The Firing and Fires of Fort Sumter

Saturday, April 13, 1861

The second day of the bombardment of Fort Sumter began much like the first. The Confederate fire had slacked during the night to almost nothing. But at 4am, its rapidity increased and the Union soldiers found themselves taking shelter inside their casemates, eating whatever meager breakfast they could find. Major Anderson, whose ammunition was running critically low, would again wait for first light.

For nearly an hour, gunners from both sides kept up a steady fire. A rebel hot-shot mortar shell, heated in a furnace until glowing red and then fired in hope of setting something ablaze, found its target in the roof of the officers’ quarters. An explosion started a fire, which grew larger, consuming wooden walls and barracks. By 8am, a large plume of black smoke rolled out from the fort.

The ships under command of Gustavus Fox could only watch. The sea was still too rough to risk a landing. As the smoke billowed into the clear sky, the rebel gunners picked up their pace, hoping to end the fight there and then.

Though the barrels gunpowder were stored in a fire-proof room with copper doors, the men sewing up extra cloth cartridges throughout the night had sloppily spilled much on the ground outside and in the doorway. If a floating cinder would find its way there, which was looking more and more likely, all of the powder would explode at once. Quickly, Anderson detailed men to move as much of the powder as they could to a safer place and then dig a moat around the powder room. This was all for naught, however, as a mortar soon landed inside the fort, hit the copper doors and rendered them locked for good.

The wind blowing from the west rushed the smoke out to sea, carrying the sounds of battle along with it. The onlookers in Charleston could see the cannons firing, but the loud reports from the first day’s fighting were noticeably missing.

The smoke, which could be seen from anywhere in the harbor, choked the men. Many tied wet cloths over their faces as others ducked their head out a port to catch a few breaths of fresh air.

Around noon, Commander Rowan of the Pawnee in Fox’s fleet decided that if the larger boats could not make it into the harbor to help Anderson, he would commandeer a smaller boat that could. Fortunately for him, a schooner from Boston with a cargo of ice for Charleston had been waiting for things to settle down a little. Rowan fired a few shots across his bow and the schooner was his. This was piracy, of course, but Rowan offered the schooner’s captain $500. With the accounts settled, they planned to send Fox and 200 men into the fort as reinforcements under cover of darkness, still six hours distant.

The firing from Sumter had ceased. Abner Doubleday, wanting to let the rebels know that they were at least still alive, ordered a few shots to be fired for that effect. A large and honorable cheer for Major Anderson was thrown up by the rebel gunners, applauding his veracity.

By now, however, the fort, still burning, was in ruins. Its walls were blackened, a tower was shattered, the sally ports were blown open, the very gates of the fort itself had burned away.

As if this emphasis needed to be punctuated, at 1pm, a shot from a rebel gun took out the flag pole, and the stars and stripes fell to the blackened parade ground.

A soldier quickly fashioned a new pole and nailed the flag to it. The damage, however, was complete.

Seeing the flag fall, General Beauregard ordered that the firing be stopped. Former US Senator Louis Wigfall, who had not even seen the General in two days, took it upon himself, as a representative of Beauregard to take a row boat to Fort Sumter under his own large, white handkerchief of truce.

Before he reached the fort, the newly fashioned flag was hoisted above the fort. Calls from Morris Island to Wigfall went unnoticed and the heavy firing resumed.

Wigfall and Anderson worked out a truce and the Federals agreed to abandon, but not surrender, the fort. That would make Sumter Confederate property with forcing Anderson to formally surrender it. Wigfall left and a few minutes later, the actual official representatives from General Beauregard arrived.

At first, Anderson was angry and told them to go back to their batteries as he (Anderson) was going back to his. But when they heard about Wigfall’s agreement, they asked Anderson to write down the conversation and they would take it to Beauregard. He did so and they did so. It seemed for awhile that the Union troops would not be allowed to salute their flag upon what was looking more and more like an official surrender.

Word, however, came back from General Beauregard. The men who had so gallantly defended their tattered flag should have the honor of saluting it as it was taken down.

This would happen the following day. A Sunday of peace.1

  1. As was done yesterday, this description of the battle was taken from several sources. The Official Records were very helpful, as was Doubleday’s Remembrances (though take his word on this and baseball with a grain of salt). David Detzer’s Allegiance also came in quite handy. Same goes for Days of Defiance by Maury Klein. I have used those last two books since the beginning of this project. Their time is almost at an end. They will be missed. []
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The Firing and Fires of Fort Sumter by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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