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At 4:30 a.m. on Friday, April 12, 1861, the Civil War began in the harbor at Charleston, South Carolina, when Confederate artillery opened fire on Fort Sumter. The long, chaotic, bloody Civil War started in a very civilized, formal process.
Major Robert Anderson commanded a small garrison of U.S.Army troops at Fort Sumter, a tiny speck of federal authority in a state that had seceded and proclaimed itself a new republic. Anderson's garrison was short of supplies, but they were on the way. President Abraham Lincoln had finally decided to resupply the fort.
But first, Lincoln had written to South Carolina Governor Francis Pickens to inform him that he was sending provisions to the fort. If the Confederates wanted to start a war by opposing the resupply expedition that was up to them. Captain Gustavus Fox remarked later that it had seemed important to Lincoln that South Carolina should "should stand before the civilized world as having fired upon bread."
With the relief expedition on the way, orders went down the chain of command from the Confederate government in Montgomery, Alabama, to General P. G. T. Beauregard, the commander of the artillery forces arrayed against Fort Sumter. Beauregard was to demand the fort's surrender; if refused, he was to reduce it.
On April 11, the previous day, Beauregard had written his demand for the fort's surrender and sent three aides by boat out to the middle of the harbor to present it to Anderson. Anderson refused, writing out his own reply to give to Beauregard. As the aides were leaving Fort Sumter, Anderson made the remark that he would be starved out within days. Perhaps both sides could work something out to avert a war. The aides included the remark in their report back to Beauregard.
The whole business went up the chain to Montgomery and back down to Beauregard again. Could he get some assurance from Anderson as to when he might surrender. The trio of aides, joined this time by Virginia Congressman Roger Pryor, went back out to the fort. They arrived there just after midnight on April 12. They met with Anderson, but did not get the unequivocal reply they needed.
Anderson would evacuate the fort on April 15 if the Confederates did not open fire sooner, or if they did not seem about to commit some hostile act, or if Anderson did not receive provisions or new instructions from his government. The trio did not feel the need to go back to Beauregard to get his decision. They conferred, and, within minutes, gave a formal reply to Anderson:
"By authority of Brigadier General Beauregard, commanding the Provisional Forces of the Confederate States, we have the honor to notify you that he will open the fire of his batteries on Fort Sumter in one hour from this time."
It was just then 3:20 a.m.
Anderson walked the Southerners back out to the wharf, shook hands with them, and said, "If we never meet in this world again, God grant that we may meet in the next."
At 4:30 a.m., a few minutes late, a gun was fired at Fort Johnson, signaling the forts that ringed Charleston harbor to begin the bombardment of Fort Sumter. There was much postwar argument about who had fired the first shot of the war, and if this signal gun shot counted. Edmund Ruffin, one of the key leaders of the secession movement, fired one of the first shots of the war and sentimentally was credited with the honor by most. Charleston residents turned out to watch the show and cheered as the fort was battered. The bombardment would continue throughout the day and into the next one. The Civil War had begun.
Also on this date, at Pensacola, Florida, U.S. troops aboard the Brooklyn were finally landed to reinforce Fort Pickens. Braxton Bragg, commanding the Confederate forces there, could do nothing to stop the landings. The fort was now safely in Union hands and would remain that way throughout the war.