April 12, 1861

The American Civil War began 149 years ago today. The city of Lowell played a prominent role in that conflict so over the next week or so I plan to highlight some key events that occurred on each day back in 1861.

The South Carolina coast is characterized by numerous islands that sit astride the mainland like the border-pieces of a puzzle waiting to be snapped into place. Several of these islands, Sullivan’s and Morris especially, form the shoulders of the nautical gateway into the harbor at Charleston, South Carolina. Since the American Revolution, the northern edge of this opening had been guarded by Fort Moultrie, the southern edge by several smaller forts. But the gap between the fortresses was too large, so in the early 19th Century, the US government built Fort Sumter atop a small pile of rock that sat in the middle of the harbor entrance. Any hostile ship trying to pass between Sumter and Moultrie would be caught in a deadly crossfire.

In the fall of 1860, the Federal fortifications were held by just two companies – less than 100 men – of the US Army, all under the command of Major Robert Anderson. Since the construction of Sumter had never been fully completed and because of its isolation in the middle of the harbor. Anderson and his men occupied Fort Moultrie. But Moultrie was designed to withstand attack from the sea, not from the land, and it would be extremely vulnerable should the South Caroline militia attempt to capture it. Consequently, at Christmas 1860, Anderson snuck his entire force across the harbor entrance, occupying Sumter and abandoning Moultrie, a move that infuriated the local residents.

While Anderson’s move was tactically sound, it also placed a limit on his ability to hold the fort without resupply. By early April, the troops at Fort Sumter were nearly out of food, a situation that compelled both the Lincoln administration and the still-new Confederate government to act.

A former Naval officer from Lowell named Gustavus Fox (who would soon become Assistant Secretary of the Navy) came to Lincoln with a plan to resupply and reinforce the Sumter garrison by sea. In light of the scarcity of military resources – Fox’s fleet consisted primarily of rented civilian vessels and had only 100 Army recruits pulled out of basic training – the odds of success were almost non-existent.

But the South Carolina authorities did not know of the feebleness of Fox’s fleet; they only knew it was coming. Determined to prevent any resupply of the fort, the Confederate leadership ordered the local commander, Pierre Beauregard (who had been Major Anderson’s student at West Point) to capture the fort. Beauregard sent an ultimatum to Anderson on April 11, 1861 demanding that he surrender the fort immediately. Anderson formally refused, but as the Confederate emissaries were departing, Anderson blurted out that if they just waited a few days, starvation would force them to abandon the fort. This caused Beauregard to reconsider, and he sent his messengers back to Sumter in the middle of the night for clarification.

During this meeting with Anderson at the fort at 3:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, it became clear to the Confederates that further negotiations were pointless, so they informed Major Anderson that their attack would commence in one hour. They wished each other well and boarded their boat back to Charleston.

At 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, a Confederate mortar on Morris Island opened fire, lobbing a shell high in the air towards Fort Sumter. The forty-three Confederate cannon arrayed around the harbor opened fire and began pounding the fort. With limited amounts of ammunition on hand, Anderson waited until daybreak to return fire. He started shooting at 6:30 a.m., but only with the smaller cannons located inside the walls of the fort. Knowing that his biggest guns on the fort’s highest level were fully exposed to the Confederate fire, Anderson ordered his men to stay away from them lest they become quick casualties.

About 1 p.m., lookouts at Sumter spotted ships out to sea near the mouth of the harbor. Fox’s ships had arrived, but they loitered out to sea. Maybe they were waiting for darkness to attack, everyone thought. Regardless, the Union garrison ceased firing for the evening at 7 p.m., while the Confederates kept lobbing shells towards the fort through the night.