Who Won the Battle of Fort Sumter?

The Battle of Fort Sumter was the infamous beginning of America’s bloodiest war: its own American Civil War. How did the darkest chapter in America’s history begin?

Jan 4, 2024By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA
who won the battle fort sumter

 

When Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election without a single elector from the South, many in the South figured it was time to secede from the United States. After months of failed political efforts to secede, the South used force by bombarding the US military installation at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. This bombardment is considered the opening shot of the American Civil War, which would claim hundreds of thousands of soldiers’ lives on both sides.

 

Victory Goes to the Confederacy

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A painting of the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter in April 1861, via the Library of Congress

 

In February 1861, seven states in the American South–South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas–officially created the Confederate States of America. Upset over the election of anti-slavery Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln to the presidency, slave states in the South moved to secede from the United States, or union. Ten southern states had refused to put Lincoln on the ballot for the November 6, 1860 election, meaning that his election with zero southern support meant the rough political balance of power between free states in the North and slave states in the South had ended.

 

Now an independent nation, the Confederate States of America (CSA) demanded the handover of any US military installations in their territory. The most prominent of these was Fort Sumter, located in Charleston Harbor in South Carolina, the first state to have seceded from the union.  The United States, led by President Lincoln, refused to evacuate the fort and attempted to resupply it by sea. After a two-day barrage from Confederate cannons, Major Robert Anderson agreed to surrender the fort. There were no casualties during the 36-hour bombardment, though two were killed after the battle during a 100-gun salute.

 

Timeline of the Battle of Fort Sumter

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A map and time of secession of each Confederate state, leading up to the bombardment of Fort Sumter in April 1861, via the American Battlefield Trust

 

The events leading to the first battle of the American Civil War can be traced back to November 6, 1860, when Abraham Lincoln’s victory confirmed the fears of the South that the balance of power had been lost. In February 1861, immediately after forming the Confederate States of America, the seceding states seized US military forts in Confederate territory. Only Fort Sumter, South Carolina, and three forts in Florida, all offshore on islands, were not seized prior to Lincoln’s inauguration in March. A Union ship had attempted to resupply Fort Sumter in February but had been driven off by Confederate fire.

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On April 10, Confederate General Pierre “G.T.” Beauregard received a telegraph from the Confederate Secretary of War that he was to destroy Fort Sumter if it was not evacuated. Beauregard’s aides presented the warning to Major Anderson the next day, offering generous terms if he and his men surrendered immediately. Anderson, along with all of his fellow officers, refused. After indicating that he would hold the fort until he ran out of food, Anderson was asked by Beauregard when the food would run out. When Anderson responded that he would run out of provisions on April 15 unless resupplied by Union ships, Beauregard decided to go ahead with the bombardment.

 

At 4:30 AM on April 12, 1861, the bombardment began.

 

At approximately 1:00 PM on April 13, the bombardment ended after a Confederate shell had knocked down the United States flag flying over the fort. When approached by a Confederate officer about surrendering, Anderson agreed to do so.

 

At 2:00 PM, the official 100-gun surrender salute occurred, signaling that the Confederacy had won the fort.

 

What Caused the Battle of Fort Sumter?

fort sumter map 1861
A map showing the location of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, via the American Battlefield Trust

 

The Battle of Fort Sumter occurred for two reasons. First, the Confederacy needed to claim all of its territory and deny the Union a foothold in its invaluable harbors. It is likely that many Confederate leaders knew of the Union plan to blockade the South as much as possible. The Anaconda Plan, created by general and Mexican-American War hero Winfield Scott, planned to strangle the Confederate economy by denying it the ability to export and import goods. Thus, the Confederacy needed to protect its harbors, especially given its meager navy, as much as possible. This meant Fort Sumter and the three forts in Florida had to be seized by force.

 

Secondly, and less directly, the Confederacy needed to show that it was willing to use military force. Neither side wished for war, but the Union had tremendous advantages in manpower and industrial production. It could outwait the South and slowly strangle it through the naval blockade. The Confederacy had to show that it was a serious military force. A show of force might convince the United States to back off and allow secession, convince border states that had Confederate sympathies but had not yet seceded to do so (comfortable that the Confederacy could defend them), and potentially convince European customers of southern cotton that the Confederacy could win a war with military support.

