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Fort Sumter and the Coming of the War

Written by: A. James Fuller, University of Indianapolis

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain the various factors that contributed to the Union victory in the Civil War

Suggested Sequencing

Use this Narrative after the Chapter 8 Introductory Essay: 1860-1877 to give students a deeper understanding of the first battle of the Civil War.

On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces at Charleston, South Carolina, opened fire on Fort Sumter. Unable to hold out, the Union military garrison surrendered; thus, the Civil War began. Most Southerners celebrated the event as a great victory for the Confederate States of America. But many Northerners were outraged by the fall of the fort, and when President Abraham Lincoln issued a call for volunteers to put down the rebellion, men in the states loyal to the Union flocked to enlist in the U.S. Army.

In the spring of 1861, before hostilities had begun, construction crews were occupying Fort Sumter, building the new coastal defense fortification that was to replace other forts at Charleston. When southern states began seceding throughout January as a result of Lincoln’s election, tensions mounted, and the U.S. troops found themselves uncomfortably situated in the city where Southern “fire-eaters” had long defended slavery and promoted states’ rights. The garrison commander, Major Robert Anderson, moved his men to the incomplete fort in the harbor because it was safer than his previous location at the crumbling Revolutionary War-era Fort Moultrie. South Carolina militias on the mainland and nearby islands were soon joined by Confederates, including General P. G. T. Beauregard. The result was a stand-off while each side waited to see what the other might do, both reluctant to start a war, each hoping to somehow resolve the situation peacefully to its advantage.

Outgoing President James Buchanan had done little to alleviate the situation during the interregnum between Lincoln’s election and his inaugural. On the one hand, Buchanan could not give up the fort, because doing so would mean recognizing the validity of the rebellion and damaging his Democratic Party even more politically. On the other hand, he had promised South Carolina’s congressional delegation that he would do nothing to change the military situation in Charleston and had even hinted he might withdraw U.S. troops from the area. Ultimately, Buchanan wrung his hands in indecision, stymied by the political implications of the crisis and leaving open the way to conflicting reports and widespread rumors. In January 1861, he approved an army proposal to reinforce and resupply Fort Sumter. The Star of the West, a civilian ship, was sent to accomplish this mission, but on January 9, it was forced to turn back in the face of Confederate cannon fire. Major Anderson, not wanting to start a war, did not fire back.

The figure shows a steamship on the sea.

This 1861 illustration of the Star of the West shows the civilian ship approaching Fort Sumter in an attempt to resupply Union troops.

The wait continued, and tension increased as anger mounted on both sides. Northerners saw Sumter as a symbol of the Union, national sovereignty, and defiance of the rebellion, and they wanted to hold it. Southerners saw it as a marker of the federal government’s power and hoped to take it in defiance of Yankee tyranny, to make it a glorious symbol of state sovereignty and their independence. Confederate President Jefferson Davis urged restraint, hoping to avoid a war and achieve independence peacefully. Throughout the rest of January and February, a stalemate resulted, with the rebels not attacking the fort in exchange for the Buchanan administration not trying to reinforce it.

On March 4, Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office and became president of the United States. He immediately inherited the Fort Sumter crisis and faced a decision point. He could try to reinforce and resupply the fort by sending warships to force their way into the harbor. Doing so would play into rebel hands by making the government the aggressor and starting a war. This would probably drive the other slave states out of the Union and into the Confederacy and further divide the North into war and peace factions. Another possibility was to withdraw the garrison in hope of keeping the Upper South states of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas in the Union and brokering some sort of compromise. Taking this choice would demoralize Northerners, who would direct their anger at the administration and damage the Republicans politically. It might also encourage foreign powers to recognize the Confederacy and hasten Southern independence. The choice Lincoln made was to continue to wait, playing for time, hoping to somehow save the symbol of national sovereignty without starting a war. If the conflict did begin, he hoped it would be the rebels who shot first, making them accountable for the resulting bloodshed. But he could not wait forever, because the garrison’s supplies were already beginning to run low.

In making his decision, the president consulted with his cabinet, a group of men he had chosen to represent the various factions of the Republican Party. Several of them had been Lincoln’s opponents for the nomination and believed they were better suited to lead the country than he. An immediate source of trouble in the cabinet was Secretary of State William H. Seward of New York. The favorite to win the Republican nomination, Seward now thought he would run the administration, essentially making Lincoln a figurehead or puppet. Certain that he knew best, Seward proposed surrendering Fort Sumter, arguing that this would avoid war and conciliate the slave states in the Upper South and the border states. Confident of his ability to make the decision, Seward secretly opened communications with the Confederates and let it be known that Sumter would soon be turned over to the South. Most of the other cabinet members agreed with Seward, although some hoped to somehow gain peace without having to surrender. Only Postmaster General Montgomery Blair called for reinforcing the fort whatever the cost and urging the president to pursue only those “measures which will inspire respect for the power of the Government.”

