Wednesday, April 13, 2011

150 Years Ago: Fort Sumter Surrenders

Confederate Flag flying in Fort Sumter after t...Image via Wikipedia

At 2:30 p.m., on Saturday, April 13, 1861, Major Robert Anderson, commanding the Union garrison at Fort Sumter, surrendered to Confederate officials, ending a 34-hour bombardment.

The attack on Fort Sumter began the previous day, April 12, at 4:30 a.m.  With a relief expedition on the way to the fort -- some of the ships were already hovering just outside the harbor -- General P. G. T. Beauregard demanded the surrender of the fort.  There were some exchanges back and forth, but, in the end, the Civil War would begin here with Beauregard demanding a surrender that Anderson could not give without a fight.

A signal gun was fired at 4:30 a.m. and then the Confederates batteries that surrounded Sumter began their bombardment.  The puzzling thing to them was that the Union garrison was not firing back.  Anderson kept his men under cover, out of harm's way until daylight.  Even then, there was not much that he could do.

Fort Sumter sat on a man-made granite island in the middle of Charleston harbor.  Its walls were forty feet high and five feet thick.  It was designed to hold three tiers of guns.  The lower two tiers were in casements -- each gun was fully protected by thick masonry and fired through a small gunport, an embrasure.  The third tier was around the top of the fort on the barbette, completely in the open.

Unfortunately for Anderson, only 48 guns had been mounted in the unfinished fort.  The second tier was empty.  The casement guns in the lower tier, though fully protected, were the weakest.  These were 32-pounders and 42-pounders that could only fire solid shot which was ineffective against any of the Confederate batteries that were firing at the fort.  Anderson's strongest guns, Columbiads and eight-inch howitzers, were those that were most exposed.

Anderson's garrison was woefully undermanned.  He had 128 men, including 43 civilians, and he couldn't afford to lose any of them.  His biggest worry then was that Beauregard might attempt to send out the infantry and try to storm the fort after dark.  Manning the guns on the barbette was out of the question.  Anderson's men hunkered down and stuck to the ineffective casement guns.

The barbette guns were loaded though and were used in two incidents.  First, a sergeant crept up to the barbette and fired every gun that was aimed at Fort Moultrie, then hurried back downstairs.  Later, two sergeants went up top and fired a ten-inch Columbiad at Cummings Point.  It was a near miss, so they reloaded and tried another shot even though they couldn't move the 7.5-ton gun back into the proper firing position.  The recoil blew the huge gun in a backward somersault and sent it crashing down the stairs.

An English Whitworth gun on Morris Island blew big hunks out of the southeast corner of the fort before it finally ran out of ammunition.  Shell and red-hot shot set the wooden barracks on fire, and fire-fighting details worked furiously in the choking smoke with shells bursting above them.

Just outside the harbor, Captain Gustavus Fox, the mastermind of the relief expedition, had arrived.  He was going to supply the fort and wanted an escort.  Commander Stephen Rowan of the Pawnee refused.  He had orders to wait for the Powhatan and didn't want to risk starting a war.  No one knew that the war had already begun or that the Powhatan was on its way to Pensacola.  When it finally became evident that the battle had begun, the decision was made to wait on the Powhatan, then force their way in.  In the end, the absence of the ship did not matter; the seas were too rough to enter the harbor.

That night, the Confederate bombardment slowed.  They lobbed a shell at the fort every few minutes though just to keep everyone on their toes.  When daylight came on the 13th, the Confederate bombardment increased again, and the situation in the fort quickly went from bad to worse.  Supplies were already low.  Now they were short of water.  The officers' quarters were destroyed.  Fires broke out again and the casements filled with smoke.

The end was a little farcical.  Sometime around noon the flagstaff was shot down.  Lieutenant G. W. Snyder and Sergeant Peter Hart improvised a new one and mounted it to a gun carriage on the barbette.  The Confederates saw the flag go down, and Beauregard sent an aide to the fort under a flag of truce to offer assistance.  This was a tactful way of suggesting that it might be time to surrender.  The aide, Captain Stephen Lee, accompanied by two civilians, Porcher Miles and Roger Pryor, set out for the fort.  When they saw the flag hoisted again, they turned to go back to the shore.  Then the flag was lowered and a white flag was hoisted in its place.  They hurried to the fort to see what was going on.

From The Coming Fury by Bruce Catton:
"During the height of the contest, while Lieutenant Snyder and Sergeant Hart struggled to get the flag flying, and the gun crews stumbled through the smoke to maintain some sort of fire, a cannoneer in a lower-tier casement, going to the muzzle of his piece to reload, saw a strange fellow looking in the embrasure -- a burly civilian with a swarthy, piratical face, red sash and sword belt incongruously belted about his middle, a naked sword with white flag knotted about the blade gripped in one hand -- altogether a wholly improbable-looking figure.  This man announced that he was Colonel Wigfall, recently United States Senator from Texas, now an aide to General Beauregard; he wanted to see Major Anderson, and he wanted even more to get safely inside the fort because he was at the moment squarely in the line of Confederate fire -- 'Damn it, they are firing at me from Fort Moultrie.'  After a certain amount of discussion he was led to Major Anderson...Colonel Wigfall addressed the Federal commander with bluff heartiness:

"'Major Anderson, I come from General Beauregard. It is time to put a stop to this, sir. The flames are raging all around you and you have defended your flag gallantly. Will you evacuate, sir?'

"The major was ready to call it quits...Anderson said he would surrender on the terms originally proposed -- that he be allowed to salute his flag and then, with all the honors of war, take his men and their personal property back to New York. Wigfall said that this was a deal: 'Lower your flag, and the firing will cease. I will see General Beauregard and you military men will arrange all the terms.'...Down came the United States flag, and up went the white flag of surrender.

At this point Captain Lee and his two civilian companions got to the fort. Presented to Major Anderson, Lee said that Beauregard had sent them to offer assistance, if assistance happened to be needed, and to find out what all of this raising and lowering of flags meant. Anderson, puzzled, explained that he had just surrendered to Colonel Wigfall, whereupon his three visitors exchanged baffled looks; then they explained that although Wigfall did belong to Beauregard's staff, he had not seen the general for two days and had come to the fort strictly on his own hook. Anderson muttered: 'Gentlemen, this is a very awkward business,' which stated the case accurately; he had just surrendered to a man who had no authority either to demand or to receive a surrender. Anderson ordered the white flag hauled down and the national flag raised; the fighting would be resumed."

But it all worked out in the end.  Lee suggested a ceasefire until he could get in touch with Beauregard.  Anderson wrote out his understanding of the surrender terms he had made with Wigfall, and Lee hurried off to see Beauregard.  He returned a couple of hours later and the surrender was official.  The fighting was over, at least here in Charleston harbor.

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