The Culmination of the Crisis.
President Lincoln entered his office above the East Room in the White
House on the morning of the day following his inauguration and
discovered a bundle of documents on his desk. The most important was
a letter from Joseph Holt, Buchanan’s departing Secretary of War.
Until then Lincoln had believed that he would have ample time to work out
the specifics of how he intended to fulfill his pledge to hold on to Fort
Sumter and Fort Pickens. Such was not to be. Holt’s letter
contained the disquieting news that Major Anderson was running low on
provisions, that the Federal garrison at Charleston could hold out for
only a few weeks at most, and that any attempt to send supplies
would, in Anderson’s opinion, require twenty thousand “good and well
“I confess that I would not be willing to risk my reputation on an attempt
to throw re-enforcements into this harbor within the time for our relief
rendered necessary by the limited supply of our provisions,” Anderson had
declared on February 28th.
According to Holt, the War Department, which had until recently had no
inkling that Anderson’s situation was so dire, was unprepared to undertake
a mission of such substantial size. There were only some 16,000
troops in the entire United States army, most of whom were deployed at
small garrisons in the West. Dismayed, Lincoln summoned Winfield
Scott and ordered him to study Holt’s letter and to make comments.
Scott, who completed his assignment that very night, was even more
discouraging than Holt and Anderson had been. “I now see no
alternative but a surrender, in some weeks,” Lincoln’s general in chief
reported. “Evacuation seems almost inevitable, & in this view our
distinguished Chief Engineer . . . concurs--if, indeed, the worn out
garrison be not assaulted & carried in the present week.”
Scott said that he would need at least four months to assemble a force of
requisite strength to get through to Fort Sumter.
Consider the impact these unanticipated developments must have had upon
Abraham Lincoln. Only one day before he had promised to a crowd of
thousands that under his Administration no Federal property would be lost
in the South. Clearly, the place of greatest patriotic symbolism in
the mind of the public was Fort Sumter. The President was only too
aware that Robert Anderson and his gallant band of men in Charleston
Harbor had become heroes throughout the North. For him to admit that
he had spoken prematurely and had overestimated his ability to control
events and for him to instruct Major Anderson to obey Confederate demands
to vacate Fort Sumter would be shameful. Even more importantly, it would
destroy his political base.
“All together, the information and advice which Lincoln received on his
first full day in office were enough to stagger a less determined or
resilient man,” says Richard N. Current in Lincoln and the First Shot.
Always the pragmatic politician, Lincoln searched for some way out of this
impasse. He doggedly refused to accept the guidance of his military
advisors, including that of his Secretary of War, Simon Cameron
(1799-1889), a Pennsylvanian whom Lincoln had appointed to his Cabinet for
strictly political reasons and who was in no sense the President’s friend
or confidant. On March 9th the President told the members
of his Cabinet about the grievous state of affairs. Astonished by
the news, the majority of secretaries suggested that Lincoln get more
detailed information. Lincoln concurred and ordered Winfield Scott to
reexamine the topic of how Major Anderson might be helped. Scott, a
Virginian, submitted a detailed analysis of the situation to the President
on March 11th. “As a practical military question the time
for succoring Sumter with any means at hand had passed away nearly a month
ago,” Scott maintained. “Since then a surrender under assault or
from starvation has been merely a question of time.”
In Lieutenant General Scott’s opinion, this settled the affair. He
anticipated that he would soon be ordered to make the necessary
preparations to evacuate Anderson and his men and to bring them North.
That the men at Fort Sumter thought they would be withdrawn is certain.
“Unless otherwise directed I shall discharge my force when the orders for
evacuation arrive, and leave with the command, with my assistants, and
report to you at Washington,” Captain Foster told his military superiors
on March 14th.
President Lincoln, aware that abandoning Fort Sumter would be politically
devastating, persisted in holding out for a more acceptable solution. “If
Fort Sumter is evacuated, the new administration is done forever,” stated
the writer of a letter that appeared in the New York Times.
To understand more fully how matters stood at Fort Sumter, the President
went across town to see Mrs. Abner Doubleday. He requested that she permit
him to read her husband’s recent letters to her.
Lincoln met on March 13th with Montgomery Blair
(1813-1883), his Postmaster General, and with Blair’s brother-in-law,
Gustavus Vasa Fox (1821-1883), a former naval officer. A bald-headed
textile executive from Massachusetts, Fox had already presented a plan for
resupplying and reinforcing Fort Sumter to President Buchanan, but it had
He now explained the scheme to Lincoln. “Mr. Blair took me at once
to the White House, and I explained the plan to the President,” Fox
declared several weeks later.
Fox insisted that Scott’s and Cameron’s analyses of the situation were
flawed, because their conclusions rested upon the assumption that the only
way to reach Fort Sumter was to overwhelm the artillery batteries guarding
the harbor entrance, especially those at Cummings Point on Morris Island
and those at Fort Moultrie. In Fox’s opinion, the key to success was
to disperse the small Confederate naval force that guarded the sandbar
some three miles off the harbor entrance, so that shallow draft vessels,
specifically three tugboats, could maneuver across the sandbar and use a
variety of approaches into the harbor. Fox insisted that it would be
extremely difficult for shore batteries to hit a small boat maneuvering
freely at night. He therefore suggested that the tugboats be used to take
men and supplies to Fort Sumter under the cover of darkness once the
harbor entrance had been cleared of naval defenders. Fox was
confident that Anderson and his tiny garrison could be reinforced in
weeks, not months as General Scott and Secretary Cameron continued to
assert. The President was intrigued.
Lincoln summoned his Cabinet on March 14th to hear
experts from the army and navy assess the feasibility of Fox’s plan.
The army insisted that the Confederate shore artillery would obliterate
any ships attempting to enter Charleston Harbor. General Scott
“informed the President that my plan was practicable in February, but that
the increased number of batteries erected at the mouth of the harbor since
that time rendered it impossible in March,” Fox reported.
Planners from the navy were less pessimistic about the chances for
success. They argued that small ships, especially if they approached
Fort Sumter at night, would probably escape destruction. The
greatest danger, the navy explained, would occur when the troops were
disembarked at Fort Sumter. The President, remembering that Abner
Doubleday had also declared in one of the letters to his wife that it
would be very hard to hit a diminutive boat bobbing atop the waves,
accepted the tactical soundness of Fox’s notion. Lincoln sent a note the
next day to the members of the Cabinet, asking each Secretary to state in
writing whether he thought such a relief mission should be sent. Four
advised against dispatching the ships; two supported the mission; and one,
Secretary of the Interior Caleb B. Smith, was ambiguous. Secretary
of War Cameron still advised against any endeavor to reinforce Anderson.
