Today, April 12, is the anniversary of the first shot of the Civil War, according to most accounts. This was the day when South Carolinians fired on the federal garrison defending Fort Sumter in the middle of Charleston Harbor. The garrison itself was a pathetically small group – 65 enlisted men, commanded by Major Robert Anderson, who had originally been assigned to Fort Moultrie.
Anderson had given up on any attempt to strengthen Fort Moultrie, which lay across the channel from Fort Sumter on Sullivan’s Island. Moultrie was practically defenseless. Sand had piled up against its meager walls, and cows now climbed easily to the tops of the walls to graze. In other places, the walls had collapsed entirely, and there was simply no way to defend the fort from a land attack.
On December 26, less than a week after South Carolina voted to secede from the Union, Major Anderson planned a surprise move to Fort Sumter, from which he could at least mount a credible defense if Charleston decided to attack. He slipped out of Moultrie under cover of darkness and successfully seized Fort Sumter. He had failed to anticipate, however, the continuing need to supply the island.
As early as January 9, 1861, a passenger steamer without any armament had been diverted from its usual routes to bring supplies to Fort Sumter. Anderson was unaware of the steamer’s mission, but a small group of Citadel cadets assigned to Morris Island were taking no chances. Their commander gave the order to fire to a young cadet, who shot a cannon ball across the bow of the Star of the West. The steamer turned and fled, and there were no further attempts to send supplies. There are those who claim that was the first shot of the war.
However, according to the history books, that honor goes to the Confederate guns that bombarded Fort Sumter starting at 4:40 AM on April 12. The garrison survived in the cold, with short rations until April, but Anderson had already notified Washington that he could not hold out any longer. The guns that now encircled Fort Sumter fired throughout the day and resumed on the 13, while the women and civilians of Charleston watched the entertainment from their rooftops. With much of his fort consumed by fire, Anderson began negotiations to surrender shortly after noon, and the final ceasefire came at 7:30 pm on the 13. Over 3000 shells had been fired, but not a single man was killed on either side. And thus began America’s Civil War