Battle of Fort Sumter Begins Civil War

U.S. #1178 was issued on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Sumter.

On April 12, 1861, the North and South fought the first battle of the Civil War at Fort Sumter.

The day after Christmas, rowboats sliced quietly across Charleston Harbor under cover of darkness. South Carolina had seceded six days earlier, leaving Union Major General Robert Anderson and his group of 127 men stranded at Fort Moultrie, deep within rebel territory. Anderson and his troops left Fort Moultrie, which was impossible to defend, for the daring journey to nearby Fort Sumter, which was one of the strongest garrisons in the world at the time. As the sun rose, Anderson’s men proudly hoisted the Stars and Stripes over Fort Sumter, where it waved above the entrance to South Carolina’s most important port city.

South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens was outraged. President Buchanan had promised him Fort Sumter would remain unoccupied, yet the merchant ship Star of the West was sent to Fort Sumter to supply Anderson with food, small arms, and 200 men. Fearing this was the assault they’d expected since secession, rebels rushed to Charleston by the thousands to man shore batteries and fire at the ship. Hoping to prevent war, Major Anderson decided against using Sumter’s artillery to protect the Star of the West.

U.S. #3403o pictures the Union flag that flew over Fort Sumter during the battle.

South Carolina seized all Federal property in Charleston (including Fort Moultrie) except Fort Sumter. General Pierre G. T. Beauregard, who had studied under Major Anderson at West Point, was sent to fortify the area around Charleston Harbor for battle. Beauregard surrounded Fort Sumter with a force of about 6,000 troops and 19 batteries.

In the weeks to come, the Confederate States of America was formed, Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated, and both sides tried to shore up critical alliances with Great Britain and France. As the march to civil war quickened, all eyes were upon Fort Sumter.

U.S. #4522 – Issued on the 150th anniversary of the battle, this stamp pictures a reproduction of an 1861 Currier and Ives lithograph.

On April 6, President Lincoln notified Pickens he would supply only food to the troops at Fort Sumter. If the Confederates didn’t interfere, the Federal Government would not deliver men, arms, or ammunition.

Having hostile troops in control of Charleston Harbor was a serious threat to the Confederacy, which made their removal a top priority. President Jefferson Davis ordered Beauregard to demand the surrender Fort Sumter and destroy the facility if any supplies were brought to the Federal troops.

Item #81589 – Commemorative cover marking 125th anniversary of the Union surrender of Fort Sumter.

Waving a white flag, Confederates Stephen D. Lee and James Chestnut, Jr., rowed across Charleston Harbor to deliver the ultimatum on the afternoon of April 11, 1861. Anderson refused. “I shall wait for the first shot, and if you do not batter us to pieces, we shall be starved out in a few days.”

Beauregard was instructed to withhold fire if Anderson would set a date for evacuation. If not, he was told to “reduce the fort as your judgment decides to be most practicable.” In the early morning hours of April 12, Lee and Chestnut were sent across the harbor again to present Anderson with a way to avoid bloodshed.

Item #571206 – Special Event Cover marking 141st anniversary of the battle.

Anderson agreed to evacuate by noon on the 15th unless new orders or supplies were received, but didn’t pledge to withhold fire. This was exactly what Beauregard had been ordered to prevent. Anderson was told shots would be fired in one hour. He shook hands with the Confederate messengers, saying, “If we never meet in this world again, God grant that we may meet in the next.”

A single shot was fired at Fort Sumter at 4:30 a.m., followed by more at two-minute intervals. Union ships bearing supplies lay nearby, but were held at bay by the artillery. Beauregard’s forces heated cannon balls and fired them deliberately into wooden buildings on Fort Sumter. The fort became an inferno, threatening to explode the facility’s stores of gunpowder. At noon the following day, a Charleston newspaper reported the “entire roof of the barracks at Fort Sumter are in a vast sheet of flame. Shells from Cummings’ Point and Fort Moultrie are bursting in and over Fort Sumter in quick succession. The Federal flag still waves. Major Anderson is only occupied in putting out the fire. Every shot on Fort Sumter now seems to tell heavily.”