The figure shows Abraham Lincoln surrounded by his cabinet. In the center surrounding a table are Abraham Lincoln, Gideon Welles, and William Seward, who sits with his legs crossed.

Lincoln and his cabinet, shown here in a depiction from July 22, 1862, clashed because of the ego of Secretary of State William H. Seward.

Then Lincoln received a report from the commanding general of the army, Winfield Scott, advising him to surrender Sumter. Scott argued that the cost of reinforcing the fort was simply too great, and that evacuation “would instantly soothe and give confidence to the eight remaining slave-holding States” in the Union and keep them tied to the nation and the administration. Scott, a hero of the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War, was a Virginian, and for many members of the cabinet, this background cast doubt on his loyalties. As a result, his report, combined with their reading of the political mood of the country, caused several cabinet members to reconsider their position and vote to resupply the fort. Lincoln gave orders to the army and navy to begin preparations to save Sumter.

Now worried about his political position, Seward began scrambling to save himself and his plans for brokering a peaceful resolution to the secession crisis. He still wanted to abandon Fort Sumter but advised reinforcing other fortifications. He also wanted to push France and Spain about their interventions in Mexico and the Caribbean. If those European countries did not give satisfactory explanations for their recent actions, Seward wanted to declare war on them, arguing that doing so would bring the South back into the Union. He would reunite the country through war – not against the rebels, but against a common enemy. Lincoln quietly refused to follow Seward’s advice. Instead, he gave the order for the military to send an expedition to resupply the fort. He sent word to the Confederacy that he was sending ships for the express purpose of resupply and that there would be no reinforcements.

In response, Jefferson Davis called his own cabinet together. Given the choice between peace and war, they chose to fight. Hoping to take the fort before the Union fleet arrived to try to resupply Anderson’s men, Davis ordered General Beauregard to attack. At 4:30 a.m. on April 12, the Confederate cannon opened fire and continued to bombard Fort Sumter for more than 30 hours. Major Anderson had far too few men to defend his position and not enough cannon to respond properly to an attack. He made a show of resistance and had his men fire 1,000 shells back at the enemy. On April 14, 1861, he formally surrendered the fort.

Figure (a) shows Fort Sumter surrounded by water. The fort is at least two stories tall and the top of it is on fire. An American flag flies above the fort. Cannon balls fly through the air. Many land in the water. Figure (b) shows Fort Sumter with a bridge to its right side. The fort has multiple flags flying over it. The walls are one story high.

Compare (a) the depiction of the 1861 bombardment of Fort Sumter with (b) a photograph of Fort Sumter as it looks today. What do you see that is similar and what is different?

The next day, President Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 men to put down the rebellion. The response was overwhelming, and many thousands of men signed up to save the Union. Even many Democrats who had been pushing for a peaceful reunion through compromise now joined the patriotic fervor. But Lincoln’s call for men also rallied the secessionists in the still-loyal slave states. Almost immediately, Virginia seceded and joined the Confederacy; it was soon followed by Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. Several other slave states known as border states, including Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, debated secession. Across the South, celebrations of the victory at Fort Sumter roused Confederate patriotism, and General Beauregard became the first hero of the Southern cause. All hopes of a peaceful resolution were dashed, and many on both sides began talking about how they would quickly achieve victory for their cause in what they were certain would be a short and glorious war. Fort Sumter, however, began a bloody Civil War that claimed more than 600,000 American lives.

Review Questions

1. The significance of Fort Sumter in starting the Civil War was its role as a

  1. strategic coastal defense fortification that protected the export of cotton
  2. U.S. military garrison of great strategic location
  3. fortification with symbolic value for both sides
  4. significant Revolutionary War site

2. Based on his leadership skills at Fort Sumter, the first military hero of the Confederacy was

  1. Stonewall Jackson
  2. Robert E. Lee
  3. Nathan Bedford Forrest
  4. P. G. T. Beauregard

3. The main consideration for President Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet in deciding what to do about Fort Sumter was

  1. the opportunity to begin a war to end the institution of slavery
  2. the imperative to hold federal territory
  3. an opening to begin a well-planned blockade of the South
  4. a chance to act that would quickly gain popular support in the North

