The predawn stillness of April 12, 1861 belied a nervous tension that enshrouded the harbor at Charleston, South Carolina. In numerous batteries and battlements ringing the harbor soldiers from the surrounding region sat quietly near their guns waiting, and in many cases hoping, for the order to strike out at those who would defy their home state. Arguably the most nervous men in Charleston that morning were those who huddled within the walls of Fort Sumter, men who had been caught up in a sudden whirlwind of historic events, men who occupied the last federal outpost in a state that had, at least in their minds, gone suddenly and terribly mad."Our Southern brethren have done grievously; they have rebelled and have attacked their father's house and their loyal brothers. They must be punished and brought back, but this necessity breaks my heart."
Three months earlier, in response to the election of President Lincoln and the subsequent succession of South Carolina, U.S. Major Robert Anderson, had moved this small garrison from the nearby but indefensible Fort Moultrie to the isolated and as-yet unfinished Fort Sumter in the middle of the harbor. Tactically, this was a good move as Fort Sumter's 50-foot high, 5-foot thick walls would offer a good deal more protection against any violent attempt to take the fort. Sumter was built to house 135 cannon which, when properly manned, could certainly repel any attempt by the upstart rebels to take it. Unfortunately, Major Anderson commanded only 127 men, far short of the fort's 650-man full compliment, and only about 60 cannon. As such, the troops inside Fort Sumter were acutely aware that they were at the mercy of the ever-increasing forces surrounding them. Knowing that any aggressive action on their part would likely spark a war, Major Anderson wisely resolved to hold his position as long as his dwindling supplies would allow.
Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard, commander of the South Carolina forces, was also acutely aware that time was running out for Anderson and he was under increasing pressure to force the issue. He had made repeated attempts over the previous weeks to achieve the surrender of the fort through negotiation. Without resupply, he knew, the fort could not hold out much longer. Though many in the south wanted him to take the fort by force of arms Beauregard also knew that blame for starting the war would rest upon the South and, more specifically, on him. President Lincoln, however, forced his hand.
Lat on the evening of April 11, 1861 Union resupply ships began to arrive off the entrance to Charleston Harbor not far from Fort Sumter. If the supplies contained within those ships were allowed to reach Fort Sumter Major Anderson and his forces would be able to hold out indefinitely. That same evening Beauregard sent a small delegation of men with the message that this would be the last chance for Anderson to surrender the fort peaceably. Major Anderson flatly refused. At 4:30am on the morning of April 12, 1861 a loud report pierced the morning sky as a single mortar round ascended from Fort Johnson towards Fort Sumter. Within minutes, at this signal, batteries on all sides of the harbor opened up and Fort Sumter was bathed in a ring of fire. The conflict so long anticipated and feared had arrived. The U.S. Civil War had begun.
Major Anderson and his small band of beleaguered troops held out for 34 hours, but it was a futile resistance. Realizing the hopelessness of his situation, Anderson surrendered the fort on April 13th. The flag of the Confederacy flew over the fort without incident for the next two years when, in 1863 the Union finally began efforts to retake the facility. The various Union attempts to force the surrender of the fort followed a simple strategy...pummel the fort into submission. From 1863 to 1865 Fort Sumter underwent no less than --- periods of bombardment by the end of which Fort Sumter was little more than a giant pile of bricks, but still it defiantly stood. It wasn't until February 17, 1865 as General Sherman's army occupied Charleston itself that the fort was abandoned and the Stars and Stripes once again flew over its battered ramparts.
After the war the rubble was cleared and walls were partially repaired but the fort was left unmanned. It wasn't until 1897, with the commencement of the Spanish-American War that the government was prompted to garrison the fort once again and construction was begun on a huge concrete battery which would bisect the old parade grounds. Named Battery Huger, the fort served as a lookout and coastline defense post off and on for the next 50 years though it never saw action. After World War 2 the fort was officially decommissioned and was handed over to the National Park Service as a National Monument in 1948.
Today, any visit to Fort Sumter should begin at the visitor center located on the west shore of the Cooper River in Liberty Square in downtown Charleston. Numerous displays tell the history of the fort and on display are many period artifacts, including the flag which flew so defiantly during those furious 34 hours in the spring of 1861. After the visitor center two ferry's are available to take visitors out to the fort itself, one from the docks adjacent to the center and one from across the river at Patriots Point Park. This album represents my third visit to the fort and I haven't tired of going back. Walking along the walls still marked and gouged by shot and shell from 150 years ago bring those momentous events back in a very tangible way. As the ignition point for the greatest conflagration this nation has ever endured, Fort Sumter is a must-see for any enthusiast of American History...
- Major Robert Anderson