Charleston at War: Shells rain on Sumter in war's first battle

The cover of Harper's Weekly in May 1861 depicts Charleston residents watching the bombardment of Fort Sumter from city rooftops.

Gunfire echoed through the streets of Charleston that afternoon -- a series of sharp cracks followed by the unmistakable din of a screaming crowd.

It sounded as if war finally had come to the city.

The continuing volley -- six, seven, eight shots -- may have startled some locals, but it thrilled more than 3,000 people who surrounded The Citadel Green on March 22, 1861. So many locals had turned out to see the Corps of Cadets' annual drill for the Board of Visitors that some were forced to watch from inside the barracks.

"Not an available window was there that did not exhibit a pair of rosy cheeks and laughing eyes, and the summit was alive with interested spectators," the Charleston Mercury reported. "Every South Carolinian is aware that the Cadets are the pride of the state."

The newspaper claimed that the six companies on parade that day displayed so much skill in military discipline and maneuvering that they would compare favorably to the corps at West Point. It was a bold statement, one that the man honored with the 11-gun salute was most qualified to judge.

Brig. Gen. Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, the new commander at Charleston, had served briefly as superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy earlier in the year. After just five days on the job, his home state of Louisiana seceded and the War Department revoked Beauregard's orders. The general resigned and soon joined the Confederate Army. He was immediately sent to South Carolina.

Beauregard watched the demonstration that afternoon while sitting among the school's professors, and later offered the corps a "high compliment." The cadets were delighted, but then the general was quickly becoming accustomed to Charleston adulation. His arrival had prompted the city's largest celebration since the Secession Convention.

By the spring of 1861, Charleston was desperate for good news.

Negotiations for the surrender of Fort Sumter had stalled in recent weeks, the United States unwilling to deal with the Confederate government for fear of legitimizing it. The Mercury ran a series of dispatches from New York papers that lamented the nation's predicament. The prevailing opinion seemed to be that giving up Sumter was the only way to avoid a war.

Around Charleston, the newspaper reported, you could scarcely hear a conversation that did not include the words "Beauregard, Anderson, Sumter, Moultrie and Morris Island."

The tension permeated the entire city. There were rumors that New York detectives had been sent to the city to watch for incoming ammunition and speculation that the U.S. Army would blow up Sumter rather than surrender it.

Beauregard's appointment to Charleston may have suggested that Confederate President Jefferson Davis feared the worst, but it was simply an acknowledgment of political reality. If there was going to be a war, the first shots would almost certainly be fired in Charleston.

The general shrewdly used public relations to calm the locals. On Saturday, March 30, Beauregard invited members of the State Convention, as well as other distinguished guests, to tour the harbor batteries by boat.

The group gathered at Southern Wharf, where a color guard stood at attention while the Palmetto Band played "Dixie's Land," a minstrel song the South had recently adopted as its theme.

From there, the entourage set out on three steamers and was gone most of the day. The group passed Fort Johnson and Fort Moultrie and sailed by Fort Sumter on the way into Maffitt's Channel. Later, the guests had lunch as the boats drifted past Morris Island and were treated to peek at the Iron Battery on Cumming's Point.

As the tour ended that evening, the batteries fired a series of shots over the harbor.

"To a large majority of the spectators the flight and bursting of shell was something novel, and the scene was altogether grand and impressive," the Mercury reported.

This was exactly the sort of pomp and circumstance that Beauregard had requested, and it seemed to lift local spirits.

But that would not last. The next time those batteries fired, it would not be for show.

Countdown to war

On April 3, Beauregard and his aides gave Gov. Francis Pickens a tour of Sullivan's Island batteries -- perhaps another volley in the general's public relations campaign.

That afternoon, as the party stood on the porch of the Moultrie house, they noticed a schooner sailing toward the harbor. As the ship approached Morris Island, one of the batteries fired a blank shot to warn off the unidentified vessel.

In response, the schooner raised a U.S. flag on its mast, which prompted three more shots -- live ones. The ship quickly turned and headed out to sea.

It was a fine demonstration of the city's defenses for the governor, but it did not come without consequences. Soon after the incident, a boat from Fort Sumter approached Morris Island flying a white flag of truce.

The men onboard carried a note from Maj. Robert Anderson that said, in essence, if the Confederates fired a shell that actually struck one of his ships, he would unleash the full might of Sumter on the island batteries.

