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Civil War Series

Five Flags Over Fort Sumter

   

THE MAN WHO AWOKE A NATION

Captain George S. James was commander of a South Carolina gun battery at Fort Johnson. At 4:30 A.M. on the morning of April 12, 1861, he gave the order to fire a 10-inch mortar which sent a shell "curving over in a kind of semi-circle, the lit fuse trailing behind, showing a glimmering light, like the wings of a fire fly, bursting over the silent old Sumter." With that signal shot, Captain James "unchained the great bull-dogs of war around the whole circle of forts."

George Sholter James was born in Laurens County, South Carolina, in 1829. He was the second son of a prominent attorney and merchant and spent most of his young life in Columbia, the state capital. At the age of seventeen, James left his college studies for the adventure of fighting in the Mexican War.

Upon returning home, he attended college and taught. In 1856, James left reaching in favor of continuing his military career.

After hearing news of the growing hostilities between South Carolina and the federal government, James ended his four-year career in the U.S. Army by resigning his commission on February 1, 1861. He volunteered as a captain with the South Carolina Artillery in Charleston. During the tense standoff with Fort Sumter, one of James's duties was to carry messages between General Beauregard and Major Anderson. This seasoned veteran and trained artillery officer was anxious for a more important task.

In the early morning darkness of April 12, 1861, Captain Stephen D. Lee of General Beauregard's staff rowed out to Fort Johnson with orders to attack Fort Sumter. The honor of firing the first shot was to go to former Virginia congressman Roger Pryor. When Pryor could not face up to the responsibility, South Carolina's native son and hero of the Mexican War did not hesitate. Captain Lee granted James's request to fire the first shot.

After the fall of Fort Sumter, James joined up with a company from Laurens County which became part of the Third South Carolina Battalion. James was elected their commander and promoted to lieutenant colonel when they mustered into Confederate States service on December 20, 1861. The newly renamed James Battalion remained in service along the South Carolina coast for more than a year.

They were soon ordered to Richmond, Virginia, where they came under the command of Brigadier General Thomas Drayton. They were not seriously engaged until September 1862, when they were ordered to reinforce General D. H. Hill in Maryland during the Battle of South Mountain.

CAPTAIN GEORGE S. JAMES DRESSED IN HIS U.S. ARTILLERY UNIFORM. DATE UNKNOWN. (FORT SUMTER NATIONAL MONUMENT)

Lieutenant Colonel James was among the first Confederates to arrive at South Mountain. During the afternoon's fighting on September 14, 1862, they were posted in the mountain roads in the area of Wise's Cabin. They were severely mauled by a flanking fire delivered by the Seventeenth Michigan. Drayton's brigade suffered some of the worst casualties of that day. Late in the evening of September 14, Colonel James was twice admonished by his second in command of his untenable position and that death or surrender was inevitable if he persisted in holding his ground, but without avail. The true soldier that he was preferred death, to yielding. Just as the firing began to cease, Lieutenant Colonel James was pierced through the breast by a minie ball. The thirty-three-year-old James was presumed killed in action.

Years later, Charles F. Walcott of the Twenty-first Massachusetts recalled an encounter with a Rebel officer in the hours after the battle. "About midnight I heard a call for help, and going to the spot saw someone moving rapidly away from a man lying on the ground. The prostrate man told me that he was Lieutenant-Colonel James of. . . South Carolina, that he was shot through the body when our men made the last assault, and had pretended to be dead, hoping that he should feel able to escape before morning, but found himself growing weaker, and knew that he should die. He said that he had called for help, because a prowling rascal had turned him over and taken his watch." Walcott fetched James a blanket and "gave him a drink of whiskey [and] . . . the brave fellow died before morning."


That shot was a sound of alarm that brought every soldier in the harbor to his feet and every man, woman, and child in the city of Charleston from their beds. A thrill went through the whole city.

To this day, controversy still surrounds the story of who fired the first shot. For many years credit was erroneously given to Edmund Ruffin, the Virginia secessionist. It was Captain Stephen D. Lee of Beauregard's staff who corrected "an error which has almost passed into historical fact . . . Edmund Ruffin, of Virginia, did not fire the first gun at Fort Sumter, but that Captain George S. James, of South Carolina . . . did fire it." It still remains uncertain whether Captain James fired the shot or simply ordered the shot to be fired. One account alleges that Private Henry S. Farley actually pulled the lanyard. Regardless of the details, the result was the same as Captain Lee described.

That shot was a sound of alarm that brought every soldier in the harbor to his feet and every man, woman, and child in the city of Charleston from their beds. A thrill went through the whole city. It was felt that the Rubicon was passed.

