The assault on Fort Sumter

On the 11th of February, 1861, Abraham Lincoln left his home in Springfield, Illinois, and began his journey to Washington. On reaching Harrisburg, indications of a purpose violently to oppose his progress became apparent, and his journey from this point was performed secretly. His inaugural address, delivered on the 4th of Marc, was conciliatory in tone, and the envoys from the Confederate government, afterwards sent to Washington, were received with a lack of plain-speaking that gave them hopes of a non-interference policy. It was not until April that any decisive action was taken by the new administration. Fort Sumter, in Charleston harbor, was beleaguered by a Confederate force. Was it to be given up without a struggle? This was just then the vital question, and the decision of the administration was manifested by secret but rapid preparations to relieve the fort. Early in April a well-appointed fleet sailed southward for this purpose. As soon as the fact came clearly to the knowledge of the leaders at Charleston, hostilities were determined upon, unless Anderson would at once consent to evacuated the fort. On April 12 he offered to evacuate on the 15th if not by that date aided by the government. In reply he was given one hour in which to decide, at the end of which time fire would be opened on the fort.

Punctually at the hour indicated--twenty minutes past four A.M.--the roar of a mortar from Sullivan's Island announced the war begun. A second bomb from the same battery followed; then Fort Moultrie answered with the thunder of a columbiad; Cumming's Point next, and the Floating Battery, dropped in their resonant notes; then a pause, but only for a moment. A roar of fifty guns burst in concert, a chorus to the solemn prelude which must have startled the spirits of the patriotic dead in their slumbers.

Sumter lay off in the waters, the centre of that appalling circle of fire. The early morning shadows had lifted from its ramparts to discover the stars and stripes floating from the garrison staff; but it was as silent amid that storm as if no living soul panted and fretted within its walls. It was the silence of duty,--of men resolved on death, if their country called for the sacrifice. For months the little garrison had been pent up in the fortress, over-worked and underfed, but not a murmur escaped the men, and the hour of assault found all prepared for their leader's orders,--to defend the fort to the last.

The sentinels were removed from the parapet, the posterns closed, and the order given for the men to keep close within the casements until the call of the drum. Breakfast was quietly served at six o'clock, the shot and shell of the enemy thundering against the walls and pouring within the enclosure with remarkable precision. After breakfast, disposition was calmly made for the day's work. The casements were supplied from the magazines; the guns, without tangents or scales, and even destitute of bearing-screws, were to be ranged by the eyes and fired "by guess;" the little force was told off in relays, composed of three reliefs, equally dividing the officers and men. Captain Doubleday took the first detachment, and fired the first gun at seven o'clock. The captain directed his guns at Moultrie, at the Cumming's Point iron battery, the floating iron-clad battery anchored off the end of Sullivan's Island, and the enfilading battery on Sullivan's Island,--all of which were then pouring in a scathing storm of solid shot. To the mortar-batteries on James Island and Mount Pleasant, and to Fort Johnson, but little attention was paid,--only an occasional columbiad answering their terrific messengers to prove its defiance. The parapet-guns were not served after a few rounds, as their exposed condition rendered it impossible to work them without a sacrifice of men,--a sacrifice Anderson would not needlessly allow. Throughout all that fearful fray the commander seemed never to lose sight of the men; and that not a man was lost during the bombardment reflects quite as much honor upon him as the defence did honor to his devotion to duty.

The eagerness of the men within the fort was so great that the reliefs refused to await their turns, while a body of Irish laborers, who at first declined to handle the heavy guns, soon were among the most enthusiastic of the defenders.

Their devotion, indeed, became reckless. An officer stated that, having ordered the barbette guns to be silenced, owing to the murderous fire made upon them by the rifled ordnance of the enfilading battery, he was surprised to hear a report from one of the exposed forty-two-pounders. Proceeding to the parapet, he found a party of the workmen serving the gun. "I saw one of them," he stated, "stooping over, with his hands on his knees, convulsed with joy, while the tears rolled down his powder-begrimed cheeks. `What are you doing there with that gun?' I asked. `Hit it right in the centre,' was the reply, the man meaning that his shot had taken effect in the centre of the floating battery."

