- The Washington Times - Friday, December 22, 2006

Nearly 11/2 centuries after the great bombardment that ignited the American Civil War, Fort Sumter, the target of the bombardment, is still an imposing sight at the entrance to Charleston Harbor in South Carolina.

The Stars and Stripes still flies high over the remnants of the fort’s walls — which remain scarred and battered by that fierce 34-hour Confederate bombardment and subsequent Union attempts to retake the fort. Any visitor to Charleston with an interest in the Civil War is almost magnetically attracted to this centrally positioned pentagon.

To someone driving across the spectacular Ravenel Bridge on Route 17 near the tip of the Charleston peninsula, Fort Sumter appears in the distance as a small speck of land in the middle of the harbor. Yet, even to someone like me, who had seen drawings and photographs of the fort and read about it but had never been to the harbor, the fort is instantly recognizable. For the Civil War buff, Fort Sumter visually dominates Charleston Harbor because of its central location and the significance and consequences of what happened there on April 12 through 14, 1861.

Fort Sumter became the focus of the nation’s sectional crisis because South Carolina was the “cradle of secession.” The month after Abraham Lincoln was elected president, delegates in South Carolina drafted secession articles in a Baptist Church in Columbia, the state’s capital, and formally voted to separate from the Union a few days later at a convention in Charleston.

Charleston, like Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, was an important Atlantic seaport protected by military forts, including Fort Sumter. Construction of the fort began in 1829, and it was still unfinished and unoccupied when South Carolina seceded from the Union.

A small garrison of Union troops commanded by Maj. Robert Anderson occupied Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island on the north side of the harbor in December 1860. South Carolina’s leaders and most of its citizens considered Forts Sumter and Moultrie and other harbor forts as property of the new, independent republic of South Carolina and demanded their immediate surrender. Outgoing U.S. President James Buchanan refused to recognize South Carolina’s independence but equivocated on the issue of whether to forcibly maintain Union control of the harbor forts.

On Dec. 26, 1860, Anderson, acting on his own initiative, ensured that the dispute over the harbor forts would focus on Sumter by stealthily moving most of the Fort Moultrie garrison to Sumter. When Anderson ordered the Stars and Stripes hoisted over the massive walls of Fort Sumter, South Carolinians became enraged, and the state’s volunteers occupied Fort Moultrie, Fort Johnson (on the south side of the harbor on James Island), and Castle Pinckney (closer to the tip of the Charleston Peninsula). South Carolina forces also erected batteries at several locations around the harbor. Fort Sumter was threatened from three sides.

Buchanan’s military advisers told him that Sumter could not be held against a determined assault unless it was significantly reinforced. Some thought holding the fort was impossible. If sufficiently armed and garrisoned, the fort commanded the sea approaches to Charleston, but it was vulnerable to assault and bombardment from the land around the harbor.

Buchanan negotiated with South Carolina Gov. Francis Pickens about control of the forts and attempted to reinforce Fort Sumter in January 1861 by sending 200 troops and supplies on a merchant vessel named Star of the West. This vessel was turned back by South Carolina batteries in a limited action that historian David Detzer, in his excellent book “Allegiance: Fort Sumter, Charleston, and the Beginning of the Civil War,” calls the first military engagement of the Civil War.

Meanwhile, five other Southern states (Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana) seceded from the Union. In early February 1861, those states and South Carolina formed the Confederate States of America and elected Jefferson Davis as president. By early March, Texas joined the new government, and most of the Federal forts in Confederate territory were seized by Confederate forces.

In his inaugural address on March 4, 1861, the new U.S. president announced that although he had no desire to interfere with slavery where it already existed, he would not countenance its expansion. Abraham Lincoln made it clear, however, that no state had the legal right to secede from the Union and cautioned secessionists that he would use the power of his office “to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the government.” South Carolina and the other states of the Confederacy took that to mean that Lincoln would not willingly surrender Fort Sumter.

