The bombardment of Fort Sumter

At 12:45 in the morning of the 12th, four Confederate messengers (James Chesnut, Jr., Stephen D. Lee, A.R. Chisolm, and Roger Pryor) arrived at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, to deliver Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard’s message to Major Robert Anderson. Beauregard had offered to not bombard the fort if Anderson gave a specific time in which he would voluntarily evacuate.

Anderson held a lengthy discussion with his officers, and at 3 a.m. he informed the officials that he would evacuate Fort Sumter “by noon on the 15th instant,” but only 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.

By this time, Captain Gustavus V. Fox’s Federal relief fleet was scattered. Only one warship—the U.S.S. Baltic—was positioned outside the harbor. The other two—the U.S.S. Pawnee and the U.S.S. Harriet Lane—would not arrive until later that morning, and the three tugboats carrying supplies for Anderson’s men could not make the trip. This was not nearly the show of force that the Lincoln administration had hoped for, but it was enough for the Confederates to insist that Anderson evacuate Sumter before the ships tried to get into the harbor.

Because of this, Chesnut called Anderson’s offer to leave on the 15th unless resupplied “manifestly futile.” Without bothering to go back and consult with Beauregard, he handed Anderson his written response at 3:20: “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 messengers back to their boat 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 reached Fort Johnson. Chesnut ordered Captain George S. James to fire the signal mortar to begin the artillery bombardment at 4:30 a.m. James asked Roger Pryor, the Virginia congressmen who wanted his state to join the Confederacy, if he would like to fire the first shot. An emotional Pryor said: “I could not fire the first gun of the war.” Instead, Lieutenant Henry S. Farley launched the first shell. It burst high and bright in the predawn morning over Fort Sumter. The bombardment had begun.

In accordance with prearranged orders, the cannons surrounding the fort began firing in rapid succession. An explosion of fire soon engulfed the harbor. 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 cannons faced Anderson’s garrison of 85 soldiers, 43 civilian engineers, and 48 cannons. 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 in hostile territory with such limited supplies for so long.

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 under cover when they were not forced to put out fires.

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 arriving east of the harbor around 1 p.m. The men aboard the ships watched the bombardment helplessly. Captain Fox aboard the Baltic wrote: “As we drew near, I saw, with horror, black volumes of smoke issuing from Sumpter.”

At 6 p.m., Fox resolved to try provisioning Sumter as soon as his other two main ships—the Powhatan and the Pocahontas—arrived. But Commander Stephen C. Rowan of the late-arriving Pawnee informed Fox that the Pocahontas would not get there until the next day, and the Powhatan was on her way to Fort Pickens in Florida instead. Fox furiously denounced Secretary of State William H. Seward for redirecting the Powhatan; he wrote his wife that he hoped “to place the blow on the head of that timid traitor… He who paralyzes every movement from abject fear.” Rowan offered to storm into the harbor with the ships that were on hand, but Fox reminded him that the administration did not want them to take any unnecessary chances. Anderson would get no help from the warships.

Rain started falling that night, followed by strong winds and choppy waters. The Federals stopped firing at 7 p.m. to conserve their ammunition, but a few sections of the Confederate batteries continued firing every 15 minutes through the night. Beauregard reported to Secretary of War Leroy P. Walker: “Heavy firing all day. Several guns dismounted in Sumter. Our batteries all safe. Nobody hurt. Four steamers off the bar. The sea pretty rough.” The full bombardment would resume in the morning.


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