155 years ago today – April 12, 1861 – the first shot of the Civil War rang out in Fort Sumter, South Carolina. “The Civil War has now begun in earnest,” Harper’s Weekly would later tell its readers.
This was not a war started in haste. The founding fathers had managed to set aside the issue of slavery in order to create unity between the thirteen colonies. The thought was that it would eventually die a slow death; by 1800 importation of slaves had nearly ceased & the slave population was around 694,000. With the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, it allowed Southern farmers to process more cotton; with slave labor, it also allowed them to also make bigger profits. By 1860 there were 3.95 million slaves in the United States, which was 12% of the total population; in the South, slaves accounted for 43% of their population.
When the Battle of Fort Sumter occurred, only seven southern states had seceded from the Union. Later Virginia (including West Virginia, though in 1863 they were admitted as a new state to the Union), Tennessee, Arkansas & North Carolina would also secede and join the Confederate States of America. Three states would maintain neutrality – Maryland, Kentucky & Missouri – though thousands of people served either the northern or southern cause.
While the subject of slavery fueled the flames for war, in the end it came down to State’s rights vs. National government. Ever since the United States was formed, there had been differences in opinion over what type of control national government should have. Initially there was great focus on State and Local governments, with the national government role evolving and expanding with each election. Most disagreements were on things such as tariffs and sectionalism (looking at the nation as sections, with most of the power being held in the North at the time of the war). Slavery played a large role as it was tied into the Southern economy, but it was not the sole reason for secession.
Secession was something many states throughout the United States had explored at various times through its history. Other places around the world had separated from an initial government; a break did not necessarily have to mean war. The Southern states thought that they had every right to break away & form their own union; to them, it was no different than when the 13 colonies sought to break their ties to England. It was the position of the Northern leaders that the South did not have this right. Based on these two very different stances, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and C.S.A. Provisional President Jefferson Davis did what was in the best interest of their countries for the people they represented.
It’s important to keep in mind that in 1861, the country was quite vast, but travel was limited for most people. There was not a large sense of U.S. patriotism or even a strong connection. When people spoke of home, it was often in reference to their state. It is why people like Robert E. Lee would leave the U.S military and his “country” to fight for his home state of Virginia – which will soon become a part of the Confederate States of America.
When the first shot rang out at Fort Sumter, many understood that this meant the start of something. Very few predicted it would be the start of a four year war, with 1,100,000 casualties, 620,000 of them being killed from battle wounds or from illness. Even those in the most powerful of positions, such as U.S. President Lincoln, thought this would be the beginning of a “90 day war,” to be mostly fought by volunteers in an effort to put an end to a small “rebellion.” A few people, one of them being future U.S. General William T. Sherman, understood that this was more than a rebellion, and would write to his brother, U.S. Senator John Sherman (Ohio): “I still think it is to be a long war – very long – much longer than any Politician thinks.”
U.S. General Robert Anderson and his men manage to survive the first day of Confederate attacks, led by C.S.A. General P.G.T. Beauregard, who years before had been a student of Anderson’s at West Point. The bombardment of the fort will continue throughout the night.
The day after Major Anderson’s (USA) surrender, a hundred gun salute was a part of the generous terms offered by Brigadier General Beauregard (CSA). The salute, along with the raising of the U.S. flag, would take place exactly 24 hours after the surrender at 2pm. Beauregard, likely due to his friendship with Anderson, showed great respect for Anderson and his men, and allowed them to leave with dignity and at their own pace. In the middle of the ceremony there was an accidental cannon explosion, which caused the first official fatalities of the Civil War. Private Daniel Hough was killed instantly. Four were wounded, with one – Private Edward Gallway – dying at Gibbes Hospital in Charleston on April 19. The salute was cut short to just 50 guns.
Beauregard showed great concern over the injured soldiers. Since they were on enemy territory the Union troops were not allowed to take the soldiers with them. But Beauregard promised Anderson the injured soldiers would receive the best of care. In regards to Private Hough, Beauregard issued an order to his military personnel who would now occupy the Fort: “The commanding general directs that the commanding officer of the garrison of Fort Sumter will bury the unfortunate soldier who has been accidentally killed by explosion of misplaced powder while saluting his flag. He will be buried with all the honors of war in the parade of the fort.”
As soon as U.S. troops took down their flag, the victorious Confederacy raised their new flag inside Fort Sumter. This was the first official Confederate flag design, with seven stars (one to represent each Confederate State) and three bars. Commonly referred to as the “Stars and Bars” and was designed to “not abandon” the old U.S. flag design at the request of many citizens. It’s use was approved on March 4, 1861, a little more than a month prior to the first battle.
Anderson and his command boarded a ship and headed to New York. With him, he brought the damaged U.S. flag that had once flown inside the Fort.
In Washington D.C., President Lincoln met with his cabinet and military officers and drafted a proclamation calling for a militia to suppress the rebellion. This was a call for 75,000 troops from the various states still in the Union, including states that had been debating whether or not to secede. Most states rallied around the cause after the surrender of Fort Sumter. For four states, this would be the issue that eventually pushed them over the edge and into the Confederacy. The new militia would serve just ninety days, and a special meeting of Congress was set for July 4 at noon to determine what special actions needed to be taken for this “extraordinary occasion.”
The ninety day time frame, in hindsight, was extremely short. But at the time most experienced political and military leaders on both sides felt that defeat of the opposition would easily occur within that time frame.