Professor Donald Elder – Events in American History – The Bombing of Fort Sumter

Mar 8, 2016 by

Charleston, S.C. Interior of Fort Sumter, with gabion reinforcements

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder – Events in American History- The Bombing of Fort Sumter

Michael F. Shaughnessy

  • Professor Elder, some remember the bombing of Fort Sumter as the event that really starting the Civil War or that at least started the shooting. How accurate is that perception, and if this event had not occurred, could the Civil War perhaps been avoided?

In its history, the United States has fought a number of wars, and some of those have occurred because of a gradual accretion of grievances. Other conflicts, however have happened because of a specific incident. The American Civil War clearly falls into that latter category. On April 12, 1861, military forces of the recently created Confederate States of America (comprised of states that had seceded from the Union) fired at a US military installation named Ft. Sumter, and news of this brought an immediate reaction from President Abraham Lincoln. Declaring that the firing on Ft. Sumter constituted an act of rebellion, Lincoln then called upon the states to furnish troops for him to use in suppressing the insurrection. 23 states did, and Lincoln then sent these troops into areas under Confederate control to reestablish federal authority.

Clearly, then, the Confederate decision to fire on Ft. Sumter served as the impetus for the American Civil War. That begs the question: would the war have occurred eventually even without that specific incident? Some historians argue that there were irreconcilable differences that existed between northerners and southerners, predominantly over slavery, and that the two sides would eventually have come to blows. Moreover, these experts assert that Lincoln could not in good conscience have allowed a permanent dissolution of the Union, and would have sooner or later decided that he had to use force to reunite the nation. Having said that, it should be noted that most historians do not believe in the inevitability of the war. If the Confederates had never fired on the American flag at Ft. Sumter, there is a distinct possibility that Lincoln could never have assembled the political capital necessary to engage in a military effort to bring the seceded states back into the Union.

  • Now factually, where was the Fort located, and who was the commanding officer and how many individuals or soldiers were there?

During the American Revolution, the British had launched two military campaigns to capture the port city of Charleston, South Carolina. Once the United States had secure its independence, it recognized that in a future war an opponent might once again try to take that important city. Accordingly, the US military decided to build a series of fortifications to defend Charleston Harbor. Recognizing the opportunity that a sand bar in the harbor offered, military engineers used tons of rubble to build that location into a small island. Efforts then began to construct a fort there. Although construction began in 1829, the fort (named after a hero of the Revolutionary War) remained unfinished as 1860 drew to a close. In spite of that, a US Army major named Robert Anderson chose to occupy the unfinished fort at that time. South Carolina had seceded from the Union in December of 1860, and state authorities demanded that all federal property be turned over to them.

That included Ft. Moultrie, a US military installation that guarded the landward approaches to Charleston. Anderson, the commander at Ft. Moultrie, recognized that he did not possess a force big enough to defend the installation, and feared that his lack of strength might tempt South Carolina authorities to take possession of Ft. Moultrie by storm. Given no definitive instructions by James Buchanan (the sitting American president) on how to respond to this danger, Anderson decided to secretly move his force of 127 men to Ft. Sumter, deciding that such an action might buy time for cooler heads to prevail. Had Anderson not taken this step, it seems clear that Ft. Sumter would have never become famous in American history.

  • On the other side, who was the commanding officer, where did his orders come from, and exactly when did this occur?

South Carolina had been the first state to secede, and thus when its authorities demanded that Robert Anderson surrender Ft. Moultrie, they acted alone. Soon, however, other states followed South Carolina out of the Union, and weeks after Anderson moved his command to Ft. Sumter they decided to form the Confederate States of America. One of the first decisions that the new government had to make involved what to do about the situation in Charleston. It soon determined that it could not accept a US military presence in the harbor of one of its most important port cities. It then demanded that Buchanan order Anderson to abandon Ft. Sumter. Buchanan refused, and once Lincoln became president he followed suit. That refusal forced the Confederates’ hand, causing them to decide to take Ft. Sumter by force.

The new government had created a military, and had assigned Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard to command its forces in Charleston. Acting under the authority of the Confederate States of America, Beauregard sent two of his aides to call on Anderson to surrender the fort. Anderson refused, and on April 12, James Chesnut, Jr., one of the individuals that Beauregard had tasked with conferring with the fort’s commander, informed the defenders that the Confederates would begin to bombard their installation.

  • What was the immediate outcome? And the long term outcome?

As we have seen, Robert Anderson had gone to great lengths to avoid a confrontation in Charleston. He continued that course of action even after the Confederates began bombarding Ft. Sumter, refusing to return fire for two hours. Finally, Anderson ordered his second-in-command, Captain Abner Doubleday, to begin a counter-barrage. Few remember the role that Doubleday played at Ft. Sumter, but many readers will recognize his name for a completely different reason: it was later claimed that he had invented the game of baseball. The artillery duel in Charleston proved decidedly one-sided, as Anderson had fewer cannon and much less ammunition at his disposal than the Confederates did.

Recognizing the futility of further resistance, Anderson chose to surrender the fort on April 13. Amazingly, not a single defender of Ft. Sumter had received a wound during the lengthy battle, even though the Confederate bombardment had caused significant damage to the fortifications. After Anderson indicated his intention to surrender, the Confederates granted him generous terms. First, they allowed him to fire a 100-gun salute as he lowered the American flag, and they also decided that they would not imprison the defenders. As that garrison made its way out of Ft. Sumter, it appeared that the Confederates had won an impressive victory. Soon, however, Southerners realized that the triumph at Ft. Sumter would come with a high price tag associated with it, as news of the bombardment caused many Northerners to volunteer for military service to seek retribution. It was thus a victory in the short run for the Confederacy, but it also started a long-term process that would eventually result in the destruction of the Confederacy.

  • In your mind, why was this event important to the Civil War, and in general?

In retrospect, it seems that the firing on Ft. Sumter has a historical parallel in the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. Both the Confederacy in 1861 and the Japanese government in 1941 felt that the United States had painted them into a corner, leaving as the only choices abject acquiescence or military action. Both the Japanese and the Confederates chose a preemptive military strike, and in both cases the United States responded militarily. And in both instances, the United States would eventually triumph.

  • What issues have I neglected to ask about?

As previously noted, the Confederate bombardment of Ft. Sumter caused no casualties. In a sad irony, however, one defender died during the evacuation. Allowed by the Confederates to fire a 100-gun salute as they lowered the flag, the members of the fort’s garrison were horrified when one of the cannons exploded while discharging its load. One defender died instantly, while another received a wound that proved mortal. In the space of the next four years, well over 650,000 of their fellow countrymen would also die while providing military service. That incident at the surrender of Ft. Sumter thus proved to be a harbinger of the horrendous casualties that both sides would suffer during the next four years.

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