Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Bombardment of Fort Sumter - 150 Years Ago Today

Fort Sumter National Monument
NPS Photo
At 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, 150 years ago today, a mortar shell rose high in the air over Charleston Harbor in South Carolina and exploded. As the flames and fragments rained down on the island citadel of Fort Sumter, the men of both sides knew that the War Between the States had begun.

One by one, Confederate cannon ringing the harbor opened fire. Inside the brick fortress, U.S. soldiers hunkered down as shot and shell impacted with the masonry and shook the ramparts to their foundations. They would eventually return fire, even targeting a hotel where Captain Abner Doubleday claimed he had once received poor service, but remarkably no one would die on either side.

42-Pounder at Fort Sumter
The Bombardment of Fort Sumter continued for 34 straight hours. Sections of wall well away and the wooden parts of the fort, particularly the barracks, caught fire. Dense smoke settled over the fort and the men inside held wet clothes over their noses and mouths so they could breathe and continue to fight. Some of them had fought in the War with Mexico or in the Seminole Wars, but they had never experienced anything like this.

In Charleston, citizens gathered on the rooftops and watched from the Battery as the shot and shells arced over the harbor. Each explosion brought cheers. South Carolina had waited a long time for this day.

Among the Confederate commanders, there were mixed emotions. Their duty was not so much to the new country that had been formed in Montgomery, Alabama in February of 1861 as it was to their home states and to their mutual identity as Southerners. But they had served with Major Robert Anderson and many of the other men in Fort Sumter, had shared good times and danger together, and they regret mixed with exhiliration that the long-awaited battle was finally underway.

Fort Sumter
Knowing that his position was hopeless but that his duty was to defend the flag of his nation, Major Anderson held out against all odds. Even though his position was under fierce attack, he did his best to preserve the lives of his officers and men. He ordered them not to man the fort's upper level of guns where they would be more exposed to the Confederate fire, although in the midst of the bombardment a soldier defied those orders and dashed up the stairs and touched off the cannon there.

Fort Sumter would surrender on the next day, April 13, 1861. More than 600,000 men would die and more than 1,000,000 would be wounded before Anderson would again raise his flag over the walls of Fort Sumter.

To learn more about Fort Sumter National Monument, which preserves the ruins of the historic fort, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/fortsumter.

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