Monday, October 02, 2006

Fort Sumter, SC

Dates: April 12-14, 1861


Union: Major Robert Anderson, commanding US Artillery troops in Charleston, SC

Confederate: Brigadier General P.T.G. Beauregard, commanding provisional Confederate Army unit and South Carolina State Troops.

Prelude: Following the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, the State of South Carolina convened a conference in Charleston to discuss breaking the ties that held the state to the United States since 1788. After days of discussion and argument, a declaration was issued on December 20; "We the people of South Carolina, in convention assembled, to declare and ordain, and it is hereby declared and ordained, that the ordinance adopted by us in convention on the twenty third day of May in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty eight, whereby the Constitution of the United States of America was ratified, and also all acts and parts of acts of the General Assembly of this State, ratifying amendments of the said Constitution, are hereby repealed; and the union now subsisting between South Carolina and other States, under the name "United States of America" is hereby dissolved. Done at Charleston the twentieth day of December in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty"

With that, the State of South Carolina became the Republic of South Carolina.

The first thing the government of the new nation wanted to do was to oversee the peaceful transfer of US property to SC control, including forts, arsenals, customs houses, lighthouses, and such. The main problem in getting all this was the outgoing Administration of President James Buchanan. The official position of the Federal government was that it was illegal for South Carolina to secede, but the Constitution was silent on what to do about it. Buchanan decided to wait until Lincoln was inaugurated. After that, it would be Lincoln’s problem.

This inactivity would begin to weigh on the Federal commander of two artillery batteries stationed in Charleston. Major Anderson had received no instructions from Washington, but he was getting demands from local authorities to leave their base at Fort Moultrie, located at the north end of Charleston Harbor. On December 25, Anderson decided to take things into his own hands. Citing an increasingly hostile local population, he ordered his garrison to evacuate Fort Moultrie and relocate to Fort Sumter with all the arms and supplies they could carry. This was done under the cover of night so as to not raise the suspicions of the South Carolinians. Anderson’s last act was to have the flagpole cut down so the locals could not readily raise their Palmetto flag.

Fort Sumter sits in the main channel of Charleston Harbor on a manmade island. The construction had started following War of 1812 and was planned to withstand a large scale assault from the sea, not from land bases. The fort was two stories of masonry (brick) construction. Entrance was by a sally port on the harbor facing side with access to a pier. Both levels had gun ports equipped with heavy artillery. The interior of the fort held barracks, storerooms, powder magazines, and a furnace for heating solid iron balls red hot, good for use against wooden vessels.

When local citizens awoke the next morning, Moultrie was found deserted and a huge US flag flying from Sumter. The reaction was predictable. The local papers such as the Mercury called it “an act of war.”

Reaction in Washington was along the lines of “what was Anderson thinking.” It seems that Anderson had no choice. His command was in what was now considered hostile territory and he had no instructions on how to proceed. Buchanan was not acting and Lincoln could not act until March. Anderson had to act in order to preserve his command. Another factor that troubled Anderson was that he was a Kentuckian, and a slave holder. He may have sympathized with the Southern position, but he was loyal to the Union. At the end of the day, it seems Anderson thought armed conflict inevitable and his command was to become the flash point.

Another factor to consider was the amount of supplies that was brought over. Even if they went on strict rations, the nearly 100 men in the fort could exhaust the food supplies within three months. Also if things came to blows, the powder and ammunition was not sufficient to sustain combat for very long.

In Washington, Buchanan finally decided to support Anderson and ordered the ship Star of the West to depart New York with supplies and reinforcements. Meanwhile, the Charlestonians were fortifying the coastlines surrounding the harbor. Moultrie was occupied and fortified. Other forts such as Johnson, to the south of Sumter, Castle Pinkney, to the west, and Ripley, another island fort. Batteries of artillery were also being erected around the harbor, including one on a floating platform.

January, 9, 1861: Star of the West approaches Charleston when the vessel was fired by gunners at Battery Gregg, at the northern tip of Morris Island. The ship’s captain decided things were too hot for him and ordered a pull back. Anderson did not order any fire in response. He wanted to save his munitions. If he had responded, it is possible that the Civil War could have started that day.

Meanwhile, South Carolina was getting support, as the Star of the West was being fired on, the State of Mississippi voted to secede. Soon, other Southern states were following suit:
Florida on January 10.
Alabama on January 12.
Georgia on January 19.
Louisiana on January 26.
Texas on February 1.

Along with South Carolina, that makes six states breaking from the US, with Arkansas considering secession and Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia taking a wait and see attitude.

