April 12th 1861: Firing on Fort Sumter



The attack on Fort Sumter, April 12th 1861 (source: http://www.civilwar.org/photos/galleries/fort-sumter/battle-of-fort-sumter.html)


On this day in 1861, the American Civil War began when the first shots were fired upon Fort Sumter. Several Southern states had already seceded from the United States when this conflict occurred. The Southern slaveholding states had long been at odds with the anti-slavery agenda of the North, but secession was immediately preciptated by the election of anti-slavery Republican Abraham Lincoln as President in 1860.



Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865)


Fort Sumter was a Union base in South Carolina, which was the first state to secede and thus its government demanded Union forces leave their state. The moment the siege became a battle and the fort was fired upon by Confederate forces, it seemed clear to all that civil war had begun. No one was killed in the conflict, perhaps a false omen that the civil war which became the bloodiest in American history would not be a costly one. The Union forces at the fort eventually surrendered, thus making it a victory for the Confederates. In the aftermath of the struggle each side called for troops and war soon broke out in full force. The American Civil War saw the defeat of the Southern secessionists and the end of slavery – the ‘peculiar institution’ – in the United States.



Commemorative stamp marking the centenary of the Battle of Fort Sumter


I recently – for my university module on the origins of the Civil War – wrote an essay about ‘the start of the war’. It was an interesting exercise as it gave me the opportunity to look beyond the traditional start date of April 12th 1861. My paper focused on the ‘Bleeding Kansas’ struggle of 1856 when pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers rushed to claim Kansas for themselves which resulted in violence. However this was but one event on the long road to civil war, and some historians would point even further back to other points where war was inevitable. Some argue that at the nation’s founding, the Declaration of Independence and Constitution contained such fundamental hypocrises over the slavery issue, conflict over the institution was bound to happen. The Declaration proclaimed all men are created equal while the Constitution claimed slaves as being worth 3/5 of a human being. This so-called ‘fundamentalist’ work is very interesting to read but personally I believe war was not inevitable until Fort Sumter.  The contradictions of 1776 and the years after, and the repeated conflicts like over Texas annexation, Bleeding Kansas, and the Wilmot Proviso all contributed to the war that began in 1861; but antebellum American history is no grand teleological narrative of the road to civil war. The American Civil War only began where there were no other options – the Confederacy had used military force on Union soldiers and there was no other recourse but total war.


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