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Accurate Rebel ‘shot and shell’ terrified Fort Sumter’s garrison.

Charleston Harbor, April 1861: Three hours before dawn, a single shell announced the war’s beginning. Suddenly something flashed and boomed ashore. In Fort Sumter men keeping watch saw the projectile  coming toward them, arcing clean and high, like a small comet tracing its course among the scattered stars. The night was so still that they could hear—or so they would later tell—the hissing sound it made as it cut through the air. A spray of sparks trailed from the fuse, reflected on the rippled water below, so that not one but two streaks of orange fire seemed to race across the harbor, converging and converging. The ball burst at last above them, right over the ring of parapets, a hundred pounds of metal blown apart from within. Perfectly aimed. An instant of sudden clarity illuminated the bricks, stones and panes of quivering glass; the silent iron guns; and the flag that hung, barely stirring, on its tall staff.

Darkness and stillness again. That first shot had been one gun’s signal to the others. Out across the water, all around the harbor, unseen cannons and mortars were being carefully adjusted and aimed. Then the enemy’s full barrage began.

After so many months of waiting, an ancient law of siege warfare had finally broken the standoff. The fort’s defenders were being starved out. Major Robert Anderson had been left with 128 mouths to feed—the officers and soldiers themselves, plus several dozen civilian laborers who had remained in the citadel—and precious little to give them. Over the past four weeks, the few remaining barrels of hardtack had dwindled away to mere crumbs. So had the flour, sugar and coffee. Back in February, a singular piece of bad luck had befallen the fort’s supply of rice: a cannon saluting Washington’s birthday smashed a window and sprayed the food store with splinters of glass. By early April, the men were sifting through that rice grain by grain. Each grain represented another morsel of time. Grain by grain, that precious commodity had been running out for the Union, and for peace.

A hand-written note, addressed to Anderson and dated April 12, 1861, heralded the end of peace: “By the authority of Brigadier-General [P.G.T.] Beauregard, commanding the provisional forces of the Confederate States, we have the honor to notify you that he will open the fire of his batteries on Fort Sumter in one hour from this time.”

Beauregard’s first shot, the signal shot, arrived 10 minutes after its appointed time. Private John Thompson was one of the men on the parapet who watched it explode overhead like a Roman candle. Later, his clearest memory of the moment was glimpsing his comrades’ faces in that quick flash of light: No one seemed afraid, Thompson wrote, but “something like an expression of awe crept over the features of everyone.” In the minutes that followed, one battery after another opened up around the harbor, until 19 of them were hammering away at the fort, sending solid rounds and mortar shells flying in from all sides. The Confederate artillerymen were mostly shooting high, as inexperienced gunners usually did: “Shot and shell went screaming over Sumter,” said Sergeant James Chester, “as if an army of devils were swooping around it.” But they would eventually find their range.

Captain Abner Doubleday was among the few men to choose safety over scenery. He stayed in bed, in makeshift but protected quarters he had improvised within a deep powder magazine. The second shot of the Civil War crashed into the masonry at what seemed a foot away from Doubleday’s head—“in very unpleasant proximity to my right ear,” he recalled much later. Big patches of plaster cracked off the ceiling and fell in clouds of dust. The chamber shuddered again as another shell struck near the ventilation shaft, sending a burst of hot smoke roiling in, and Doubleday looked with alarm at the crates of gunpowder stacked along one wall. Some of the black powder had been carelessly spilled on the floor, where any stray spark might ignite it. The captain prudently dressed and went down early to breakfast, which consisted of tepid water and a little half-rancid pork.

At last dawn broke, weakly—clouds hung low in the gray sky, and mist over the water—and the time came to return fire. To Doubleday fell the honor, if honor it was, of firing the Union’s first shot. Doubleday marched his squad promptly to the cannons that pointed toward the Iron Battery at Cummings Point, whose heavy Columbiad guns had been pelting Sumter with solid shot for three hours. Now the captain would try to lob a 32-pound ball inside one of its narrow embrasures. “In aiming the first gun fired against the rebellion I had no feeling of self-reproach,” he later recalled, “for I fully believed that the contest was inevitable, and was not of our seeking. The United States was called upon not only to defend its sovereignty, but its right to exist as a nation. The only alternative was to submit to a powerful oligarchy who were determined to make freedom forever subordinate to slavery. To me it was simply a contest, politically speaking, as to whether virtue or vice should rule.”

Perhaps the captain should have been less reflective and more attentive: His cannonball missed its mark by just a few yards, bounced harmlessly off the Iron Battery’s slanting roof and landed with a splash in the nearby swamp. For the next two hours Doubleday’s men kept up a slow but steady fire, while from the other side of the fort soldiers could hear round after round launched in the direction of Rebel-held Fort Moultrie.

