Charlestonians were licking their fire-eating lips as they salivated at the thought of devouring the Union Army. A 128-man Federal garrison was hunkering in the heart of Charleston Harbor like a school of fish trapped inside a barrel of stones and brick. Named Fort Sumter in honor of one the Palmetto State's greatest heroes in the country's first civil war in 1776, the island fortress became the main entree for the fire-eating secessionists of South Carolina. For four months, the Carolinians had been tightening their grip on the Federal forts at the mouth of the Ashley, Cooper and Wando rivers. The time bomb was ticking, ticking ever so close to exploding into the most devastating war our country has ever suffered.
The election of Abraham Lincoln ignited the fuse, but not before more than two decades of bickering between the northern and southern states had primed it to the point of spontaneous combustion. It was going to be a war started by men and fought by boys. Some experts have calculated that half of the 2.5 million-man Union army was composed of soldiers 18 years of age and under, with nearly a quarter of those sixteen and under. The percentages of Southern soldiers were likely about the same.
Two days after Christmas in 1860 and one day after Maj. Robert Anderson, USA, abandoned Fort Moultrie and retreated to the safety of Fort Sumter, Col. James J. Pettigrew sent a company of 150 men to take Castle Pinckney, a small fort located a mile from the Charleston's Battery Park on Shute's Folly Island. In the first overt act of the then undeclared war, the invaders expected a considerable fight. Instead they found only Lt. Meade, Sgt. Skillen and his family occupying the fortress. Meade refused to accept Pettigrew's authority to seize the fort. No one remembered to bring a flag, so to show their trivial triumph, Pettigrew commandeered a red flag with a single white star from his ship, the Nina.
With its artillery batteries encircling Fort Sumter, South Carolina's military forces began fortifying for war. On the 9th day of January, Maj. P.F. Stevens, commanding some forty cadets from The Citadel military school, began preparations for an attack. As the USS Star of The West headed into the harbor on it's formerly secret resupply cargo mission, Stevens gave the order to his artillerists to commence firing. Cadet E.G. Haynesworth pulled the lanyard. The first true shot of the war was fired. Other batteries fired, doing little damage to the Federal ship. The beleaguered ship turned and steamed out of range. Anderson's batteries on Sumter were readied, but remained oddly silent.
The seizing of Federal military installations was not within the sole purview of the secessionist Carolinians. Alabamians seized Ft. Morgan and Ft. Gaines in Mobile on January 5. The U.S. Arsenal in Augusta was seized on the 24th of January, eight days after the Georgia legislature voted to secede from the Union. Ft. Jackson and the Oglethorpe Barracks in Savannah were abandoned two days later.
Five weeks after the inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln, the inevitability of the war was no longer in doubt. When, where, and how the war would begin was not definite, but all eyes were on the Cerberi as they guarded the Gates of Hades in Charleston Harbor. Virginia, Arkansas, and Tennessee were clinging to hopes that they could remain in the Union.
Roger A. Pryor, a journalist-politician from Virginia, was an early advocate of his state leaving the Union. Pryor traveled to Charleston to stir the flames of secession, which had been smoldering for three months. From his balcony pulpit, Pryor preached an imploring sermon of secession and liberty from the villainous northern states and the Federal government which he maintained were strangling the economic well being of South Carolina and threatening to destroy their very existence as they knew it.
On the evening of April 11, Gen. P.T.G. Beauregard, commanding the Confederate forces in Charleston sent a trio of his most trusted aides to deliver an ultimatum from Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Capt. Stephen D. Lee, Col. James Chestnut, and Col. A.R. Chisolm piloted a small boat under a flag of a truce toward Sumter. There they met face to face with Sumter's commander, Major Robert Anderson, a Kentuckian and former war hero, who was well known and admired by his opposing officers.
The message read, "If you will state the time which you will evacuate Fort Sumter, and agree in the meantime that you will not use your guns against us unless ours shall be employed against Fort Sumter, we will abstain from opening fire upon you." Anderson conferred with his staff officers. The Major responded that he would evacuate Sumter by April 15 at high noon, unless he received orders to the contrary. Only Anderson knew that his men had only two days of rations on hand. Col. Chesnut deemed the response as unacceptable. He replied with a note which he handed to Anderson and which read, "Sir: by authority of Brigadier General Beauregard, commanding the Provisional Forces of the Confederate States, we have the honor to notify you that he will open the fire of his batteries on Fort Sumter in one hour from this time." Anderson politely escorted the officers to their boat, exchanged hand shakes and said "If we never meet in this world again, God grant that we may meet in the next."
At approximately 4:30 a.m. on the morning of April 12, 1861, Capt. George S. James offered the distinguished honor of firing the first official shot of the war to Congressman Pryor. Pryor deferred to James by saying, "I could not fire the first gun of the war. Lt. Henry Farley, or a member of his crew, pulled the lanyard that launched the first shot, a signal shell which exploded into a brilliant flare over Sumter to begin the aerial assault. Edmund Ruffin, the most voracious fire-eater of them all, made a point of being present to see the attack on Fort Sumter. Although he did not fire the actual first shot, Ruffin did fire a subsequent round directed at Sumter. Again, Anderson withheld his fire. Just before dawn, Capt. Abner Doubleday, the purported inventor of the game of baseball, fired a shot at the rebel battery at Cumming's Point.
The firing continued constantly until dusk. A gentle rain extinguished the fires inside the fort. All during the night, Confederate artillerists continued firing four rounds per hour, just to keep the inhabitants of the fort from a peaceful sleep, as if a peaceful sleep was actually possible.
On the morning of the 13th, the Confederate batteries once again opened up with "hot shot" designed to burn the wooden structures inside the fort. Anderson ordered his troops to throw their remaining supply of gunpowder into the sea to prevent an explosion within the fort. After absorbing nearly 3000 rounds without a single loss of life, Major Robert Anderson agreed to a truce at two o'clock in the afternoon.
Twenty four hours later and less than a day before he promised to evacuate Fort Sumter, Anderson's men abandoned their post to the booming thunder of their own 100-gun salute - a condition of Anderson's surrender terms. One Union soldier was killed during the ceremony and another was mortally wounded when a canon backfired.
The conflict between the North and the South had reached their inevitable point of no return. It was war. It was the feast the fire-eaters craved. Men cheered. Women sobbed. And, the country was set on an irreversible course toward a lamentable conflagration of death and suffering. One quarter of the South's men of military age would die, six hundred thousand or so on both sides in all. Millions of others, maimed and broken, would live in misery for the remainder of their lives. That was the final tab for the voracious appetite of the fire-eaters. And, it all began 150 years ago today.