The first time I visited Charleston, SC was years before I became interested in the Civil War. At that time, Fort Sumter was simply an anomalous structure hovering on the horizon of Charleston Harbor. I remember wondering what it was and then quickly dismissing the thought because I had the beauty of historic Charleston at my feet. Perish the thought in hindsight!
The next time I was in Charleston, Fort Sumter was at the top of my list. I purchased a ticket from Fort Sumter Tours, the authorized concessioner of Fort Sumter National Monument. While waiting for my tour time, I browsed the exhibits and gift shop.
A short while later, the boat departed and began cruising towards the mouth of Charleston Harbor. The journey took half an hour, but the time flew because the excursion was narrated. I stood at the bow excited to watch Fort Sumter get closer. It was sunny and warm that day, the antithesis of the dark and dreary morning of April 12, 1861.
The afternoon before, on April 11th, Confederate General Pierre G.T. Beauregard sent an envoy to demand that Union commanding officer, Major Robert Anderson, and his garrison of 85 men evacuate the fort. Anderson refused, “…it is a demand with which I regret that my sense of honor and my obligations to my Government prevent my compliance.” And with those words began a course of action that initiated the American Civil War.
In the early morning hours of April 12th, Beauregard made one last attempt to urge Anderson to abandon the fort. Again, Anderson refused prompting the Confederates to take action. At 4:30AM, the Confederates fired a single shell from Fort Johnson commencing the Civil War’s first battle.
The opening shot was followed by more cannon fire from Cummings Point and Fort Moultrie. In a matter of moments, the dark sky lit up as the Confederates bombarded Fort Sumter on all sides with an endless deluge of cannon and gun fire. The cacophony was deafening while the ground rumbled. As the smoke rose, the smell was suffocating, and the clouds finally burst open inviting the rain to gush down.
The Union responded at daylight firing a shot at Cummings Point at 7:00AM, but it missed its mark. Inside Fort Sumter, Major Anderson knew he was out-numbered and low on sustenance. He also had a limited supply of ammunition and in particular, a limited supply of gunpowder cartridges. Of the 60 guns available, only 6 were active due to the Union’s disadvantages and Anderson’s desire to avoid casualties from manning cannons that were located in open areas.
The Confederate cannonade persisted into April 13th eventually penetrating Fort Sumter’s five-foot-thick brick walls. The Confederates also took advantage of Heated shot aiming for the wooden buildings within the fort. The situation inside Fort Sumter became dire as the rain subsided and buildings began burning. Meanwhile, the main ammunition magazine where 300 barrels of gunpowder were stocked was at risk from the advancing fire.
The Union’s predicament was bleak making its surrender imminent. With no other option, Anderson surrendered that afternoon 34 hours after the first shot was fired. He and his garrison evacuated the fort the following day. There were no casualties of battle. The Union did lose one man at the fort when Anderson insisted on a 100 gun salute. Some cartridges exploded killing Union Private Daniel Hough ending the salute at 50 shots.
Today, Fort Sumter is a shell of what it was 155 years ago. In the middle of the fort is a black concrete structure known as Battery Huger. Completed in 1899, it was part of the United States’ coastal defense during the Spanish-American War, though it never saw any action. To me, Battery Huger is an eyesore that doesn’t fit with the beauty of the ruins. Of course, I realize it’s not supposed to considering it was added on later for the purpose of defense not aesthetics. 😉
Aside from this, Fort Sumter is a beautiful fort. Cannons line the fortress on all levels while the fragile ruins provide the visual scars of battle. It is a self-guided tour, but National Park Service Rangers are available to answer questions and provide commentary. You get one hour at the fort. The first time I was there, there wasn’t enough time to walk around the fort, take pictures, browse the museum, and shop at the gift shop. I felt rushed! The second time, however, the timing was perfect. 🙂