Anderson could still talk a good game, but in fact he was desperate. He and his troops essentially had been trapped inside the fort for three months and were running dangerously low on provisions. The schooner, like the Star of the West, had been attempting to deliver supplies to the fort.

Now it appeared that he would have to make do with what he had for a while longer.

President Abraham Lincoln had sent word to Pickens in early April announcing his plans to resupply the fort, a clear sign that he had no plans to relinquish Sumter. Lincoln had told the governor that if he were allowed to deliver food to Anderson, he would make no attempts to reinforce Sumter with more troops.

But the Confederates would not allow this. In fact, the Mercury said the letter was practically a declaration of war. Beauregard had responded to Anderson's note, sending word to his old friend that all attempts to deliver provisions to Sumter would be stopped by force. It was a stalemate.

The general knew that Sumter's stores had to be nearly exhausted. The fort was still unfinished when South Carolina seceded, an action that prompted all work there to stop. Since then, there had been no chance to stock Sumter -- the Confederates had seen to that.

The Mercury published a letter that appeared in a New York paper from one of Anderson's men. It claimed there were four months of supplies remaining at Sumter, but the Mercury discounted the report.

"The letter is probably a forgery, but, if it be genuine, the writer was either drunk or jesting," the paper opined.

Throughout the first week of April, Charleston was quiet. There were rumors -- there were always rumors -- that a bombardment of the fort would commence at any minute, and that Anderson had fired upon a steamship attempting to enter the harbor.

The Mercury dismissed these stories as being "without any foundation."

Still, it was clear the endgame had begun. The Confederates had decided they must force Anderson out of Sumter before an attempt to re-stock the fort succeeded. About 3 p.m. on Thursday, April 11, Beauregard sent Col. Chesnut, Col. Chisolm and Capt. Lee to demand that Anderson's troops evacuate Sumter immediately.

He must have anticipated the response.

Anderson told the men he "could not, consistently with his honor as an officer of the United States Army, retire from his post without instructions from his government." But he told them not to waste their energy trying to force him out.

Without provisions, Anderson said, he and his men would be starved out within a few days. It was an honest reply, but not good enough for the Confederates.

For the rest of the evening, Charleston waited with growing unease. A group of men gathered outside the Mercury offices to get the latest news -- just as they had done on election night -- but there was little news to report.

A bulletin released at 11 p.m. suggested "the bombardment would not commence immediately."

"On the Battery several hundreds of persons, principally ladies, were promenading until near midnight, anxiously gazing at the dim lights, barely visible through the haze, which indicated the position of the batteries, where fathers and sons, brothers and lovers were willing to sacrifice their lives for the honor of South Carolina," the Mercury reported.

"And yet there was but one regret expressed, and that was at the delay and procrastination of hostilities."

Chesnut and Lee returned to Fort Sumter at 1:30 a.m. on April 12 in a final attempt to negotiate a peaceful surrender. They told Anderson that the harbor batteries would not fire on the fort if no attempts were made to resupply it. But they could not give him provisions that might allow him to hold out long enough for "hostile plans" to mature.

It was pointless. The men, much like the entire North and South, could not come to terms. At 3:30 a.m., Beauregard sent his old friend one final message: In one hour's time, the batteries would open fire.

The South had declared war.

'Steady, frequent shock'

It was later described as a "splendid pyrotechnic exhibition."

At 4:30 a.m. on Friday, April 12, a battery just outside Fort Johnson fired a shell that arced over the harbor in a "beautiful curve" before bursting immediately over Fort Sumter. Capt. George Sholter James of the South Carolina Artillery was responsible for the first shot of the American Civil War.

Within 15 minutes, other batteries from around the harbor joined James. The shooting, a rolling thunder of noise, drew hundreds of Charlestonians out of bed and down to The Battery. For more than two hours, the bombardment continued unanswered.

"While the early sun was veiled in mist, we saw shell bursting within and illuminating Fort Sumter, or exploding in the air above, leaving a small thick cloud of white smoke to mark the place," the Mercury reported.

"We saw solid shot striking the dark walls, and in each instance followed by a fume of dust from the battered surface."

Around 7 a.m., Fort Sumter fought back. As Fort Sumter Historian Richard W. Hatcher would explain later, Anderson had waited until he could see what he was shooting at in order to preserve supplies.