“I beg leave to say . . . that my mind has been most reluctantly forced to
the conclusion that it would be most unwise now to make such an attempt.”
William H. Seward, Secretary of State
William H. Seward, Lincoln’s self-assured, cigar-smoking Secretary of
State, was particularly strident in opposing Fox’s scheme, but his reasons
were political, not military. Any efforts to relieve Fort Sumter, he
contended, would “provoke combat, and probably initiate a civil war.”
Like Lincoln a former Whig, Seward believed that Unionists in the South,
even the Deep South, would in time be able to gain political ascendancy
and subdue regional demands for separate nationhood. But the only
hope for such a fortuitous outcome, he argued, was for the United
States to accept General Scott’s advice and withdraw Anderson and his men
from Fort Sumter. Seward contended that if Washington had to
demonstrate the legitimacy of its prerogatives, it should do so by
reinforcing the Federal troops at Fort Pickens near Pensacola, Fla.,
not those at Fort Sumter. The Secretary of State further elucidated
his position in a lengthy memorandum he delivered to President
Lincoln on April 1st. Again, he urged the President to
order Major Anderson to evacuate Fort Sumter and even went so far as to
suggest that the United States assert its interests against Spain and
France in hopes that such actions would “rouse a vigorous continental
spirit of independence.”
Convinced that he was more politically adroit and seasoned than the
President, the Secretary of State had conducted indirect, secret talks
with Confederate commissioners who had come to Washington at the beginning
of March to seek a peaceful settlement of the crisis.
On March 15th, two justices of the Supreme Court reported
orally on discussions they had had with Seward about the prospects for
peace. Judge John Campbell told the commissioners that Confederate
officials would learn in the very near future that “the order for
the evacuation of Sumter had been made.”
“If there is faith in man we may rely on the assurances we have as to the
status” of affairs, the commissioners stated on March 20th in a
communiqué to Robert A. Toombs, Confederate Secretary of State.
Ex-Senator Louis Wigfall of Texas expressed similar optimism.
“Believed here that Anderson will be ordered to evacuate Sumter in five
days,” he reported on March 11th.
Such undertakings by the Secretary of State served no good purpose.
In addition to undermining the President, these conversations raised
unrealistic expectations in the South. Once disappointed, as they
inevitably would be, Confederate officials would become even more
convinced of the insincerity of the Federal government.
Two events on March 28th were critical in persuading President
Lincoln to make the final decision to attempt to reinforce Fort Sumter.
First, he received a disappointing report from a special emissary, Stephen
Hurlburt, an Illinois friend and native South Carolinian whom he had sent
South to gauge the level of Unionist sentiment. There was “no
attachment to the Union,” Hurlburt declared.
This information enervated the contention, advanced by people like Seward
and Cameron, that eschewing a military confrontation with the
seceded States might result in eventual reunification. Second,
Lincoln got a communiqué from General Scott that made the President
increasingly skeptical about his general-in-chief’s understanding of the
situation. Scott argued that the evacuation of Fort Sumter and Fort
Pickens “would instantly soothe and give confidence to the eight
remaining slaveholding States, and render cordial adherence to this Union
To Lincoln’s way of thinking, General Scott was advocating nothing less
than total appeasement. Moreover, Scott’s course of action would be
politically suicidal. Lincoln would have none of it. The President
gave final approval on April 4th for Fox to proceed with
his mission. “It having been decided to succor Fort Sumter you
have been selected for this important duty,” declared Secretary of War
Cameron in his dispatch to Fox.
Gustavus Vasa Fox
Fox had visited Fort Sumter on March 25th as a special
intermediary of President Lincoln’s and was, therefore, thoroughly
familiar with the site. Sailing from New York City on April 10th
aboard a chartered steamer, the Baltic, with some two hundred
troops and enough supplies to sustain Anderson and his men for a year, Fox
anticipated that he would rendezvous off Charleston Harbor with a powerful
Union armada, including the three tugboats that would be used to make the
final push across the sandbar and on to Fort Sumter.
The Secretary of War notified Anderson that a relief expedition was on the
way. “Hoping still that you will be able to sustain yourself till
the 11th or 12th instant, the expedition will go
forward; and, finding your flag flying, will attempt to provision you,
and, in case the effort is resisted, will endeavor also to re-enforce
you,” read Cameron’s dispatch, which was sent by ordinary mail and
received by Anderson on April 7th.
Incredibly, this was the first direct contact Anderson had had with the
Unlike the ill-fated Star of the West episode, this attempt to
resupply Fort Sumter was not to be a covert operation. Governor Pickens
was forewarned on April 8th. A letter sent by special courier told
the South Carolina Governor to expect “an attempt . . . to supply
Fort Sumter with provisions only.” If Confederate forces did not
resist, the letter continued, “no effort to throw in men, arms, or
ammunition” would be attempted.
Major Robert Anderson and his small band of troops had watched for weeks
as the Confederates under P. T. Beauregard had systematically
fortified their positions. The Federal defenders paid particular
attention to Confederate efforts to strengthen the artillery batteries on
Morris Island. The Union soldiers realized that the guns at that
location were the closest to Fort Sumter and could fire shells that could
reach the gorge or southwestern side of the citadel, where the wharf and
the main gate were situated and where any troops attempting to reinforce
the garrison would have to land. “It is reported that General
Beauregard visited the batteries on Cummings Point yesterday,” declared
Captain Foster on March 5th.
Much to Abner Doubleday’s displeasure, Confederate steamers passed by
unmolested almost hourly on their voyages to and from Cummings Point,
transporting men, equipment and supplies. Major Anderson was simply
obeying his orders. His most recent military instructions had
arrived from Secretary of War Holt on February 23rd. “You will
continue, as theretofore, to act strictly on the defensive,” the dispatch
had read, “and to avoid, by all means compatible with the safety of your
command, a collision with the hostile forces by which you are surrounded.”
P. T. Beauregard
“The preparation of Sumter for defense afforded a fine field for
ingenuity,” proclaimed Captain James Chester.
