Friday, April 12, 1861
The small row boat carrying the three messengers sent to Fort Sumter docked on James Island around 4am. They carried Anderson’s regret that he could not surrender and orders from General Beauregard to fire upon the Federal fort at 4:30.
At precisely 4:30, one gun from Fort Johnson fired a shell that streaked through the dark morning sky. It trailed a shower of glowing sparks behind it. When the shell reached its apex over Fort Sumter, it burst, illuminated the flag and rained shrapnel harmlessly within its walls.
Major Anderson ordered his men to return to bed. There would be no return fire until daybreak.
As the muffled sound of the signal shot died away, all 43 artillery pieces arrayed around Fort Sumter fired, one-by-one in rhythmic succession. General Beauregard had enough ammunition for a 48 hour assault.
Much of the shot and shell soared over the fort. Some hit their mark, chipping away the brick and stone of Sumter’s walls. With all the flashes and thundering reports, the United States’ fort remained silent.
Was Anderson taking the moral high ground, refusing to fire a single shot until he was bombed into surrendering? Was he waiting for the Naval fleet to land troops on Morris Island? What was the meaning of this?
By 6am, the sun began to peek over the Atlantic and Union men formed for roll call. Another hour an a half of rebel bombardment passed without a response. The men took breakfast and split themselves up into two shifts. Finally at 7:30, the first shift, under the charge of Abner Doubleday, manned the guns facing Cummings Point, Sullivan Island and Fort Johnson.
The first shot, fired by Doubleday, bounced off an iron-reinforced shield over a battery, doing no damage at all. The fire from Sumter was slow, steady. Anderson had not much ammunition; maybe 700 rounds for his fifty-three guns.
Of those guns, twenty-seven, the heaviest of the pieces, couldn’t be used as they were too exposed to enemy fire. Of the remaining twenty-six, he could only man ten or so at any given time because of his scant garrison.
The outcome of this contest was obvious. The rebels had amassed over a thousand men, larger, more accurate guns and had the fort nearly surrounded. The question was only how long Anderson could withstand the pummeling.
The morning of regular and repeated fire was taking its toll on the fort. The wooden structures inside its walls had caught fire three times throughout the day. Shells from the more accurate rebel batteries stormed brick and wood over the men, wounding some. As the Confederates hit their mark, the men would move to another gun and then another.
By noon, Anderson knew that he would run out of ammunition at his current rate of fire, and so ordered that only six guns be manned.
Gustavus Fox’s fleet, now as assembled as it was going to be, was spotted off the bar. The fort dipped its flag as a signal and though it was returned, the ships did not dare enter the fray.
It was also spotted on the mainland and sent a momentary chill up the spines of the rebels. What if those 4,000 troops that were supposedly in the ships were landed and assailed the city? In a short time, however, it was clear that the ships would maintain a respectful distance.
The sun had slipped across the sky and now twilight fell upon the scene. Anderson had further reduced his firing to just two guns and then, by 7pm, all fire from the fort was halted until morning. The flag, however, still flew.
Beauregard’s guns were also silent, but for two batteries of mortars firing once every 15 minutes.
A storm had blown in, bringing with it strong winds, rough seas and torrents of rain. With the weather and nightfall closing any chance of a troop landing, the war’s first day of battle trickled to an anti-climatic ending.1
- I compiled this day’s post from Days of Defiance by Maury Klein and Allegiance by David Detzer – the latter providing more detail, the former providing more coverage of the overall story. [↩]