Construction of Fort Sumter was still underway when South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860. Despite Charleston’s position as a major port, at the time only two companies of federal troops guarded the harbor. Commanded by Major Robert Anderson (1805-1871), these companies were stationed at Fort Moultrie, a dilapidated fortification facing the coastline. Recognizing that Fort Moultrie was vulnerable to a land assault, Anderson elected to abandon it for the more easily defensible Fort Sumter on December 26, 1860. South Carolina militia forces would seize the city’s other forts shortly thereafter, leaving Fort Sumter as the lone federal outpost in Charleston.
A standoff ensued until January 9, 1861, when a ship called the Star of the West arrived in Charleston with over 200 U.S. troops and supplies intended for Fort Sumter. South Carolina militia batteries fired upon the vessel as it neared Charleston Harbor, forcing it to turn back to sea. Major Anderson refused repeated calls to abandon Fort Sumter, and by March 1861 there were over 3,000 militia troops besieging his garrison. A number of other U.S. military facilities in the Deep South had already been seized, and Fort Sumter was viewed by many as one of the South’s few remaining hurdles to overcome before achieving sovereignty.
With the inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) in March 1861, the situation soon escalated. Knowing that Anderson and his men were running out of supplies, Lincoln announced his intention to send three unarmed ships to relieve Fort Sumter. Having already declared that any attempt to resupply the fort would be seen as an act of aggression, South Carolina militia forces soon scrambled to respond. On April 11, militia commander P.G.T. Beauregard (1818-1893) demanded that Anderson surrender the fort, but Anderson again refused. In response Beauregard opened fire on Fort Sumter shortly after 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861. U.S. Captain Abner Doubleday (1819-1893)—later famous for the myth that he invented baseball—ordered the first shots in defense of the fort a few hours later.
Beauregard’s 19 coastal batteries unleashed a punishing barrage on Fort Sumter, eventually firing an estimated 3,000 shots at the citadel in 34 hours. By Saturday, April 13, cannon fire had broken through the fortress’s five-foot-thick brick walls, causing fires inside the post. With his stores of ammunition depleted, Anderson was forced to surrender the fort shortly after 2 p.m. in the afternoon. No Union troops had been killed during the bombardment, but two men died the following day in an explosion that occurred during an artillery salute held before the U.S. evacuation. The bombardment of Fort Sumter would play a major part in triggering the Civil War. In the days following the assault, Lincoln issued a call for Union volunteers to quash the rebellion, while more Southern states includingVirginia, North Carolina and Tennessee cast their lot with the Confederacy.