When Abraham Lincoln denounced secession during his Inaugural Address and vowed to hold all federal property in the South, everyone knew he was referring to Fort Sumter. Most federal installations of significance had already been surrendered to Confederate authorities. But Fort Sumter, sitting at the entrance to Charleston Harbor, remained in the hands of the federal government. For the people of South Carolina, the first state to secede, seizing the brick fortress was necessary to show they were serious. For Lincoln, defending the fort was necessary to show he was equally resolved. 9
The 68 federal soldiers and their Kentucky-born commander, Major Robert Anderson, manning Fort Sumter stood at the center of the unfolding drama. They knew that they could not hold out long against the canon and southern militia being deployed along the perimeter of the harbor. Even if the walls of the fort could sustain the barrage, their supplies would not hold out against a siege. In fact, it was Lincoln’s very public announcement on 6 April 1861 that he intended to re-supply the fort that sent the Southern forces into action.
On 11 April, General P.T.G. Beauregard demanded that Fort Sumter be surrendered immediately. When Anderson refused, the Southern canon opened fire. Edmund Ruffin, a long-haired, long-time advocate of states’ rights and secession, was given the honor of firing the first shot. For 34 hours, the Southern artillery blasted away. The federal troops returned the fire. Yet incredibly no one was killed—America’s most deadly war began with a bloodless battle.
At 2:30 p.m. on 13 April, Anderson surrendered the fort. The Confederates had removed the most visible remaining sign of federal authority. More important, they had crossed the line separating talk and action, separating negotiation and war; and President Abraham Lincoln had joined them on the other side.