Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Siege and Fall of Fort Sumter, April 11-14, 1861

The Battle of Fort Sumter was the bombardment and surrender of Fort Sumter, in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, that started the American Civil War.

Named after General Thomas Sumter, Revolutionary War hero, Fort Sumter was built following the War of 1812 as one of a series of fortifications on the southern U.S. coast. 

Construction began in 1829, and the structure was still unfinished in 1861, when the Civil War began. Seventy thousand tons of granite were imported from New England to build up a sand bar in the entrance to Charleston Harbor. The fort was a five-sided brick structure,  with walls five-feet thick (1.5 m), standing 50 feet (15.2 m) over the low tide mark. It was designed to house 650 men and 135 guns in three tiers of gun emplacements, although it was never filled near its full capacity.

After the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860, and following declarations of secession by seven Southern states, South Carolina demanded that the U.S. Army abandon its facilities in Charleston Harbor. 

Abraham Lincoln
On December 26, 1860, U.S. Major Robert Anderson surreptitiously moved his small command from the indefensible Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island to Fort Sumter, which was a substantial fortress controlling the entrance of Charleston Harbor.  An attempt by U.S. President James Buchanan to reinforce and resupply Anderson, failed when the supply ship  was fired upon by shore batteries on January 9, 1861. 

Robert Anderson
Seceding states seized numerous Federal properties within their boundaries, including buildings, arsenals, and fortifications. President Buchanan protested, but took no military action in response. Buchanan was concerned that an overt action could cause the remaining slave states to leave the Union, and while he acknowledged there was no constitutional authority for a state to secede, he could find no constitutional authority for him to act to prevent it.

South Carolina authorities seized all Federal property in the Charleston area, except for Fort Sumter.

During the early months of 1861, the situation around Fort Sumter increasingly began to resemble a siege. In March, General P.G.T. Beauregard, of the newly formed Confederate Army, was placed in command of Confederate forces in Charleston. Beauregard energetically directed the strengthening of batteries around Charleston harbor aimed at Fort Sumter.

P.G.T. Beauregard
Ironically, Major Anderson had been Beauregard's artillery instructor at West Point; the two had been especially close, and Beauregard had become Anderson's assistant after graduation.

The resupply of Fort Sumter became the first crisis of the administration of President  Abraham Lincoln.  On March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as president. He was almost immediately confronted with the surprise information from Major Anderson that only six weeks of rations remained at Fort Sumter. 

Lincoln and his new cabinet struggled with the decisions of whether to reinforce the fort, and how. They were also concerned about whether to take actions that might start open hostilities and which side would be perceived as the aggressor as a result. 

Similar discussions and concerns were occurring in the Confederacy. After the formation of the Confederate States of America in early February, there was some debate among the secessionists whether the capture of the fort was rightly a matter for South Carolina or for the newly declared national government in Montgomery, Alambama.  South Carolina Governor Francis Pickens was among the states' rights advocates who felt that all property in Charleston harbor had reverted to South Carolina upon that state's secession as an independent commonwealth. This debate ran alongside another discussion about how aggressively the installations—including Forts Sumter and Pickens—should be obtained. 

Francis Pickens
President Davis, like President Lincoln, preferred that his side not be seen as the aggressor. Both sides believed that the first side to use force would lose precious political support in the border states, whose allegiance was undetermined.  Before Lincoln's inauguration in March, five states had voted against secession, including Virginia, and Lincoln openly offered to evacuate Fort Sumter if it would guarantee Virginia's loyalty.

Jefferson Davis

The South sent delegations to Washington, D.C., and offered to pay for the Federal properties and enter into a peace treaty with the United States. Lincoln rejected any negotiations with the Confederate agents because he did not consider the Confederacy a legitimate nation and making any treaty with it would be tantamount to recognition of it as a sovereign government. However, Secretary of State William Seward, who wished to give up Sumter for political reasons—as a gesture of good will—engaged in unauthorized and indirect negotiations that failed.

William Seward
On April 4, as the supply situation on Sumter became critical, President Lincoln ordered a relief expedition, to be commanded by former naval captain (and future Assistant Secretary of the Navy) Gustavus Fox. Fox's orders were to land at Sumter with supplies only, and if he was opposed by the Confederates, to respond with the U.S. Navy vessels following and to then land both supplies and men. Major Anderson was informed of the impending expedition, although the arrival date was not revealed to him. On April 6, Lincoln notified Governor Pickens that "an attempt will be made to supply Fort Sumter with provisions only, and that if such attempt be not resisted, no effort to throw in men, arms, or ammunition will be made without further notice, [except] in case of an attack on the fort."

