The Fort Sumter Surrender

April 13, 1861 – The bombardment of Fort Sumter ended when Major Robert Anderson agreed to surrender his Federal garrison.

Confederate Flag over Fort Sumter | Image Credit:
Confederate Flag over Fort Sumter | Image Credit:

Anderson’s men in Charleston Harbor ate their final rations of rice and pork before Confederates resumed the bombardment on the morning of the 13th. Hotshot ignited three fires before dawn, with one nearly reaching the powder magazine. Federals began suffering from smoke inhalation as the shelling intensified, and their shortage of cartridges minimized their return fire. Gustavus V. Fox’s relief fleet could not enter the harbor due to the intense artillery fire. Moreover, there was no established signal code for Anderson and Fox to communicate.

In Washington, rumors abounded that Confederates had fired on Fort Sumter. President Abraham Lincoln met with Virginia officials and explained that he considered himself obligated to “hold, occupy, and possess, the property, and places belonging to the Government.” He said he had no plans to invade the Confederacy for any other reason, but “I shall hold myself at liberty to re-possess, if I can,” property seized from the Federal government, including Fort Sumter.

Back at the fort, a shot knocked down Sumter’s flagstaff at 12:48 p.m. Colonel Louis T. Wigfall, former U.S. senator from Texas, saw the flag go down and took it upon himself to row out to the fort and discuss surrender without Confederate authorization. Major Anderson agreed to capitulate, and Federals raised the white flag. But soon afterward aides of Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard arrived to inform Anderson that Wigfall’s visit had been unofficial, but they finally accepted Anderson’s surrender anyway around 2:30 p.m. The fort itself was still defensible, but Anderson felt the Federals could no longer man the defenses without supplies or ammunition.

The garrison fell after 33 hours of bombardment. Confederates had fired 3,341 shells at Sumter, destroying the barracks and the main gate, and pockmarking the fort walls. The Federals suffered no fatalities and sustained just four injuries from bricks falling from walls. The Federals fired about 1,000 shells. Four Confederates sustained injuries at Fort Moultrie; the only recorded death among Confederates was a horse. Surrender ceremonies were planned for the next afternoon.

General Beauregard telegraphed Secretary of War Leroy P. Walker: “We take possession of Fort Sumter tomorrow morning. I allow him the privilege of saluting his flag. No one killed on our side.” Walker relayed the news to President Jefferson Davis, who responded: “Thanks for your achievement and for your courtesy to the garrison of Sumter. If occasion offers, tender my friendly remembrance to Major Anderson.” Davis and Anderson were old friends, and Anderson had been Beauregard’s artillery instructor at West Point.

When Charlestonians learned of the surrender, they cheered both their success and the bravery of Anderson and his men. A participant wrote, “Thank God the day has come—thank God the war is open, and we will conquer or perish.”

The news reached Virginia this evening, prompting Richmond residents to erupt in mass celebration “in honor of the victory,” even though the state had not yet seceded. A battery fired a 100-gun salute, and the U.S. flag above the state capitol was replaced by the Confederate banner. A witness wrote that everyone “seemed to be perfectly frantic with delight, I never in all my life witnessed such excitement. Everyone is in favor of secession.” Large crowds also celebrated in various cities in Tennessee and North Carolina, two other states that had not yet seceded.

When news reached the North, a New York newspaper reported, “The curtain has fallen upon the first act of the great tragedy of our age.”

The war’s first engagement resulted in Confederate victory, but it also gave Lincoln what he sought—the Confederacy had fired first. This would help his administration galvanize northerners to the cause of preserving the Union.

On Sunday the 14th, Major Anderson formally surrendered his Federal garrison to Confederate forces at Fort Sumter. He surrendered under the terms offered on the 11th. Many people witnessed the ceremony from boats in the harbor, including General Beauregard and Governor Francis W. Pickens.

Prominent Virginia secessionist Roger Pryor attended the surrender ceremony, which took place in Sumter’s hospital. Anderson was allowed to fire a 100-gun salute to the U.S. flag before lowering it the last time. After the 50th round, an accidental explosion occurred when Private Daniel Hough inserted a cartridge before swabbing out the sparks from the previous round. The blast killed Hough, and wind swept burning cloth to nearby cartridges, setting them off. These blasts mortally wounded one private and injured four. These were the only casualties in the battle for Sumter. Anderson, shaken by the tragedy, ended the salute at 50 guns.

Two hours later, the Federals marched out of Sumter with their colors as musicians played “Yankee Doodle.” Confederate soldiers along the beaches removed their hats in salute, and spectators observed in silence. The Federals boarded the transport steamer Isabel, where they would spend the night before returning north with the rest of Gustavus V. Fox’s relief fleet that had arrived too late to save them.

Celebrations and special church services took place in Charleston. Governor Pickens declared, “We have met them and we have conquered.” Reverend J.H. Elliott at St. Michael’s Church compared Sumter to a biblical battle in which the Israelites “fully achieved their object, and were now returned in safety to their tents without the loss of a single comrade.” He expressed thanks to God and concluded: “His Providence is fast uniting the whole South in a common brotherhood of sympathy and action, and our first essay in arms has been crowned with perfect success.”

Charlestonians entertained some of the Federals in the city this evening. Anderson said, “Our Southern brethren have done grievously wrong, they have rebelled and have attacked their father’s house and their loyal brothers. They must be punished and brought back, but this necessity breaks my heart.”

To the Confederates, the presence of a foreign military force on their soil constituted a challenge to their new national credibility and had to be confronted. To northerners, the national honor had been desecrated by rebels firing upon the Federal military. Lincoln had hoped that provoking the Confederacy into firing the first shot would stimulate northern patriotism, and he was right.

On April 15, the Federal garrison left Fort Sumter aboard the steamer Isabel, which ferried them to U.S.S. Baltic within Gustavus V. Fox’s Federal naval fleet. The war had begun.



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