Another officer present thus recorded the nature and effect of that literal rain of iron which all the day long (Friday) poured in upon the still defiant walls:

"Shells burst with the greatest rapidity in every portion of the work, hurling the loose brick and stone in all directions, breaking the windows, and setting fire to whatever wood-work they burst against. The solid-shot firing of the enemy's batteries, and particularly of Fort Moultrie, was directed at the barbette guns of Fort Sumter, disabling one ten-inch columbiad (they had but two), one eight-inch columbiad, one forty-two-pounder, and two eight-inch seacoast howitzers, and also tearing a large portion of the parapet away. The firing from the batteries on Cumming's Point was scattered over the whole of the gorge, or rear, of the fort. It looked like a sieve. The explosion of shells, and the quantity of deadly missiles that were hurled in every direction and at every instant of time, made it almost certain death to go out of the lower tier of casements, and also made the working of the barbette or upper uncovered guns, which contained all our heaviest metals, and by which alone we could throw shells, quite impossible. During the first day there was hardly an instant of time that there was a cessation of the whizzing of balls, which were sometimes coming half a dozen at once. There was not a portion of the work which was not seen in reverse (that is, exposed by the rear) from mortars."..

At noon, Friday, the supply of cartridges in the fort was exhausted, when the blankets of the barracks and the shirts of the men were sewed into the required bags and served out. No instrument was in the fort for weighing the powder, thus forbidding all precision in the charge, and, as a consequence, causing much variation in planting the shot. When we add that the guns wanted both tangents, breech or telescopic sights, that wedges served instead of bearing-screws, we can only express astonishment at the accuracy attained. Not a structure of the enemy escaped the solid balls of the columbiads and paixhans. The village of Moultrieville--a gathering of summer-houses belonging to citizens of Charleston--was completely riddled.

The fleet appeared off the harbor at noon, Friday. Signals passed between Anderson and the vessels, but no effort was made to run the gauntlet. Along Morris and Sullivan's Islands were anchored small batteries, commanding the harbor-entrance, expressly designed to prevent the passage of vessels over the bar and up the channel. To have passed these would only have brought the vessel in range of the irresistible guns of Cumming's Point and of Moultrie. No wooden frame could have withstood their fearful hail. The only feasible plan was, under cover of the night, to run in with small boats, or to force a landing on Morris Island and carry the batteries by assault. Either plan would have proven successful, if conducted with spirit, though it would have entailed much loss of life. Why it was not undertaken is only explainable on the inference that Mr. Lincoln did not want to retain Sumter. The possession of the fort was a matter of no military importance; a blockade would render all the defences of the harbor useless. The assault on the fort would serve to initiate the war for the Union, and thus instate the President's policy for the suppression of the rebellion. The refusal to withdraw the garrison from Charleston harbor unquestionably was the subtle key to unlock the national sympathies and to place in Mr. Lincoln's hands the entire power of the loyal States. He counted well upon the madness of the Confederates, and simply opened the way for them to assail the government by assaulting its garrison. This was the part for Fort Sumter to play; and, having played it successfully, it was not necessary to retain the position. The evacuation of the fortress, and the return to the North of its garrison, to excite public sympathy, would be worth more to the cause of the Union than the reinforcement and retention of the stronghold.

During Friday the officers' barracks within the fort were set on fire several times, but were extinguished. Guns were fired at intervals through the night, to prevent repairs.

Saturday morning, at the earliest light, the cannonading was resumed with redoubled fury. By eight o'clock the red-hot balls from the furnace in Moultrie came to prove that the revolutionists would use every means to dislodge the obstinate Anderson. Soon the barracks and quarters were in flames, past all control. The men were then withdrawn from the guns, to avert the now impending danger to the magazine. The powder must be emptied into the sea. Ninety barrels were rolled over the area exposed to the flames, and pitched into the water. By this time the heat from the burning buildings became intense, fairly stifling the men with its dense fumes. The doors of the vault were, therefore, sealed, while the men crept into the casemates to avoid suffocation by cowering close to the floor, covering their faces with wet cloths. An occasional gun only could be fired, as a signal to the enemy and the fleet outside that the fort had not surrendered. The colors still floated from the staff. When the winds bore the smoke and flames aside, its folds revealed to the enemy the glorious stars and stripes, waving there amid the ruin and treble terror, unscathed. Its halliards had been shot away, but, becoming entangled, the flag was fixed. Only the destruction of the staff could drag it down.

