Confederates in a nearby battery firing on Fort Sumter, image from Wikipedia    The ten inch mortar round came from Fort Johnson.  Major Anderson, the commanding officer at Fort Sumter in South Carolina had been warned an hour earlier that the shot would come.  At 4:30 on the morning of April 12, 1861 the shot that officially started the American Civil War, as history would remember it, was fired.

After months of failed negotiations, the Confederate government knew it needed to act before the ships bearing supplies and possible reinforcements for the only Union fort still in Charleston Harbor could arrive at the fort.  Fort Sumter had been waiting for supplies for months, even the food bought at the local market had been stopped for weeks, and the supplies would completely run out on the 15 of April.  The supply ships were in sight but couldn’t get to shore due to the storm nearby.  The Confederates were out of time and they decided to act.
At 4:30 am on April 12, 1861 the first shot was fired and another shot was fired every two minutes from the Confederate owned forts and batteries in the harbor.  Between Fort Moultrie, Fort Johnson, the floating battery, and the iron battery at Cummings Point, there were forty-three guns and mortars which could keep up the same rate of fire for forty-eight hours.  Major Anderson knew he didn’t have nearly that much ammunition.  Although he had sixty guns in the fort, he could only fire twenty-one of the guns without unnecessary risk to his small detachment of soldiers and workmen.  Those guns were in stone casements near the bottom of the fort where external threats were less than the guns at the top that were completely open to shots falling down from above but the stone made it hard to aim the guns with any real accuracy.  Due to the shortage of ammunition and soldiers inside the fort, Major Anderson decided to limit his guns to six guns aimed where he thought they would do the most damage.  He started firing the guns at Fort Sumter at 7:00 in the morning.  It wasn’t long before the Confederates realized that Fort Sumter was mainly a stone fort but it still had wooden buildings.  They decided to fire “hot shot”, which were cannonballs heated in an oven, at the wooden buildings, hoping the fires would distract the men and the smoke would make the fort surrender quicker.  By 7 pm that night some of the buildings were burning but a rain shower that started put out the flames and Major Anderson ordered his men to stop firing and get some sleep.  General Beauregard ordered the Confederates to slow their fire down to four shots an hour during the night so the Union men slept fitfully, getting very little rest.
The next morning the men at Fort Sumter woke up tired and with little more than salted pork to eat, they resumed their fire.  By noon the barracks and officer’s quarters were on fire and the flames were nearing the main ammunition magazine where three hundred barrels of gunpowder were held.  Major Anderson tried to move the barrels to safety but over half the barrels were still in the magazine when he ordered the doors shut against the flames.  Most of the barrels that had been moved were rolled into the water to prevent them from exploding but the tide kept sending them back toward the fort and the hot shot ignited quite a few of the barrels.
The Confederate soldiers couldn’t help but feel sorry for the Union men they knew to be nearly out of rations, had little sleep the night before, and were breathing in the smoke from the flames they could see from every fort in the harbor.  A cheer went up with every shot from the Union-held fort indicating that the Union men would still fight, even in those conditions.  When the main flag pole was shot down, Colonel Louis Wigfall, a Confederate observer at Morris Island, commandeered a small vessel and approached Fort Sumter under a white flag.  Wigfall respected the courage of the  Major and his men and suggested an “evacuation” of the fort rather than a “surrender”. After some debate, and agreeing to a hundred gun salute to the Union flag, Anderson agreed and raised the white flag on the makeshift flagpole in the fort.
A delegation of officers went out from Charleston expecting a surrender.  When they arrived to find out that Wigfall had agreed to an evacuation but hadn’t talked to anyone in Charleston for two days, they demanded a new agreement and Major Anderson threatened to resume firing.  Before anything could be decided, General Beauregard noticed the white flag and sent a delegation to Fort Sumter.  This delegation offered nearly the same terms Colonel Wigfall had and the peace was maintained.

The tattered from Fort SumterAt 2:30 in the afternoon of April 14, Anderson agreed to evacuate the fort, leaving it to the Confederates, after a hundred gun salute to the Union flag.  The salute was stopped at fifty rounds after a pile of gunpowder cartridges caught fire, killing one man instantly, mortally wounding another man (who died a few days later), and injuring the rest of the gun crew.  After a thirty-six hour bombardment with no fatalities, two men were killed during the ending ceremonies, the first of thousands in the war that had begun there.  Major Anderson took the Fort Sumter flag with him when he and his men were taken by boat to the Union ships sent to resupply them that instead took them to New York.
The war that both sides had hoped to avoid had begun and President Lincoln requested thousands of men to enlist for nine months.  It would be four years before the flag of the United States of American would fly over Fort Sumter again.

Filed under: American Civil War factsBattlesSouth Carolina

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