Bombardment of Fort Sumter

An 1861 lithograph of Fort Sumter being shelled by battleships

Courtesy: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-2570.

In the closing weeks of 1860, it became clear that South Carolina was moving rapidly toward secession. The state left the Union on December 20, 1860, and just six days later Maj. Robert Anderson moved a small garrison of men to Fort Sumter, located on a sandbar in Charleston Harbor. The fort was still under construction but Anderson believed that it would be easier to defend than Fort Moultrie, located back on the mainland. Secessionists seized the shore batteries and called on Anderson to surrender, but Anderson refused. In early January, 1861, South Carolinians used cannon to drive away a ship sent to resupply the garrison. When Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated in March, one of the first questions that awaited him was what to do about Fort Sumter. He knew that abandoning the fort would validate the claims of the secessionists; he also knew that Anderson’s small, ill-provisioned garrison could not hold out much longer. In April Lincoln sent word of his intention to resupply but not to reinforce the federal troops at the fort. The South Carolinians, aiming to take control of the fort before the navy could arrive, opened fire in the early morning of April 12, 1861. After a thirty-four-hour bombardment, Anderson surrendered. Lincoln’s refusal to abandon Fort Sumter and the decision of the secessionists to fire on federal troops accelerated the conflict and produced the first shots of the war, depicted here in an 1861 lithograph.