Although Sumter had thousands of pounds of powder and a sizeable stockpile of projectiles, the fort was low on cartridge bags, which held the powder for the cannons. His men had worked desperately to build up a supply of the bags with any cloth available to them, but they had only one needle to sew the bags. It was slow work.

Capt. Abner Doubleday gave the orders to the first Sumter gun fired, the first shot in defense of the Union. The shot was aimed at the Iron Battery on Cumming's Point. Then, the newspaper said, Anderson turned his attention to Fort Moultrie, Fort Johnson and a floating battery off Sullivan's Island. The two sides continued the barrage for hours.

"Hour after hour has the fire on both sides been kept up, deliberate and unflagging," the Mercury reported. "The steady, frequent shock of the cannon's boom, accompanied by the hiss of balls, and the horrid, hurtling sound of the flying shell, are now perfectly familiar to the people of Charleston."

From the start, it appeared that the Southerners were getting the best of the battle; Beauregard was pleased with the reports he got from his men.

"The balls from Fort Sumter are doing little or no damage, not one person having been injured," Fort Moultrie reported that afternoon.

Fort Johnson sent word that "Anderson has fired two shots, but without effect."

Morris Island reported that "Two of the guns on the iron battery have been partially disabled, but no one injured."

By afternoon, those guns had been repaired and resumed firing. The battery commanders estimated that four out of every six shots fired fell inside Sumter. They were doing damage too. The fort's barracks caught on fire several times, distracting the troops who rushed to extinguish the flames.

The bombardment ended at dark on Friday but began again in earnest at first light on Saturday. Again, Sumter was slow to return fire. Most of Anderson's guns were trained on Fort Moultrie. The Mercury, which declared Moultrie "impregnable," reported that the fort withstood the fire.

"The quarters were knocked to hell, but nobody hurt," one officer reported to the paper.

At 8 a.m. that Saturday, the Mercury reported a thick, black smoke coming from the southern part of Sumter's barracks. Soon, the flames were visible to troops on shore. The Confederates kept firing.

By midday, the fort was enveloped in a black smoke. Early that afternoon, the U.S. flag went down.

When the flag fell, the troops on Morris Island moved quickly. Col. L.T. Wigfall and Private H. Gourdin Young of the Palmetto Guard boarded a small boat and had slaves pull it across the shallows to Sumter.

Wigfall held his sword high in the air with a white handkerchief tied to it. It was a dangerous trip -- the Sullivan's Island batteries had spotted the U.S. flag being re-raised and resumed firing. Somehow, Wigfall's boat managed to reach the Sumter wharf without incident.

The colonel walked into the fort, called out for Anderson and explained the situation. The fort was under distress and no flag was flying, so he had come to negotiate a surrender.

Anderson was in little position to argue. He was low on supplies, probably low on cartridge bags and realized he could not repel an attack that came from all sides at once, not with his limited resources.

The fort had not been able to use all its guns because Anderson had not allowed his men to put themselves in harm's way by firing from unprotected parts of the fort. At times the smoke inside the fort also had been so bad that his men had to lie down and put their mouths on the ground just to breathe.

Anderson realized he could not continue and agreed to surrender the fort the next day.

The first battle of the American Civil War was over.

First casualties

The transfer of Fort Sumter would not pass without some ceremony. Anderson's one demand was that he be allowed to salute the U.S. flag with a gun salute as it was lowered.

Pickens and Beauregard and his officers all would witness the historic event, boarding a steamer at Southern Wharf for the short trip to the fort. And there, they would witness the first casualty of the war.

About midway through the 100-gun salute, the Mercury reported, there was an errant explosion -- an ember left unextinguished in one of the guns prematurely ignited the powder in it. U.S. Army Pvt. Daniel Hough was killed almost instantly, and several troops were injured, one of whom would die later.

After 30-plus hours of fighting, Hough was the first man to die in the Civil War. He would be far from the last.

Anderson and his men were allowed to leave Charleston and exited the fort to the tune of "Yankee Doodle" -- it seemed the North had its own theme song.

But the tides left them stranded until the next morning, which meant they had to sit outside Sumter and listen to the celebration as Beauregard's men hoisted the first Confederate flag to fly over Fort Sumter.

The South had won the first round, but there seemed little chance it would be the last. On Monday, April 15, the Charleston Mercury carried a simple headline: "Lincoln Declares War."

Next: The Palmetto Guard

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