Fort Sumter: Construction and Design
Fort Sumter was first built in the wake of the War of 1812 (1812-1815), which had highlighted the United States’ lack of strong coastal defenses. Named for Revolutionary War general and South Carolina native Thomas Sumter, Fort Sumter was one of nearly 50 forts built as part of the so-called Third System, a coastal defense program implemented by Congress in 1817. The three-tiered, five-sided fort’s coastal placement was designed to allow it to control access to the vital Charleston Harbor. While the island itself was only 2.4 acres in size, the fort was built to accommodate a garrison of 650 soldiers and 135 artillery pieces.
Construction of Fort Sumter first began in 1829 in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, on a manmade island built from thousands of tons of granite. Building ground to a halt in the 1830s amid a dispute over ownership of the stretch of the harbor, and did not resume until 1841. Like many Third System fortifications, Fort Sumter proved a costly endeavor, and construction slowed again in 1859 due to lack of funding. By 1860 the island and the outer fortifications were complete, but the fort’s interior and armaments remained unfinished.
Fort Sumter: The First Battle of Fort Sumter
Construction of Fort Sumter was still underway when South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860. Despite Charleston’s position as a major port, at the time only two companies of federal troops guarded the harbor. Commanded by Major Robert Anderson (1805-1871), these companies were stationed at Fort Moultrie, a dilapidated fortification facing the coastline. Recognizing that Fort Moultrie was vulnerable to a land assault, Anderson elected to abandon it for the more easily defensible Fort Sumter on December 26, 1860. South Carolina militia forces would seize the city’s other forts shortly thereafter, leaving Fort Sumter as the lone federal outpost in Charleston.
A standoff ensued until January 9, 1861, when a ship called the Star of the West arrived in Charleston with over 200 U.S. troops and supplies intended for Fort Sumter. South Carolina militia batteries fired upon the vessel as it neared Charleston Harbor, forcing it to turn back to sea. Major Anderson refused repeated calls to abandon Fort Sumter, and by March 1861 there were over 3,000 militia troops besieging his garrison. A number of other U.S. military facilities in the Deep South had already been seized, and Fort Sumter was viewed by many as one of the South’s few remaining hurdles to overcome before achieving sovereignty.
With the inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) in March 1861, the situation soon escalated. Knowing that Anderson and his men were running out of supplies, Lincoln announced his intention to send three unarmed ships to relieve Fort Sumter. Having already declared that any attempt to resupply the fort would be seen as an act of aggression, South Carolina militia forces soon scrambled to respond. On April 11, militia commander P.G.T. Beauregard (1818-1893) demanded that Anderson surrender the fort, but Anderson again refused. In response Beauregard opened fire on Fort Sumter shortly after 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861. U.S. Captain Abner Doubleday (1819-1893)—later famous for the myth that he invented baseball—ordered the first shots in defense of the fort a few hours later.
Beauregard’s 19 coastal batteries unleashed a punishing barrage on Fort Sumter, eventually firing an estimated 3,000 shots at the citadel in 34 hours. By Saturday, April 13, cannon fire had broken through the fortress’s five-foot-thick brick walls, causing fires inside the post. With his stores of ammunition depleted, Anderson was forced to surrender the fort shortly after 2 p.m. in the afternoon. No Union troops had been killed during the bombardment, but two men died the following day in an explosion that occurred during an artillery salute held before the U.S. evacuation. The bombardment of Fort Sumter would play a major part in triggering the Civil War. In the days following the assault, Lincoln issued a call for Union volunteers to quash the rebellion, while more Southern states including Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee cast their lot with the Confederacy.
Fort Sumter: Later Civil War Engagements
Following Beauregard’s bombardment in 1861, Confederate forces occupied Fort Sumter and used it to marshal a defense of Charleston Harbor. Once it was completed and better armed, Fort Sumter allowed the Confederates to create a valuable hole in the Union blockade of the Atlantic seaboard.
The first Union assault on Fort Sumter came in April 1863, when Rear Admiral Samuel Francis Du Pont (1803-1865) attempted a naval attack on Charleston. Commander of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, Du Pont arrived in Charleston with a fleet of nine ironclad warships, seven of which were updated versions of the famed USS Monitor.
While Du Pont had hoped to recapture Fort Sumter—by then a symbol of the Confederate rebellion—his attack was poorly coordinated and met with unfavorable weather conditions. In collaboration with Fort Sumter, Confederate batteries commanded by P.G.T. Beauregard hammered the ironclad fleet with artillery fire, and underwater mines posed a constant threat to the ships’ hulls. Outgunned and unable to properly maneuver in heavy currents, Du Pont’s fleet eventually withdrew from the harbor after taking over 500 hits by Confederate guns. Only one Union soldier was killed during the battle, but one of the ironclads, the Keokuk, sank the next day. Five Confederates were killed during the attack, but the damage to Fort Sumter was soon repaired and its defenses improved. Confederate soldiers even managed to salvage one of the Keokuk’s 11-inch Dahlgren guns and mount it on the fortress.
In July 1863 Union troops laid siege to Fort Wagner, a valuable post on Morris Island near the mouth of Charleston Harbor. After being met with heavy fire from Fort Sumter, Union General Quincy Adams Gillmore (1825-1888) turned his guns on the fort and unleashed a devastating seven-day bombardment. On September 8 a force of nearly 400 Union troops attempted to land at Fort Sumter and capture the post by force. Union Rear Admiral John Dahlgren (1809-1870) mistakenly believed the fort was manned by a skeleton crew, but the landing party was met by over 300 Confederate infantry, who easily repulsed the assault.
Following the failed infantry attack, Union forces on Morris Island recommenced their bombing campaign on Fort Sumter. Over the next 15 months, Union artillery effectively leveled Fort Sumter, eventually firing nearly 50,000 projectiles at the fort between September 1863 and February 1865. Despite suffering over 300 casualties from the Union bombardments, the beleaguered Confederate garrison managed to retain control of the fort until February 1865. Only when Union General William T. Sherman was poised to capture Charleston did the Confederates finally evacuate. Union forces would reclaim Fort Sumter on February 22, 1865. Robert A. Anderson and Abner Doubleday, the two commanding officers from the original siege of Fort Sumter, would both return to the fortress on April 14, 1865, for a flag raising ceremony.
Fort Sumter: Post-Civil War Use
After the Civil War the derelict Fort Sumter was rebuilt and partially redesigned. It would see little use during the 1870s and 1880s and was eventually reduced to serving as a lighthouse station for Charleston Harbor. With the start of the Spanish-American War (1898), the fortress was rearmed and once again used as a coastal defense installation. It would later see service during both World War I (1914-18) and World War II (1939-45). In 1948 Fort Sumter was decommissioned as a military post and turned over to the National Park Service. It now attracts over 750,000 visitors every year.