This appalling conflagration seemed to inflame the zeal of the assailants. The entire circle of attack blazoned with fire, and the air was cut into hissing arches of smoke and balls. The rebel general in command had stated that two hours, probably, would suffice to reduce the fortress, but twenty-eight hours had not accomplished the work; and now, as the besiegers beheld another and more invincible power coming to their aid, they acknowledged the service rendered, by frenzied shouts and redoubled service at their guns. It must have been a moment to inspire the enthusiasm of seven thousand sons of the South, when flames and suffocation came to assist in reducing eighty half-starved and exhausted men.

About noon of Saturday the upper service magazine exploded, tearing away the tower and upper portions of the fort, and doing more havoc than a week's bombardment could have effected. One who was present wrote, "The crash of the beams, the roar of the flames, the rapid explosion of the shells, and the shower of fragments of the fort, with the blackness of the smoke, made the scene indescribably terrific and grand. This continued for several hours. Meanwhile, the main gates were burned down, the chassis of the barbette guns were burned away on the gorge, and the upper portions of the towers had been demolished by shells.

"There was not a portion of the fort where a breath of air could be got for hours, except through a wet cloth. The fire spread to the men's quarters, on the right hand and on the left, and endangered the powder which had been taken out of the magazines. The men went through the fire and covered the barrels with wet cloths, but the danger of the fort's blowing up became so imminent that they were obliged to heave the barrels out of the embrasures. While the powder was being thrown overboard, all the guns of Moultrie, of the iron floating battery, of the enfilade battery, and the Dahlgren battery, worked with increased vigor.

"All but four barrels were thus disposed of, and those remaining were wrapped in many thicknesses of wet woollen blankets. But three cartridges were left, and these were in the guns. About this time the flag-staff of Fort Sumter was shot down, some fifty feet from the truck, this being the ninth time that it had been struck by a shot. The men cried out, `The flag is down; it has been shot away!' In an instant, Lieutenant Hall rushed forward and brought the flag away. But the halliards were so inextricably tangled that it could not be righted: it was, therefore, nailed to the staff, and planted upon the ramparts, while batteries in every direction were playing upon them."

Shortly after this incident, Louis T. Wigfall, late United States Senator from Texas, came out to the fort with a white flag. He announced that he had been sent by General Beauregard to demand on what terms Anderson would surrender. The latter replied that he would evacuate on the terms offered in his note to Beauregard, and on no others. Another boat soon after appeared, with members of Beauregard's staff, and Anderson, to his mortification, was informed that Wigfall had come out utterly without authority. Beauregard, however, accepted the terms which Anderson had proposed to Wigfall, and the opening battle of the war ended, a contest in which not a man had been lost on either side. The poorly-prepared condition for service of Sumter's guns had saved the assailants from all peril.

During the bombardment a vast concourse of people gathered in Charleston, and lined the wharves and promenade, to witness the sublime contest. The surrounding country poured in its eager, excited masses to add to the throng. Men, women, and children stood there, hour after hour, with blanched faces and praying hearts; for few of that crowd but had some loved one in the works under fire. Messengers came hourly from the several positions, to assure the people of the safety of the men. The second day's conflict found the city densely filled with people, crowding in by railway and private conveyances from the more distant counties, until Charleston literally swarmed with humanity, which, in dispersing, after the evacuation, played the important part of agents to "fire the Southern heart" for the storm which their madness had evoked.

The evacuation took place Sunday morning [April 14, 1861], commencing at half-past nine. The steamer Isabel was detailed to receive the garrison, and to bear it to any point in the North which Anderson might indicate. The baggage was first transferred to the transport; then the troops marched out, bearing their arms; while a squad, specially detailed, fired fifty guns as a salute to their flag. At the last discharge, a premature explosion killed one man, David Hough, and wounded three,--the only loss and injury which the men suffered in the eventful drama. The troops then lowered their flag and marched out with their colors flying, while the band played "Yankee Doodle" and "Hail to the Chief." From the Isabel the garrison was conveyed to the transport Baltic, still anchored outside the bar. The Baltic sailed for New York Tuesday evening, April 16th.. Thus ended the drama of Sumter,--a drama which served to prelude the grander tragedy of the War for the Union.

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