With only about 80 troops under his control, Anderson recognized that the
greatest threat to his bastion would occur if a Confederate landing party
attacked at several points simultaneously and gained access to the
interior of the fort. He took several steps to meet such an
eventuality. The wharf was mined, and a brick wall about six feet
high with an opening in the middle barely large enough for a single man to
pass through was constructed across the main gate. Riprapping or the
loose assemblage of large stones at the water’s edge was lowered about
five feet so that invaders could not climb easily into the gun embrasures
or openings in the outer escarpment wall. Anderson ordered the
construction of machicolations to impede the progress of enemy troops
moving along the esplanade or narrow path between the base of the fort and
the edge of the water. These were iron-lined boxes with holes in the
bottom. Anchored by long beams that extended over the parapet, the
box portion of the gallery could be pushed beyond the edge of the wall.
A soldier stationed inside the box could fire straight down on the hapless
invaders. Hand-grenades, with long lanyards attached to friction
fuses, were assembled. Soldiers could throw them over the parapet
and cause them to explode about four feet from the ground. Masonry
jars filled with stones and gunpowder were distributed along the outer
base of the fort. Lanyards extended inside the citadel, where
soldiers stood ready to pull the cords and send rocks flying. The
Federal forces even fashioned three barrels loaded with stones and
gunpowder that they planned to roll over the parapet in hopes of killing
and maiming unwelcome intruders. One was tested with dramatic
results. “. . . the explosion did look very destructive, as the
paving-stones dashed up the water for a distance of fifty feet from the
fort,” remembered Abner Doubleday.
The pace of everyday life inside Fort Sumter during the late winter and
early spring of 1861 was characterized by hard work, boredom punctuated by
moments of high drama, and a growing sense of deprivation and frustration.
The weather was changeable. Warm one day. Bitterly cold the
next. The troops grumbled because they had to chew rope as a most
unsatisfactory alternate for tobacco. Dysentery, the soldier’s
seemingly universal malady, was common. Food was scarce, even though
Governor Pickens still allowed meager supplies of beef and vegetables to
proceed by boat from Charleston to Fort Johnson and then to Fort Sumter.
Pork and hard biscuits were standard larder. There was no soap.
There were no candles. Fuel began to run short. “The sixth and
last temporary building on the parade ground is being demolished for
fuel,” Foster reported on March 26th.
The troops had to substitute bits of torn-up shirts for cartridge
bags. “The last barrel of flour was issued day before yesterday,”
wrote Anderson on April 4th.
The high point of the daily routine was the arrival of the mail
boat, which Governor Pickens also continued to permit.
One day the artillerymen at Fort Sumter tested a cannon by firing it
toward the Charleston waterfront with what they thought was a small charge
of powder. The shell sailed much farther than they expected, and
Confederate authorities journeyed to Fort Sumter the next day to protest
this untoward event and obtain an explanation from the embarrassed
perpetrators. Photographers visited Fort Sumter on February 8th
and took group portraits of Anderson and his scraggly band. “I think
it proved a profitable speculation, for the sale was quite large,”
On March 8th, Confederate gunners at Cummings Point
accidentally set off a loaded cannon, and the shell struck Fort Sumter.
“Major Stevens came with a white flag and a letter from the
commanding officer, Colonel Gregg, offering an ample apology,” Foster told
his military superiors.
“A negro boy, escaping from the city, came down last night about 11
o’clock in a canoe to this fort,” declared Captain Foster on March 12th.
“He was at once sent back.”
On April 3rd, with the culmination of the crisis unknowingly
fast approaching, a schooner flying the American flag sailed into
the harbor and was fired upon by the batteries on Morris Island. The
captain, who had thought that he was arriving at Savannah, quickly
recognized his mistake and hastened unharmed back to sea.
Major Anderson was becoming increasingly annoyed by the course of events
in Charleston Harbor. Consider what this harried man had experienced
since coming to Charleston on November 21, 1860. For the first five
weeks he had repeatedly sent requests for reinforcements, only
to be denied again and again by Burchanan’s Secretary of War. It had
been the absence of sufficient troops, coupled with prohibitions from
Washington against his taking even the most rudimentary defensive
measures, which had prompted Anderson to make the daring move from Fort
Moultrie to Fort Sumter on December 26th. Anderson, it is
worth remembering, had regarded this transfer not as a provocative
measure but as a ploy that would provide sufficient time for
diplomats to negotiate a peaceful settlement of the crisis. After
December 26th, and he never deviated from this position,
Anderson opposed the sending of reinforcements to Fort Sumter, because he
did not think they would contribute to the settlement of the crisis.
When the Star of the West had arrived off Charleston Harbor on
January 9, 1861, Anderson had been asleep in his apartment for a very
simple reason. He had had no word from official circles that a
relief mission was on the way. On January 10th,
Secretary of War Holt had congratulated Major Anderson on his almost
instantaneous decision to withhold fire. Six days later, Holt had assured
Anderson that no attempt would be made to reinforce him unless Anderson
informed Washington that he was about to run out of supplies.
Robert Anderson’s political sympathies were with the South. He
believed that the people of South Carolina were the legitimate owners of
Fort Sumter. “He was in favor of surrendering all the forts to the
States in which they were located,” proclaimed Abner Doubleday.
“This course would simply be an acknowledgment that the sovereignty did
not vest in the United States.”
But Anderson believed that he was duty bound to resist if he were
attacked. The commander of Fort Sumter did not anticipate that the
outbreak of hostilities would occur, however, because the only
precipitating act -- another effort to reinforce him -- would never happen
unless he requested it. Moreover, in his opinion, it made no sense
to try to send supplies and additional troops to Charleston. “He
agreed with General Scott that an entrance from the sea was impossible,”
Fox reported Anderson as saying during their talks at Fort Sumter on March
Captain Seymour, one of Anderson’s chief subordinates, agreed. “To
do so openly,” he declared, “by vessels alone, unless they are shot-proof,
is virtually impossible, so numerous and powerful are the opposing
General Winfield Scott agreed. Secretary of War Cameron agreed.
Secretary of State Seward agreed. Indeed, no credible military
official advocated dispatching a relief expedition to Fort Sumter.
Throughout March and early April, Anderson anticipated that any day
he would receive his orders to evacuate Fort Sumter. Commenting on
his decision to send civilian laborers ashore, he sent the following
message on April 1st to his military superiors. “Having
been in daily expectation . . . of receiving orders to vacate this
post, I have kept these men here as long as I could.”
