Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Fort Sumter An Unlikely Set Of Circumstances

If you enjoy reading Civil War History as much as I do, you have probably read a ton of material about the first shots of the Civil War fired at Fort Sumter in the Charleston Harbor on April 12, 1861. I have always maintained that Charleston is like a museum of living history and recently in commemoration of the Sesquecentenial of the Civil War Charleston has literally come alive with Civil War History. In fact, last week on the exact day at the exact time of day 150 years later, the sounds of explosions and cannon shots echoed throughout the Holy City and just like that early morning 150 years ago residents poured into the streets and onto rooftops csurrounding the Battery to witness the bombardment.

The circumstances and even the key character figures surrounding the theatre of Fort Sumter represent an unlikely combination to lead to the flash point of a conflict that divided America. First off, the fortification itself was not a particularly strategic piece of real estate. There were scores of more strategic locations to fight over than the citadel that guarded the opening to the Charleston Harbor. Beyond the lack of strategic importance, the key players in the developing conflict were unlikely adversaries. On the Confederate side was General Pierre G.T. Beauregard commanding the defenses of the Charleston Harbor, and the Federal Commander inside of Fort Sumter was Major Robert Anderson the Kentucky Native who was Beauregards artillery instructor at West Point, a lifelong Army man whose heart was simply not in the war. When Beauregard who was following orders of the Confederate Leaders in Montgomery, Alabama sent a dispatch to Major Anderson calling for the Federals to promptly surrender the fort, Major Anderson received the note and responded with a heavy heart that "it was a demand with which I regret that my sense of honor, and of my obigations to my government, prevent my compliance." What consternation General Beauregard must have felt when he received the response and realized that in the absence of compliance he would be forced to carry out a bombardment of Fort Sumter and the forces lead by his former instructor.

When the Confederate authorities directed General Beauregard to issue the ultimatum to Major Anderson they did so out of having their hands forced by the announcement from President Lincoln that he intended to re-supply the Federal garrison with food and other provisions. The Confederates would either have to fire the first shots of the war, or back down from their previous threats. Both leaders, Lincoln and Davis knew that the shots would undoubtedly lead to a bloody conflict. And indeed it did, the attack of the Federal troops at Fort Sumter generated lots of Northern support and sympathy while energizing scores of Confederates who were confident of a quick and decisive victory.

Within the Battle of Fort Sumter, there were unlikely circumstances that lead to the first fatality of the Civil War. Following the initial bombardment of the fort that resulted in a Federal surrender of Sumter, there were no casualties. During a Union ceremony firing a fifty gun salute to the United States Flag that was being retired from the fort an explosion occurred, leading to the death of one Union Soldier and injuring five others. And so it began, a conflict that would tear a Nation apart, a conflict where cousins would fight against cousins and events and occurrences that would impact and change the history and life within the Confederacy and the Union.

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