At 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, the Civil War began when Confederate forces opened fire on the U.S. garrison holding Fort Sumter. The bombardment lasted thirty-four hours, with the formal surrender taking place on April 14.
Named after South Carolina Revolutionary War general Thomas Sumter, Fort Sumter was one of the fortifications built to protect the nation’s seacoast after the War of 1812. Construction began in 1829 with the placement of about seventy thousand tons of rock and granite rubble from New England quarries on a shoal located at the harbor’s entrance. This two-and-one-half-acre, man-made island served as the foundation on which to build the pentagonal fort. With walls five feet thick and fifty feet high, Fort Sumter was designed to mount 135 heavy cannons and garrison 650 officers and men. The fort was about ninety percent complete when South Carolina seceded on December 20, 1860, and due to the war was never finished.
Two years after the April 1861 bombardment, the next military action against Fort Sumter took place on April 7, 1863. Known as the “Ironclad Attack,” this battle lasted two and one-half hours. The fort and other Confederate installations at the harbor’s entrance defeated nine Federal gunboats in their attempt to move past the fort and enter Charleston harbor. Three months later, in July, a U.S. Army-Navy force began operations to move onto Morris Island, erect batteries, bombard and capture Fort Sumter, and remove the harbor obstructions so that the navy could enter the harbor and capture Charleston.
Union forces soon controlled Morris Island, except from Battery Wagner to Battery Gregg on Cummings Point. After two failed assaults against Wagner, siege operations were initiated to force the Confederates to give up their hold on the island. This included construction of artillery batteries that mounted the largest rifled guns ever used in combat in the United States.
On August 17, 1863, the first major bombardment of Fort Sumter began with the batteries at ranges from two to two and one-half miles, plus the heavy guns from five Federal warships. In the first seven days more than 5,000 heavy artillery rounds were fired. Outgunned, on August 23 Fort Sumter fired only 6 rounds in its defense, the last ever fired in combat from the fort. With the end of this bombardment on September 2, more than 7,300 rounds had been fired at the fort, giving it the appearance of a mass of ruins.
On the night of September 6, Confederate forces evacuated Morris Island, whereupon Admiral John A. Dahlgren demanded Fort Sumter’s surrender. This was rejected, and on the night of September 8 and 9 Dahlgren ordered an amphibious assault against the fort, in which four hundred Union sailors and marines were defeated. The Federals, now in complete control of Morris Island, constructed new batteries up to Cummings Point, and Fort Sumter was shelled at will with tens of thousands of heavy artillery rounds. Though destroyed as an artillery installation, the fort was still a critical front-line position in Charleston’s defenses. Using soldiers and slave gangs, Confederate engineers converted the heavily damaged brick fortification into a powerful earthwork.
When Union general William T. Sherman captured Columbia on February 17, 1865, that same evening Confederate forces evacuated Charleston, Fort Sumter, and its other defenses. When U.S. forces entered the fort the next day, they found the interior buildings destroyed and most of its former fifty-foot walls at about half of their original height. During the 587-day siege, more than seven million pounds of artillery projectiles had been fired at the fort.
In the 1870s Sumter was restored to about half of its original height and seventeen cannons were mounted in the fort. Despite this, until the 1890s the fort stood largely neglected, primarily serving as a lighthouse station. However, in 1898, in response to the Spanish-American War, the army constructed Battery Isaac Huger (after South Carolina Revolutionary War general Isaac Huger) across the middle of the fort’s parade ground and filled the remaining interior areas with earth to the height of the brick walls. Upon completion in 1899, Battery Isaac Huger mounted two twelve-inch, breech-loading rifled cannons.
The battery was garrisoned during World Wars I and II by the U.S Coast Artillery Corps. In 1943 its twelve-inch guns were removed and replaced with four ninety-millimeter guns. The fort, considered obsolete by the army after World War II, was closed in 1947, transferred to the National Park Service the following year, and designated Fort Sumter National Monument. See plate 21.
Burton, E. Milby. The Siege of Charleston, 1861–1865. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1970.
Fort Sumter: Anvil of War. Washington, D.C.: Division of Publications, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1984.
Johnson, John. The Defense of Charleston Harbor, Including Fort Sumter and the Adjacent Islands, 1863–1865. 1890. Reprint, Germantown, Tenn.: Guild Bindery Press, 1994.