Fort Sumter and the Start of the Civil War

Imagine that you have just become President of the United States. You gave your first speech to the nation and attended the inaugural ball. After the ball, you are handed a note that says that one of the remaining federal forts in the South is in danger. Abraham Lincoln had to deal with a crisis almost from the moment he became president.

The letter Lincoln read was from Major Robert Anderson, commander of the Federal troops at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Members of the newly formed Confederacy had surrounded the fort with ships and cannon. Anderson implored Lincoln to send more supplies to the fort.

Members of Lincoln’s cabinet all gave different opinions as to what the President should do. Some said the fort should be evacuated to avoid a civil war with the South, while others said he should send extra troops to protect the fort. Lincoln decided to do neither—he would send a boat with supplies to the fort but troops and warships were instructed to stand by and respond only if the Confederates fired the first shot. He sent a messenger to inform the governor of South Carolina “to expect an attempt will be made to supply Fort Sumpter [sic] with provisions only; and that, if such attempt be not resisted, no effort to throw in men, arms, ammunition will be made…[except] in case of an attack on the Fort.”

The South Carolina Confederates, however, saw the fort as an example of a foreign nation (the Union) trying to stick around in the newly independent Confederate States. They also believed that war would bring the upper Southern States, like Virginia, to their aid. On April 12, 1861, Confederates opened fire on the fort. The supply ship had not yet arrived and other nearby boats were prevented from aiding Anderson’s men by the high seas. As a result, Federal forces were outmanned and had limited gun power. After over a day of bombardment that destroyed parts of the fort, Federal forces surrendered it to the Confederates. Ironically, no one was killed in the first confrontation of the Civil War that later took so many lives.

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