— Deborah Osterberg


Shielded by the gothic arches of the lower casemates, their principal danger came from a direct hit from behind, by mortar rounds, or through the narrow emubrasuures in front.

For all the damage to their fort, the men inside Sumter remained relatively safe. Shielded by the gothic arches of the lower casemates, their principal danger came from a direct hit from behind, by mortar rounds, or through the narrow embrasures in front. A shot from the rifled Blakely on Cummings Point shattered the edge of an embrasuare at the right gorge angle, showering the gun crew with brick shards that lacerated the faces of a sergeant and three men, though none of them needed medical treatment. The only other injuries sustained that day were to the eardrums of the men who fired the booming cannon in the confinement of the casemates.

Surgeon Crawford took his turn in command of a gun division during the second relief. He aimed at the floating battery off Sullivan's Island and at Fort Moultrie, firing 32-pounders at first and eventually shifting to 42-pounders when the lighter guns showed no effect. He thought once that he had dismounted a gun in Moultrie because it stopped firing, but the commander in that fort reported damage only to the barracks.

Nowhere did the smaller guns at Sumter wreak any significant havoc with Southern artillery. The big barbette guns might have shaken up the Confederate fortifications, but Major Anderson's orders kept the gun crews on the lower tier. A lone veteran lost his patience, however, and defied the orders in return for a few shots at Moultrie. Sergeant John Carmody of Company H crept up to the parapet and single-handedly turned each gun until it bore somewhere near the fort in which he had served for so many months. He yanked each lanyard in turn, doing no damage of note but feeling a lot better for it. With no one to help him he had no means of reloading the guns, so he slipped back downstairs.

A pair of old soldiers took a lesson from Carmody and hastened up to the parapet facing Cummings Point. A huge 10-inch Columbiad sat in the right gorge corner, loaded and waiting, and they cranked it around to aim it at the iron battery. Their elevation proved a shade too high, however, and the 128-pound ball soared over the sloping face of that work. They reloaded somehow, tipping the muzzle of the big gun slightly at the next aim, but this round hit nothing, either. In the end they forgot to secure the chassis, and the eight-ton tube lurched off the carriage and tipped sideways, knocking over a huge coast howitzer beside it. That ended the forays to the barbette.

SERGEANT JOHN CARMODY FIRING THE BARBETTE GUNS. (BL)

Just as Captain Doubleday had fired his first gun, the USS Pawnee met the Baltic and the Harriet Lane a few miles offshore. With no sign of his tugs yet, Captain Fox decided to make his way to the harbor to see what chance he might have of delivering his supplies peacefully. One glance at the belching guns and exploding shells told him the war was on so he stood off the port and waited. Inside, anxious U.S. officers stared through glasses at the ships, wondering if they were going to come in or not.

The barracks caught fire again, and again a little fire brigade answered the call with one hand pump and some buckets. Peter Hart, Anderson's erstwhile sergeant, acted as fire chief.

Most of the afternoon, Sumter's guns spent their powder on Fort Moultrie. The sandbag-and-cotton-bale fortifications there protected the Southern gun crews admirably, though, and the only South Carolinians whom the fort discomfited that day were those aboard a little revenue schooner that flew the Stars and Bars. Lieutenant Snyder's gun crew put a shot through her hull, causing the flag to come fluttering down and the schooner to scramble away to safer waters.

In Fort Moultrie, artillerymen fired up the hot shot furnace and aimed a few red hot solid shot into Sumter, looking for vulnerable targets like the barracks roofs. The barracks—the supposedly fireproof barracks—caught fire for a third time that afternoon, and the smoke choked Anderson's gunners whenever the wind blew their way. This conflagration got away from Hart's bucket brigade, and there might have been some real trouble during the night had darkness not brought rain.

The garrison ceased fire once the light was gone, and the surrounding batteries slackened their fire as well, reverting mainly to occasional mortar rounds. Captain Foster, Captain Seymour, and Surgeon Crawford ventured out on the esplanade to inspect the damage, and their opinions varied according to their perspectives. Foster, the engineer, found "that the exterior of the work was not damaged to any considerable extent," while the doctor saw holes more than a foot deep in the brick walls, especially on the side facing Cummings Point, and judged the effect of the enemy's shells "great."

THE EXTERIOR WALLS OF FORT SUMTER SHOW THE EFFECTS OF HEAVY CONFEDERATE BOMBARDMENT IN THIS PHOTOGRAPH TAKEN DAYS AFTER UNION SURRENDER. (USAMHI)

Anticipating an amphibious assault by night, Major Anderson ordered all the guns loaded with grapeshot and canister. After guards were posted at every angle, the hungry and exhausted artillerymen went to sleep around their guns, oblivious to the occasional explosions. The men making cartridges continued plying their needles until midnight. Across the main channel, Confederates on Sullivan's Island strained their eyes all night for a glimpse of the relief expedition, which they expected to try to slip through.

