First Round at Fort Sumter

First Round at Fort Sumter

By George Skoch
1/27/2017 • America's Civil War Magazine

Everybody knows what happened at Charleston in April 1861, but the war was nearly started a month earlier—by mistake.

Long jets of flame and billows of smoke erupted from two 8-inch Columbiads on Cummings Point, at the tip of Morris Island, S.C. The crash of heavy artillery from the Confederate “Iron-clad Battery” rolled across the mouth of Charleston Harbor like spring thunder and echoed off the  red brick ramparts of Fort Sumter.

Just more than 1,300 yards away and well within range  of the Confederate guns, U.S. Army Maj. Robert Anderson,  commander of the Federal stronghold, watched the cannon  fire with his fellow officers. They calmly studied the scene  through spyglasses and noted the caliber and positions of  the enemy guns. There was nothing to fear. The Confederate  cannons were firing blanks.

It was early morning March 8, 1861. Whether the festering  disputes between the United States and the nascent Confederacy would erupt into open warfare remained to be seen.  Rebel forces encircling the fort routinely conducted artillery  practice. In fact, both sides had frequently engaged in such  drills. The barking guns shattered the silence and rattled  windows in Charleston, but nothing more.

Until this morning, that is.

Anderson and his junior officers trained their glasses on  the unique Iron-clad Battery. Fashioned from heavy timbers  and railroad iron, the battery’s thick, sloping walls sheltered  a total of three 8-inch Columbiads. Two cannons had just  been fired, so the bluecoats were not surprised when Columbiad No. 3 thundered.

They were very surprised, however, to see a cannonball  shoot from the gun’s muzzle and arc over the still waters on a  shallow trajectory to the fort. In moments, 50 pounds of solid iron skipped twice off the water and slammed against the granite wharf near the Gorge, the fort’s main gate. Was this  the opening shot of war?

The sudden impact of the projectile triggered a well-rehearsed response from the garrison inside the fort. Virtual hostages in their stronghold for more than two months,  suffering shortages of food and supplies of all kinds, wide-eyed bluecoats scrambled to secure the gate and man their  own big guns. “One and all,” wrote Capt. Abner Doubleday,  “desired to fight it out as soon as possible.”

From his perch in the fort, Anderson continued to scrutinize Southern soldiers and laborers on shore. They appeared  just as startled as he was, scattering in all directions until  the beach looked empty. Other enemy cannons around the  harbor remained silent. Anderson and his men soon relaxed.  Apparently the shot was an accident caused by amateur  enemy artillerymen.

Later that morning Anderson penned a blunt message  “demanding an explanation” to the Rebel commander at  Cummings Point, Maj. Peter F. Stevens—who was also  superintendent of Charleston’s South Carolina Military  Academy, the Citadel. Citadel cadets had helped to erect batteries on Morris Island and elsewhere around the harbor.  They also helped train militiamen and civilian volunteers to  operate the cannons.

But before Anderson could send his demand, a red-faced  Stevens was rowed out to the fort under a white flag, bearing  an “ample apology” for the errant missile. The Southerner  didn’t suspect that the cannonball “was put in by any man  intentionally.”

“It appears that in practicing at drill, the fact of one of  the guns being shotted was forgotten,” wrote Capt. John G.  Foster, Sumter’s chief engineer, “and hence the occurrence.”

Anderson admonished Stevens. The incident could have  triggered war. Stevens acknowledged Anderson’s patience  and forbearance in not returning fire. After their meeting, the uneasy standoff between opposing forces resumed.

On March 9, Brig. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, overall  commander of Confederate troops in Charleston, ordered  a thorough investigation of the affair. “[H]ereafter,” he  instructed, “no gun should be practiced with without first  ascertaining whether it be loaded or not.”

Military leaders within the fledgling Confederate army  that encircled Fort Sumter had freely expressed concerns  about their neophyte gunners and the potential for trouble.  One Southern officer—a Mexican War veteran—announced  that among the volunteers with whom he was saddled were  “290 indifferent artillerymen.” Stevens himself admitted that outside of officers and cadets from the Citadel, the men  who served his cannons “had never undertaken to manage  artillery.”

