1861 One Hundred And Twenty-five Years Ago

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On April 12 the shelling at Fort Sumter began and, with it, the Civil War. The fort had been very much in the public mind since President Lincoln’s inaugural address a month earlier. He had declared that he would “hold, occupy and possess the property and places belonging to the Government,” and everyone knew he was referring to that besieged island stronghold off Charleston, South Carolina. By refusing to abandon Federal forts located in Confederate states, Lincoln was telling the five-month-old Confederacy that he did not recognize it as a legitimate independent government. Furthermore, his wording implied that the North refused to take the first step toward war; if hostilities were to break out, the South would be the aggressor.

But out on the sandbar where Fort Sumter stood, Maj. Robert Anderson and his force of eighty men had taken stock of their dwindling food supplies and sent word to Washington that they couldn’t hold out much longer. If they weren’t soon resupplied, they would have to abandon the fort.

Lincoln’s plan to peacefully bide his time was crushed. Sending ships to resupply Fort Sumter would end in war, and he knew it but had no choice. On April 8 the Federal War Department formally notified South Carolina’s governor that ships would be sailing to Fort Sumter “with provisions only.” Four days later the shelling started.

With the sound of the first distant gun and the sight of the bomb’s red fuse cleaving the sky, the citizens of Charleston gathered on their rooftops and stood spellbound by the spectacle. “Hard knowledge of war’s reality would come later,” wrote the historian Bruce Catton, but “at the hour of its dawn, with a new day’s light coming in from the open sea, and a thin haze rising to soften the hard outlines of fort and city and mounded batteries, the war had an incredible and long-remembered beauty.” Thirty-four hours later, Major Anderson surrendered, and Fort Sumter fell into Confederate hands.

• April 15: President Lincoln calls for seventy-five thousand volunteers to sign up for a ninety-day tour of duty to suppress the “insurrection.”