Object of the Month

The Battle Lines are Drawn: the Attack on Fort Sumter

Mark the Traitors! There are a few as genuine Traitors scattered over the country ... Broadside

Mark the Traitors! There are a few as genuine Traitors scattered over the country ...

Image 1 of 1

This broadside was likely issued in a Northern state soon after the attack on Fort Sumter, which occurred on 12-14 April 1861. It demonstrates the inflammatory language and the “with us or against us” propaganda that filled the popular press in the days and weeks following the attack.

A Fort Besieged

The attack on Fort Sumter was the culmination of many months of simmering tensions between the North and the South over the issue of slavery. In late December of 1860, soon after the election of Abraham Lincoln, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union, followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas by February of 1861. Negotiations to avoid civil war occurred throughout that winter, ending in a failed peace conference held in Washington D.C. in February of 1861, attended by representatives of twenty-one states (the seven secession states, as well as Arkansas, Wisconsin, Minnesota, California, and Oregon, sent no representatives). Fort Sumter, as a Federal property within the boundaries of the newly-created Confederate States of America, would soon become a hostage in the dispute. Days after South Carolina seceded from the Union, Major Robert Anderson, the commander of the federal defenses of Charleston, secretly moved his base of operations from Fort Moultrie on the mainland to Sumter, an island fortress that stood strategically in the center of the main shipping channel in Charleston Harbor. Fort Sumter was a much more substantial fortification, although its construction had never been completed-only forty-eight guns were ready for use in April of 1861. Sumter was also undermanned and undersupplied-the Buchanan administration's efforts to resupply Anderson and his troops in January of 1861 failed when the Star of the West, an unarmed ship bearing provisions, was turned away by Confederate guns, and the situation worsened from there. Confederate troops spent the winter constructing batteries around Sumter, effectively surrounding Anderson and his troops.

The Ultimatum

On 11 April 1861, Confederate Brigadier General P. G. T. Beauregard (who had been a protege of Major Anderson at West Point) issued Anderson an ultimatum: evacuate Fort Sumter immediately or face destruction. Anderson refused to surrender, and Beauregard notified Anderson that he would open fire on Sumter in the early morning hours of 12 April. True to his word, the bombardment began at 4:30 a.m. on the twelfth, lasting 34 hours. The initial bombardment did little to damage the fort's brick walls, but the "hot shot" (cannonballs heated in an oven) fired into the fort set fire to many of the wooden buildings inside. Seeing this success, the Confederates fired more rounds of hot shot on the second day, resulting in the destruction of most of the wooden buildings. Surrounded by burning buildings, with starving men and a short supply of ammunition, Anderson had no choice but to evacuate the fort, agreeing to a truce on the afternoon of the thirteenth. No one on either side was killed during the engagement, although two Union soldiers were lost during the evacuation of the fort when gunpowder accidentally exploded during a defiant, hundred-gun salute fired by the defenders. Anderson carried the fort's flag away with him on the fifteenth, and exactly four years later raised it once more when the fort was finally in Union hands again.

Public Response to the Attack on Fort Sumter

Reaction to the attack on Fort Sumter was swift and heated. Newspapers in Boston and across the country were filled with reports, rumors, and calls to patriotic action. The Boston Daily Advertiser of 19 April contained a dispatch from Pittsburgh which reported that ropes had been "suspended to lamp posts last night, by unknown persons, labeled 'Death to traitors.'" Reports of additional states seceding, but keeping it secret so as to "steal as much government property as possible," filled the news columns. In the spirit of the broadside displayed above, the National Intelligencer of 19 April reprinted an item from the Troy Times, warning those business concerns who might be manufacturing arms for the South:

Certain Northern manufacturers have been at work all the winter in executing orders for war materials for Southern traitors. It is reported and believed that many thousand dollars of this work has been turned out in Troy and vicinity. It is said that even now an establishment here is being run day and night in manufacturing bullet machines for the enemy. We sincerely hope the latter report is untrue. But if it is a fact, notice should at once be given to the proprietor by our authorities that the work must stop. No more of this business can be permitted; the act is treason

Less than two weeks after the attack, Henry Ward Beecher, an ardent abolitionist, gave a sermon (reprinted in Boston's antislavery newspaper, the Liberator, on 26 April) in which he attacked the patriotism of Southerners, saying "There has been a spirit of patriotism in the North, but within my memory, never in the South. I never heard a man from the South speak of himself as an American. Men from the South always speak of themselves as Southerners." He continued:

We must draw the lines. There have been a great many men that have been on both sides. There have been a great many men that have been thrown backward and forward like a shuttle. But it is time for every man to choose one side or the other. We want no shufflers; we want no craven cowards; we want men... the voice of Sumter has done more to bring men together ...than the most eloquent tongued orator that ever was heard in this land. ...I will have no commerce, I will not cross palms with a man that disowns liberty in such a struggle as is before us! ... But so long as he stands up with impudent face against the things that are dearest to God's heart, and dearest to the instincts of this people, I shall treat him as what he is-a traitor!

Sources for Further Reading

Boatner, Mark M. The Civil War Dictionary. (New York: Vintage Books, 1991).

See Edward Everett's views on the February 1861 Peace Conference's activities.

Throughout the Sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War, the Massachusetts Historical Society will highlight documents and provide other special features related to the war. Visit the Civil War home page and check back often for new materials.

Fort Sumter is a national monument operated by the U.S. Park Service.

Short synopses of Civil War battles can be found through the American Battlefield Protection Program that is part of the U.S. Park Service