We will conquer or Perish

The Confederate bombardment of Major Robert Anderson’s Federal garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, resumed its full intensity at 4 a.m. on the 13th. The Federal troops hurried to eat their last rations of rice and pork before taking cover. Being dangerously low on ammunition, Anderson would wait until daylight to return fire.

The Confederates fired hotshot, or shells heated in furnaces to spark fires upon impact. These shells started three fires in the fort, including one in the officers’ quarters, and another that nearly reached the powder magazine. The fires produced massive plumes of smoke that prostrated some of the men with smoke inhalation. Their ammunition shortage meant that they could only offer a feeble reply. The Confederates, unharmed by the Federals’ sporadic counterfire, cheered their enemies’ tenacity.

Captain Gustavus V. Fox’s relief fleet could not enter the harbor due to the intense artillery fire, along with the absence of its most powerful warship, the U.S.S. Powhatan. The U.S.S. Pocahontas joined the fleet around 1 p.m., but the Powhatan, which held the troops and supplies for Sumter, was on her way to Florida. Anderson and Fox had no established signal code to communicate with each other.

At Washington, rumors abounded that the Confederates had fired on Fort Sumter. President Abraham Lincoln met with delegates from the Virginia secession convention 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. The delegates left still undecided as to whether Virginia should secede.

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 authorization from Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard, the overall Confederate commander. Major Anderson agreed to capitulate, and his men raised the white flag. Soon afterward, Beauregard’s aides 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 that without help from Fox’s fleet, 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.

Beauregard telegraphed Secretary of War Leroy P. Walker: “Anderson surrenders to the Confederate Government unconditionally, but I have granted him the same terms as on the 11th instant: ‘All proper facilities will be afforded for removal of yourself and command, together with company arms and property and all private property, to any post in the United States you may elect.’”

In a second message to Walker, Beauregard wrote: “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.

Walker directed Adjutant General Samuel Cooper to issue General Orders No. 3: “In honor of the occasion, officially announced, that the United States colors have been hauled down at Fort Sumter and replaced by the white flag, a salute of 15 guns will be fired in front of the Department this day at two o’clock.”

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, where residents of Richmond erupted 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.

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


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