April 12, 1861 – Confederates opened fire on the Federal garrison at Fort Sumter, touching off the most horrific conflict in American history.
At 12:45 in the morning of April 12, four Confederate messengers (James Chesnut, Jr., Stephen D. Lee, A.R. Chisolm, and Roger Pryor) arrived at Fort Sumter to deliver Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard’s message to Major Robert Anderson. By this time, Gustavus V. Fox’s Federal relief fleet could be seen approaching the mouth of Charleston Harbor; only a gale prevented them from proceeding to Sumter immediately.
After a lengthy discussion with his officers, Anderson informed the officials around 3 a.m. that they would evacuate Fort Sumter “by noon of the 15th instant” if he did not receive “controlling instructions from my government, or additional supplies.” Anderson also pledged not to fire on the Confederates unless he was attacked first.
The messengers forwarded Anderson’s response to Beauregard at 3:15 a.m. The general deemed evacuation on the 15th unacceptable because Fox’s relief vessels would probably resupply Sumter before then. Chesnut called Anderson’s terms “manifestly futile” and handed him a message:
“By authority of Brigadier-General Beauregard, commanding the provisional forces of the Confederate States, we have the honor to notify you that he will open the fire of his batteries on Fort Sumter in one hour from this time.”
Anderson escorted the officials back to their boat at 3:20 and told them, “If we do not meet again in this world, I hope we may meet in the better one.”
The bells of St. Michael’s Church in Charleston tolled 4 a.m. as the messengers arrived at Fort Johnson. Chesnut ordered Captain George S. James to fire the signal mortar to begin the artillery bombardment at 4:30 a.m. James’s battery complied, with the first shell bursting high over the fort.
In accordance with earlier orders, the other batteries trained on Sumter joined in, and soon the harbor exploded in fire. The Palmetto Guard, stationed at Cummings Point on Morris Island, gave the honor of firing the first shot from Columbiad No. 1 to prominent 67 year-old secessionist Edmund Ruffin.
Some 4,000 Confederates and at least 70 cannon faced Anderson’s garrison of 85 soldiers, 43 civilian engineers, and 48 cannon. Of Anderson’s 48 guns, only 15 were mounted. Moreover, the fort was designed to withstand attacks by sea, so nearly all the guns and defensive works faced away from the attackers on land. And Federal morale was low from having been so long in hostile territory with dwindling supplies.
Anderson assembled his men on the fort’s parade ground and assigned them to their guns with instructions to take no unnecessary risks. The accurate Confederate artillery steadily continued throughout the day, preventing the Federals from taking positions on the fort’s top tier. The Confederate battery south of Sumter at Cummings Point inflicted much damage, keeping men busy extinguishing fires and staying under cover.
The Federals waited for daybreak to return fire, with Anderson offering the first shot to Captain Abner Doubleday, his second in command. Doubleday fired the cannon at 7 a.m. The Federals used just six of their guns due to a shortage of powder-bag cartridges. Concentrating on specific targets, Federal cannonballs did little damage besides destroying the roof of the Moultrie House northeast of Sumter. No shells reached Charleston. Meanwhile, Federal engineers hurriedly sewed more cartridge bags together using socks, linen, and pieces of burlap.
Crowds watched the bombardment from Charleston, where a witness said that “a perfect sheet of flame flashed out, a deafening roar, a rumbling deadening sound, and the war was on.” People watching from rooftops could see the Federal relief fleet’s three main vessels—Baltic, Harriet Lane, and Pawnee—arriving outside the harbor around 1 p.m. The men aboard the ships watched the bombardment helplessly.
At 6 p.m., Fox resolved to try provisioning Sumter as soon as his other two main ships—Powhatan and Pocahontas—arrived. But Fox was unaware that Powhatan had been reassigned to the Fort Pickens expedition, and Pocahontas would not arrive until the following afternoon.
Rain started falling that evening. The Federals stopped firing, but the Confederate bombardment continued sporadically throughout the night.
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