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Attack on Fort Sumter: The Civil War Begins

On the night of December 26, 1860, six days after South Carolina became the first state to secede from the union, Major Robert Anderson, commander of the federal forces in Charleston Harbor in Charleston, South Carolina, stealthily moved his small band of troops from Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island to Fort Sumter, an artificial island-fort built on rocks in the middle of the harbor. Fort Sumter was not even fully constructed when the federal troops moved there under the cover of night. But the alternative of staying at Fort Moultrie was implausible for Anderson, as it proved to be an inadequate defense. Fort Moultrie was an old fortification built in 1776 during the American Revolutionary War, but years of neglect and defenseless walls forced Anderson to rethink his strategy for defending federal fortifications in Charleston Harbor.

When news spread in Charleston that Fort Sumter had been occupied, South Carolina governor Francis Pickens sent Colonel J. Johnston Pettigrew to Fort Sumter to order Anderson and his troops to return to Fort Moultrie. Anderson, already a seasoned veteran of three wars, declined the offer. On learning of Anderson’s decision, Pickens ordered state troops to occupy Fort Moultrie and Castle Pinckney, along with Morris Island, which had its cannons trained on the shipping channels coming into the harbor. On January 5, 1861, then-president James Buchanan ordered the dispatch of the Star of the West, an unarmed paddlewheeler aimed at resupplying Fort Sumter, to Charleston Harbor. As the Star of the West entered the harbor’s main channel on January 9, the cannons at Morris Island, manned by cadets from the Citadel, fired upon the paddlewheeler. The shots mostly missed their mark, with one causing only slight damage; but it was enough to cause the steamer to turn back toward the sea. The first shots of the Civil War had been fired!

On April 6, newly inaugurated president Abraham Lincoln, realizing that supplies were about to run out at Fort Sumter, ordered a fleet of ships to Charleston Harbor in an attempt to once again resupply the fort. And the effort, once again, proved fruitless.

Surrounded by well-armed fortifications controlled by the Confederates and cut off from any supply channels, Anderson and his troops had run out of food and ammunition. By the time the ships arrived on April 12, 1861, Confederate troops had already fired upon Fort Sumter. Firing for 34 straight hours, the Confederates battered Fort Sumter. Anderson and his troops, nearly empty of ammunition, were unable to return in kind. With the shipping channels into Charleston Harbor cut off with no hope for fresh supplies, Anderson was eventually forced to surrender. The Civil War had begun.

You can find out more about Fort Sumter and the Civil War in eLibrary. A host of Research Topic pages and other resources are available for your research needs.

Research Topics:

Abraham Lincoln
Charleston, South Carolina
Civil War
Confederate States of America
Fort Sumter
ProQuest Research Topic Guide: American Civil War

Browse Topics:

1850-1870 Civil War Era
Abraham Lincoln
Fort Sumter
James Buchanan
Major Battles & Campaigns
Prelude to the Civil War
Secession
South Carolina History
United States History

Publications:

America’s Civil War (Magazine)
Civil War and Reconstruction: A Student Companion (Reference Book)
Civil War Battlefield Guide (Reference Book)
Civil War History (Magazine)
Civil War Times (Magazine)
Civil War Times Illustrated (Magazine)
The Civil War: A History in Documents (Book)

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