On December 26, 1860, five days after South Carolina declared its secession, U.S. Army Major Robert Anderson abandoned the indefensible Fort Moultrie and secretly relocated his two companies (127 men, 13 of them musicians) of the 1st U.S. Artillery to Fort Sumter without official authorization or obedience to orders from Washington. He thought that providing a stronger defense would delay a Rebel attack. The Fort was not yet complete at the time and fewer than half of the cannons that should have been there were available due to military downsizing by James Buchanan. Over the next few months, repeated calls for the United States evacuation of Fort Sumter from the government of South Carolina and later Confederate Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard were ignored. United States attempts to resupply and reinforce the garrison were repulsed on January 9, 1861 when the first shots of the war prevented the steamer Star of the West, a ship hired by the United States to transport troops and supplies to Fort Sumter, from completing the task. After realizing that Anderson's command would run out of food by April 15, 1861, President Lincoln ordered a fleet of ships, under the command of Gustavus V. Fox, to attempt a forced entry into Charleston Harbor to reinforce Fort Sumter. The ships assigned were the steam sloop-of-war USS Pawnee, steam sloop-of-war USS Powhatan, transporting motorized launches and about 300 sailors (secretly removed from the Charleston fleet to join in the forced reenforcement of Fort Pickens, Pensacola, Fla.), armed screw steamer USS Pochaontas, Revenue Cutter USS Harriet Lane, steamer Baltic transporting about 200 troops, composed of companies C and D of the 2nd U.S. Artillery, and three hired tug boats. By April 6, 1861 the first ships began to set sail for their rendezvous off the Charleston Bar. The first to arrive, the Harriet Lane, arriving before midnight of April 11, 1861. On April 12, 1861, at 4:30 a.m., Confederate batteries opened fire, firing for 33 straight hours, on the fort. Edmund Ruffin, noted Virginian agronomist and secessionist, claimed that he fired the first shot on Fort Sumter. His story has been widely believed, but Lieutenant Henry S. Farley, commanding a battery of two mortars on James Island fired the first shot at 4:30 A.M. . The garrison returned fire, but it was ineffective, in part because Major Anderson did not use the guns mounted on the highest tier, the barbette tier, where the gun detachments would be more exposed to Confederate fire. On April 13, the fort was surrendered and evacuated. During the attack, the Union colors fell. Lt. Norman J. Hall risked life and limb to put them back up, burning off his eyebrows permanently. No Union soldiers died in the actual battle though a Confederate soldier bled to death having been wounded by a misfiring cannon. One Union soldier died and another was mortally wounded during the 27th shot of a 100 shot salute, allowed by the Confederacy. Afterwards the salute was shortened to 50 shots. Accounts, such as in the famous diary of Mary Chesnut, describe Charleston residents along what is now known as The Battery, sitting on balconies and drinking salutes to the start of the hostilities.
A special military decoration, known as the Gillmore Medal, was later issued to all Union service members who had performed duty in Fort Sumter during the opening battle of the American Civil War.
The Fort Sumter Flag became a popular patriotic symbol after Maj. Anderson returned North with it. The flag is still displayed in the fort's museum.
The Confederates, in the mean time, were strengthening Fort Sumter. A workforce of just under 500 slaves, under the supervision of Confederate army engineers, were filling casemates with sand, protecting the gorge wall with sandbags, and building new traverse, blindages, and bombproofs Some of Fort Sumter’s artillery had been removed, but 40 pieces still were mounted. Fort Sumter’s guns that weighed the most were mounted on the barbette, the fort’s highest level, where they had wide angles of fire and could fire down on approaching ships. The barbette was also more exposed to enemy gunfire than the casemates in the two lower levels of the fort.
