What Was the Significance of the Battle of Fort Sumter? | History Hit

What Was the Significance of the Battle of Fort Sumter?

Shannon Callahan

06 Dec 2021
A photograph of the evacuation of Fort Sumter in April 1861.
Image Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public Domain

After years of increased tensions between northern and southern states, the United States of America entered into the American Civil War from 1861-1865. Throughout these years, Union and Confederate armies would go to battle in the deadliest war ever fought on American soil, as decisions about slavery, states’ rights and westward expansion hung in the balance.

On 20 December 1860, after the election of Abraham Lincoln, South Carolina seceded from the Union, with 6 more states to follow on 2 February 1861. On 4 February 1861, these states met and established the Confederate States of America, and it was only a matter of time before tensions reached a boiling point and the war began at Fort Sumter.

Here are 9 key facts about the Battle of Fort Sumter.

1. There were 3 forts in the area of Fort Sumter

Located in Charleston, South Carolina, Fort Sumter was one of three posts in the port city. Initially, Fort Sumter was empty, as it was still being constructed, but on 26 December 1860, in response to South Carolina’s secession, Union Major Robert Anderson moved his troops overnight from the sea-facing Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter, where they could better ward off a land attack. This move was seen by secessionists as an act of aggression.

2. South Carolina requested the surrender of Fort Sumter

After South Carolina seceded, delegates travelled to Washington DC to demand the surrender of Fort Sumter and all military bases in the state, a request denied by President James Buchanan.

After Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated, he would maintain that the bases belonged to the federal government, insistent that if any were fired upon, the commencement of war would be at the hands of the Confederates.

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3. The fortification was still being built in 1860

Though construction of Fort Sumter began in 1829, lack of funding slowed its progress, and much of the interior was left to complete as South Carolina seceded in 1860. A previous attempt had been made by newly inaugurated President Abraham Lincoln to send supplies to Fort Sumter, with no success.

In early April 1961, Lincoln sent word that he would try to send food only, with a copy of this message reaching the rebels. This message influenced Confederate President Jefferson Davis to order Pierre G.T. Beauregard to attack Fort Sumter on 9 April 1861.

4. Confederates demanded the surrender of Fort Sumter again on 11 April 1861

On 11 April, 3 Confederate representatives rowed out to Fort Sumter to demand the immediate evacuation of the garrison once more and met with Anderson.

Despite the inevitability of being starved out of the site in a matter of days, Anderson refused the envoy, citing his sense of honour and duty to the US government as preventing his acceptance of the terms laid out by the rebels. Consequently, it was inevitable that fighting was on the horizon.

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5. The Union force was greatly outnumbered as fighting began on 12 April

At 4:30 am on 12 April 1861, shots were fired over Fort Sumter, and though Anderson withheld his fire until 7 am, the fight was unavoidable. Among the occupants of the fort were a total of 80 Union soldiers, construction workers and musicians.

The Confederate rebels, led by Beauregard, numbered 500. Further, the garrison was incredibly undersupplied, and Anderson had to make difficult decisions to protect the fort for as long as possible.

6. The Union soldiers had to be strategic

Anderson decided to divide his men into 3, each serving on 2-hour rotations, with only about 700 cartridges in the entire fort. With every possible Confederate position firing on the fort, Anderson decided not to use the guns on the barbette tier, where all the big guns lay. Firing continued back and forth until nightfall, with only the occasional Confederate mortar round overnight.

An April 1861 photograph of men on the northwest casemates.

Image Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public Domain

7. Union forces surrendered after a 34-hour bombardment by the rebels

Fort Sumter sustained substantial damage on the first day of the attack. On the second day, Fort Sumter was set on fire, which only encouraged the Confederates, who continued to fire into the afternoon of 13 April despite a cessation of fire from the Union garrison.

With ammunition depleted, a critically damaged exterior, and weary men, Anderson was forced to surrender. Several attempts to negotiate surrender were made between Confederate representatives and Anderson, and eventually accepted by Beauregard.

The Union would be allowed to leave the next day. Though no one was killed, the injured and weary men had sustained 3,000 shots in 34 hours.

8. There were no casualties during the bombardment

On 14 April, the Union troops were allowed to retreat north, where they were greeted as heroes despite the loss. On their way out, the soldiers performed a 100-gun salute to the American flag that had flown over the fort and been battered during the fighting.

During the exercise, there was a misfire that ultimately resulted in two casualties, though there had been no casualties on either side during the battle. The US flag stayed in Union possession and became a symbol throughout the war to boost morale.

An 1861 photograph of Fort Sumter after the bombardment.

9. Future attempts would be made to recapture Fort Sumter by the Union

The Confederate army was able to make the necessary repairs to the exterior and complete the interior building, using the fort as intended throughout the war.

The Union army would attack the site in 1863, but the Confederate soldiers held onto Fort Sumter until February 1865. It became a great symbol of rebellion for the Confederacy and was a critical interruption to the Union’s blockade of the Atlantic.

Tags: Abraham Lincoln

Shannon Callahan