air, all eyes were fixed upon us amidst the deepest silence. It was an hour of triumph for the originators of secession in South Carolina, and no doubt it seemed to them the culmination of all their hopes; but could they have seen into the future with the eye of prophecy, their joy might have been turned into mourning.”