On April 6th, the day before he got word that Fox’s
armada was on the way, Anderson expressed utter frustration about the
complexities of the situation that surrounded him.
The truth is that the sooner we are out of this harbor
the better. Our flag runs an hourly risk of being in-
sulted, and my hands are tied by my orders, and if
that was not the case, I have not the power to pro-
tect it. God grant that neither I nor any other offi-
cer of our Army may be again placed in a position
of such mortification and humiliation.
Imagine how Robert Anderson must have felt on April 7th when he
learned from a Federal emissary that Fox was coming. He did try to
send a dispatch to U. S. Army Headquarters on April 8th.
The note, which Jefferson Davis called a “frank and manly letter,”
was intercepted and retained by South Carolina officials.
In it Anderson wrote movingly about his feelings concerning Lincoln’s
decision to send the relief mission to Charleston Harbor. “I ought
to have been informed that the expedition was to come,” he proclaimed.
Anderson foresaw and agonized over the inevitable consequences of the
expedition. “We shall strive to do our duty, though I frankly say
that my heart is not in the war which I see to be thus commenced.,” he
confessed. “That God will still avert it, and cause us to resort to
pacific measures to maintain our rights, is my ardent prayer.”
Anderson’s disdain for Fox’s military judgment is evident in this
communiqué. “Even with his boat at our walls the loss of life (as I
think I mentioned to Mr. Fox) in unloading her will more than
pay for the good to be accomplished by the expedition.” Anderson
reminded Washington that Fort Sumter would still be “out of
position, surrounded by strong works, which must be carried to make this
fort of the least value to the United States Government.” He ended
by saying he had been led to believe that “the idea, merely hinted at to
me by Captain Fox, would not be carried out.”
Clearly, Robert Anderson believed that President Lincoln was about to make
a calamitous mistake.
Confederate authorities had been uncertain until April 8th
about what the Federal government would do with respect to Anderson and
his men. As early as March 9th, Confederate Secretary of
War L. P. Walker had speculated that Fort Sumter was silent “only because
of the weakness of the garrison.” “Should re-enforcements get in,”
he had predicted, “her guns would open fire upon you.”
On April 2nd, Walker had announced that his government had “at
no time placed any reliance on assurances by the Government at Washington
in respect to the evacuation of Fort Sumter.”
On other occasions, however, Southern expectations, no doubt fueled at
least in part by Seward’s unofficial negotiations and by headlines in
newspapers in the North and South, had been more sanguine.
“Has Sumter been evacuated?”, the Confederate commissioners in Washington
had asked Beauregard on March 20th. “Any action by
Anderson indicating it?”
“The probability is, if there be any reliance on rumors semi-official in
their character, that Fort Sumter will be shortly abandoned,” Beauregard
had reported on March 21st.
Such is the nature of military affairs that one may hope for the best, but
one must plan for the worst. Accordingly, Beauregard had labored
night and day during late March and early April to invigorate Charleston’s
defenses. Hundreds of black slaves were dispatched to Morris Island
to dig trenches, place timbers, haul cannon, and otherwise assist in
building up the shore fortifications and artillery near the entrance to
the harbor. Rather than creating a single battery, Beauregard
devised a scheme for dispersing his guns. He reasoned that an
attacking force would be hard pressed to silence the Confederate artillery
if a series of strong points, each protected with heavy merlons and
traverses, was constructed along the shore.
“One gun ashore, well protected, is equivalent to many guns afloat, and
the advantage is certain to be on the side of the fire of the detached
batteries, especially when guarded against a land attack by a proper
supporting force,” writes Alfred Roman, an early student of
Mortars were brought to Charleston from as far away as Savannah and
Pensacola and distributed at various points to create a circle of fire
with Fort Sumter at its center. Advising Beauregard in this innovative
arrangement was Charles C. Lee, a member of the faculty of the North
Carolina Military Institute, a private military school that had opened in
Charlotte, N.C. on October 1, 1859.
Beauregard expended considerable time and resources on efforts to increase
the firepower at Fort Moultrie. He reasoned that from that location
the Confederates would be able to bring Anderson’s barbette guns, those
mounted on exposed platforms along the parapet, under enfiladed fire.
“They are also at work on a new battery, not far from the Moultrie House,
on Sullivan’s Island,” Anderson reported on March 23rd.
“This makes, as far as we can judge, four batteries between the fort and
the east end of the island.”
The Federal garrison became even more alarmed by the threat from
Sullivan’s Island on April 10th. “ . . . a house directly
opposite to us in Moultrieville, at the nearest point, was suddenly
removed, disclosing a formidable masked battery,” wrote Abner Doubleday.
The New Yorker immediately told the troops and laborers in Fort Sumter
to start erecting sand-bag traverses, but Anderson decided to
abandon the guns along the parapet. “This, of course, was much less
dangerous for the men, but it deprived us of the most powerful and
effective part of our armament,” Doubleday explained many years later,
still unable to disguise his disagreement with Anderson’s tactical
The final and most ingenious weapon system that the Confederates placed at
Sullivan’s island was a floating, iron-clad artillery battery.
It was a bizarre contraption. Little more than a big houseboat that
cost South Carolina approximately $12,000 to construct, this clumsy craft
carried four pieces of artillery. Originally designed to be placed
between Charleston and Fort Sumter so it could blow holes in the rear wall
of the citadel, the iron-clad barge was anchored instead at a wharf on
Sullivan’s Island, because the Confederate troops, nicknaming it “The
Slaughter Pen,” refused to go aboard the vessel unless it remained in
Beauregard had no doubts about his responsibilities as Confederate
commander at Charleston. S. C. “Under no circumstances are you to
allow provisions to be sent to Fort Sumter,” Secretary Walker told
Beauregard on April 8th.
Beauregard moved quickly to finish his final arrangements. Mail service to
the Federal garrison ended that very day. Supplies to Fort Sumter
had been cut off the day before. Beauregard sent steamboats
back and forth between Charleston and Morris Island, taking large numbers
of troops to defend the shore batteries there against possible Federal
landing parties. At Cummings Point he completed the installation of
a Blakely 12-pounder, the first rifled gun fired in combat in North
America. “It throws a shell or twelve-pound shot with the accuracy
of a dueling pistol and with only one and a half pounds of powder,”
exclaimed Governor Pickens.