During the next month, however, Lincoln’s government sent mixed signals. Secretary of State William Seward intimated to Confederate negotiators that Federal troops would voluntarily evacuate Sumter; many of Anderson’s men at the fort assumed that would happen. Anderson’s fondest hope was to avoid war, even if it meant abandoning Sumter. When Lincoln first put the matter to a vote among his Cabinet, most recommended that Fort Sumter be abandoned. Most of Lincoln’s military advisers agreed.

Lincoln, however, was determined to supply and reinforce the fort and, some historians believe, to goad the Confederates into firing the “first shot” of the now inevitable war. He approved sending supplies and reinforcements to Sumter and notified South Carolina’s governor that an attempt would be made to provision the fort. Anderson had informed Washington that food supplies would run out in mid-April.

On April 6, Lincoln ordered a naval expedition to bring provisions to Fort Sumter. He informed Gov. Pickens that “an attempt will be made to supply Fort Sumter with provisions only; and that, if such attempt be not resisted, no effort to throw in men, arms, or ammunition will be made, without further notice [except] in case of an attack on the Fort.” With this message, historian Shelby Foote explained, “Lincoln had maneuvered [Jefferson Davis] into the position of either having to back down … or else to fire the first shot of the war.”

Davis ordered Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard to reduce Fort Sumter before the Union relief mission arrived. Robert Toombs of Georgia, an ardent secessionist, warned Davis that firing on Fort Sumter would “inaugurate a civil war greater than any the world has yet seen.”

To bombard the fort at that time, Toombs said, “is suicide, murder, and you will lose us every friend [in] the North. You will wantonly strike a hornets’ nest which extends from mountains to ocean. Legions now quiet will swarm out and sting us to death. It is unnecessary. It puts us in the wrong. It is fatal.”

At about 4:30 a.m. on April 12, a Confederate battery at Fort Johnson fired a single mortar shell above Fort Sumter, which was the signal for other Confederate batteries on the harbor to begin the bombardment. For the next 34 hours, shot and shell crashed into Sumter’s three-story-high walls and wreaked havoc inside the fort. Barracks and other buildings caught fire.

“Great gouts of flame erupted toward the sky, visible for miles,” Mr. Detzer writes. ” ‘Indestructible’ Fort Sumter seemed an inferno. … The inferno roared and screeched. Timbers collapsed, brick and mortar and granite cracked and fell from fifty feet above.”

Confederate artillery fired more than 3,000 shots at the fort. The Union guns at Sumter returned about a thousand. On April 14, with the fort’s provisions almost exhausted, Anderson agreed to evacuate Sumter. Until then, remarkably, no one on either side had been killed. The first fatality of the Civil War, Union Pvt. Daniel Hough, died when Union troops fired a final salute to the U.S. flag at Sumter and an ember fell into gunpowder, causing an explosion.

The heroic resistance by Union troops at Fort Sumter ignited patriotic fervor throughout much of the North. Lincoln’s call for volunteers to put down the rebellion produced a favorable response. Although few people realized it at the time, Robert Toombs was right: The firing on Fort Sumter started a horrible and bloody civil war — and that war was fatal to the Confederacy.

Fort Sumter was a Confederate stronghold during most of the war, enabling the Rebel navy to pierce the attempted Union blockade of the Atlantic coast. Between April 1863 and early 1865, Sumter withstood repeated Union bombardments and sieges, but in the process, its walls were reduced virtually to rubble. (Today, only one story of the original three-story wall remains.) Confederate forces finally abandoned the fort on Feb. 17, 1865, in response to Union Gen. William T. Sherman’s advance into South Carolina.

On April 14, 1865, precisely four years after evacuating Sumter, Anderson helped raise over the fort the same American flag that he had been forced to take down in 1861. (That flag can be viewed in the museum at the fort.) At a dinner later that evening, Anderson proposed a toast to “the good, the great, the honest man, Abraham Lincoln.”

Historian David Detzer dramatically concludes his book on Fort Sumter by noting, “At almost that precise moment, John Wilkes Booth put a gun to the head of the president of the United States and pulled the trigger.”

Francis P. Sempa, author of “Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century,” is an assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.

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