On the other hand, Stevens may not have been well served by some of his own protégés. For example, C. Irvine Walker, a 19-year-old cadet, may even have indirectly  contributed to the lack of proficiency and discipline exhibited by some of the volunteer gunners that he was supposed to be instructing.

When first assigned to handle a battery of light  artillery on Sullivan’s Island, Walker admitted, “I was non-plussed. They were to be fired  with friction primers, which I had never seen.”  Later on Morris Island, Walker shared a small  room with 20 other men. “It was about a foot  deep in straw,” he confided. “Our friends in  town kept us supplied with food etc. Among  which was a two gallon Demijohn of the ‘Oh be  joyful’ which was carefully hidden under the  straw.”

Elsewhere around the harbor, Confederate  Lt. Col. Roswell Ripley, a West Pointer and  seasoned artilleryman, had begged his superiors to have his men spend less time laboring  on defenses and more time drilling on the big  guns. “Any failure in that branch of the service, I fear, may  result in disaster,” he had written on March 5.

Beauregard’s probe into the cause of the near-disastrous  cannon shot failed to uncover a guilty party. Little more than  a month later, on April 12, 1861, another shot from a Confederate cannon struck Fort Sumter. It was one among more  than 3,000 other rounds fired at the fort that day, signaling  the start of civil war between North and South. The accidental shot was all but forgotten.

Who was responsible for the loaded cannon on March  8 remained a mystery for more than three decades after the war ended. Finally, in a Charleston News and Courier article on August 25, 1893, the culprit’s name surfaced: Edwin  Lindsley Halsey.

In March 1861, Halsey, then 24 and employed at a Charleston publishing house, served with the Washington Artillery  Volunteers stationed at the Iron-clad Battery. Day after day  “every morning and evening” Halsey drilled with other volunteers on the three Columbiads. “[W]e went through all of  the movements required in artillery practice,” wrote a companion, “even to firing blank cartridges.” His battery mate  recalled that on March 7, 1861, “…while marching from the  battery to camp after a drill, Halsey said he was tired of this  nonsense, and that there would be some fun in the harbor the next morning.”

After the “fun” roared toward Fort Sumter, Halsey’s lips  were sealed. He never commented publicly about the episode. “Possibly, he realized what a breach of discipline his  prank represented,” one of his grandsons speculated a century later, noting his grandfather “was not the patient type.  The explosive gesture seemed entirely representative of his feelings.”

Halsey served with distinction in South Carolina artillery units throughout the war. The  Washington Artillery Volunteers, also known  as Hampton’s Legion Artillery, mustered into  the Confederate Army on June 13, 1861, for  service in Virginia. Transferred to Jeb Stuart’s  Horse Artillery Battalion, Halsey was 1st sergeant and later elected 1st lieutenant in Hart’s  Battery in April 1862. He rose to captain and  commanded the battery after Captain James  Hart lost a leg during the Battle of Boydton  Plank Road, Va., in October 1864. A comrade  remembered that Halsey “was cool, calm,  fearless and as firm as a rock in battle.”

Early in 1865, Halsey and his battery, with  several South Carolina cavalry regiments,  accompanied Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton back to  the Carolinas to fight with the Army of Tennessee under Gen. Joseph E. Johnston. Halsey’s Battery  was part of the rear guard when Johnston surrendered his  troops to Union Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman near  Durham, N.C., on April 26, 1865.

Unreconciled, Halsey devised a plan to elude Union forces  and lead a section of his battery to fight on, west of the Mississippi. But Hampton put a stop to it. The renowned cavalry  leader told the troops they “had been good and brave soldiers, that they had done their whole duty…and that it was  their duty to remain where they were and obey commands.”  The veteran gunners tearfully parted with their weapons.

Halsey “broke his saber and kept his revolver” before  returning to Charleston, where he became a successful  lumber and timber merchant. (His business was near present-day Halsey Boulevard.) He also married, fathering  seven sons and five daughters. His business thrived and  made Halsey wealthy from selling building materials to help  rebuild the war-torn South.

Edwin Lindsley Halsey died on October 12, 1903, at the  age of 66, and is buried in Charleston’s Magnolia Cemetery. A family member recalled that Halsey “lived out his days  totally unreconstructed.”

 

Schooled in history, geography and graphic arts, Ohio-based George Skoch has contributed prose and artwork to publications for more than three decades.

Originally published in the March 2015 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.

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