Manufactured in Liverpool, England, this formidable weapon was a gift to
the people of South Carolina from former Charlestonian Charles K. Prioleau.
Beauregard mounted a nine-inch Dahlgren gun near the western end of
Sullivan’s Island, to which he had recently sent the ominous floating
Observers were stationed atop the Charleston Lighthouse. Turning
their spyglasses toward the horizon, they were to sound an alarm if any
hostile vessels were sighted. Finally, Beauregard sent barges into
the channel entrances. Loaded with wood, they were to be set
afire if Federal ships attempted to steam into the harbor.
Charleston was abuzz with excitement and anticipation. Mary
Chestnut, who had turned 38 on March 31st, was making the
social rounds of Charleston, principally because her husband, Colonel
James Chestnut, was one of Bauregard’s chief aides. She attended
waltzes. She participated in elegant dinners where she consumed such
delicacies as biscuit glace¢
and champagne frappe¢.
But beneath this veneer of frivolity there existed a sense of dread and
foreboding in the depths of this sensitive woman’s soul. “One’s
heart is in one’s mouth all the time,” she wrote on April 4th.
“Any minute, the cannon may open on us, the fleet come in.”
Two days later she declared, “The plot thickens, the air is red-hot with
Keziah Brevard, still on her plantation near Columbia, S. C., was also
apprehensive about the trend of events in Charleston. Her mood was almost
forlorn. “I pray that all things will be in order for peace,”
Brevard stated on April 11th. “Why are they stubborn
about the forts,” she continued, “if they have any thought about
Even George F. Robertson, a seven-year-old boy in distant Tennessee,
writing many years later as an adult, remembered these fateful days as a
time totally devoid of joy. “I’ll never forget it, if I were to live
a thousand years,” he proclaimed. “There was an oppressive feeling
of solemnity resting down upon everybody. I think the whole population old
enough to appreciate something of the state of affairs, felt that
oppressiveness. It was as if half the people were attending the
funeral of the other half.”
Meanwhile, in Montgomery, Ala., President Jefferson Davis and the members
of his Cabinet were considering their options. Lengthy deliberations
were held on April 9th and April 10th. “The
Confederate government was now behind a big diplomatic eight ball,” writes
historian T. Harry Williams. “If it let the expedition proceed
peaceably to Sumter, the fort could hold out for months, a physical
mockery of the new government’s claims to sovereignty within its own
borders. If it acted to stop the expedition, it would . . . place
itself in the position of opening war by firing the first shot.”
Davis and his colleagues gave no serious thought to backing down.
They knew that the South Carolinians would respond to equivocation or
retreat on Davis’s part by taking matters into their own hands and
attacking Fort Sumter on their own.
The main question was one of timing. Should the Confederate
government instruct Beauregard to wait until the arrival of Fox’s flotilla
before opening fire or should it tell the Confederate commander to proceed
prior to the appearance of the Federal fleet? Military
considerations mandated that Beauregard not tarry. Otherwise he
would have to deal with the Federal guns at Fort Sumter as well as with
those aboard Fox’s ships. H. J. Hartstene, commander of the small
Confederate fleet that was to guard the harbor entrance, told Beauregard
that if Federal ships arrived before Fort Sumter was overwhelmed and if
they opened fire in support of Anderson, the Confederdates would lose all
their steamers “as there will be no escape for me.”
On April 10th, Secretary of War Walker sent the following
dispatch to General Beauregard.
If you have no doubt of the authorized charter
of the agent who communicated to you the intention
of the Washington Government to supply Fort Sumter
by force you will at once demand its evacuation, and
if this is refused proceed, in such manner as you
may determine, to reduce it. Answer.
Beauregard replied that
he would make the demand at noon the next day. “The attempt to
represent us as the aggressors in the conflict which ensued is as
unfounded as the complaint made by the wolf against the lamb in the
familiar fable,” declared Jefferson Davis many years later.
L. P. Walker
It was not until about 3:45 P.M. on Thursday, April 11th
that Beauregard’s emissaries, including James Chestnut, arrived by rowboat
at Fort Sumter and presented the demand that Anderson and his soldiers
evacuate. “We must wait,” Mary Chestnut inscribed in her diary. “Why
did that green goose Anderson go into Fort Sumter? Then everything
began to go wrong.”
Beauregard had no desire to humiliate his former teacher at West Point.
The terms were generous. The Federal troops, it was proposed, could salute
the American flag as it was taken down. They could keep their
weapons and their personal property, and they would be transported to any
post in the United States they selected. Anderson thanked his
visitors and withdrew to confer with his fellow officers. The Union
commander returned some 45 minutes later and handed Chestnut and his two
companions a written response. “I regret that my sense of honor, and
of my obligations to my Government, prevent my compliance,” Anderson’s
As he escorted Beauregard emissaries back to the wharf, Anderson inquired
as to whether he would be notified before the bombardment began? He
was assured that he would be. Anderson then made a most purposeful
remark and, even more importantly, agreed that it could be delivered to
Beauregard. “I shall await the first shot,” he said, “and if you do
not batter us to pieces, we shall be starved out in a few days.”
“This gratuitous information ought never have been given to the enemy, in
view of the fact that a naval expedition was on its way to us,” wrote
Abner Doubleday in his published reminiscences.
One cannot help but conclude that Anderson was trying to circumvent his
fellow officers, all of whom had voted for continued resistance during
their recent meeting with Anderson. Anderson’s behavior, however
inappropriate from a strictly military perspective, was consistent with
his on-going efforts to prevent the outbreak of hostilities.
Still hoping that he could somehow find a legitimate reason to vacate Fort
Sumter, Anderson apparently seized upon the final two sentences in the
note he had received from Secretary of War Cameron on April 7th.
“It is not, however, the intention of the President to subject your
command to any danger or hardship beyond what, in your judgment, would be
usual in military life,” Cameron had stated. “Whenever, if at all,
in your judgment, to save yourself and command, a capitulation becomes a
necessity, you are authorized to make it.”
The Confederate emissaries returned to their rowboat, headed back toward
Fort Johnson and then on to Charleston, where they told Beauregard what
Major Anderson had said. After conferring by telegraph with
Secretary of War Walker and President Davis, Beauregard sent word back to
Fort Sumter. He stated that if Anderson would announce when Federal
troops would evacuate and in the meantime not open fire, the Confederates
would delay opening hostilities. “The forbearance of the Confederate
government, under the circumstances, is perhaps unexampled in history,”
Jefferson Davis wrote some twenty years later.
