It was a time of terrible fear and tension. Even before 1860 had ended, South Carolina had announced that it had seceded from the Union. Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas followed in quick succession, and the first Congress of the Confederate States met in February 1861. By March 4, 1861, when new President Abraham Lincoln was finally inaugurated and took office, he faced a full-fledged rebellion — and a newly self-declared sovereign nation.
Fort Sumter, located in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina — the epicenter of the rebellion — became one of Lincoln’s first challenges. The day after his inauguration, Lincoln received a message from Major Robert Anderson, the commander of the fort’s garrison of less than 100 men, announcing that Fort Sumter was equipped with only six weeks’ supply of food. Anderson’s message presented the new President with an impossible choice. At the time, many southern states — including important border states like Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee — had not yet formally decided whether to secede. If Lincoln withdrew the garrison, wouldn’t that constitute a recognition that the Confederate States were no longer part of the Union and encourage the rebels? And if Lincoln tried to aid the garrison, wouldn’t the confrontation that was likely to result inflame the passions of the citizens of the uncommitted states and throw them over to the Confederate cause?
After weeks of deliberation, on April 8, 1861, Lincoln notified the governor of South Carolina that he would resupply the fort. Events then quickly spiraled out of control. The Confederate government decided to force the evacuation of Fort Sumter rather than permit it to be provisioned. On April 11, the Confederate commander delivered the evacuation ultimatum to Major Anderson, and in the early morning hours of April 12, 1861, the Confederates announced that the bombardment of the fort would begin in one hour.
At 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, the Confederate batteries opened fire. Some citizens of Charleston cheered, others wept and prayed. A few hours later, the Union forces returned fire. The battle continued for more than 30 hours, until buildings inside the fort were aflame and it became clear that restocking the fort would not be permitted. On April 13, Anderson surrendered the fort, and the Battle of Fort Sumter was over. No soldier on either side was killed during the bombardment — although, ironically, one soldier was killed and another mortally wounded during the attempt to complete a 100-gun salute to mark the fort’s surrender. The rest of the garrison then marched out of the fort, undisturbed, and returned to the North where they were welcomed as heroes.
One hundred and fifty years ago today, the American Civil War began.