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This Day in History: The Civil War begins

On this day in 1861, the first shot of the Civil War is fired. Was this moment inevitable? Not everyone thought so.

Tensions had long existed between North and South, of course, but Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 made things even worse. Southern states were irate! Seven seceded and formed themselves into the Confederate States of America. Confederate forces immediately got to work, effortlessly seizing federal forts, arsenals, and customs houses located in the South. After all, if the Confederacy was an independent nation, then it could not have another government’s offices in its territory.

At least one fort was better guarded than other federal properties, and it wouldn’t be taken so easily. Fort Sumter’s problem was more practical: It was running low on supplies. Unfortunately, any federal effort to resupply the fort would also intrude into South Carolina’s territory. The Confederacy viewed such federal movements as a sign of aggression and a challenge to its sovereignty.

A stalemate continued for weeks.

Matters finally came to a head when Lincoln decided to send an unarmed resupply convoy to the state. “In effect Lincoln flipped a coin with Confederate president Jefferson Davis, saying: Heads I win; tails you lose,” historian James McPherson notes. “The Confederacy could not allow federal resupply efforts, unless it also wanted federal occupation to continue. But if it prevented resupply efforts, then it would be blamed for starting the war.”

Confederate officers needed another answer—and fast! Thus, Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard sent a demand to Union Major Robert Anderson: Surrender Fort Sumter!

Major Anderson refused, but also noted that he’d be “starved out in a few days” anyway. Such an answer was insufficient, of course. The federal resupply convoy was simply too close. At 12:45 a.m. on April 12, Beauregard’s emissaries asked Anderson to commit to a time by which he would evacuate. Anderson’s answer came at 3:15 a.m.: He would evacuate on the 15th, unless he received additional supplies before then. The Confederate response was swift: “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.”

True to their word, Confederate forces began bombarding Fort Sumter about one hour later, at 4:30 a.m. 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.” Anderson finally agreed to evacuate after about 34 hours of this treatment. Amazingly, the only casualty, to that point, was a mule. (The first two casualties of the Civil War would come during an accidental explosion as Anderson left the fort on April 14.)

In the wake of Fort Sumter, Lincoln called for volunteers. Some northern states complied, but others were horrified. “Not one man will the state of Missouri furnish to carry on any such unholy crusade,” that state’s Governor wrote. Four more states responded by joining the secession movement instead.

“[A]nd the war came,” as Lincoln would say. No one had really expected it. In fact, when states began seceding, one U.S. Senator had promised to drink any blood spilled through the effort. It was thought that “a lady’s thimble will hold all the blood that will be shed.”

A surprisingly bloodless beginning for the very bloody war that would follow.

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