Chestnut and his compatriots got back into their rowboat one last time and
headed across the foggy harbor to deliver Beauregard’s message and to
obtain Anderson’s reply.
Mary Chestnut was only too aware of the momentous consequence of her
husband’s mission. “I do not pretend to go to sleep,” she
proclaimed. “How can I? If Anderson does not accept terms at
four o’clock, the orders are he shall be fired upon.”
Anderson gave a conditional response. He said that he would
abandon the fort at noon on April 15th if the Confederates did
not attack him and if prior to that time he did not receive “controlling
instructions” from Washington or get “additional supplies.”
The other Union officers at Fort Sumter had agreed to support this answer,
because they reasoned that Fox’s relief expedition would arrive by mid-day
on the 15th if it were going to come at all.
Chestnut, who was authorized to act on Beauregard’s behalf, was
disappointed. He shook his head and walked into a nearby artillery
embrasure where he wrote the following response and handed it to Major
Sir: By authority of Brigadier Beauregard, command-
ing the Provisional forces of the Confederate States,
we have the honor to notify you that he will open the
fire of his batteries on Fort Sumter in one hour from
It was about 3:30 A.M.,
Friday, April 12, 1861. Chestnut and the other Confederate emissaries
pushed off from Fort Sumter and disappeared into the darkness. When
Chestnut and his compatriots went ashore at Fort Johnson, they ordered
Captain George S. James, commander of the mortar battery at that location,
to fire the first shot at 4:30 A.M. Sailing in a high arc and
bursting almost directly above Fort Sumter, this single artillery round
was the signal that all other Confederate batteries should commence
shooting. The Civil War had begun.
There was something almost surrealistic about the artillery duel that
played itself out between the Confederate and Union batteries in
Charleston Harbor on April 12th and 13th.
Throngs of people gathered on roof tops to watch the culminating
spectacle. “Pa went down to Charleston just in time to witness from
the top of the Charleston Hotel, the whole proceeding of the bombardment,”
wrote Ella Thomas.
“The women were wild, there on the house top,” proclaimed Mary Chestnut.
“Prayers from the women and imprecations from the men; and then a shell
would light up the scene.”
The Charleston Mercury reported that crowds of people “thronged to
the East Bay Battery and other points of observation.”
Alfred Waddell, a newspaperman from Wilmington, N.C., was traveling to
Charleston that morning by train. About 20 miles from the historic
port he heard a “single dull, heavy report like a clap of thunder.”
“The excitement on the train at once became intense,” Waddell remembered.
The engineer pushed the throttle forward, propelling the locomotive
forward into town, the engine’s whistle screaming all the way to the
station. “Springing from the train and dashing through the
silent street we entered our hotel and ascended to the roof,” Waddell
continued, “and there I experienced sensations which never before or since
have been mine. . . . I realized that I was looking upon a civil war
among my countrymen.”
Bombardment of Fort Sumter
It was not a fair fight. The Confederates had 48 guns aimed at Fort
Sumter, and Anderson had only 21 with which to fire back.
There were about 7000 troops manning Beauregard’s batteries.
Only 128 soldiers and laborers were with Anderson. Beauregard had
ample supplies of lubricants, powder, and shells. Anderson’s
provisions were meager.
Confederate troops were relieved that their endless days of waiting were
over. They scurried from their tents all around Charleston Harbor in
the early morning darkness and began loading and aiming their guns,
including the deadly Blakely. Shell after shell slammed into Fort
Sumter. “Then the batteries opened on all sides,” remembered James
Chester, “and shot and shell went screaming over Sumter as if an army of
devils were swooping around it.”
Anderson decided to wait until daybreak to return fire. “As we had
no lights, we could in fact do nothing before that time, except to wander
around in the darkness, and fire without an accurate view of the enemy’s
works,” Doubleday explained.
The engagement had a distinctly chivalrous air. When the Federal
artillery did start up, the Confederate gunners cheered “Anderson for his
gallantry, although themselves still firing upon him,” reported General
Meanwhile, beyond the Charleston bar, Gustavus Vasa Fox and his
rescue fleet were little more than spectators of these dramatic events.
Buffeted by heavy gales ever since leaving New York City, Fox had arrived
off Charleston Harbor at 3 A.M. but because of the turbulent seas and
because his entire fleet had not yet rendezvoused, he had decided not to
proceed toward Fort Sumter at night. When he finally did steam
toward the harbor entrance shortly after daybreak, he became aware for the
first time that hostilities had started. “Nearing the bar it was
observed that the war had commenced, and, therefore the peaceful offer of
provisions was void,” Fox wrote in his official report.
When it became obvious that the Federal flotilla would stand off shore
during the bombardment of Fort Sumter and would do nothing to help
Anderson, the Confederate gunners at Cummings Point made “expressions of
scorn at the apparent cowardice of the fleet in not even attempting to
rescue so gallant an officer and his command,” Beauregard declared.
Abner Doubleday was more forgiving. “After the event much obloquy
was thrown upon the navy because it did not come in and engage the
numerous batteries and forts,” he said, “. . . but this course would
probably have resulted in the sinking of every vessel.”
So much for Fox’s facile assurances that a relief party could easily reach
Fort Sumter. In fairness, however, it must be mentioned that Fox had
expected the warship Powhatan to come to Charleston with a sizeable
landing force. It had been dispatched to Pensacola instead.
The situation for Anderson and his men was becoming increasingly hopeless.
Exchange of fire between the combatants continued throughout April 12th.
By sunset the Union guns fell virtually silent because of Anderson’s lack
of sufficient ammunition. The Confederate artillery remained active
during the night and resumed heavy firing after sunrise on the 13th.
Shortly after 7 A.M., hot shot (cannon balls heated in an oven before
being rammed down the barrel of a cannon) struck the wooden barracks
inside Fort Sumter and set them ablaze. Black smoke billowed into the sky.
Flames moved ominously toward the powder magazine. “The scene at this time
was really terrific,” Doubleday remembered. “The roaring and
crackling of the flames, the dense masses of whirling smoke, the bursting
of the enemy’s shells, and our own which were exploding in the burning
rooms, the crashing of the shot, and the sound of masonry falling in every
direction, made the fort a pandemonium.”