Out beyond the harbor, Captain Fox wanted to come in but dared not without the added firepower of the Powhatan or the mobility of the tugs, which were supposed to meet him. Through bureaucratic bungling the Powhatan had gone to Fort Pickens, however, and the tugs did not arrive. Fox thought a couple of boats could row in with a little food for the garrison, but the heavy seas discouraged the attempt at night. The soldiers inside Sumter therefore arose to a final breakfast of salt pork and water, with a little rice for a fortunate few. The ball opened early, with shells bursting on the parade and solid shot looping in to smash the barracks and officers' quarters some more. Moultrie went back to red-hot shot, and the quarters caught fire again. Major Anderson finally abandoned any effort to extinguish the blaze, but he grew solicitous of his magazine as the flames climbed higher.

At first the fort replied briskly to the renewed barrage, but the supply of cartridges quickly dwindled. Meanwhile, the Confederates fired more rapidly than the day before and more accurately. John Swearer, an employee of the Engineer Department who hailed from Baltimore, was working one of Sumter's guns when a shell exploded inside the fort. A hefty fragment of it sailed past the flagstone protection at the rear of his casement and tore Swearer's legs up frightfully.

THE VIEW OF THE BATTERED FORT'S INTERIOR WAS TAKEN IN 1863. (LC)

SOLDIERS INSIDE FORT SUMTER REMOVE GUNPOWDER DURING THE BOMBARDMENT. (HP)

The burning barracks so threatened the magazine that Captain Foster asked permission to pull out what powder they needed. There were about three hundred barrels of powder in that chamber, and with the help of off-duty officers he rolled about fifty of them into different casemates. Then the flames came so close that they closed the door and buried it with dirt.

Sparks and cinders from the fires blew throughout the interior of the fort, and eventually Major Anderson told Foster to throw all but five barrels of the powder out the open embrasure into the water. With so little raw powder left and so few cartridges, he slowed the rate of fire to one gun every ten minutes, in token defiance. The gunners, most of whom were idle now, huddled wherever the smoke and heat affected them least. By late morning they all lay face-down in the casemates with wet handkerchiefs pressed to their faces. Confederates on Morris Island were so impressed with the defenders' tenacity that they cheered every shot from Sumter.

The rising column of smoke inspired the Confederates to greater efforts, and the shells rained in even faster. The grenades that had been stored on the stair towers began exploding as the barracks fires reached those stairways, adding to the crescendo.

At about 1:00 P.M., a shot snapped the flagpole and brought the Stars and Stripes to the ground. Lieutenant Hall removed it from the pole fragment while Lieutenant Snyder, Peter Hart, and one of the laborers erected a temporary flagstaff on the parapet in the middle of the right face, looking toward the open sea.

Offshore, the three vessels still lolled at anchor. The commander of the Pawnee captured an ice schooner, and Fox found plenty of volunteers from both the army and the navy who were willing to sail into the harbor on it with him. The guns on Morris Island and at Fort Moultrie would have blown the little ship to pieces in the daylight, so he planned the dash for that evening.

PETER HART NAILS THE FLAG TO THE TEMPORARY FLAGSTAFF. (HP)

WIGFALL ARRIVES AT THE FORT TO MEET WITH ANDERSON. (BL)

The falling of the flag inspired a certain politician to make a diplomatic effort. Louis T. Wigfall, a hirsute former U.S. senator from Texas, had returned to his native South Carolina to experience the secession fever. Though he carried a commission as colonel on Beauregard's staff, he was acting strictly on his own when he hopped into a rowboat on Cummings Point, ordered in a private soldier and a couple of slaves, and instructed them to pull for the fort.

In deference to this crazy colonel, the Cummings Point gunners stilled their pieces, but Fort Johnson and the Sullivan's Island batteries were still pouring metal into the harbor around them as the boat slid over to the Sumter wharf. Wigfall jumped out with a white banner tied to his sword and tried to demand entry, but the battered gates were on fire. Walking down the esplanade, he saw the ladder and the open embrasure waiting for Fox's hesitant sailors.

Two Irish privates met Wigfall at the embrasure and denied him entry for a time, but after other unoccupied gunners showed up with their muskets they escorted him in to see Lieutenant Snyder, who in turn went for Major Anderson. Lieutenant Davis came along, and Wigfall told him the fort should be surrendered. Their flag was down, their guns had stopped firing, and the place was on fire, he reasoned, so would they raise the white flag that be carried?

