Fort Sumter & The First Shots of the American Civil War

One of many cannons at Fort Sumter, Charleston, South Carolina, USA.

Located on a man-made (or rather slave-made) island at a key position in Charleston harbor is Fort Sumter.

On April 13, 1861, a bombardment of Fort Sumter was carried out by the Confederate Army. The Fort was defended and commanded at the time by Major Robert Anderson of the First US Artillery Regiment.

Anderson was in charge of two other forts in key areas around the harbor but realized that Fort Sumter was the most critical and easiest to defend. So, on Boxing Day 1860, he moved troops and his command there.

How it looked in its glory days. Fort Sumter, Charleston, South Carolina, USA.
How it looked in its glory days. Fort Sumter, Charleston, South Carolina, USA.

This fort was part of a chain of defensive structures along the East Coast of the USA, with other important cities and harbors being protected from Maine right down to Florida. Even Alcatraz on the West Coast was part of the countrywide defensive plan before it later became an infamous prison.

Over 100,000 tonnes of soil and stone were dumped into the harbor to form the base of the pentagon-shaped fort, the bricks of which would have been made by slave labor at that time.

The ferry boat Spirit of the Lowcountry waits at Fort Sumter, Charleston, South Carolina, USA.
The ferry boat Spirit of the Lowcountry waits at Fort Sumter, Charleston, South Carolina, USA.

In the build-up to the first shots being fired, attempts were made to bring supplies into the fort, but Union supply ships were harried with fire and had to withdraw. Anderson knew that he could fight, but he was aware that it would likely to be a limited campaign.

Fort Sumter, Charleston, South Carolina, USA.
Fort Sumter, Charleston, South Carolina, USA.

Confederate guns were installed on James Island, and an opening shot was fired at 4.30 AM on April 12th from a 10-inch mortar located at Fort Johnson. This was followed up with 43 other cannons and mortars firing into the fort from various directions around the harbor.

https://youtu.be/mYpNz7bvB1g

Although Anderson had passed a message to the Confederate commander Brig. Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard that he would leave on April 15th, the Confederates felt this was unacceptable given there were more supply ships in the vicinity. So the bombardment was triggered and went on for 34 hours.

Chance to take part in the flag raising ceremony at Fort Sumter, Charleston, South Carolina, USA.
Chance to take part in the flag raising ceremony at Fort Sumter, Charleston, South Carolina, USA.

The miracle was that no soldier on either side was killed in this first battle of the Civil War.

However, there was one sort of casualty: the 33-star battle flag of the fort which Anderson collected after a lucky shot severed the flagpole. The downed flag was hastily flown from the walls until the surrender was negotiated the next day on the 14th of April.

The Union forces left the fort in a formal handover, and the Confederate forces which replaced them then celebrated this achievement as their first victory over the Union forces.

The six-foot thick magazine wall slopes back to the left the repaired Tabby wall at Fort Sumter, Charleston, South Carolina, USA.
The six-foot thick magazine wall slopes back to the left the repaired Tabby wall at Fort Sumter, Charleston, South Carolina, USA.

Later in the war, the fort came under fire once again, this time as the Union artillery forces fired some 44,000 projectiles at the fort. It is estimated that 32,000 shots hit the walls, reducing the fort from the three levels of its glory days to a battered relic that was just one rubble-strewn floor high; it would have been unrecognizable from what can be seen today.

During that pounding, a magazine exploded and rocked back a thick wall around it. Repairs were undertaken by slaves at the fort who used an oyster shell compound called “Tabby” that set like concrete to make the wall good again.

The gun port installations at Fort Sumter, Charleston, South Carolina, USA.
The gun port installations at Fort Sumter, Charleston, South Carolina, USA.

In 1865, Maj. Gen. Anderson returned to the fort to fly the Union flag once again. It was exactly four years to the day since he had left the fort in 1861. That flag is now on show in Charleston at the Fort Sumter Museum. It is rolled into a special case with a full-size replica on display above it.

Even today, visitors are able to touch a projectile fired into the fort by the Union forces as three shells are still lodged deep in the walls. Many visitors have taken the opportunity to do so, and it is strange to think that the last Union soldier to touch the other end was the one who loaded it and fired it back in 1863.

The replica of the flag that flew on the day The Civil War started; the original is in storage below. Fort Sumter, Charleston, South Carolina, USA.
The replica of the flag that flew on the day The Civil War started; the original is in storage below. Fort Sumter, Charleston, South Carolina, USA.

Planning a trip to the fort can only be made using only the ferry boats from Fort Sumter Tours. The visit takes just over two hours, and private boats are not permitted to land there. The Museum itself is located at Liberty Square.

National Park Service staff conduct excellent tours of the fort and explain in great detail the history of the fort before and after the Civil War.

The fort is open most days apart from Christmas, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s day. Access for those with disabilities is possible via ramps to get on and off the ferry, but there are stairs and access issues at the fort.

Ferries leave from the Museum itself and Patriot Point.

Tickets: Adults $23; Seniors and Military $21; Children $15; Under 3 Free

My stay for the visit was at the Hotel Bennett, a brand new hotel in central Charleston.

Further information also from Explore Charleston

All pics are courtesy of Geoff Moore – Website: thetraveltrunk.net