The Civil War Begins

Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration as 16th president of the United States on March 4, 1861, came and went without a shot being fired and the dire predictions of imminent hostilities from earlier in the year appeared to many to have been an overreaction.  In Massachusetts, business owners criticized Governor Andrew, who had warned that war was imminent, for fostering a climate of fear that stifled industry.  He was also condemned by his Abolitionist friends for not moving aggressively enough towards the attainment of their objectives.  Unfriendly newspapers pointed out that Ben Butler had personally profited from the war scare since the cloth for the militia’s new overcoats had been purchased from Lowell’s Middlesex Mills of which Butler was a major stockholder.  On March 13, the Lowell Courier reported that the Lincoln administration was resigned to the loss of Fort Sumter and on April 11, the Massachusetts legislature canceled the $100,000 gubernatorial contingency fund it had earlier passed.  To many, it seemed that the crisis had passed.

This was not the view in the White House or at the gun batteries that besieged Fort Sumter.  For more than a month, President Lincoln and the secessionist leaders of South Carolina had engaged in a high stakes chess match over the fate of Fort Sumter. 

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, on Christmas night 1860, Anderson snuck his entire force across the harbor entrance, occupying Sumter and abandoning Moultrie, a move that infuriated the South Carolina authorities.

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. 

On April 13, 1861, the second day of the Civil War, the Confederate batteries ringing Charleston Harbor resumed firing on Fort Sumter at dawn and continued at a slow, methodical pace with the fort firing back only occasionally to conserve dwindling ammunition.  At 7:30 a.m., an explosive mortar shell fell atop one of the wooden barracks buildings inside the fort and a blaze erupted.  From the shore, Sumter seemed engulfed by an inferno; within the fort, soldiers struggled to breath in the thick, acrid smoke.  The sight of the flames caused the Confederate gunners to quicken the pace of the shelling, and soon the fort’s flag pole was knocked down by a shell.  

While the fort’s occupants raced to re-erect the flag, viewers on the shore interpreted the disappearance of the flag as surrender and Colonel Louis Wigfall, a political appointee on General Beauregard’s staff, commandeered a small row boat and headed to the fort.  While Wigfall was in mid-harbor, Sumter’s flag re-emerged from the smoke and firing resumed. Col Wigfall made it to the fort, however, and spoke with Major Anderson, urging him to surrender.  Anderson replied that if granted the terms offered before the firing had begun – departure from the fort with all men, weapons, equipment and the right to fire a salute to the American flag – he would cease firing.  Wigfall agreed; Sumter replaced the US colors with a white flag; and all firing stopped.  

On the shore, there was confusion since no one knew of Col Wigfall’s mission to the fort.  Wigfall was soon at Beauregard’s headquarters, however, and the General ratified the agreement and gave instructions that Anderson be allowed to fire his salute and evacuate the fort the next morning (April 14). Out beyond the sand bars, Gustavus Fox and the naval commanders of the relief squadron were still unready to attack due to their lack of organization, assets and high seas.  They did plan to mount a relief effort to the fort that night, but were perplexed when the firing stopped.  They sent a lieutenant in a small boat under a flag of truce into Charleston to investigate.  He returned with news of Sumter’s surrender and plans for the night assault were abandoned.  Inside the fort, the garrison slept soundly.  Ashore, the inhabitants of Charleston celebrated wildly. 

The Federal troops inside Fort Sumter were up well before daybreak on April 14, 1861, packing their undamaged gear for the voyage north.  Throughout the morning, a flotilla of small boats from Charleston gathered around the fort, anxious to view the departure of the Federal troops and the raising of the South Carolina flag.  At 2:30 pm with everything packed and ready to go, Major Anderson gave the order to commence the cannon salute tom the American flag, one of the non-negotiable terms he insisted upon before surrendering the fort.  Anderson had ordered a 100-gun salute, but when reloading after the 47th shot, a bag of gunpowder being rammed into one of the cannon exploded prematurely, fatally injuring Private Daniel Hough and wounding the rest of the gun crew, one of whom died the next day.  Anderson’s men rapidly fired off three more shots from other guns, and the salute ceased at 50.  

At 4:30 pm, Anderson marched his men out the front gate of Sumter and boarded a small steamer that would ferry the men and their equipment out to the US fleet waiting beyond the sandbars.  They had waited too long, however, and low tide had grounded their ferry, so the men from Sumter spent another night in Charleston Harbor, forced to listen to the speeches and salutes of the triumphant Secessionists from within the fort.  

Back in Lowell, there was no newspaper on April 14 – it was a Sunday – but the paper of Saturday, April 13 contained the following:

THE WAR BEGUN.  By the accounts which we elsewhere publish, it will be seen that hostilities have actually commenced by the rebels of the Southern States.  Here is now no longer a doubt as to their purpose, or as to the duty of the National Administration.  The accounts thus far give no details by which it can be judged which party had the advantage yesterday, although the dispatches are undoubtedly colored by the telegraph operators at Charleston.  The success in this conflict, one way or the other, does not establish anything.  Government has undertaken to supply its starving soldiers with provisions, when the traitors make it the excuse for the commencement of hostilities.  This was expected, and probably ample preparations have been made for it.  No sensible person will doubt the right of the Government to put down the rebellion, and no one will doubt that it is able to do so.  We hope and pray that there will be no delay or child’s play in this matter.  Maj Anderson, it is believed, can sustain himself till succored by the Government, but should he be compelled to surrender, the victory will be a dear one, and will be no means end the contest.  The greatest anxiety is felt in the matter by all we meet, and the hopes of all are that Mr. Lincoln has not sent a fleet to Charleston that will be thwarted in its purpose.   

 After sunrise on April 15, 1861, Major Anderson and his men were shuttled from Fort Sumter to the ships of the US Fleet patrolling outside Charleston Harbor.  Once aboard, the flotilla set sail for New York City.  

In Washington, President Lincoln issued a proclamation which read in part:

. . . now, therefore that I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, in virtue of the power vested in me by the constitution and the laws, have thought fit to call forth, and hereby do call forth, the militia of the several states of the Union to the aggregate number of seventy-five thousand, in order to suppress said combination, and to cause the laws to be duly executed.

In Lowell, the Daily Courier reported

The proclamation of the President is received with favor by everybody and all with whom we have conversed say that the Government must be sustained, and the traitors punished for their treason.  The various military companies have meetings this evening, and we trust a spirit will be evinced of readiness to aid in upholding the President, by volunteering their services if necessary.

Later that day, the commander of the Sixth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment received the following order from the state’s Adjutant General: “Col. Jones: Sir, I am directed by His Excellency, the Commander-in-Chief, to order you to muster your regiment on Boston Common, forthwith, in compliance with a requisition made by the President of the United States.  The troops are to go to Washington.” That night, the soldiers assembled at their armories and were busy all night preparing for their departure. 

One Response to The Civil War Begins

  1. Ann Chandonnet says:

    I am a cousin, a few times removed, of Gustavus
    Vasa Fox. We own a pair of brass candlesticks given to him during
    his Mission to Russia.
    You might be interested in knowing that Fort Sumter
    is underlaid by rocks removed from Boston Harbor.
    It seems weird to me that rocks were brought from
    so far away! Certainly Florida has rocks??