Davis refused to do so, noting that Wigfall was wrong on the first two counts: Hart and the other daredevils had raised the flag again on the makeshift pole atop the shell-swept parapet. Wigfall therefore strutted down to a gun that bore on Fort Moultrie, stepped into the embrasure, and waved the flag himself. After a few minutes Davis told him to come back in, ordering Corporal Charles Bringhurst to stand in the embrasure with it. Bringhurst did so, but after a moment he leaped back inside with an oath, complaining that the Confederates had fired on the flag of truce.

Anderson appeared shortly, and Wigfall repeated his argument. He represented himself as an envoy from General Beauregard, who wanted the deadly business stopped. Anderson replied that he had told Beauregard what terms he would require but added that he would leave the fort immediately rather than waiting until April 15. That satisfied Wigfall, who strode back out to his boat and returned to Cummings Point with the news.

THIS CIRCA 1862 PAINTING DONE BY AN UNIDENTIFIED ARTIST DEPICTS THE "UPRISING OF THE NORTH" AFTER THE ATTACK ON FORT SUMTER. (COPYRIGHT, NEW YORK STATE HISTORICAL ASSOCIATION, COOPERSTOWN, NY)

The harbor fell silent at about 1:30 that afternoon. A few minutes later another boat docked at the wharf, carrying the same Captain Lee who had brought the original evacuation demand and two new emissaries. They presented themselves to Anderson as General Beauregard's messengers, having come because the garrison flag was down and a white flag had been shown at one of the embrasures. Anderson explained Wigfall's visit and mission, but they told him that Wigfall had not been anywhere near General Beauregard for some time. They were the only authorized representatives, they insisted.

Angry, exhausted, and confused, Anderson said he would have to resume firing. The three dissuaded him, asking for a written version of the same terms he had dictated to Wigfall. The major agreed not to open fire again until Beauregard had had a chance to accept or refuse the conditions; perhaps he did not even realize that only three cartridges remained inside his fort.

Word came back at last that the conditions were acceptable to Beauregard. The garrison would leave after firing a salute to the tattered flag they had defended. Some welcome brandy arrived as a gift from an admiring citizen in Charleston, and at dark the weary artillerymen lay down for one last night inside Fort Sumter.

Major Anderson planned to fire a hundred-gun salute to his flag, but the cartridges had to he improvised from scrap flannel again. A small steamer waited for them at the wharf on the afternoon of April 14 while Anderson's soldiers gathered on the barbette tier. Cartridges lay piled around the big guns that would make the loudest noise, and at 2:00 P.M. the salute began.

Each crew had fired numerous rounds when a stray spark prematurely ignited one charge. Whether lighted by a windblown cinder from the smoldering barracks or a leftover particle of a previous discharge, the cartridge went off as Daniel Hough was driving it down the barrel of his gun. It blew his right arm from his shoulder, and sparks touched off several other cartridges that lay nearby. Five other members of Company E went down in the blast, and the ceremony stopped abruptly while comrades carried the victims to the parade. Once they were safely down, Major Anderson ordered the salute cut short at fifty rounds.

Surgeon Crawford found that he could treat the three least severely wounded soldiers, but George Fielding and Edward Gallway were too badly hurt to endure the voyage to New York. Gallway died as soon as he reached Chisholm's Hospital in the city; Fielding would go home a few weeks later, minus an eye.

A PREMATURE IGNITION OF A GUN CAUSED THIS EXPLOSION DURING SURRENDER CEREMONIES AT FORT SUMTER. (HP)

THIS PHOTOGRAPH WAS TAKEN THE DAY AFTER THE SURRENDER OF THE FORT. CONFEDERATE SOLDIERS PROUDLY STRIKE A POSE IN FRONT OF THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA FLAG. (USAMHI)

As soon as Anderson's men filed out of the fort, South Carolina volunteers marched in. Artillery companies from Cummings Point and Sullivan's Island garrisoned Fort Sumter during its first night under Confederate ownership, spending much of the evening helping two Charleston fire companies douse the persistent flames.

"Fort Sumter is a terrible wreck," wrote a young South Carolina lieutenant, unaware how much more pounding the bastion was in for.

On the same afternoon as the evacuation, Captain James H. Hallonquist's company buried Daniel Hough, presenting arms as the body was lowered into the soft soil of the Sumter parade, and a naval chaplain from the city read a prayer. The next morning, just before finishing their token night's tour inside the fort, three soldiers of the Palmetto Guard—which had manned the Ironclad Battery—fashioned a headboard for Hough's grave.

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