"Here's Your Mule," Part Three - That Sure Was Sumter
After Lincoln’s election in 1860, a number of Southern states – starting, of course, with South Carolina – began seceding from the Union. Or trying, at least – depending on who you asked.
Soldiers and others who happened to find themselves in the South but remained loyal to the Union began finding their way north in anticipation of the coming conflict. Those in the North who supported the Confederacy did the same in reverse. There seemed to be an unwritten understanding behind it, and no war had been declared yet, so they just kinda… went.
This meant by and large than any arms or other military property in the seceding states defaulted to the control of those siding with the South – them being the only ones left and all.
Just off the shores of South Carolina stood Fort Sumter, one of several installations built to defend the coast from foreign attack by sea. It wasn’t quite finished, but it was already pretty intimidating to view. In command was Robert Anderson, with 85 men.
He missed the memo about slinking off home, there not actually being one and all. He’d sworn to defend the harbor and to serve the Union and all that, and figured that’s what he should do.
Problem is, he was now surrounded by Secesh – and he was running low on supplies.
President Buchanan made a few token efforts to resupply the fort, but otherwise followed his famous “stall until it’s Lincoln’s problem” strategy – pretty much his approach to everything between November 1860 and March 1861. Lincoln took office to discover he had less than six weeks to figure out what to do about Sumter.
There are no official documents to this effect, but I have to think at some point Lincoln sighed and wondered why the $#@% Anderson had to play the noble soldier right then and there. Of course the President would back him up, but he hadn’t planned on christening his administration this way.
He wasn’t alone - neither side wanted to be held responsible for actually starting the war, or look weak by making major concessions to prevent it. In the grandest high school tradition, both had prepared their “but he started it!” defenses for posterity, and weren’t about to let a little thing like facts on the ground mess it up.
Anderson exchanged notes with P.G.T. Beauregard, commander of the surrounding Confederate forces and a former colleague, feeling out the situation:
Anderson was under no illusion regarding his chances if not reinforced. His language indicates a recognition he’d eventually be leaving – but honor demanded a good show of standing his ground. This wasn’t vanity; it was simply the way things were properly done.
There were conditions under which he could bail with dignity, but they hadn’t arrived yet.
In the wee hours of April 12, 1861, Beauregard began firing on Sumter. Anderson fired back, but not as vigilantly, given his limited ammo and such. Northern ships in the area weren’t built for fighting, and stayed out of range, observing. The battle lasted something like 34 hours.
No one died.
Fort Sumter, as it turns out, was a very forty fort. It was designed to withstand and repulse way cray attacks by sea. The cannons available to the Confederacy, pulled into place by horses and firing balls capable of being loaded by men in a hurry, simply couldn’t do real damage to its walls.
The Rebels WERE able to light some of its internal structures on fire with “hot shots” – cannonballs heated to a glow before firing. These were aimed high to land within. Anderson, unwilling to sacrifice men for what he no doubt saw as a futile, if noble, effort, kept his men inside, on the lower levels. I mean, someone could have gotten hurt!
As for the Yankees, the really big guns at Sumter were intended to sink ships – the kind coming from the OTHER direction. The guns Anderson used were deadly enough at short range, which this wasn’t, and worse, were being fired from the lower levels of the fort.
It was really rather pointless. Helluva show, though, by all accounts – and enough to keep local civilians in a tizzy:
Fort Sumter has been on fire. Anderson has not yet silenced any of our guns. So the aides, still with swords and red sashes by way of uniform, tell us. But the sound of those guns makes regular meals impossible. None of us go to table. Tea-trays pervade the corridors going everywhere.
Some of the anxious hearts lie on their beds and moan in solitary misery. Mrs. Wigfall and I solace ourselves with tea in my room. These women have all a satisfying faith. "God is on our side," they say. When we are shut in Mrs. Wigfall and I ask "Why?" "Of course, He hates the Yankees, we are told. You'll think that well of Him." (Diary of Mary Chesnut, April 13, 1861)
Cannons fired from multiple locations, flames and smoke and explosions – good times. Anderson eventually had remaining munitions dumped to prevent them igniting and blowing up the whole place from the inside. The tides carried the barrels back to the fort walls, where incoming fire ignited them – adding to the fireworks and the distinct impression perhaps Mrs. Chestnut’s friends were correct regarding God’s opinion of the matter.
But no one died.
Perhaps it would have been better if they had. It might have demonstrated at the outset that real lives were at stake – real blood, real limbs, real suffering and death. Instead, the initial action of the war was sound and fury, pomp and circumstance, full of adrenaline and passionate devotion, but none of the true horrors of war – although those would arrive soon enough.
As it was, however, young Confederates engaged in the melee were vocal with their disappointment when Anderson slowed his firing from time to time. They mocked the northern vessels sitting out of range, sometimes rowing within shouting distance to chide them for being so ignoble as to allow their comrades to wage battle without their assistance. They cheered when firing from the fort resumed – perhaps partly from genuine appreciation of Anderson’s resilience, but largely out of the pure joy of video game war.
Which is what it was at this stage – a fantasy and frolic of boys in costume off to play soldier. A few of the older generals had fought Mexico over a decade before, but for most, this was a game.
Anderson surrendered around noon the next day. A cannon misfired during a final ceremonial salute to Old Gory and the resulting explosion killed two young soldiers.
They were the first fatalities of the Civil War – killed not in battle but in the kind of symbolic loyalty which had started this firefight to begin with.
Major ANDERSON stated that he surrendered his sword to Gen. BEAUREGARD as the representative of the Confederate Government. Gen. BEAUREGARD said he would not receive it from so brave a man. He says Major ANDERSON made a staunch fight, and elevated himself in the estimation of every true Carolinian.
During the fire, when Major ANDERSON'S flagstaff was shot away, a boat put off from Morris Island, carrying another American flag for him to fight under -- a noteworthy instance of the honor and chivalry of South Carolina Seceders, and their admiration for a brave man.
The scene in the city after the raising of the-flag of truce and the surrender is indescribable; the people were perfectly wild. Men on horseback rode through the streets proclaiming the news, amid the greatest enthusiasm. On the arrival of the officers from the fort they were marched through the streets, followed by an immense crowd, hurrahing, shouting, and yelling with excitement…
Six vessels are reported off the bar, but the utmost indignation is expressed against them for not coming to the assistance of Major ANDERSON when he made signals of distress.
(New York Times, April 15, 1861)
I’m no expert on what makes it ‘war’, but I think they were doing it wrong. They were not enemies, but friends. Though passion may have strained, it had not yet broken their bonds of affection.
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