Dramatic Newspaper Coverage of the Battle of Fort Sumter: The Attack That Began the Civil War

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Dramatic Newspaper Coverage of the Battle of Fort Sumter: The Attack That Began the Civil War

Most historians agree the Civil War began with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter at 4:30 in the morning on April 12, 1861. In the days before the attack the nation’s eyes were on South Carolina, and Charleston Harbor in particular—where Major Robert Anderson’s Union garrison in Fort Sumter was surrounded by 19 Confederate batteries of mortars and cannons. Rumors were flying, and in articles, editorials, and letters to the editor, newspapers around the country filled the public’s voracious appetite for news.

The Fort Sumter saga actually began on December 20, 1860, when South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union, claiming ownership of all federal property within state lines—including Fort Sumter. Rather than give the fort up, the outgoing administration of President Buchanan hired a merchant steamer, the Star of the West, to transport troops and supplies to reinforce Major Anderson’s garrison. On January 9, 1861, the ship attempted to enter Charleston Harbor. Cadets from The Citadel (the South Carolina Military Academy) were stationed at Morris Island manning a battery, and they opened fire upon the merchant vessel. When guns from nearby Fort Moultrie joined in the attack, the Star of the West abandoned its relief mission and headed back to New York Harbor. Some historians claim the cannon fired at the Star of the West were the actual first shots of the Civil War.

News of this attack, predictably, created quite a stir. The Macon Telegraph rushed an account to its readers the next day. In its haste, the newspaper got an important detail wrong: the merchant ship was not sunk in the attack. The paper was also proved wrong in predicting an attack on Fort Sumter “in a few days,” and most obviously in calculating the impending war would last “about six months.” In its opening sentence, however, the paper was very much on target when it spoke of “the grand and terrible drama of civil war.”

Here is the news of the attack as printed on the front page of the Macon Telegraph (Macon, Georgia) on January 10, 1861:

The Ball Opened

The transactions in Charleston yesterday open the grand and terrible drama of civil war. The sinking of the Star of the West was, as we are informed, the achievement of a battery on Morris Island, and the two hundred and fifty troops destined to reinforce Major Anderson’s garrison at Fort Sumter, were rescued from cold water by a ship passing out of port at the time.

Unquestionably this unsuccessful attempt to reinforce Fort Sumter will be promptly followed by an assault of the South Carolina troops on that Fortification, and we may expect to hear of bloody work in a few days. To leave it in possession of the enemy when a strong military and naval force may be soon daily expected from the North to “avenge the insult,” would be to invite destruction. The Palmettoes will take the Fort, or try to do it – for we fear it will prove a very difficult feat with their present means and appliances to accomplish.

Events will now crowd upon us rapidly. Histories will be born of a day. We anticipate active and unsparing efforts to subjugate the South and allow about six months for the North to get satisfied. She cannot do it.

South Carolina kept calling for the surrender of the fort and, after the seven seceding states formed the Confederate States of America in early February, demands for the fort increased. The new Lincoln administration seemed to be vacillating. Rumors were sweeping the country about what Lincoln’s policy was going to be, whether an attack upon Fort Sumter was imminent, and fears that civil war was about to begin. Editorials appeared reflecting the nation’s mood of uncertainty. The following appeared in the April 1, 1861, issue of the New York Herald (New York, New York):

Fort Sumter – Southern Independence

It appears that the people of South Carolina anticipate, from the evacuation of Fort Sumter by the United States, a strong moral effect on the other side of the Atlantic in behalf of the independence of the Confederate States. This is not a bad idea, and it may, perhaps, explain the painful reluctance of the administration at Washington to abandon a post which it must abandon, or from which it must very soon be ignominiously expelled. But why should “Honest Old Abe” hesitate, when “nobody is suffering and nobody is hurt”?

An editorial with a darkly pessimistic tone was published around this time, declaring “We do not see any hope.” This editorial appeared in the Weekly Wisconsin Patriot (Madison, Wisconsin) on April 13, 1861—ironically, the very day that Fort Sumter surrendered, signaling that the Civil War the newspaper worried about had indeed begun:

What Means All This Commotion?

