The first engagement of the Civil War took place at Fort Sumter on April 12 and 13, 1861, and after a brief battle, the Union surrendered the fort to the Confederates. At that time, the Confederates thought that the 60 foot tall fort's six foot thick brick walls were regarded as impregnable. Most of the guns used against it during the 1861 bombardment did little damage except for setting fire to the buildings. There were no casualties. For the next two years Sumter was a symbol of the South's first victory. It was a popular site with visitors and balls were held there.
BUT in March of 1863 the Union Navy began gathering the largest fleet of ironclads ever seen at Charleston off Beaufort and Folly Island, both of which were held by the Union. This fleet included six monitors of improved design, a massive iron ship, The New Ironsides, most powerful in the Federal Fleet and the double turret tinclad, Keokuk. These vessels carried larger, more powerful canon and their iron protection could allow them to come closer to their targets.
Information gleaned from the internet indicates that the Confederates were not unprepared. They had two ironclads of their own, the Chicora and The Palmetto State, both badly underpowered but bearing powerful guns. The artillery in the harbor forts was improved. The harbor was blocked with obstructions, most importantly mines. Additional forts on Morris Island were constructed and the existing batteries around the harbor were improved. Most importantly a system of signals, markers, charts and indicator marks on the gun carriages were developed that allowed the Confederate artillerists to fire their more accurate land based guns at predetermined locations. With all calculations worked out in advance, the Confederate Batteries would wait for a ship to move into a predetermined position marked with flag and buoys and when it was in the targeted location, fire. The guns would then be set to the next location up or down the channel. Batteries were arranged and prepared to present a gauntlet of precisely controlled fire to any ship moving up the narrow harbor channel.
When the Federal fleet went into line of battle on the afternoon of April 7, the Confederate Garrison at Sumter met it with the chivalry which was still part of the war at that time. The Fort ran up all its flags and the band was sent to the parapet to play the national airs.
Fondest memory: The details on the attack itself can be best determined from the official reports and records. The Federal Navy was unable or unwilling to come close in to Sumter and operated near the limit of its weapons. The tinclad Keokuk, whose master protested her unfitness for the work, came in closest, took the worst pounding, was disabled and sank the next day. Several of the monitors were damaged and had to go to the Federal Navy Yard at Beaufort for repairs. The powerful Ironsides kept her distance. The Ironsides paused for twenty minutes over a Confederate electrical mine packed with 1000 pounds of gunpowder but the operators on the shore could not detonate it. Ultimately the iron fleet withdrew under pressure from the more accurate Confederate Fire, which had the advantage of fixed and stable positions on the land.
There is also some indication that the Navy might have been worse off had they won the battle. If the ironclad fleet had managed to pass Sumter and entered the Harbor, it would have been completely surrounded by powerful land batteries and possibly trapped by the Confederate Ironclads, which though slow and unfit for pursuit and engagement, could have effectively blacked the escape channel behind them.
Favorite thing: Many people think of Fort Sumter as the place where the war began and do not realize the overali mportance of the Fort. The Union tried many methods of obtaining surrender from the Confederates and one of these was a naval blockade of the Atlantic Coast. The South needed to be able to send and receive shipments. Supplies came in from the sea and cotton went out as payment for much needed provisions. If the Union blocked the harbor, the Confederates would have trouble sustaining the army and the people of the South. This is why the Union fought so viciously to reclaim the fort. Its also why the Confederates fought so hard to keep it.
In the now entranceway, there is a plaque which honors the Confederate defenders of Fort Sumter. A Union monument was also erected to honor the Union defenders of the opening bombardment. Although none of the Union soldiers were killed during the original bombardment, many were wounded in explosions prior to the surrender. The Confederates suffered casualties here as well.
Most civil war historical sites have plaques and monuments honoring both sides of the conflict. It is yet another way to preserve the notion that, regardless of winners and losers, right and wrong, many fought this war because they believed it to be the right thing to do and many died as a result.
Favorite thing: When the Confederates took over Fort Sumter, down came the U.S. flag and up went the flag of South Carolina. The Confederate flag also flew over the Fort. Today, there are six flags which fly over the fort: The U.S. flag is in the center, two of the former U.S. flags with 33 and 35 starts representing the number of states in the Union at the beginning and end of the war, stand at either side of a semi-circle. The South Carolina state flag flies in the center of the circle, surrounded on either side by the first and second national flags of the Confederacy. As is the custom, the U.S. flag flies higher than any of the others.
The visitor's center, shown in the photo is the place where tours start. There is a series of exhibits here which trace the events leading up to the war. Its worth taking some time to browse this area as the exhibits provide a great deal of background information that many people do not know about the complex reasons why the war began. For instance, South Carolina delegates originally proposed that the US Constitution contain a provision allowing states to withdraw from the Union. Like the issue of slavery, this was never resolved and neither side knew whether a state had the right to leave. The Union took the position that states were not allowed to secede while South Carolina and the states that followed its example believed that they had the right to do what they were doing.
After you purchase tickets, you're told to arrive about 15 minutes before departure to board the boat. But if you're interested in civil war history, give yourself some time before the boat tour to browse through this area.