 

Why Was the Battle of Fort Sumter Significant?

us civil war 1861 1862
A map of the first year of the American Civil War, via the Library of Congress

 

The first battle of the American Civil War is significant because it opened the bloodiest chapter in United States history. It took the long-simmering political battle over slavery into a genuine military battle. Fort Sumter showed that the Confederacy was willing to fight to secede from the Union and that the Union would have to fight to preserve its territory. Essentially, the time for diplomacy had passed, and only military force would decide the issue of secession (slavery itself would not become a decisive issue until later in the war with the Emancipation Proclamation).

 

Victory at Fort Sumter buoyed the Confederate political cause, with four additional states joining the new nation shortly afterward. However, Major Anderson and his men’s brave defense of the fort led to them being considered heroes when they sailed into New York. The Union had shown toughness, and having been fired upon in hostility gave the Union the moral high ground. Therefore, although Fort Sumter was a military victory for the Confederacy, the fact that it largely unified the Union in response helped hasten the Confederacy’s eventual defeat.

 

4 Facts About the Battle of Fort Sumter

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A photograph of Pierre “G.T.” Beauregard, the Confederate general who ordered the firing of the first shorts of the American Civil War at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, via Virginia Humanities

 

1. Casualties

Despite the tremendous significance of the battle, there were zero casualties on either side during the 34-hour bombardment! The only two casualties came after the surrender of Fort Sumter during the 100-gun salute. All Union soldiers from the fort were allowed to return to the North and were not made prisoners of war.

 

2. Commanders

Confederate general Pierre “G.T.” Beauregard became a renowned military leader for the Confederacy. He is credited with victories in the First Battle of Bull Run and defending the southern cities of Charleston, South Carolina, and Richmond, Virginia from Union attacks in 1863 and 1864, respectively. He is also, ironically, credited with helping end the war in 1865 by convincing the Confederate president and cabinet that defeat was imminent. Beauregard was one of the few wealthy former Confederates after the war and died in 1893 in Louisiana.

 

Major Robert Anderson retired from active duty in 1863 due to health problems shortly after being sent to command Union forces in Kentucky. However, he recovered and returned to Fort Sumter on April 14, 1865, the fourth anniversary of his surrender, to raise the same American flag back atop the fort. He retired to France in 1869 and died two years later. Anderson’s body was returned to the United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point, New York, from which both he and Beauregard were alums. Both men were also veterans of the Mexican-American War (1846-48).

 

3. Number of Forces Involved

Unlike most American Civil War battles, which featured tens of thousands of infantry on both sides, the Battle of Fort Sumter saw a garrison of only 80 Union soldiers in the fort face off against approximately 500 Confederate soldiers on surrounding land. The Union troops were heavily out-gunned and did not have any realistic hope of holding the fort.

 

4. Visiting Fort Sumter

Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie are National Historic Parks open to the public. Because Fort Sumter is on an island, visits can only occur by riding an official ferry; private boats are not allowed to dock. Fort Sumter Tours is the official ferry contractor, and its tour costs $35. The tour lasts for just over two hours, with one hour spent at Fort Sumter.

 

Aftermath of the Battle of Fort Sumter

who won the battle fort sumter
An image of the Union attempting to retake Fort Sumter in April 1863 with ironclad ships, via the Charleston Daily (Charleston, South Carolina)

 

Militarily, the Battle of Fort Sumter accomplished relatively little. Politically, however, the battle invigorated both the Union and Confederate causes. Days after the battle, Union President Abraham Lincoln called up some 75,000 militiamen, signaling his resolve to win the conflict. In the following months, Lincoln continued the call-up, resulting in a massive Union Army of a half-million men.

 

On April 7, 1863, the Union Navy bombarded Fort Sumter, then in the hands of the Confederates, from a force of ironclad warships. This Second Battle of Fort Sumter was a second Confederate victory, with Union infantry unable to land and retake the island. Later, one of the Union ironclads sank from damage caused by Confederate fire. Unlike the first battle, this one caused a handful of casualties for each side. The fort remained in Confederate hands until the end of the war in the spring of 1865.

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By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.