A ring of fire and smoke clenched Sumter. From all sides, metal tore through the sky. Solid iron balls smashed against masonry; huge mortar shells buried themselves in the earthen parade-ground and then exploded, the entire fort shuddering deep within itself like some wounded beast. Streams of dust and debris poured down onto the men’s heads. Most terrifying of all were the wickedly pointed projectiles that occasionally hurtled toward them, as straight and accurate as the shots of a dueling pistol. They came from the direction of Cummings Point, apparently discharged by some diabolical weapon none of the enlisted men had seen before. (It was a rifled cannon known as a Blakely gun, recently developed in England, that had arrived directly from London just three days earlier, a gift from some South Carolina expatriates.) Its shots tore into the vulnerable gorge wall, or sometimes, with ruthless accuracy, pierced the gun embrasures, those narrow openings through which the Union artillerymen fired.

Private Thompson was helping man one of Sumter’s cannons from behind one embrasure, inside a narrow brick box known as a casemate. Like almost all the enlisted men, he had never been on the receiving end of an artillery barrage. A recent immigrant from Ireland, Thompson would vividly describe the battle later in a letter to his father back in the old country. “The hissing shot came plowing along leaving wreck and ruin in their path,” he said. Soon the cannoneers were black with smoke and soot, and several men’s faces, cut by broken chunks of masonry, were covered with blood.

Of the ordinary soldiers, almost nothing is known. Only a few of their letters survive, and even those may well have been written on their behalf by more literate superiors. Thompson, who listed his civilian occupation as “laborer,” was not atypical. As many as two-thirds of the men in the U.S. Army in the 1850s were foreigners, mostly German and Irish. Sumter’s garrison was even more heavily foreign-born than average: Of the 73 enlisted men whose birthplaces are known, only 13 were born in the United States. The roster of privates reads like the roll call in an old World War II movie: Murphy, Schmidt, Onorato, Klein, Wishnowski.

Enduring months of tension and uncertainty, sparse rations, and crowded and makeshift quarters could have driven men to quarrels, brawls or worse. Throughout the winter of 1861, newspapers in both North and South buzzed with rumors of soldiers at Sumter being shot for mutiny. Yet reports from inside the fort show the opposite: The longer the siege lasted, the more tightly the group knit itself together. Even the snobbish Dr. S.W. Crawford, the fort’s surgeon, wrote often of the men’s high spirits, and said that when the final battle loomed, “it increased their enthusiasm to the highest pitch.” If anything, the common soldiers’ morale was higher than their officers’.

Sensing that they were actors in an important moment of history seems to have intensified the feeling the privates had of being Americans—even among those who, technically speaking, weren’t. Thompson, though looking forward to the end of his enlistment in a few months so he could go back home to his family in County Derry, spoke of the pride and defiance he shared with his comrades when they “hoisted our colors the glorious ‘Stars and Stripes,’” and of their scorn for the “rash folly” of the Rebels: “They no doubt expected that we would surrender without a blow, but they were never more mistaken in their lives.”

The crash of an enormous cannon firing within a confined casemate could be literally deafening; the concussion that shook the massive brick walls forced the breath out of men’s lungs, and left them gulping black smoke. Sumter’s soldiers were, moreover, already dizzy from lack of food and sleep. Only the adrenaline of combat kept them on their feet. They worked the guns in three shifts, and when a crew’s turn ended, they collapsed into whatever spot seemed protected, their heads spinning and stomachs tight with hunger.

As for the officers, they kept up their esprit de corps as best they could. When Captain Truman Seymour came to relieve Doubleday at the end of a three-hour shift, he facetiously asked his friend, “Doubleday, what in the world is the matter here, and what is all this uproar about?”

“There is a trifling difference of opinion between us and our neighbors opposite,” Doubleday replied, “and we are trying to settle it.”

“Very well,” said Seymour, “do you wish me to take a hand?”

“Yes, I would like to have you go in.”

“All right, what is your elevation and range?”

“Five degrees, and 1,200 yards.”

“Well, said Seymour, “here goes!” And his gun crews stepped to their places.

Dispiritingly, though, their labor was having almost no effect. Sumter’s casemate guns were designed to smash the hulls of wooden warships entering the nearby channel, not shore fortifications that lay at the very limit of their range. The fort’s cannonballs glanced off the Iron Battery, one Confederate observer said, like marbles tossed at a turtle’s back; Doubleday himself compared them to peas thrown on a plate. (One lucky hit did bring down its Rebel flag, though, to cheers from Sumter’s gun crews.) Given the limited manpower, only a few of Sumter’s guns could be fired at a time. And Major Anderson refused even to let the gunners near the fort’s heaviest artillery, which was on the upper tier of the fort, for fear of exposing them to undue harm.

