Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie National Historical Park | HISTORY OF FORT SUMTER

Fort Sumter as seen from Fort Moultrie

Fort Sumter as seen from Fort Moultrie

After the War of 1812, the United States decided that it would be wise to modernize the country’s coastal defenses. As part of this modernization, called the Third American System of Coastal Defenses, construction on Fort Sumter began in 1829 on an island at the mouth of Charleston Harbor. Typical of a federal government project, the fort still wasn’t complete in 1861 when it became the nation’s center of attention after the opening shots of what would become known as the American Civil War were fired upon it.

When South Carolina seceded from the United States on December 20, 1860, there were a total of four forts in Charleston, but the only one that was manned by a large number of soldiers was Fort Moultrie. Moultrie was across the harbor from Fort Sumter on Sullivans Island. Five days after the secession, the commander of the fort, Major Robert Anderson, made a decision to move his 85 Federal soldiers from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter. Reading the writing on the wall, Anderson knew that a South Carolina militia would soon form and would most likely attempt to remove his troops from Fort Moultrie. Though Moultrie was on an island, South Carolina troops could easily come ashore at the far end and then march to Fort Moultrie. Furthermore, because Fort Moultrie was a coastal defense fort, its guns were all facing the harbor and were not meant to defend the fort from a rear, land-based attack, where the stream of militia men would certainly come from. By moving to Fort Sumter, Anderson and his men would have a better chance of defending themselves from attack, which would most likely be an artillery bombardment from the mainland. Neither situation was ideal, but the move to Fort Sumter might give Anderson more time to await possible help from the Union army.

As mentioned earlier, the one problem with Fort Sumter was that it was not complete. The completed fort was to hold 650 men and be armed with three tiers of cannon, 135 in all. When Anderson arrived, only 15 cannon had been installed, though his men set up 60 by the time the Battle of Fort Sumter began (unfortunately, there weren’t enough men to make use of them). While safer than at Fort Moultrie from a possible invasion, the fort would not be able to successfully counter artillery attacks from the other coastal forts of Charleston, particularly Fort Moultrie and Fort Johnson. Fort Sumter sat between the two and was easily within range of their guns.

By March 1861, six other states had seceded from the Union (Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas) and nearly all Federal forts in these states had been seized by the Confederates except for Fort Sumter. In January, President James Buchanan, who was finishing his term as president, sent supply ships to Fort Sumter, but they were turned back when fired upon by the coastal forts of South Carolina. On April 4th, newly elected President Lincoln again sent supply ships with Navy escorts and reinforcements to Fort Sumter. The Governor of South Carolina, Francis Pickens, was informed of this by Lincoln, who promised to land only supplies, not men and ammunition. Lincoln informed the South Carolina governor because he would not recognize any member of the newly formed Confederate government. However, instead of allowing the resupply, Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, instructed Brigadier General Pierre Beauregard, who was in charge of Confederate troops in Charleston, to demand the surrender of Federal troops at Fort Sumter, and if this was refused, to do as he saw fit to get Anderson to surrender. This had to be done before the Federal troops and supplies arrived.

On April 11th, Beauregard demanded the surrender of Sumter. Anderson refused. On April 12th at 3:20 AM, Anderson was informed that the Confederates would open fire on the fort in one hour unless he surrendered. Again he refused. As promised, the artillery bombardment of the fort commenced. The first shot was fired from Fort Johnson at 4:40 AM, though it was just a signaling shot that exploded high above the fort. Moments later, shots were fired at the fort from a battery on Cummings Point, and by daybreak Fort Sumter was under fire from Fort Johnson, Fort Moultrie, and all other batteries on the coast that could reach Sumter.

Anderson began to return fire around 7 AM, but managed no damage to the Confederate forts. Bombardment of Sumter continued throughout the night. On the morning of the 13th, a hot shot (heated cannonball) caught the officers’ quarters of Fort Sumter on fire, pulling troops away from the fight in order to stop the flames that could easily spread to the gunpowder storage areas. By 2 PM that day, Anderson surrendered.

Nobody on either side had been killed during the battle, though one Union soldier was killed when a gun exploded during the surrender ceremony. Anderson and his men were allowed to board a ship to New York. He asked to take with him the U. S. flag that flew above the fort, and this request was granted. Today, this flag can be seen at the Fort Sumter Museum at Battery Huger, located at the center of Fort Sumter (Huger was added to the fort in the late 1890s).

Fort Sumter and all other forts in the Charleston harbor remained in Confederate hands until the very last months of the war. The original damage to Sumter was repaired by the Confederate troops that now occupied the fort, and 95 cannon were installed and ready to fire by the time the war got into full swing.

Knowing that to control Charleston that Fort Sumter must first be taken or destroyed, the Union Navy attacked the fort with ironclad ships on April 7, 1863, but did relatively little damage while having five of nine ships sunk or disabled. After this, Union troops set up positions in the marshes of Morris Island, southwest of Sumter, installing guns powerful enough to reach the fort. The main assault began on August 17, 1863. More than 1,000 shells were fired on the first day alone, heavily damaging the gorge and right flank walls. Slaves and Confederate soldiers worked around the clock to make repairs, and despite the damage, the Confederates would not surrender.

Model of Fort Sumter in 1861

Model of Fort Sumter in 1861

Bombardment of the fort continued on and off for 20 months, reducing much of the fort to rubble. It wasn’t until February 17, 1865, less than two months before the South officially surrendered and ended the war, that the Confederates abandoned Fort Sumter. Charleston, however, remained in Confederate hands, so Sumter just sat empty. On April 14, 1865, five days after the South surrendered at Appomattox Court House, and on the same day President Lincoln was shot, Federal troops reentered Fort Sumter and once again raised the Union flag—the same flag that had flown over the fort when the first shots were fired to start the Civil War. Robert Anderson was the one who raised it.

The fort that stands today stems from renovations begun in 1870. From 1876 to 1897, no soldiers occupied the fort; it served as a lighthouse station. The fort saw heavy deterioration during this time. It wasn’t until the Spanish-American war started in 1898 that renovations on the fort began once again, primarily with the building of Battery Huger. Fort Sumter continued as an active fort until the end of World War II. It was decommissioned after the war, and in 1948 the U. S. War Department turned the property over to the National Park Service.

Back to the Top

With a few exceptions, use of any photograph on the National Park Planner website requires a paid Royalty Free Editorial Use License or Commercial Use License. See the Photo Usage page for details.
Last updated on March 23, 2020
Share this article