Fort Sumter – Charleston, South Carolina
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Fort Sumter, located at the entrance to the Charleston harbor, was built after the War of 1812 as one of a series of forts protecting the southern coast of the United States. On April 12, 1861, South Carolina militia troops at Fort Johnson on James Island fired the first shots of the Civil War at the Union forces occupying Fort Sumter. In December of 1860, after Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election, South Carolina led Southern states in adopting ordinances of succession. A few days later, US Army Major Robert Anderson moved his troops from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter, hoping to delay an attack by South Carolina militia.
By the time Lincoln was inaugurated in March of 1861, six other states had joined South Carolina in seceding from the Union. The seven wrote a new constitution and formed the Confederate States of America, establishing their temporary capital at Montgomery, Alabama. At the same time, governors in Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania quietly began buying weapons and training militia units. Tensions were clearly building toward confrontation.
In April, multiple requests by South Carolina’s Governor for Major Anderson to abandon Fort Sumter had been repeatedly ignored. South Carolina militia troops, under the command of Brigadier General Beauregard, gathered in readiness across the harbor at Fort Johnson.
The US Army sent heavily defended war ships to restock supplies at Fort Sumter. When the first US ship arrived on April 11, Beauregard’s aides Colonel James Chesnut, Captain Stephen Lee, and Lieutenant A. R. Chisholm visited Major Anderson at the fort to once again, demand a surrender. Though Anderson deliberated, ultimately he refused and Chesnut, Lee, and Chisolm returned to Fort Johnson and reported his answer to Beauregard.
At 4:30 AM on April 12, Confederate soldiers began to fire their cannons at Fort Sumter and they kept up the bombardment for 34 straight hours. Federal troops returned fire, but were ineffective. On April 13, the fort was surrendered and evacuated.
The people of Charleston could see the battle taking place across the harbor. Naive to the ruin that would come, they believed the conflict would be short-lived. A famous diary of Mary Chesnut described a festive atmosphere along what is now known as The Battery with residents watching from their balconies and raising toasts to the beginning of the hostilities.
The Confederacy held Fort Sumter until the very last months of the war, finally surrendering it to the Federal Army in February of 1865. Repairs were made to the structure after the war ended, but between 1876 and 1897 it was used only as an unmanned lighthouse station.
Each time America went to war in the ensuing years, reconstruction was done to make Fort Sumter battle-ready. At the beginning of the Spanish American War, a new concrete blockhouse-style installation was built inside the original walls. Rifles were mounted during WWI and antiaircraft guns were installed during WWII, but the fort never saw combat again.
Fort Sumter became a US National Monument in 1948. A short ferry ride from Charleston, the historic fort is open daily to the public.
Special thanks to photographer Barry Gooch of Charleston for sharing this photo with the South Carolina Picture Project.
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