Fort Sumter, an island stronghold in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, is best known as the site of the American Civil War’s first combat. Originally built as a coastal fortification in 1829, U.S. Major Robert Anderson took over the fort in December 1860 following South Carolina’s secession from the Union. He ended up sparking a standoff with the state’s militia forces. On April 12, 1861, when President Abraham Lincoln announced preparations to resupply the fort, Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard bombarded Fort Sumter, opening off the Battle of Fort Sumter.
Anderson and 86 soldiers surrendered the fort on April 13 after a 34-hour exchange of artillery fire. Confederate troops controlled Fort Sumter for over four years, withstanding many Union bombardments before evacuating the post just before William T. Sherman’s seizure of Charleston in February 1865.
Construction and Design
Fort Sumter was established in the aftermath of the War of 1812, which exposed the United States’ lack of robust coastal fortifications. The structure, named after Revolutionary War general and South Carolina native Thomas Sumter, was one of roughly 50 forts built as part of Congress’s Third System, a coastal defense scheme launched in 1817.
The coastal positioning of the three-tiered, five-sided fort was intended to allow it to control access to the critical Charleston Harbor. Despite the fact that the island was only 2.4 acres in size. The fort was designed to house a garrison of 650 troops and 135 artillery pieces.
Fort Sumter was built in 1829 in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. It was on an artificial island made of thousands of tons of granite. Building came to a halt in the 1830s due to a disagreement over ownership of the harbor length. However, it did not begin until 1841. Fort Sumter, like many Third System defenses, proved to be an expensive enterprise. Then building paused again in 1859 due to a shortage of financing. The island and exterior fortifications were built by 1860, but the interior and armaments remained unfinished.
Fort Sumter was still being built when South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860. Despite Charleston’s status as a major port, only two companies of federal troops defended the harbor at the time. Major Robert Anderson commanded these companies, which were stationed at Fort Moultrie, a decaying stronghold on the coast.
Recognizing the vulnerability of Fort Moultrie to a land assault, Anderson chose to leave it in favor of the more easily defendable Fort Sumter on December 26, 1860. Soon after, South Carolina militia soldiers seized the city’s other forts, leaving Fort Sumter as the city’s sole federal garrison.
Battle of Fort Sumter
A standoff lasted until January 9, 1861, when the Star of the West arrived in Charleston carrying over 200 US troops and supplies bound for Fort Sumter. As the ship approached Charleston Harbor, South Carolina militia cannons fired on it, forcing it to return to sea.
Major Anderson ignored repeated requests to surrender Fort Sumter, and by March 1861, his garrison was besieged by nearly 3,000 militia forces. A number of other US military facilities in the South had previously been seized. Yet, Fort Sumter was widely seen as one of the South’s last remaining impediments to obtaining sovereignty.
The situation quickly deteriorated following President Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration in March 1861. Lincoln stated his intention to send three unarmed ships to rescue Fort Sumter. He knew that Anderson and his troops were running out of supplies. South Carolina militia forces hurried to respond after declaring that any attempt to resupply the fort would be viewed as an act of hostility.
Civil War Begins
P.G.T. Beauregard, the militia leader, insisted that Anderson surrender the fort on April 11, but Anderson refused once more. On April 12, 1861, shortly after 4:30 a.m., Beauregard commenced fire on Fort Sumter. A few hours later, U.S. Captain Abner Doubleday—later famed for the notion that he invented baseball—ordered the first shots in defense of the fort. The Civil War had begun with the firing of the first shots.
Beauregard’s 19 coastal batteries opened fire on Fort Sumter, eventually firing an estimated 3,000 bullets at the fortress in 34 hours. Cannon fire had smashed through the fortress’s five-foot-thick brick walls by Saturday, April 13, igniting flames inside the garrison. With his ammunition supplies low, Anderson and his Union men were forced to abandon the fort shortly after 2 p.m.
Although no Union forces were killed during the bombardment, two men perished the next day in an explosion that happened during an artillery salute held prior to the US retreat. The bombardment of Fort Sumter was a crucial factor in igniting the Civil War. Following the assault, Lincoln called for Union volunteers to put down the revolt. However, other Southern states, including Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, sided with the Confederacy.
Beauregard and Du Pont
Following Beauregard’s bombardment of Fort Sumter in 1861, Confederate forces took it and used it to marshal a defense of Charleston Harbor. Fort Sumter, once completed and better armed, enabling the Confederates to cut a valuable opening in the Union blockade of the Atlantic coast.
Rear Admiral Samuel Francis Du Pont attempted a naval attack on Charleston in April 1863. The first Union assault on occupied Fort Sumter. Du Pont landed in Charleston as commander of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron with a fleet of nine ironclad vessels. Then seven of which were modernized versions of the legendary USS Monitor.
While Du Pont wanted to retake Fort Sumter, a symbol of the Confederate rebellion at the time, his offensive was poorly managed and met with adverse weather. Confederate cannons commanded by P.G.T. Beauregard pummeled the ironclad fleet with artillery fire in coordination with Fort Sumter, while underwater mines provided a persistent threat to the ships’ hulls.
Outgunned and unable to maneuver effectively in strong currents. Du Pont’s fleet withdrew from the harbor after sustaining over 500 shots from Confederate cannons. Although just one Union soldier was killed during the action, one of the ironclads, the Keokuk, sank the following day.
Five Confederates were killed in the invasion, but Fort Sumter was quickly restored and its fortifications upgraded. Confederate soldiers even recovered one of Keokuk’s 11-inch Dahlgren guns and installed it on the stronghold.
Union troops besieged Fort Wagner, a strategic position on Morris Island near the mouth of Charleston Harbor, in July 1863. After being bombarded by Fort Sumter, Union General Quincy Adams Gillmore turned his guns on the fort and launched a devastating seven-day bombardment.
On September 8, about 400 Union men attempted to land at Fort Sumter and take it by force. Union Rear Admiral John Dahlgren mistook the fort for being held by a skeleton crew, but the landing force was met by more than 300 Confederate men, who handily defeated the assault.
Following the failure of the infantry assault, Union soldiers on Morris Island resumed their bombing campaign against Fort Sumter. Union artillery effectively demolished Fort Sumter during the next 15 months, eventually firing over 50,000 bullets at the fort between September 1863 and February 1865. Despite suffering nearly 300 losses as a result of Union bombardment, the desperate Confederate garrison held on to the fort until February 1865.
The Confederates finally fled when Union General William T. Sherman was about to conquer Charleston. On February 22, 1865, Union forces reclaimed Fort Sumter. The original commanding officers of Fort Sumter, Robert A. Anderson and Abner Doubleday, would both return to the bastion on April 14, 1865, for a flag-raising ceremony.
Fort Sumter National Monument
Fort Sumter was repaired and largely modified after the Civil War. During the 1870s and 1880s, it saw minimal use and was eventually reduced to operating as a lighthouse post for Charleston Harbor. When the Spanish-American War began in 1898, the castle was rearmed and deployed as a coastal defense station once more. It would eventually be used in both World Wars, World War I and World War II.
Fort Sumter was decommissioned as a military station in 1948 and given over to the National Park Service as a National Historic Site. It became a part of the Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie National Historical Park. Tours are now accessible, with over 750,000 tourists every year.