February 4, 1861: Delegates from the six seceded states meet in Montgomery, AL to talk about forming a government. At the same time, commissioners are sent to Washington to negotiate the transfer Federal property to the control of the various states.

February 8, 1861: The Montgomery Convention approves a Provision Constitution for a new government called the Confederate States of America. It is almost a word-for-word copy of the US Constitution, except that slavery is codified (a permanent Constitution would be ratified on March11). The next day saw the election of former Senator and former Secretary of War Jefferson Davis as provisional President. He would be inaugurated on February 18.

March 4, 1861: As Lincoln was being inaugurated in Washington, the new Confederate flag was unveiled in Montgomery.

Now that Lincoln was in the White House, he could finally do something about the situation on Charleston Harbor. On March 29, he orders supplies sent to Sumter.

Meanwhile, the Confederate government sent Beauregard to Charleston to take command of all troops in the area, now to be considered in Confederate service.

April 8, 1861: The Federal vessel Harriet Lane departs New York for Fort Sumter with supplies. Lincoln orders an envoy to be sent to SC Governor Perkins to inform him that the fort will only be resupplied, not reinforced. Perhaps Lincoln wanted to keep Sumter as a symbol of Federal defiance in the face of outright rebellion.

April 9, 1861: News of the resupply mission brings about wild reactions in Charleston, with the local papers calling for war. The Confederate government expressed caution. There were not ready for an armed struggle and there was still hope for a negotiated settlement. Time for such a settlement was fast running out.

April 10, 1861: Beauregard receives instruction to force the surrender of Sumter either negotiation or by force.

April 11, 1861: Beauregard sends a message asking Anderson to surrender with promises of safe conduct out of the city. Anderson still has received no instructions from Washington. He does not even know that a resupply mission is on the way. He informs Beauregard that without orders, he can not surrender the fort, but the supply situation will force the issue anyway by April 15.

April 12, 1861: 3:20 a.m. Beauregard sends a message rejecting the April 15 pull out and announces his attention to open fire within one hour if the garrison is not surrendered.

4:30 a.m.: According to legend, Virginia secessionist Edmund Ruffin was given the honor of firing the first artillery shot at Ft Sumter. In any case, one shot from Fort Johnson was the signal for all the other forts and batteries to open fire. An irony in all this was that Anderson was an instructor in artillery at West Point. A one time student of his was a cadet named Pierre Beauregard. Now the student was firing on his teacher.

Shells began to rain down on the fort, smashing bricks and dismounting a few cannon. Others hit the barracks and storehouses. The wooden structures soon caught fire.

7:00 a.m.: Anderson finally orders return fire, but only from the lower casements. A Federal sergeant defies those orders and rushes to the upper casement to fire a few guns that were preloaded. Shells soon began to impact in the coastline. Surprisingly, little damage and no causalities were being inflicted.

The firing continued throughout the night and into the next morning (April 13). The wooden structures in Fort Sumter were burning and conditions were getting dire for the defenders.

April 13, 1861: 12:47 p.m., a cannon shell strikes the flagpole, cutting it in two. The sight on the US flag falling gave the impression that the colors were struck. A rowboat was sent to Sumter (as shells were still falling) with Louis Wigfall, a former US Senator from Texas, on board. The Union defenders were astonished that anyone would come across while all of this fire was going on. Meanwhile, the flag was hoisted back up when the flagpole was repaired.

Wigfall asked to see Anderson but was refused until Wigfall agreed to become a prisoner. Wigfall outlined Beauregard’s terms, all troops evacuate the fort with personal items, all war material left behind, and a salute to the US colors as it was taken down. Anderson, seeing the hopelessness of the situation, and still not knowing that the relief force was approaching, agreed to surrender.

2: 00 p.m., Anderson signals his surrender and the guns fall silent.

April 14, 1861: At Fort Sumter, there is a formal surrender ceremony. Anderson orders a 100 gun salute to the US flag as it comes down. At the 50th firing, a spark lands on a pile of powder bags, causing an explosion that instantly kills Private Daniel Hough, an Irish immigrant who becomes the first of nearly 600,000 to die in the next four years. Several others were wounded. Anderson halts the salute and brings the flag down. Seconds later, the new Confederate flag flies over Fort Sumter as Anderson’s troops board the vessels that was supposed to bring them supplies.

Anderson was hailed as a hero in the north, receiving a commission as a Brigadier General and put to work on recruiting. He would also receive command on the Department of the Ohio, but soon retired due to ill health.

Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers for the army that would need to be formed in order to put down the rebellion. This prompted the secession of Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia.

On April 15, 1865, exactly four years after his surrender, Anderson oversaw the raising the same flag that he took down over Fort Sumter.

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