Built with the help of contractors as far away as New York and Boston, Fort Sumter Island was constructed with a foundation of over 70,000 tons of granite and other rock. These rocks were brought by ship and dumped on a shoal in Charleston harbor. Fort Sumter Island began to take shape, but took over a decade to complete. Aside from New Orleans, Fort Sumter was the most important harbor in the south, the gateway of European trade that was essential in building a new nation.
A huge rift had been growing between the north and south and culminated with the election of President Abraham Lincoln. The south was not happy with his election and feared losing their economic system, which was based on slave labor and agriculture. With its delegates voting unanimously to secede from the Union, South Carolina became the first state to secede on December 20, 1860 and the first state to establish the Confederacy. Fort Sumter, at that time, was held under Union command by Maj. Robert Anderson and flying over it was the 33-star U.S. flag.
Being that South Carolina had now perceived herself as a sovereign state by seceding from the Union, the Confederates were unable to tolerate the presence of Union forces in an armed fortress around their principal harbor. They wanted the Union garrison evacuated from Fort Sumter. Although its isolation offered protection, at the same time, it was dependent on the mainland for supplies, which would become a critical problem for its defense. Maj. Anderson was given two opportunities to evacuate peacefully by Brig. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, who was in command of Confederate forces in Charleston.
Low on supplies, from food to needles (of which there were only 6) used to sew cloth cartridges of gunpowder necessary to fire cannons, Anderson was in trouble and would be unable to defend Fort Sumter. Maj. Anderson stalled for time, waiting for ships, ordered by Washington D.C., to resupply his men. The ships did not arrive.
On April 12, 1861 the first shot was fired on Fort Sumter igniting the start of the Civil War and changing forever South Carolina and the United States of America. At a distance of approximately 1.3 miles, a 10-inch mortar was fired from Fort Johnson and exploded above Fort Sumter, signaling confederate artillery to open fire on the Union-held Federal fort.
Fort Sumter returned Confederate fire and the bombardment continued throughout April 12th and into the following day. The Confederate forces were hurling everything they could at the fort and knocking off large chunks of its brick walls. Not until the fort’s quarters were almost entirely burned, main gates destroyed, walls seriously injured, magazines in flames, and no provisions left, did Anderson accept the evacuation offered by Beauregard. Unable to effectively defend Fort Sumter, it surrendered 34 hours later. The white flag of surrender was raised and the Fort was evacuated. Although there were no casualties on either side during the actual bombardment, one Union artillerist was killed when his cannon exploded prematurely when the U.S. flag was raised during the 100-gun salute after the battle ended.
It would take over four years for Union forces to regain control and take back Fort Sumter. With more than 600,000 deaths and exactly four years later, Anderson returned to raise the U.S. flag again over Fort Sumter. As far as the military battles went, the Civil War was over.
Today, the most popular historic site in Charleston is Fort Sumter. It can be seen from a distance at the Battery in downtown Charleston or by relaxing on a cruise aboard the Charleston Harbor Tours, where it can be viewed close up. A very impressive site to see. Don’t miss it if you come to Charleston!