The Civil War Begins: Fort Sumter, Part 1

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In late December 1860 speculation ran rampant as to what the newly self-declared independent Republic of South Carolina might do concerning the sixty Federal troops still garrisoned in Fort Moultrie near Charleston.  Despite writing to authorities in Washington, D.C. that “The clouds are threatening, and the storm may break at any moment,” United States Army Major Robert Anderson received virtually no support from the lame-duck administration of President James Buchanan.  Outdated and too large to be adequately defended by so small a force, ironically Fort Moultrie had been surrendered to the British by Anderson’s father during the Revolutionary War.  Anderson did not want a repeat of history, with more South Carolina militiamen arriving daily in Charleston.

Although only 90% completed, unoccupied Fort Sumter’s isolated location on a man-made island in the middle of Charleston Harbor made it much easier to defend.  Finally taking matters into his own hands, Anderson transferred his small command from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter under the cover of darkness on the evening of December 26th.  This move further polarized Northern and Southern emotions, with both sides quickly viewing Fort Sumter as a symbol of their respective cause.

A haphazardly executed U.S. Navy relief expedition arrived outside Charleston Harbor on January 9, 1861, with 200 troops aboard the frigate “Star of the West.”  But when the ship tried to enter the harbor and head toward Fort Sumter artillery gunners with The Citadel Military College positioned on nearby Morris Island opened fire.  Fort Sumter’s guns remained silent, for fear of starting a war, and the Star of the West turned back to sea.  Again emotions frayed on both sides, yet an uneasy cease-fire resumed.  When the Confederate States of America, including South Carolina, officially formed on February 8th, President Buchanan’s continued indecision paralyzed any effective Federal response.

On March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln became U.S. President, vowing in his inaugural address to defend all Federal installations.  In the face of strong political opposition, Lincoln ordered a new Fort Sumter relief expedition (of supplies only), and so informed South Carolina’s Governor Francis Pickens.  Alarmed, Pickens quickly informed the President of the new Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, as well as Charleston’s Confederate military commander, Brigadier General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard.  In another irony of history, Beauregard’s artillery instructor and friend while a cadet at West Point had been none other than Robert Anderson, his new adversary.  But now, Beauregard commanded some 6,000 militiamen and 45 artillery pieces of various sizes and quality all aimed towards his mentor inside Fort Sumter.

Meanwhile, President Davis agonized over whether to commit Beauregard to action, and thus “war.”  Confederate Secretary of State Robert Toombs of Georgia was Davis’s only Cabinet member to oppose the use of military force against Fort Sumter.  Toombs foretold that “the firing upon that fort will inaugurate a civil war greater than any the world has yet seen.”  Neither Davis nor Lincoln wanted to fire “the first shot” of any conflict.  But Fort Sumter’s impending resupply, and the possibility of South Carolina attacking independently if indecision continued, ultimately prompted Davis to act.

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