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The Civil War Begins: The Attack on Fort Sumter


In March of 1861, President Lincoln announced his intention to resupply Fort Sumter, the lonely federal outpost located in the seceded South Carolina. He knew that Major Robert Anderson was quickly running out of supplies. However, South Carolina had already warned Lincoln that they would respond to “any attempt to resupply the fort,” as an act of aggression (Source).

In response to Lincoln’s attempt to resupply, militia commander P.G.T. Beauregard demanded the surrender of the fort. Major Anderson refused. On April 12, Beauregard opened fire on Fort Sumter.


Fort Sumter was located in Charleston Harbor and, at the time, was unfinished. Major Anderson had chosen it as a base over the much-harder-to-defend Fort Moultrie on Sullivan Island. Despite its location, and some 6,000 militia surrounding the harbor, Lincoln tried his hardest to keep it fully supplied. Prior to this, President James Buchanan had sent the Star of the West merchant steamer full of supplies and soldiers. But, Governor Francis Pickens’s harbor defenses fired at it. Anderson could only watch as his supply ship was turned around and sent home.

Two days later, on January 11, Pickens demanded Anderson’s surrender. Of course, Anderson refused. By the 20th, Pickens had come under great criticism for his allowing the people to starve. So, he sent some food to the fort himself. Anderson refused this, as well. So, Pickens had no choice but to allow the evacuation of 45 women and children.

As Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as President of the Confederate States and Lincoln inaugurated as President of the United States, pressure began to mount to reunite the country. Davis sent “a group of commissioners to Washington to negotiate for the transfer of Fort Sumter to South Carolina; they were promptly rebuffed” (Source). Meanwhile, the situation at Fort Sumter was becoming more and more desperate. Lincoln needed to get supplies and replacements to the Fort, but, unfortunately, that would be seen as an act of Northern aggression. It would very likely incite more southern states to secede the Union. Furthermore, it would make other countries sympathetic to the South.

Meanwhile, Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard arrived to take command “of the military situation in Charleston” (Source). He had previously been an artillery student of Major Anderson’s at West Point, but was now in charge of strengthening gun emplacements facing the Fort. Now, while President Lincoln concocted a way to get supplies to Major Anderson, Brigadier General Beauregard was ordered to “demand the fort’s surrender and fire on it if surrender was refused” (Source).

[Below:  Fort Sumter Attacked]

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On April 6, Lincoln informed Governor Pickens that he was sending another supply ship to Fort Sumter, but promised that there would be no “arms, troops, or ammunition – unless, of course, South Carolina attacked” (Source). This great plan meant that the South would have to fire first, making it a Southern aggression, not a Northern one.

But Davis could not face letting Anderson receive the supplies he needed. There was no choice but to force Anderson’s hand into surrendering. Of course, Anderson refused.

So, at 4:30 am, on April 12, 1861, Confederate artillery, under the command of General Beauregard, opened fire on Fort Sumter. “Confederate batteries showered the fort with over 3,000 shells in a three-and-a-half day period” (Source).

At 7:00 am, Anderson began to return fire, using only the guns from his lower casemates, where his men would succumb to less danger. But, then later that morning, the barracks caught fire, and many of his men had to be stationed as fire crew. Then, around noon, his men spotted three ships flying the U.S. flag. They hoped this would finally be the supplies they so desperately needed.

Unfortunately, it was actually ships headed for Fort Pickens in Pensacola, FL.

A small reprieve came around midnight, when the Confederates reduced fire. They picked up again the next morning, though, and Anderson’s barracks once again caught fire, threatening the ammunition store.

It was when Anderson’s flagstaff was shot away, that Louis Wigfall (aid to Beauregard) decided to row over to Fort Sumter, believing that Anderson had finally surrendered.

He hadn’t.

But, Wigfall was able to negotiate the surrender, and Anderson replaced his makeshift flag with a white sheet, prompting Beauregard to join them at the Fort. It was agreed that Anderson’s formal surrender would take place at noon on April 14.

Upon their evacuation, Charleston came out in droves to watch as Anderson lowered the American flag to a 100-gun salute.

Anderson had surrendered, and the war was on.

[Below: Fort Sumter after the attack]

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Up Next:

President Lincoln’s Special Session of Congress

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The Consequences of the Lincoln Nomination

The Kentucky-born lawyer and former Whig representative seemed like a dangerous bet to the pro-slavery Southern states. On November 6, 1860, Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican to ever win the presidency. Prior to this, though, he had won national attention in a series of debates known as the Lincoln-Douglas debates, in which Lincoln “argued against the spread of slavery, while Douglas maintained that each territory should have the right to decide whether it would become a free or slave” territory (Source).

Part of Lincoln’s success in the winning the campaign was his ability to unite the Republican party. His decision to “say nothing on points where it is probable we shall disagree” probably helpedwh (Source). Meanwhile, the Democrats were severely divided amongst three separate candidates: Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge, Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas, and Constitutional Union candidate John Bell.

As soon as the announcement arrived that Lincoln had won the national election, states left and right began to threaten secession.

In fact, by Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861, seven states had already seceded “and the Confederate States of America had formally been established,” with Jefferson Davis as its elected president and Alexander H. Stephens as Vice (Source). According to these Southern states, “the election of Abraham Lincoln was labeled an act of war” and they “predicted armies would come to seize slaves and force white women to marry black men” (Source). As a result, some Southern politicians began producing weaponry and even proposed kidnapping president-elect Lincoln! This all despite the fact that Lincoln never actually campaign on “taking measures against slavery in the South” (Source). Despite this, Southerners saw him as a radical abolitionist, while Northerners thought he was inexperienced and unprepared to run the country, especially at such a critical moment in history.

In his Inaugural Address, Lincoln gave the country a warning:

“In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. . . . You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to preserve, protect and defend it.” (Source).

[Below: Lincoln’s 1st Inauguration]

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In all, eleven states left the Union. South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas had all left by the time Lincoln was sworn in. Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina left after his inauguration. But more on that later.

There was more to their secession than simple slavery. It had a lot to do with states’ rights, as well. They didn’t want the Federal Government to have the authority to outlaw slavery in their territories. In the South, where agriculture was one of their main forms of bringing in revenue, slaves were in high demand. They were expected to do all the work.

On March 9, 1861, Confederate President Davis began to take action. He called up “7,700 volunteers from five states, joining volunteers in South Carolina” (Source). Then in mid-April, he had 62,000 troops stationed in former Union bases. On the 12th, Confederate forces fired the first shots of the war at Fort Sumter. It was here that the next four states seceded the Union to join the Confederacy.

But Lincoln thought secession was illegal. More than that, he was willing to use force to defend both the Union and the Federal law. Then, after the shots fired at Fort Sumter, he called for 75,000 volunteers. The Civil War had begun.

[Below: The Confederate flag]

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Up Next: The Civil War Begins: The Attack on Fort Sumter

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