4. The leader who had difficulty choosing whether to either defend or abandon Fort Sumter in the winter of 1860-1861 was

  1. Abraham Lincoln
  2. Jefferson Davis
  3. William H. Seward
  4. James Buchanan

5. In President Lincoln’s mind, a potential downside for the Union if the U.S. Army abandoned Fort Sumter was

  1. rejection by the President’s cabinet and a national crisis
  2. possible recognition of the Confederacy by England and France
  3. the secession of the states in the Upper South
  4. a call for a declaration of war by Congress

6. The member of Lincoln’s cabinet who believed he would actually lead the government because he thought he should have been elected president was

  1. Jefferson Davis
  2. Montgomery Blair
  3. Winfield Scott
  4. William Seward

Free Response Questions

  1. Analyze the choices Abraham Lincoln had for resolving the Fort Sumter crisis.
  2. Explain how the battle at Fort Sumter became a symbol for both the Union and Confederacy during the Civil War.

AP Practice Questions

“It is seventy-two years since the first inauguration of a President under our National Constitution. During that period fifteen different and greatly distinguished citizens have in succession administered the executive branch of the Government. They have conducted it through many perils, and generally with great success. Yet, with all this scope of precedent, I now enter upon the same task for the brief constitutional term of four years under great and peculiar difficulty. A disruption of the Federal Union, heretofore only menaced, is now formidably attempted. I hold that in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution the Union of these States is perpetual. Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination. Continue to execute all the express provisions of our National Constitution, and the Union will endure forever, it being impossible to destroy it except by some action not provided for in the instrument itself.”

Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861

Refer to the excerpt provided.

1. The excerpt reflects which philosophy of government?

  1. States’ rights
  2. Federalism
  3. Constitutional monarchy
  4. Autocracy

2. President Lincoln’s argument, as expressed in the excerpt, was a response to

  1. the attempts at a national compromise on the issue of slavery
  2. unresolved issues remaining from the controversial election of 1860
  3. the secession of seven southern states from the Union
  4. the Union army’s failure to hold Fort Sumter

3. President Lincoln would most likely disagree with the sentiments expressed in which of the following?

  1. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense
  2. Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence
  3. The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions
  4. The Olive Branch Petition


“Now, therefore, I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States in virtue of the power in me vested by the Constitution and the laws, have thought fit to call forth, and hereby do call forth, the militia of the several States of the Union, to the aggregate number of 75,000, in order to suppress said combinations and to cause the laws to be duly executed. The details of this object will be immediately communicated to the State authorities through the War Department. I appeal to all loyal citizens to favor, facilitate, and aid this effort to maintain the honor, the integrity, and the existence of our National Union, and the perpetuity of popular government, and to redress wrongs already long enough endured. I deem it proper to say that the first service assigned to the forces hereby called forth will probably be to repossess the forts, places, and property which have been seized from the Union, and in every event the utmost care will be observed, consistently with the objects aforesaid, to avoid any devastation, any destruction of or interference with property, or any disturbance of peaceful citizens in any part of the country.”

Abraham Lincoln, A Proclamation made by the President of the United States, April 15, 1861

Refer to the excerpt provided.

President Lincoln’s overall goal when he issued the provided statement was to

  1. bring an end to the institution of slavery
  2. send a military message to Great Britain and France to stay out of the conflict
  3. maintain the Union
  4. deliver a message of patriotism

5. The ideas expressed by Abraham Lincoln in the excerpt had most in common with the ideas expressed in

  1. the philosophy on states’ rights in the Hartford Convention Resolutions
  2. the relationship of the states in the Articles of Confederation
  3. the idea of national unity in George Washington’s Farewell Address
  4. James Monroe’s ideals on national authority expressed in the Monroe Doctrine

Primary Sources

“Bombardment of Fort Sumter.” Charleston Mercury. April 13, 1861.

Holt, Joseph. “Report to President Buchanan.” February 9, 1861.

Lincoln, Abraham. “Monday, April 15, 1861 (Proclamation on State Militia).” April 15, 1861.

Suggested Resources

Detzer, David. Allegiance: Fort Sumter, Charleston, and the Beginning of the Civil War. New York: Harcourt, 2001.

Klein, Maury. Days of Defiance: Sumter, Secession, and the Coming of the Civil War. New York: Knopf, 1997.

Swanberg, W. A. First Blood: The Story of Fort Sumter. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1957.

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