Item #M11550 pictures the generals and battle scenes of the fight for Fort Sumter.

Aside from being short on supplies, Anderson’s troops were also stymied by the original design of Fort Sumter. Built in the aftermath of the War of 1812 to defend against a naval attack, Sumter’s guns pointed outward toward the sea rather than inland. Starved, outmanned and outgunned, the men of Fort Sumter agreed to a truce and lowered the United States flag at 2 p.m. on April 13th.

Lincoln immediately called for 75,000 troops to preserve the Union, rallying Northerners and prompting four additional states to secede. Charleston Harbor remained in Confederate hands for the rest of the war, leaving a gap in the Union blockade. The Civil War had begun.

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  1. Seven states beginning with South Carolina, seceded from the Union after Lincoln was elected but before, repeat, BEFORE he even became on March 4, 1861. Pathetic. As one contemporary observer commented, South Carolina is too little to be an republic and too big to be an insane asylum.

    1. Marty, read a history book, and it will make sense. I did leave out one word, “…before he even became President on March 4, 1861.”

  2. No doubt slavery is morally wrong and there was no excuse to defend this peculiar institution; nevertheless, diplomacy would have been a better alternative to avoid further bloodshed during this darkest day in American history. The issues brought on by the Civil War weren’t properly resolved by the end of this conflict; Lincoln’s assassination failed to bring closure between the North and South up to this day. Thanks for this detailed description of events leading up to the bombardment of Fort Sumter.

  3. Hey Jim;
    Perhaps you are too young to remember Hiroshima but that’s the day WW11 was on its way to an end. It resolved a lot of things. We didn’t ask for Pearl Harbor but we went to war to end it.

  4. There is no diplomacy that would work when one section of the country decides it wants to leave and retain above all its peculiar institution of slavery. Slaves were too valuable and essential to the wealth of the south to be freed. The southern economy was built on the backs of its 4 million slaves.

  5. Lincoln used Anderson as cannon fodder! He needed an excuse to start the war as secession was not a valid reason for attack. The Confederates did not violate anything by secession from the union.

    1. Most people do not remember it as most people were not even born then. I will agree killing people resolves all the issues for those killed.

    2. The Confederates violated many things, but just to give one example, they illegally seized Federal property. Resisting the seizure of Fort Sumter was not an excuse, it was Constitutionally required by Lincoln’s oath of office to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. A footnote: General Robert Anderson was a Southerner, but he stuck by his oath as an officer in the United States Army.

  6. They only wanted too keep all the forts and other arsenals that were in the south and not pay for them. Let’s seceede and keep the goods.

  7. The South was wrong in its withdrawal from thr Union. Their hatred and fear prevented them waiting to see what Lincoln would do once in office and established his administration.

    The Progressive Democrats are at war with Trump and the Republicans that control House and the Senate. At least they are not resorting to violence, this time.

    The hate of Trump is so strong they cannot think clearly. They never expect Hillary to be defeated and they cannot except the defeat. God, forbid they look at their campaign as a cause. They just are trying to prove Trump and his team worked with the Russians as the excuse.

    I am momentously disturbed by the ignorance of not only the Progressives, some conservatives but the people of this nation.

    Retired history teacher

  8. Interesting commentary. Especially by “Jim Watkins”. Apparently not a student of history, much less this battle. Having been born April 12, and living in Charleston five years during the centennial years, this history has always been close.
    There were no winners. Read the field reports of Major Anderson and the correspondence with General Beauregard. The war deteriorated after this exchange! Very few Confederate soldiers “owned slaves” and those who did had only a few (still a terrible thing). This is who was killed.
    We can’t change history, only judge it in very different times out of context. But if there’s any value, we try to learn from it! And work to do better!!

    1. What are you talking about? What comment are you referring to with regard to this battle? I graduated with a degree in social studies in 1969 and taught American history for a short time.

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