On a dark, drizzly spring morning 150 years ago this week, the thunder of cannon fire in Charleston (S.C.) Harbor reverberated across the nation.
The Confederate guns that bombarded the federal garrison at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, shattered the tranquility of a divided nation and triggered the bloodiest war in American history.
Soon the battle lines were drawn in the North-vs.-South, brother-vs.-brother conflict that ultimately claimed 620,000 lives, nearly as many as all of the nation’s other wars combined.
The battle of Fort Sumter sparked the Civil War.
Prelude to war
The nation had been marching toward war for decades. The economic interests, political views and way of life in the industrialized North had been on a collision course with the agrarian, slave-holding South long before the exchange at Fort Sumter. And when South Carolina seceded from the Union on Dec. 20, 1860, following the election of anti-slavery President Abraham Lincoln, the die for war was cast.
Within two months, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas had joined South Carolina and formed the Confederacy, and when South Carolina leaders coveted Fort Sumter, a federal fortification perched on a two-acre island in Charleston Harbor, confrontation appeared inevitable.
After months of posturing and efforts to avoid conflict, Confederate Brig. Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard, who feared the approach of federal reinforcements and supplies, demanded that Maj. Robert Anderson and his 83-man garrison evacuate the stone and brick fortress. When Anderson rejected Beauregard’s ultimatum, a 34-hour bombardment ensued until the federal commander, with provisions and powder cartridges running low, agreed to vacate the fort.
Two days later President Abraham Lincoln called on the states, including eight slave states that had not joined the Confederacy, to supply 75,000 volunteers to suppress the insurrection.
“The call for volunteers caused Virginia to secede, and then Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina,” says David Detzer, 72, of Middlebury, Conn., author of Allegiance: Fort Sumter, Charleston and the Beginning of the Civil War.
Within a few months, a full-fledged war was under way.
A monumental symbol
Though federal forces surrendered Fort Sumter to the Confederates, the assault against the island stronghold didn’t end. Because the fort had become a symbol of Southern triumph and resistance, it became a symbol of Northern resentment and determination, and a target of the longest siege of the war.
From July 10, 1863, to Feb. 17, 1865, Union forces pounded the fortification with more than 40,000 artillery shells and cannonballs, reducing its 50-foot-tall, 5-foot-thick walls to rubble.
“In the eyes of the North, Charleston and Fort Sumter were where succession, rebellion and treason began,” says Rick Hatcher, 60, historian of Fort Sumter National Monument.
That’s why the North was intent on retaking the fort, or at least destroying the symbol of the defiant South.
After the Union had unleashed its revenge and the war was over, then-Gen. Anderson returned to the pummeled fort on April 14, 1865, raising the 33-star American flag that he had taken down on the same date four years earlier.
The symbolic ceremony was proof that the North had prevailed, that Fort Sumter had been recaptured, and that the war-ravaged and weary nation had been painfully preserved.
150th anniversary observance
Named after Gen. Thomas Sumter, a Revolutionary War hero from South Carolina, Fort Sumter remains a powerful symbol. Even 150 years after the first shots of the Civil War, discussions about secession, slavery and states’ rights stir strong emotions.
While the Union was preserved, the tragic and dreadful war left deep scars and racial and sectional animosities, some of which have yet to completely heal or be forgotten.
“In many ways, the war is still with us,” says Robert Rosen, 63, president of the Fort Sumter-Fort Moultrie Historical Trust, based in Charleston. “The sesquicentennial commemoration is a time to pause and reflect on what the war means” to all of us.
Charleston and Fort Sumter will be among the focal points of the sesquicentennial commemoration this year.
The Confederate Heritage Trust marked South Carolina’s secession in December, and events commemorating the start of the war will resume in Charleston this week. Planned are historical re-enactments and lectures, a musical concert and movie screening, a theatrical performance and period art exhibit, and the firing of a mortar over Fort Sumter simulating the first shot of the historic battle.
More than a million people are expected to tour the ruins of Fort Sumter and other Civil War battle sites around Charleston Harbor before the 150th anniversary observance concludes in Charleston with an American flag-raising ceremony at the fort in 2015.
Up to six ferries arrive daily at Fort Sumter National Monument so passengers can explore the flashpoint of the war. Schoolteacher Kristi Gilroy said learning about the battle of Fort Sumter would help her convey the turbulent time in American history to her fifth-grade students at Country Hills Elementary in Coral Springs, Fla.
“I’ll be able to describe the fire in the fort and the smoke swirling around the soldiers,” says Gilroy, 43, who visited Charleston in December with her husband, Andrew, 37, and their son, Will, 8.
“Fort Sumter is a perfect example of using history to explain the reasons for the war,” adds Andrew as the morning ferry departs the site where the Civil War began.