So far, the Confederate cannons had inflicted no more than minor injuries on any of Sumter’s defenders. A muzzle-loading artillery piece could fire 12 times an hour at most without risk of exploding, so even at the height of the attack, the Rebel shots were coming in at an average of just one or two per minute, and could be spotted well before impact.

Union and Confederate gunsmoke mingled and drifted across the harbor. At midday, the clouds and mist gave way to sheets of rain. At last, through the downpour, Anderson and his officers spotted three vessels steaming toward the mouth of the harbor: the first detachment of Captain G.V. Fox’s relief expedition. Briefly the men’s morale lifted. But then the friendly ships stopped and anchored outside the bar, to remain there for the rest of the battle. (Fox would later blame his inaction on a combination of the weather and lack of firepower.)

Gradually the ceaseless Confederate volleys were taking their toll on the fort. The place that had been the men’s little world for more than three months— whose every stone, Dr. Crawford had written, had impressed itself on his heart—was being obliterated. Cannonballs smashed through the brick walls of the officers’ quarters and knocked down its chimney; exploding shells blew off large chunks of the parapet. And the constant battering was gnawing away, bit by bit, at Sumter’s massive outer defenses. By the end of the afternoon, a gaping hole had opened in one corner of the gorge wall.

Even more surreal, though, was the sight of Charleston—where a few months earlier, the men had strolled with their wives and sweethearts along the Battery or picnicked on the beach at Sullivan’s Island—now as enemy territory. Fort Moultrie, where some of the men had lived for years, was suddenly a target of their guns.

As evening fell and the Rebel gunfire gradually slackened, Sumter’s defenders faced new worries. Sergeant Chester later wrote: “The fleet might send reinforcements; 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.” Meanwhile Sumter’s supply of cartridges was running low. The men cut up extra clothing and bedsheets to sew into bags for the gunpowder, and Major Anderson contributed several dozen pairs of wool socks.

The rain, meanwhile, had become a full-blown storm. Amid the rumble of thunder and the occasional crash of enemy fire, the crews loaded their guns with grapeshot and canister, aimed them toward the most vulnerable points in the outer wall and at last, after midnight, bedded down next to them as comfortably as they could. “The enemy kept up a slow but steady fire on us during the entire night, to prevent us from getting any rest,” Thompson recalled, “but they failed in their object for I for one slept all night as sound as I ever did in my life.”

By daybreak the storm lifted, and the morning of April 13 shone bright and clear. No Rebels had stormed the fort by night—but no help had come either. Fox’s three ships lay outside the harbor, exactly where the men had last seen them.

Enemy fire rained down on Sumter more briskly than ever—and, thanks to the better weather, more accurately. As the soldiers struggled to work their guns, several were badly cut up by flying pieces of masonry; a shell bursting just outside one of the casemates sent metal fragments tearing into a man’s legs. Soon the defenders could see the enemy firing red-hot cannonballs, heated in furnaces ashore. The Rebel gunners were now truly shooting to kill. A mortar round plowed through the roof of the half-ruined officers’ quarters, and the large building soon became a roaring tower of flame. The iron water tanks inside burst, and a scalding cloud of steam and smoke, acrid from the slow burning of damp pine floorboards and rafters, poured into the casemates as the men fell, blinded and choking, to the ground, masking their faces with wet handkerchiefs. Most of the garrison would have suffocated to death, Doubleday said later, had not the wind mercifully shifted and begun blowing the smoke in the opposite direction. But the men soon confronted an even more terrifying threat as the blaze that had begun in the officers’ quarters began closing in on the cannoneers’ gunpowder stores. The men heaved barrel after barrel out of the embrasures.

Doubleday ordered his cannoneers to shoot off a few rounds, just to show the enemy “that we were not all dead yet.” But everyone knew that they could not keep going for much longer. Only the casemates’ 15-foot-thick walls sheltered the spent fighters from the inferno around them, and it was unclear how long even these could withstand the attack. “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,” Doubleday later remembered.

Across the harbor, meanwhile, the sun still shone. Thousands of Charlestonians—“male and female, white and black, young and old,” one observer wrote—were watching the battle from wharves, rooftops and church steeples. By midday, little of the fort was visible: It was as if a volcano had risen from the sea at the center of the harbor, vomiting smoke. All that the spectators could make out through the thick clouds was Sumter’s flag on its tall staff.

The smoke hid even that flag for a while. When it drifted away once more, the enemy banner—the familiar Stars and Stripes—had disappeared. Cheers rang from the rooftops. All around the harbor, the Rebel gunners held their fire. Fort Sumter, they told one another, had finally struck its colors.