Lincoln's notification was made to the governor of South Carolina, not the new Confederate government, which Lincoln did not recognize. Pickens consulted with Beauregard, the local Confederate commander. Soon Jefferson Davis ordered Beauregard to repeat the demand for Sumter's surrender, and if it did not, to reduce the fort before the relief expedition arrived. The Confederate cabinet, meeting in Montgomery, endorsed Davis's order on April 9. Only Secretary of State Robert Toombs opposed this decision: he reportedly told Jefferson Davis the attack "will lose us every friend at the North. You will only strike a hornet's nest. ... Legions now quiet will swarm out and sting us to death. It is unnecessary. It puts us in the wrong. It is fatal."

Robert Toombs
Beauregard dispatched aides—Colonel James Chesnut, Colonel  James  Chisholm, and Captain Stephen —to Fort Sumter on April 11 to issue the ultimatum. 

James Chesnut
Anderson refused, although he reportedly commented, "I shall await the first shot, and if you do not batter us to pieces, we shall be starved out in a few days." The aides returned to Charleston and reported this comment to Beauregard. 

At 1 a.m. on April 12, the aides brought Anderson a message from Beauregard: "If you will state the time which you will evacuate Fort Sumter, and agree in the meantime that you will not use your guns against us unless ours shall be employed against Fort Sumter, we will abstain from opening fire upon you." After consulting with his senior officers, Major Anderson replied that he would evacuate Sumter by noon, April 15, unless he received new orders from his government or additional supplies. 

Colonel Chesnut considered this reply to be too conditional and wrote a reply, which he handed to Anderson at 3:20 a.m.: "Sir: by authority of Brigadier General Beauregard, commanding the Provisional Forces of the Confederate States, we have the honor to notify you that he will open fire of his batteries on Fort Sumter in one hour from this time." Anderson escorted the officers back to their boat, shook hands with each one, and said "If we never meet in this world again, God grant that we may meet in the next."

Fort Sumter Under Fire
At 4:30 a.m. on April 12, Lt. Henry Farley, acting upon the command of Captain George James, fired a single 10-inch mortar round from Fort Johnson. The shell exploded over Fort Sumter as a signal to open the general bombardment from 43 guns and mortars at Fort Moultrie, Fort Johnson, the floating battery, and Cummings Point. Under orders from Beauregard, the guns fired in a counterclockwise sequence around the harbor, with 2 minutes between each shot; Beauregard wanted to conserve ammunition, which he calculated would last for only 48 hours.

Edmund Ruffin
Edmund Ruffin, another noted Virginia secessionist, had traveled to Charleston to be present for the beginning of the war, and fired one of the first shots at Sumter after the signal round, a 64-pound shell from the Iron Battery at Cummings Point. 

Charleston Residents Watching Shelling
The shelling of Fort Sumter from the batteries ringing the harbor awakened Charleston's residents (including Colonel Chesnut's wife, Mary Chesnut), who rushed out into the predawn darkness to watch the shells arc over the water and burst inside the fort.

Mary Chesnut
Major Anderson held his fire, awaiting daylight. His troops reported for a call at 6 a.m. and then had breakfast.  At 7 a.m., Captain Abner Doubleday fired a shot at the Ironclad Battery at Cummings Point. He missed. 

Given the available manpower, Anderson could not take advantage of all of his 60 guns. He deliberately avoided using guns that were situated in the fort where casualties were most likely. The fort's best cannons were mounted on the uppermost of its three tiers—the barbette tier—where his troops were most exposed to incoming fire from overhead. The fort had been designed to withstand a naval assault, and naval warships of the time did not mount guns capable of elevating to shoot over the walls of the fort; however, the land-based cannons manned by the Confederates were capable of landing such indirect fire on Fort Sumter. 

Fort Sumter's garrison could only safely fire the 21 working guns on the lowest level, which themselves, because they were emplaced in stone, were largely incapable of indirect fire that could seriously threaten Fort Moultrie. Moreover, although the Federals had moved as many of their supplies to Fort Sumter as they could manage, the fort was quite low on ammunition, and was nearly out at the end of the 34-hour bombardment. 

A more immediate problem was the scarcity of cloth gunpowder cartridges or bags; only 700 were available at the beginning of the battle and workmen sewed frantically to create more, in some cases using socks from Anderson's personal wardrobe. Because of the shortages, Anderson reduced his firing to only six guns: two aimed at Cummings Point, two at Fort Moultrie, and two at the Sullivan's Island batteries.

Ships from Fox's relief expedition began to arrive on April 12. Although Fox himself arrived at 3 a.m. on his steamer Baltic, most of the rest of his fleet was delayed until 6 p.m.  As landing craft were sent toward the fort with supplies, the artillery fire deterred them and they pulled back. Fox decided to wait until after dark and for the arrival of his warships. The next day, heavy seas made it difficult to load the small boats with men and supplies and Fox was left with the hope that Anderson and his men could hold out until dark on April 13.

