This Day in History: The beginning of the Civil War

On this day in 1861, the first shot of the Civil War is fired.

You may remember from yesterday’s story that Confederate and Union forces had been at a stalemate in South Carolina. The federal government needed to resupply Fort Sumter, but it could not do so without treading into Confederate territory. The Confederacy viewed such federal movements as a sign of aggression and as a challenge to its sovereignty. Matters came to a head when Lincoln decided to send an unarmed resupply convoy to the state. Confederate officers determined to resolve the situation before the convoy arrived. Thus, Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard sent a demand to Union Major Robert Anderson: Surrender Fort Sumter!

Major Anderson refused, but he indicated that, without supplies, he’d be “starved out in a few days” anyway. At 12:45 a.m. on April 12, Beauregard’s emissaries asked him to commit to a time by which he would evacuate. One of the emissaries later described Anderson as making “every possible effort to retain the aides till daylight, making one excuse and then another for not replying. Finally, at 3:15 A.M., he delivered his reply.”

Anderson’s answer? He indicated that he would evacuate on the 15th, unless he received additional supplies before then. Unfortunately, such an answer couldn’t satisfy the Confederate side. Federal resupply ships were expected before then. The emissaries delivered the Confederate reply within 5 minutes: “By authority of Brigadier-General Beauregard . . . 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, one emissary later reported, “was much affected. He seemed to realize the full import of the consequences, and the great responsibility of his position.”

True to their word, Confederate forces fired their first shot about one hour later, at 4:30 a.m. The shot was supposed to be fired by Virginia congressman Roger Pryor, but he backed out at the last minute. Reportedly, he stated in a “husky voice” that he “could not fire the first gun of the war.” Instead, Captain George S. James assumed responsibility for the action.

The fort was bombarded for about 34 hours. Union forces returned Confederate fire, but at a slower rate. They were low on ammunition. One Union officer later wrote that the “crashing of the shot, the bursting of the shells, the falling of the walls, and the roar of the flames, made a pandemonium of the fort.” Finally, Anderson said he would evacuate. Amazingly, the only casualty of the bombardment, to that point, was a mule.

As Anderson lowered the U.S. flag on April 14, he was permitted to do a 100-gun salute. The salute was never finished. Instead, an accidental explosion killed one man and mortally wounded another. These men turned out to be the first casualties of the war.

In the wake of the action at Fort Sumter, Lincoln called for volunteers. Some northern states were quick to comply, but others were horrified at the request. The Missouri Governor wrote: “Not one man will the state of Missouri furnish to carry on any such unholy crusade.” Some states, of course, were prompted to join the secession movement.

“[A]nd the war came,” as Lincoln would say. When South Carolina first seceded, many southerners were certain that war would not follow. In fact, one U.S. Senator promised to drink any blood spilled in the effort. It was thought that “a lady’s thimble will hold all the blood that will be shed.”

Given the relatively bloodless beginning, could anyone then guess how bloody the war would turn out to be?