Tue. Nov 12, 2002
Praising Charleston: A Visit to Fort Sumter
Praising Charleston: A Visit to Fort Sumter – I’ve always been a student of the Civil War, but my trip to Fort Sumter was quite different. William J. Hamilton puts it well: "In the great battle fields of that and other wars, visitors often remark of how peaceful the places seem. In those places grass and trees have worked over the spots until their lushness belies the violence they have seen. Not so at Sumter. The place has been worn down by the power and energy of war. What survives is the fort’s indestructible nub, sheltered by its own quivering wreckage through the long assault."
[all images below are linked to a pop-up enlargement]
That ”indestructible nub” is about all that remains of the once impressive three story fortress (more on that later). As the ferry gets closer, one might even wonder, ”How could the oldest, deadliest, most divisive conflict of a proud nation come down, after decades of bitter strife, to a dispute over an insignificant fort squatting on a hunk of rock in the harbor of the South’s oldest and most defiant city?” (Maury Klein, ”Days of Defiance”) Primarily because it was a magnificently placed hunk of rock. In fact, it is a man made island, built from granite brought by the boatload from Maine to be dumped in the harbor.
History is a fabric, with many threads, and there was one to tie back to the place we stayed, the Old Citadel: "Citadel cadets were responsible for firing the first shots of the Civil War, January 9, 1861, at the Union relief vessel approaching Fort Sumter," even though the actual assault on the fort didn’t come for several more months. And another thread in return, as "...the first Union gun that was fired in defense of the fort" was fired by Abner Doubleday, "popularly credited with inventing the modern game of baseball in 1835." (or not)
In fact, we have this somewhat dubious account of baseball and Fort Sumter: "During the height of the bombardment of Fort Sumter when shells and debris whistled through the air, Doubleday realized he had to do something to keep morale high and casualties low. He organized teams of nine men each to attempt to ”bat” the deadly missiles out of the air. A man who successfully batted one back over the wall would be granted furlough to go home (hence the phrase ’hit a homer’). The fact that only one member of the garrison was injured (a cannoneer who refused to ’play ball’ and was wounded when one of the fort’s own cannon burst) attests to the wisdom of the then Captain Doubleday’s strategy in keeping his men in the mobile target mode."
While I have my doubts about the above, it is interesting to note that home plate is shaped exactly like Fort Sumter. And there’s little doubt baseball was a part of the Civil War: "Some men took their baseball equipment to war with them, but when proper equipment was not available, soldiers improvised with fence posts, barrel staves or tree limbs for bats and yarn or rag-wrapped walnuts or lumps of cork for balls." So, who knows?
But back to the main story. Perhaps the best way to understand the events at Fort Sumter in 1861 is through the story of the Union commander, Major Robert Anderson: "During the secession crisis, Anderson, now a major, was chosen to command the federal forts in Charleston Harbor. The appointment owed much to his southern ties. Southern born, married to a Georgian, he was a defender of slavery. He seemed to the Buchanan administration likely to be cautious and tactful in his duties, thereby avoiding actions provocative to South Carolina."
"Southerners thought Anderson would be sympathetic to their demands that the forts be turned over to the South. Indeed, Anderson himself seemed to think that if war could be avoided, the seceding states might, ultimately, return peaceably to the Union. He wished to avoid an outbreak of fighting and, as his situation at Sumter deteriorated, he considered evacuation both necessary on military grounds and desirable in terms of avoiding provocation. These sentiments raised some doubt in Lincoln’s mind about his loyalty. However, Anderson held firmly to the Union and to his responsibilities as an officer."
"...he was instructed to hold the forts and defend himself if attacked. Anderson considered his move from Moultrie to Sumter on December 26, 1860 consistent with these instructions. By placing his command in the most defensible position, he hoped to avoid bloodshed." The battle itself has been recounted many times, so there’s no need to do that here. You’ll find much more depth in the Official Records and Battle Description and most of the odd questions answered in the NPS FAQ.
As for the famous actions of April, 1861, suffice it to say, "They had defended Sumter for 34 hours, until ’the quarters were entirely burned, the main gates destroyed by fire, the gorge walls seriously injured, the magazines surrounded by flames.’ " Unable to fight the fire and the Confederates, the Union forces surrendered. Some accounts indicate that no one was killed on either side, and some say one soldier died when a cannon misfired, during an honorary salute after the surrender. Most people think Sumter’s history ends there.
If it did, the Fort would be largely intact today. But after the Confederates took it over and the war began in earnest, Fort Sumter became a Union target for years. "On the afternoon of April 7, 1863, nine armored Monitor vessels steamed slowly into the harbor and headed for Fort Sumter. For 2 and 1/2 hours the ironclads dueled with Confederate batteries in the forts and around the harbor [...] When the ironclads failed, Federal strategy changed. Du Pont was removed from command and replaced by Rear Adm. John A. Dahlgren, who planned to combine land and sea operations to seize nerby Morris Island and from there to demolish Fort Sumter."
"For 22 months Fort Sumter had withstood Federal seige and bombardment, and it no longer resembled a fort at all. But defensively it was stronger than ever. Big Federal guns had hurled seven million pounds of metals at it, yet the Confederate losses during this period had been only 52 killed and 267 wounded. Gen. William T. Sherman’s troops advancing north from Savannah, however, caused the Confederate troops to be withdrawn, and Fort Sumter was evacuated on February 17, 1865."
Before the war began in 1861, Fort Sumter was barely approaching completion. In fact, Anderson spent the first three months of 1861 trying to mount cannon in useable embrasures. But even in its incomplete state, it was far larger than today. As this photo and this illustration show, Fort Sumter was three stories tall in 1861. Compare that to this photo from 1865, the ruins of Fort Sumter. That pile was eventually removed, leaving only the one story ”indestructible nub” that we see today.
What enabled this ”rubblizing” of previously stout forts? Rifled artillery: "A new era dawned on April 10 – 11, 1862, when Federal Captain Quincy A. Gillmore forced the surrender of Fort Pulaski off the coast of Savannah, Georgia. Gillmore used land-based mortars, smoothbores and, most importantly, rifled guns to breach a wall in the masonry fort within thirty hours of commencing fire. Because of the possibility of shells reaching the main powder magazine, the Confederate commander, Colonel Charles Olmstead, was forced to lower his flag. Gillmore repeated this tactic in Charleston, South Carolina, in July, 1863, when he reduced Fort Sumter to a pile of rubble. This tactic spelled the end for masonry forts designed to withstand smoothbore bombardments of the ancient wars."
"When the Civil War ended, Fort Sumter presented a very desolate appearance. Only on the left flank, left face and right face could any of the original scarp wall be seen. The right flank wall and the gorge wall, which had taken the brunt of the federal bombardments were now irregular mounds of earth, sand and debris forming steep slopes down to the water’s edge. The fort bore little resemblance to the impressive work that had stood there at the time of the Confederate bombardment in 1861."
"The Left-face casemates were destroyed by the force of Union guns on Morris Island, 1863-1865. Several of the projectiles still protrude from the wall. Outside the casemate ruins are the 15-inch Rodman guns, an 8-inch Columbiad, and a 10-inch mortar."