History-turning events dot the timeline of the American experience. Everyone remembers 9/11. Most people know about or remember Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941; only Warhistorybuffs probably recall the sinking of the battleship Maine on Feb. 15, 1898; and besides we history nuts maybe a few high school students can answer a test question about Fort Sumter. But all of these events triggered American wars and sent American youths into mortal combat.
My sister Nancy Peterson and husband Cary Johnson fortuitously visited beautiful Charleston, S.C., in February and took these photographs of the restored red-brick fort. I realized their visit would make an interesting blog since the month of April is so important in Civil War history, and April 14 in particular is not only my birthday but also the date in 1865 when Gen. Robert Anderson led an emotional flag-restoration ceremony at Fort Sumter several hours before President Lincoln was shot (he died the next day).
If you were alive on Sept. 11, 2001, then you have some idea of the emotion unleashed when Confederate forces under the command of Louisiana creole
P.G.T. Beauregard opened fire on what had been until recently their own country’s military installation. Presidential historian Michael Beschloss captures the drama in his book Presidents of War. The South was wild in its desire to see the federal fort removed from what they considered Confederate territory. The North went crazy with rage.
Beschloss spends a whole section on the events leading up to the surrender of Fort Sumter for good reason. Without Fort Sumter there may not have been a Civil War. President Buchanan was paralyzed by the secession of several Southern states beginning with South Carolina’s withdrawal in December 1860, and he was certainly not going to send troops to put down the rebellion. When President Lincoln took office on March 4, 1861, he presided over a North badly torn over what to do about the insurgent Americans. Many Northerners thought “good riddance.”
But firing cannons at Fort Sumter and causing Major Robert Anderson to surrender united the North just like Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Lincoln must have been relieved. His call for 75,000 volunteers to put down the “Southern rebellion” and preserve the union was filled within days and there was no need for an awkward and perhaps illegal declaration of war. Fort Sumter must be considered one of the worst blunders of the Confederacy.
At the center of the Sumter story is the character and personality of Major Robert Anderson. Raised in the thoroughly Southern city of Louisville, Ky., Anderson married rich and along with his wife owned slaves for a time. Northern critics would later highlight his Southern roots, but Anderson’s first loyalty was to the U.S. Army. An outstanding student at West Point, he was wounded several times in the Mexican War. He returned to West Point as an artillery instructor where in one of the innumerable Civil War ironies, he taught P.G.T. Beauregard, the Confederate commander in Charleston who would fire his cannons at the federal fort.
Old photographs of Anderson show a cadaverous, consumptive man almost with a haunted look. Indeed, Anderson loved the South, but was horrified at the thought of breaking his officer’s oath to protect the Constitution. He was also intensely loyal to his mentor, Gen. Winfield Scott, who had placed him in command at Charleston. A devout Christian, Anderson thought prayer and his friendship with Southerners (he and Confederate President Jefferson Davis were Army pals) would avoid violence.
Where the grapes of wrath are stored
It was not to be. Gen. Scott provisioned a private steamer, the Star of the West, with food and reinforcements and sent it to resupply Fort Sumter after Lincoln’s inauguration. The Star was hit by cannon fire from a Confederate vessel (more irony — the Confederate boat was named after the father of Anderson’s wife) and sailed back to safer waters. Anderson and Scott both warned Lincoln that the fort’s garrison of 127 men (including 13 musicians) could hold out only a few weeks.
All the waffling, negotiations and threats surrounding Fort Sumter culminated on April 11, 1861. Anderson politely rebuffed a surrender ultimatum from his former student, and on April 12 in the early morning, Beauregard’s artillerists opened fire.
Miraculously, after a two-day exchange of cannon fire, no one had been killed on either side. On April 14, Anderson agreed to evacuate the fort, and he and his troops along with their battered flag boarded a Union ship bound for New York.
Both the North and the South went nuts over Fort Sumter. But the North now had its unifying symbol of alleged Southern treachery and rebellion. Anderson was celebrated by a huge crowd in New York, and the battle flag was sent around the North to inspire the populace to put down the rebellion.
Lincoln promoted Major Anderson to Brigadier General but ill health caused him to back off his duties before the war was over. The North wasn’t about to forget the Fort Sumter humiliation. On April 7, 1863, a huge Union naval armada that included several “monitors,” armored-plated warships designed like the USS Monitor, and a new-fangled iron battleship named New Ironsides, opened fire on the Charleston installations including Fort Sumter. The battle for Charleston Harbor would include the glorious but unsuccessful assault by the 54th Massachusetts Regiment on July 18, 1863. The 54th was the Army’s first regiment of black soldiers, and they heroically attacked Battery Wagner, one of the forts protecting the flanks of Fort Sumter, only to be repulsed at great cost.
Charleston Harbor was never conquered from the sea, but the city — and the forts — had to surrender when Gen. Sherman’s Yankees arrived from Georgia in February 1865.
Even though several other Confederate armies had yet to surrender, Lincoln and the North knew the war was over when Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. A jubilant Lincoln wished to make the Fort Sumter surrender anniversary on April 14 a national holiday and day of commemoration so he ordered a full-blown celebration.
Robert Anderson, now a major general, pulled the abused Sumter flag out of a bank vault and led a contingent of Northern dignitaries to the battered fort. April 14, 1865, was Good Friday, adding to the spiritual and civil significance of the ceremony. Some 2,000 to 3,000 former slaves attended the festivities in the fort, which a journalist described as a “coliseum of ruins.” Famed Boston abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and famous preacher Henry Ward Beecher lent their rhetorical skills to the event, but it was the dramatic flag-raising by Gen. Anderson that triggered bedlam including a 100-gun salute from ships in the harbor and from the shore guns that had fired on Sumter in 1861.
Lincoln was shot that night so April 14 never went down in history as a moment to remember. The Civil War generation never forgot Fort Sumter, however, and everyone instantly recognized historical references to the epochal event. According to the book, Late Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davis, in 1877 shortly after leaving office, President Grant, his wife Julia, and son Jesse embarked on a world tour where they were feted at every stop. New York Herald reporter John Russell Young chronicled every detail of the Grant trip, but apparently he wasn’t too impressed with Julia Grant. He actually wrote in one of his columns:
Even more than her husband, Mrs. Grant — but for Fort Sumter (my bolding), a drunken tanner’s wife in Galena, Illinois — ‘could not get too many princely attentions.’