Anderson’s men ran to the far corners of the fort, laid flat on the
ground, and put moist handkerchiefs over their noses and mouths to
try to escape the noxious fumes of acrid smoke. “Everything was wet and
burned badly,” Captain James Chester proclaimed, “yielding an amount of
pungent piney smoke which almost suffocated the garrison.”
The flag pole came crashing down shortly before 1 P.M. Beauregard’s
troops shouted triumphantly as the Stars and Stripes plummeted behind Fort
Sumter’s walls. As a final act of defiance, one Union soldier
plucked up the flag and hoisted it atop a pole that he nailed to a
pile of gun carriages on the parapet. “This was gallantry done,”
declared Abner Doubleday.
No amount of braggadocio could hide the fact that the end was near. A
white flag finally appeared above Fort Sumter about 2 P.M. In his
official report, Major Anderson included the following explanation of his
Having defended Fort Sumter for thirty-four
hours, until the quarters were entirely burned,
the main gates destroyed by fire, the gorge
walls seriously injured, the magazine surrounded
by flames, and its door closed from the effects
of heat, . . . and no provisions remaining but
pork, I accepted the terms of evacuation offered
by General Beauregard.
The official terms of
surrender were agreed to near sunset on April 13th. Major
John Anderson and his entire command, including such stalwart officers as
Abner Doubleday, James Chester, and J. G. Foster, walked to the
wharf and boarded a Confederate steamer, the Isabel, the next
day. They were transported to Fox’s flagship beyond the Charleston
bar. Shortly thereafter, General Beauregard marched his troops into Fort
Sumter and hoisted the Confederate flag to the top of a new flag pole.
Even Mary Chestnut was caught up in the excitement of the moment.
“Mrs. Preston, Mrs. Joe Heyward and I drove around the Battery,” she
reported. “We were in an open carriage. What a changed scene!
The very liveliest crowd I think I ever saw.”
Writing many years later in his published reminiscences, Abner Doubleday
remembered what it was like for the Federal troops to pass through the
flotilla of small craft in Charleston Harbor that Sunday morning. Most of
the boats were filled almost to the gunnels with jubilant South
Carolinians. “. . . could they have seen into the future with the
eye of prophecy, their joy might have been turned into mourning,”
Some reflections upon the Fort Sumter crisis are in order. There is
something unsettling about Lincoln’s behavior during his first fateful
weeks in office. Unquestionably, the notable contributions of others
notwithstanding, the central character in this drama and the person who
was ultimately responsible for the outbreak of hostilities was Abraham
Lincoln. Why did he ignore the advice of his military experts and support
the chimerical notions advanced by Gustavus Fox and send a relief
expedition to Fort Sumter? Why did he not maintain on-going contact with
Major Anderson about the state of affairs in Fort Sumter? Should not the
President have at least ordered Gustavus Fox, who visited Fort Sumter on
March 25th, to tell Anderson what was being considered? Is it
possible that President Lincoln did not want to hear what Anderson would
probably have said? Why did the President not exercise sufficient control
over the clumsy diplomacy of Secretary of War Seward? The questions go on
In this writer’s opinion, Lincoln does not emerge as the firm, resolute
leader that many of his admirers would have you believe he was. The
majority of historians contend that Lincoln followed a blueprint of sorts
in devising his strategy toward the secessionists. According to this
school of thought, Lincoln seduced the Confederates into firing the first
shot by mounting a relief expedition, announcing its arrival beforehand,
and telling Jefferson Davis and Governor Pickens that Federal troops would
open fire only if they were attacked. “He would send a relief expedition
to Sumter, and if the Confederates opened fire, the momentous issue of
civil war was indeed in their hands,” writes Stephen B. Oates, a more or
less typical exponent of this interpretation of Lincoln’s actions in March
and April, 1861.
Historian David Donald comes closer to the truth. He portrays
Abraham Lincoln as an exhausted, inexperienced chief executive who was
feeling his way from day to day during March and April, 1861.
Despite his commitment to certain immovable objectives, Lincoln was
essentially a tactician, not a strategist. “None of these able
scholars has, in my opinion, given enough attention to Lincoln’s newness
in Washington, his inexperience as an administrator, and his fatigue after
his exhausting journey and inauguration,” says Donald. “Nor has
Lincoln’s essential passivity, his preference to react to events rather
than to take the initiative, been sufficiently stressed.”
Lincoln was preeminently a pragmatic politician. There was nothing
extraordinary about his statesmanship. Lincoln had a masterful sense
of timing and an exquisite capacity to perceive the outer limits of what
his constituents were willing to support. But he never
demonstrated a capacity to reach out in a truly meaningful way to the
South. Contrary to the claims of some scholars, Lincoln did not
deliberately provoke war. But the fundamental difference between James
Buchanan and Lincoln was the overriding desire of the former to prevent
the outbreak of hostilities and the willingness of the latter to regard
war as an acceptable, if not desirable, political outcome of the crisis.
It was a fundamental failure of leadership that ultimately destroyed the
peace and propelled the American people into the catastrophe known as the
Civil War. “When a country is guided by true statesmen the role of
accident is minimized; when it is not, unforeseen occurrences are numerous
and dangerous,” states historian Allan Nevins.
Evidence abounds that much that happened during the Fort Sumter crisis was
not planned but accidental.. The outcome might have been different
if the planter elite had not exercised a virtual monopoly over political
affairs in South Carolina or if the American political system had been
devised to prevent the election of a President whose base of power was
entirely regional. One cannot help but wish that the outcome of this
calamitous confrontation had been different. But history is not
about what could have happened or what should have happened.
It’s about what did happen. According to historian Arthur
Schlesinger, Jr., "the unhappy fact is that man occasionally works himself
into a log-jam; and that log-jam must be burst by violence."
 Quoted in Current, p. 45.
 O R., Ser. 1., Vol. 1., p. 197.
 Quoted in Current, p. 46.
 Quoted in Current, p. 51.
O.R., Ser. 1., Vol 1., p. 196.
Quoted in McPherson, p. 269.
According to Abner Doubleday, President Lincoln was particularly
interested in the amount of provisions remaining at Fort Sunter (see
Doubleday, p. 130.).