On the island, the air began clearing enough for the battered garrison to continue its fight. Just as Private Thompson and the rest of his gun crew were loading their cannon, they heard a commotion from the adjacent casemate. Cannoneers were seizing muskets and pointing at something, or someone, on the beach just outside the fort. And then—astonishing and absurd—a man’s face appeared, right in the embrasure through which Thompson was about to fire his cannon.

It was the face of a middle-aged gentleman, a bit thick in the jowls, with a black beard that seemed to bristle angrily in all directions and black eyes that flashed with righteous indignation. He was dressed not in a military uniform but in a frock coat and top hat. Gasping with exertion, cursing and swearing, he was now struggling unsuccessfully to pull himself over the sill with one arm, while his other hand awkwardly grasped a sword, a white handkerchief tied to its point. The soldiers, crowding around, held the stranger at bay with their muskets. Was this some sort of Rebel trick? The advance guard of an amphibious attack on the fort? No. The bizarre apparition was—though none of the men recognized him—the Honorable Mr. Louis T. Wigfall, lately United States senator from the now seceded state of Texas.

Fort Sumter had not, in fact, surrendered: A stray shot from the Rebels had toppled the flagstaff. A man named Peter Hart, who had served with Anderson in Mexico and who at the request of Anderson’s wife had rejoined the major in Sumter, went at great risk with two other men to raise the banner again on a makeshift pole—a valiant feat soon to be celebrated by journalists and political orators across the Union.

But during the brief silencing of the Confederate batteries, Senator Wigfall, smelling glory in the air, had set forth from Moultrie in a small rowboat to personally secure Anderson’s formal capitulation. An unlucky Confederate private and three slaves, whom he had dragooned into service at the oars, accompanied him. By the time Moultrie’s commanding officers noticed what Wigfall was up to and began yelling for him to stop, the boat was already out of earshot. They fired a warning shot across his bow, but still the senator would not turn back. By the time he reached the middle of the channel, the Confederate batteries around the harbor had begun opening fire once more, as had Anderson’s cannons, and the colonel in charge at Moultrie ordered his gunners to sink that “damned politician.”

Wigfall tied his handkerchief to his sword and stood up in the bow, hoping the gunners would honor his makeshift flag of truce, but managing only to nearly swamp the boat. With shots splashing around them, he and his crew somehow made it safely to the shore, with Sumter under a full-on Confederate barrage. Showers of bricks fell from above as the portly senator clambered over rocks and debris toward the embrasures, sword and handkerchief in hand. No one in the fort had noticed his boat coming.

“We stubbornly refused him admittance for a while,” wrote Thompson, “but he begged so hard, exhibited the flag he carried and even surrendered his sword”—handing it to Thompson—“that at last we helped him in.” Now, to the artillerymen’s astonishment, the bearded gentleman ordered them to stop firing, a command that they naturally ignored.

At last someone called for Major Anderson, who tried to mask his own surprise as he stepped into the casemate and saw the stranger. “To what am I indebted for this visit?” he asked dryly.

“I am Colonel Wigfall, of General Beauregard’s staff,” the senator rasped. “For God’s sake, Major, let this thing stop. There has been enough bloodshed already.” He had come, he said, to offer terms of surrender.

But Wigfall’s little speech, plain enough on its face, was a bit specious. For one thing, the “bloodshed” so far consisted of a single Confederate horse. More important, although implying that he came on Beauregard’s authority, Wigfall had not even seen the Confederate commander in several days, much less received any instructions from him. The men at Sumter could not have known this, of course.

Anderson pointed out that there had been no bloodshed, at least on his own side—“and besides, your batteries are still firing at me.”

“I’ll soon stop that,” Wigfall replied briskly. He turned to Thompson, who held the sword and handkerchief under one arm, pointed to the embrasure, and told the astonished private, “Wave that out there.”

“Wave it yourself,” Thompson retorted, handing the Confederate his sword back.

Wigfall leapt boldly into the opening, somehow believing that the gunners half a mile away would glimpse his handkerchief through the smoke and recognize it as a flag of truce. Presently a shot from Moultrie slammed into the nearby wall, disabusing him swiftly of this notion.

“If you desire that to be seen,” Anderson said gently, “you had better send it to the parapet.”

Several minutes later, Charlestonians on their distant rooftops spotted something waving on a pole above Sumter’s bomb-scarred ramparts, alongside the Stars and Stripes. This was not Senator Wigfall’s handkerchief but a full-size white flag. It signaled a cease-fire while Major Anderson negotiated—“or rather dictated,” as Private Thompson later said—his terms of surrender.


Excerpt from 1861: The Civil War Awakening, by Adam Goodheart, published by Knopf on April 15, 2011.

Originally published in the June 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here