Although Sumter was a masonry fort, there were wooden buildings inside for barracks and officer quarters. The Confederates targeted these with "hot shot" rounds (cannonballs that had been heated in ovens), starting fires that could prove more dangerous to the men than the explosive artillery. 

At 7 p.m. on April 12, a rain shower extinguished the flames and at the same time the Union gunners stopped firing for the night. They slept fitfully, concerned about a potential infantry assault against the fort. During the darkness, the Confederates reduced their fire to four shots each hour. The following morning, the full bombardment resumed and the Confederates continued firing hot shot against the wooden buildings. 

By noon most of the wooden buildings in the fort and the main gate were on fire. The flames moved toward the main ammunition magazine, where 300 barrels of gunpowder were stored. The Union soldiers frantically tried to move the barrels to safety, but two-thirds were left when Anderson judged it was too dangerous and ordered the magazine doors closed. He ordered the remaining barrels thrown into the sea, but the tide kept floating them back together into groups, some of which were ignited by incoming artillery rounds. 

He also ordered his crews to redouble their efforts at firing, but the Confederates did the same, firing the hot shots almost exclusively. Many of the Confederate soldiers admired the courage and determination of the Yankees. When the fort had to pause its firing, the Confederates often cheered and applauded after the firing resumed.

The fort's central flagpole was knocked down at 1 p.m. on April 13, raising doubts among the Confederates about whether the fort was ready to surrender.  

Colonel Louis Wigfall, a former U.S. senator, had been observing the battle and decided that this indicated the fort had had enough punishment. He commandeered a small boat and proceeded from Morris Island, waving a white handkerchief from his sword, dodging incoming rounds from Sullivan's Island. Meeting with Major Anderson, he said, "You have defended your flag nobly, Sir. You have done all that it is possible to do, and General Beauregard wants to stop this fight. On what terms, Major Anderson, will you evacuate this fort?" Anderson was encouraged that Wigfall had said "evacuate," not "surrender." He was low on ammunition, fires were burning out of control, and his men were hungry and exhausted. Satisfied that they had defended their post with honor, enduring over 3,000 Confederate rounds without losing a man, Anderson agreed to a truce at 2 p.m.

Fort Sumter raised Wigfall's white handkerchief on its flagpole as Wigfall departed in his small boat back to Morris Island, where he was hailed as a hero. The handkerchief was spotted in Charleston and a delegation of officers representing Beauregard—Stephen D. Lee, Porcher Miles, a former mayor of Charleston, and Roger Pryor—sailed to Sumter, unaware of Wigfall's visit. 

Anderson was outraged when these officers disavowed Wigfall's authority, telling him that the former senator had not spoken with Beauregard for two days, and he threatened to resume firing. Meanwhile, General Beauregard himself had finally seen the handkerchief and sent a second set of officers, offering essentially the same terms that Wigfall had presented, so the agreement was reinstated.

The Union garrison surrendered the fort to Confederate personnel at 2:30 p.m., April 14. 

No one from either side was killed during the bombardment. During the 100-gun salute to the U.S. flag—Anderson's one condition for withdrawal—a pile of cartridges blew up from a spark, mortally wounding privates Daniel Hough and Edward Galloway, and seriously wounding the other four members of the gun crew; these were the first military fatalities of the war. 

The salute was stopped at fifty shots. Hough was buried in the Fort Sumter parade ground within two hours after the explosion. Galloway and Private George Fielding were sent to the hospital in Charleston, where Galloway died a few days later; Fielding was released after six weeks. The other wounded men and the remaining Union troops were placed aboard a Confederate steamer, the Isabel, where they spent the night and were transported the next morning to Fox's relief ship Baltic, resting outside the harbor bar.

Anderson carried the Fort Sumter Flag with him when he returned to the North, where it became a widely known symbol of the battle, and rallying point for supporters of the Union.

This inspired Frederic Edwin Church to paint Our Banner in the Sky, described as a "symbolic landscape embodying the stars and stripes." A chromolithograph was then created and sold to benefit the families of Union soldiers.  By August, it had already generated $1,500 in sales.

Our Banner in the Sky, by Frederic Edwin Church

Following the battle, there was widespread support from both North and South for further military action. Lincoln's immediate call for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the rebellion resulted in an additional four southern slaves states also declaring their secession and joining the Confederacy. 

There were so many volunteers in Ohio that within 16 days they could have met the full call for 75,000 men by themselves. 

Other governors from border states were undiplomatic in their responses.  Governor Claiborne Jackson of Missouri wrote to William Seward, "Not one man will the state of Missouri furnish to carry on any such unholy crusade." Governor Beriah Magoffin wrote, “Kentucky will furnish no troops for the wicked purpose of subduing her sister Southern states.” 

1 comment:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.