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Highlights of the Civil War

Fort Sumter

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A Civil Beginning

Hmm... too chilly for a swim.  How else can we get to Ft. Sumter?
The Civil War certainly started out that way. Civilly, I mean. I usually think of war as mean and ugly, full of surprise attacks and bloodthirsty soldiers, but the first battle of the Civil War was truly a gentlemanly affair. Before the very first shots were fired on Union troops at Ft. Sumter, a pleasant written dialogue was held between the opposing generals. These two guys actually knew each other very well, since Major Anderson (of the Union army) had been General Beauregard's (of the confederate army) artillery teacher at West Point military academy years before. Out of respect (and because they really didn't want to begin this war), the confederates sent a cordial note to the federalists, asking if they would voluntarily remove themselves from this southern fort. In a very wordy, very formal reply, Anderson declined the offer. General Beauregard then sent wine and cigars over to the opposing army to enjoy while both sides waited for further instructions from their superiors. When the decision came down for Beauregard to fire upon the fort, he sent another message to Anderson, telling him precisely the time (4:30 am) he should expect the fort to be hit. Anderson readied himself, and at the preset time, the battle of Ft. Sumter began.

Ft. Sumter sits on a man-made island. The fort was created after Washington DC was attacked and burned in the War of 1812. Since our nation's capitol was so easily destroyed, it became obvious that the young United States needed a stronger system of coastal defense to repel further European attacks. So several strong forts, along with Fort Sumter, were built up and down our Atlantic coastline.

The National Park Service WorkBoat arrives at Ft. Sumter
Although it hasn't served as a military defense fort since the last world war, Ft. Sumter still stands in the Charleston harbor today as a historical museum. Since there was no bridge to the island, and it was way too cold for a November afternoon swim, Neda and I had to find another way across the harbor to get our research done. Most people take a tour boat, which drops its passengers off in style after a seven-minute crossing. Neda and I agreed however, that Trekkers don't take tour boats (especially when they cost $10.50 per person, roundtrip) and looked for another way. It turned out to be our lucky day as the National Park Service offered us a free lift on their maintenance boat, the one that takes the park rangers back and forth across the harbor each day to and from their jobs. We eagerly climbed down the ladder to the small ferry to tag along.

A National Park Service Ranger welcomes us to Fort Sumter
Now the National Park Service is a very cool organization. After the ferry took us to the island, we were handed over to Ranger Mike who offered a history talk inside the fort, and answered all the questions that we had about the first battle of the Civil War.

Neda notes the details of the 34-hour battle.
We learned that Fort Sumter was built to protect Charleston, SC from attacks from the sea, not to protect itself from attacks by Charleston. Unfortunately, when tensions mounted between the north and the south, and several southern states seceded from the union, the north sent troops to occupy Ft. Sumter (which is very much in the south) to wait and see what would happen. The cannons and guns that had once been turned toward the Atlantic were now turned instead upon the city of Charleston. The Confederates didn't appreciate the northern military presence on their turf, so, as I noted earlier, Beauregard politely asked them to leave. When Anderson refused, the Confederacy felt that they had no choice left but to take the fort back by force.

A day and a half of battle followed. The Confederates would launch cannonballs at the fort from the surrounding islands, while the Federalists fired back at them from within the fort. Not one person was killed in this volley, but the fort itself suffered terribly. After a fire broke out in the officers quarters, and began spreading toward the ammunition room, Major Anderson decided it was time to surrender. His 85 soldiers could not continue to hold out against the 5,000 confederate troops that fired upon the island from the mainland. He sent a message to his old student letting him know that the Union troops had had enough, and were now ready to pack up and head back north. The two sides arranged for the honor of a 100-gun salute to be fired while the United States flag was being lowered. The only casualty of the entire episode occurred on the 50th round of gunshots, when a weapon misfired, killing a Union soldier. At that point, both sides called it a day and the Northerners got onto their boats and sailed back up to New York.

Was war inevitable after the assault on Ft. Sumter?
Although he had done everything he could to avoid war with the southern states, President Abraham Lincoln noted that "the last ray of hope for preserving the Union peaceably expired at the assault upon Fort Sumter." Leading up to the battle, the two regions of our country had such different interests and priorities, that they had not been able to agree on things like the legality of slavery, or on the influence of individual states rights. The southern states decided that they could not work with the United States government anymore, and wanted to form their own, separate government (for more information, see Neda's dispatch on the "Seat of the Confederacy"). This was not OK with the north, which depended on the land, resources and people of the south to strengthen the power of the country as a whole. A famous Lincoln speech insisted that "A house divided against itself cannot stand," arguing that the United States would not be able to survive "half slave and half free," it must "become all one thing, or all the other." Northerners and Southerners felt so passionately about their own points of view, that after that generally pleasant first battle in 1861, the war became downright ugly.

The once "Civil" War turned the United States into a bloody battleground, pitting neighbor against neighbor and brother against brother for the next four years. Union forces returned to Charleston, this time firing upon the Confederates who had occupied Fort Sumter. Ft. Sumter was essential to the strength of the southern states because it was the key to keeping Charleston harbor open for confederate supply ships to come in and out, and in preventing the capture of Charleston. For a year and a half, Northern armies shelled the fort and the town of Charleston daily. Although they were able to knock down the second and third stories of the fort, the rubble that fell around the first story actually strengthened the fort against the continuous cannon fire. It was only after Colombia, South Carolina fell to advancing Union troops that the confederates decided that they could not continue to hold the fort, so they packed up and moved out, not to return again.

One last note before you continue reading through the rest of this week's dispatches to learn more about the events that began our nation's Civil War. Although we use the term "Civil War" throughout our dispatches so you can easily understand what we're talking about, many historians would argue that it is the incorrect name to use. In 1928 the United States Congress recognized the title "War Between the States" as the proper term instead. Why? Well, the best explanation I found was this one:

"A war was waged from 1861 to 1865 between two organized governments: the United States of America, and the Confederate States of America. These were the official titles of the contending parties. It was not a Civil War, as it was not fought between two parties within the same government."

The southern states had formally seceded from the United States of America at the time of the war, and formed a separate government with its own taxes, currency, commerce, army and navy. When you look at it that way, the northern states made war on the independent southern states to force them to return to the Union. Thus, the battle at Fort Sumter was not the first of a "Civil War," but rather began the "War Between the States."


Please email me at:rebecca@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Stephanie - Dred Scott: "a simple man who wanted to be free"
Daphne - Bloodshed in Kansas: we're part of the war now, Toto
Neda - Mozart vs. Jay-Z and other reasons people go to war
Daphne - Abraham Lincoln: A log cabin boy wonder!
MAD - Police brutality: when the law is NOT on your side