Armament Fort Sumter, August 17, 1863
|Left flank barbette||Two columbiads|
|Left face barbette||Two columbiads, two columbiads, four 42-pounders|
|Left face, first tier casemates||Two shell guns|
|Right face barbette||Two columbiads, five rifled and banded 42-pounders|
|Right face, first tier casemates||Two 32-pounders|
|Right flank barbette||One XI-inch Dahlgren, four columbiads, one Columbiad, one rifled 42-pounder, one Brooke|
|Gorge barbette||Five rifled and banded 43-pounders, one 24-pounder|
|Salient, second tier casemates||Three rifled and banded 42-pounders|
|Parade||Two seacoast mortars|
After the devastating bombardment, both General Quincy A. Gillmore and Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren, now commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, determined to launch a boat assault on Fort Sumter for the night of September 8–9, 1863. Cooperation between the Army and Navy were poor, Dahlgren refusing to place his sailors and marines under the command of an army officer. So two flotillas set out towards Fort Sumter that night. The army flotilla was detained off Morris Island by the low tide. By the time they could proceed, the navy assault had already been defeated and the army flotilla returned to shore.
The Navy’s assault involved 400 sailors and marines in 25 boats. The operation was a fiasco from beginning to end. Poor reconnaissance, planning and communication all characterized the operation. Commander Thomas H. Stevens, commanding the monitor Patapsco, was placed in charge of the assault. When Commander Stevens protested that he “knew nothing of [the assault’s] organization “ and “made some remonstrances on this grounds and others.” Dahlgren replied “There is nothing but a corporal’s guard [about 6–10 men] in the fort, and all we have to do is go and take possession.” . This underestimation of the Confederate forces on Dahlgren’s part may explain why he was hostile to a joint operation wishing to reserve the credit for the victory to the Navy. Less than half of the boats landed. Most of the boats that did land landed on the right flank or right gorge angle, rather than on the gorge where there was a passable breach The Union sailors and marines who did land could not scale the wall. The Confederates fired upon the landing party and as well as throwing hand grenades and masonry. The men in the boats that had not landed fired muskets and revolvers blindly at the fort, endangering the landing party more than the garrison. The landing party took shelter in shell holes in the wall of the fort. In response to a signal rocket fired by the garrison, Fort Johnson and the Confederate gunboat Chicora opened fire upon the boats and landing party. The boats that could withdraw withdrew, and the landing party surrendered. The Union casualties were 8 killed, 19 wounded, and 105 captured (including 15 of the wounded). The Confederates did not suffer any casualties in the assault.
After the unsuccessful boat assault, the bombardment recommenced and proceeded with varying degree of intensity, doing more damage to Fort Sumter until the end of the war. The garrison continued to suffer casualties. The Confederates continued to salvage guns and other material from the ruins and harassed the Union batteries on Morris Island with sharpshooters. The Confederates mounted four columbiads, one columbiad rifled, and two rifled 42-pounders, in the left face, bottom tier casemates. These guns did not fire in anger. Fort Sumter did not fall until General William T. Sherman’s advance through South Carolina finally forced the Confederates to evacuate Charleston on February 17, 1865. The Federal government formally took possession of Fort Sumter on February 22, 1865 with a gala flag raising ceremony
When the Civil War ended, Fort Sumter was in ruins. The U.S. Army worked to restore it as a useful military installation. The damaged walls were re-leveled to a lower height and partially rebuilt. The third tier of gun emplacements was removed. Eleven of the original first-tier gun rooms were restored with 100-pounder Parrott rifles.
From 1876 to 1897, Fort Sumter was used only as an unmanned lighthouse station. The start of the Spanish-American War prompted renewed interest in its military use and reconstruction commenced on the facilities that had further eroded over time. A new massive concrete blockhouse-style installation was built in 1898 inside the original walls. Named "Battery Huger" in honor of Revolutionary War General Isaac Huger, it never saw combat.
During World War I, a small garrison manned the two twelve-inch (305 mm) rifles at Battery Huger. Until World War II, the fort was unused except as a tourist destination; two 90 mm antiaircraft guns were then installed. Fort Sumter became a U.S. National Monument in 1948.
Today, administered by the U.S. National Park Service, Fort Sumter is a popular tourist attraction, reached by a thirty-minute boat ride from Charleston.