For additional information on the development of Fox’s plan and his
first approaches to President Buchanan, see Ari Hoogenboom, “Gustavus
Fox And The Relief Of Fort Sumter.” Civil War (December, 1963),
Official Records Of The Union And Confederate Navies In The War Of
The Rebellion (Government Printing Office, 1896), Ser. 1, Vol. 4, p.
246. Hereafter cited as N.O.R.
N.O.R., Ser. 1., Vol. 4., p. 246.
O.R., Ser. 1., Vol 1., p. 196. Cameron based his
recommendation upon the thinking of his principal military advisers,
including Scott, Totten, and even the officers at Fort Sumter, including
Major Anderson and Captain Foster. Foster, for example, had opined
on March 1st that it would take a minimum of 6,000 regular
troops and 10,000 volunteers to capture the artillery batteries on
Morris Island and those at Fort Moultrie (see O.R., Ser.
1., Vol 1., p. 189.
 Quoted in Donald, p. 286.
 Quoted in Donald, p. 289.
The commissioners were Martin J. Crawford of Georgia, John Forsyth of
Alabama, and A. B. Roman of Louisiana.
 Quoted in Davis, Vol. 1., p. 232.
These comments are contained in letter published in February, 1874.
O.R., Ser. 1., Vol. 1., p. 277.
 O.R., Ser. 1., Vol 1., p. 273.
Quoted in Daniel W. Crofts, Reluctant Confederates.
Upper South Unionists In The Secession Crisis (The University of
North Carolina Press, 1989), p. 285.
O.R., Ser. I., Vol. 1., p. 201.
O.R., Ser. L., Vol. 1., p. 235.
Fox had been led to believe that the side-wheel man-of-war Powhatan
would be sent to Charleston. It was instead sent on a mission to
O.R., Ser. 1., Vol 1., p. 235.
Quoted in Hendrickson, p. 175.
 O.R., Ser. 1., Vol. 1., p. 190.
O.R., Ser., Vol 1., p.182.
Battle and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol 1., p. 63.
O.R., Ser. 1., Vol. 1., p. 221.
O.R., Ser. 1., Vol. 1., p. 228.
O.R., Ser. 1., Vol. 1., p. 192.
O.R., Vol 1., p. 195.
Doubleday, p. 126. Anderson’s position on this issue was
essentially the same as that of Senator Stephen A. Douglas.
Speaking in the United States Senate during the crisis, Douglas
introduced a resolution on March 15th advocating the
withdrawal of Federal troops from Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens.
“Whoever holds the States in whose limits those forts are placed,” he
intoned, “is entitled to the forts themselves.” He continued, “We
cannot deny that there is a Southern Confederacy, de facto, in
existence, with its capital at Montgomery. We may regret it.
I regret it most profoundly; but I can not deny the truth of the
fact, painful and mortifying as it is . . . I proclaim boldly the
policy of those with whom I act. We are for peace. (see
Davis, Vol 1., p. 242.
N.O.R., Ser. 1., Vol. 4., p. 247. Interestingly, Fox did
not explain his plan to Anderson during this visit.
 O.R., Ser. 1., Vol. 1., p. 197.
O.R., Ser. 1., Vol. 1., p. 230.
O.R., Ser. 1., Vol. 1., p. 245.
 Davis, Ser. 1., Vol. 1., p. 244.
O.R., Ser. 1., Vol. 1., p. 294.
O.R., Ser. 1., Vol. 1., p. 272.
 O.R., Ser. 1., Vol. 1., p. 285.
O.R., Ser. 1., Vol. 1., p. 277.
O.R., Ser. 1., Vol. 1., p. 279.
 A merlon is an opening in a crenelated wall.
A traverse is a wall or embankment, usually made of sand, that is
especially vital as a protection against enfiladed fire.
 Alfred Roman, The Military Operations of
General Beauregard ( Da Capo Press, 1994), Vol 1., p. 37.
O.R., Ser. 1., Vol. 1., p. 275.
O.R., Ser. 1., Vol. 1., p. 212.
Doubleday, pp. 127-128.
O.R., Ser. 1., Vol. 1., p. 289.
Quoted in Ripley, p. 148. The gun was named for its
inventor, former Royal Artillery Captain Alexander Theophilis Blakely.
Unlike the North, which developed substantial ordnance manufacturing
capabilities, the South was dependent upon the importation of British
guns throughout the war.
This gun was one of a series of smooth-bore artillery pieces devised for
the U.S. Navy by Admiral John Adolphus Bernard Dahlgren
(1809-1870), who would serve as head of the South Atlantic Blockading
Squadron from 1863 until 1865.
 George F. Robertson, A Small Boy’s
Recollections of the War Between The States (Standard Printing Co,
1932), p. 17.
O.R., Ser. 1., Vol. 1., p. 299.
O.R., Ser. 1., Vol. 1., p. 297.
 Davis, Vol. 1., p. 252.
Quoted in Swanberg, p. 292.
Quoted in Swanberg, p. 292.
O.R.. Ser. 1., Vol. 1., p.235.
There was a fourth person on the second trip to Fort Sumter. He
was Roger Pryor.
Quoted in Swanburg, p. 296.
Quoted in Swanberg, p. 296.
Eugene P. Moehring and Arleen Keylin, eds., The Civil War Extra.
From The Pages Of The Charleston Mercury & The New York Times
(Arno Press, 1975), p. 13.
Alfred Moore Waddell, Some Memories Of My Life (Edwards &
Broughton Printing Company, 1903), p. 54.
 Battle and Leaders, Vol. 1., p. 66.
O.R., Ser. 1., Vol. 1., p.28.
O.R., Ser. 1., Vol. 1., p. 11.
O.R., Ser. 1., Vol. 1., p. 28.
Doubleday, p. 158. Another example of
chivalrous military etiquette occurred after the barracks in Fort Sumter
caught fire. “I immediately dispatched an offer of assistance to
Major Anderson, which, however, with grateful acknowledgements, he
declined,” Beauregard said in his official report (O.R., Ser. 1.,
Vol. 1., p. 29.
Battles and Leaders, Vol. 1., p. 71.
O.R., Ser. 1., Vol 1., p. 12. Ironically, the only deaths that
occurred during the entire engagement resulted from an accidental
explosion during the U.S. flag lowering ceremony. One man was
Oates Abraham Lincoln The Man Behind The Myths, p. 85.
Nevins, Vol. 2., p. 470.
Quoted in Hawkins, p. 72.