We confess the telegrams we receive daily are of the most aggravating and unsatisfactory nature. First, Fort Sumter is not to be reinforced—and then it is “at all hazards.” The President in one sentence is bent on war, and in another, peace is his programme. Now, this is not only perplexing, but tends to keep up an intense excitement, calculated to destroy all confidence in commerce and trade. We trust, the President will soon develop some plan. If that be war, so be it, and let blows be struck thick and fast, so that the country may know on what to depend. It if be peace, for heaven’s sake let us have some proof. We don’t ask Mr. Lincoln to publish his programme in advance, for that might be injudicious, at such a time as this, but we do want to get hold of some tangible act, by which we may judge of what the programme is to be.

…Depend upon it, that if we go to war among ourselves, the Eagle of France will prick out our eyes, and the Lion of Great Britain will make a hearty meal out of our carcass. Fix it, twist it, turn it and solve it, any way you will, and the consequences of this long and acrimonious war on slavery will be the downfall of this government. We do not see any hope, even though we should agree to an amicable peace and partition with the South tomorrow, and still less hope have we if we go to war with our Southern brethren.

War seemed imminent throughout the first two weeks of April 1861, especially after the Confederate authorities stopped Fort Sumter from receiving any more supplies. The New York Herald (New York, New York) put the story on the front page of its April 5, 1861, issue:

Intense Excitement throughout the South

The Supplies for Fort Sumter Cut Off by the Southern Government
The Secession Army Ready and Anxious for War

Washington, April 4, 1861

Telegraphic despatches received here today from Charleston state that great uneasiness exists in that city, owing to the movements which are in progress by the Washington government. The hesitancy and delay in evacuating Fort Sumter has led them to believe that secret operations are going on looking to the reinforcement of that fort. Should this delay continue much longer it is feared that an attack will be made on the fort.

Charleston, April 4, 1861

Charleston has today been in a state of excitement unequalled since the first secession movement. A crisis is at hand…The military leaders have been unusually active all day, and members of the Convention now in session belonging to the several fortifications have been ordered to their stations.

A thousand rumors are in circulation, the principal of which indicates that Fort Sumter will be attacked in the course of two days, and that the attack will be from the forts. South Carolina was never so well prepared, and her people are anxious for a fight. The warlike feeling runs high. The Charlestonians generally say there shall be no more boys’ play. Evacuate or fight is the prevailing sentiment.

The following account was printed by the Macon Telegraph (Macon, Georgia) on April 5, 1861:

Stopping the Supplies to Fort Sumter

The Charleston Mercury of Wednesday says:

We understand the liberal supplies heretofore permitted to Major Anderson will shortly be cut off. Yesterday a dispatch was received from the Commissioners to Washington, advising a change of policy. In their opinion, no more roast beef – barrels of potatoes – in short, no more supplies of any description, should be suffered to reach Fort Sumter. A decision has been reached here. Fort Sumter must shortly provision itself. Tomorrow the garrison must fall back upon its own stores. Its licensed intercourse with the city must cease. But there is something more to be mentioned. A dispatch has been sent to President Davis, in which immediate action is not indirectly hinted at. No reply has yet been received, but a telegraphic reply is hardly to be looked for. The mail will undoubtedly bring an answer. Our citizens, we are aware, are excited in regard to these matters. Patience with them, however, has become a cardinal virtue. Let them exercise it.

The following letter, written from Charleston on April 5, conveys the excitement, determination—and uncertainty—gripping the city. It was printed by the Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) on April 11, 1861:

Letter from a Charleston Merchant

Charleston, April 5, 1861

We are in the midst of great excitement here. Fort Sumter must be given up within three days or it will be cannonaded. All the preparations are made, and the attack will be successful. One thing is certain—the North never can conquer the South.

As you may suppose business is exceedingly dull, and debts cannot be collected. Every one wishes to await the upshot of affairs, as we are under the impression that war must ensue.

The Milwaukee Sentinel (Milwaukee, Wisconsin) printed more Charleston details on April 6, 1861:

Southern Matters

The Negroes in High Feather

The Charleston correspondent of the New York Tribune writes as follows:

The negroes here are in high feather at the continued occupation of Fort Sumter by Maj. Anderson; the poor creatures swear by him, and evidently imagine him to be possessed of some charm, which is working for their benefit. When not in attendance on the chivalry, they chuckle and caper with delight “’cos Sumter ain’t took.” They have, I think, a firm belief that God and right are on the side of the Major, and nobody can persuade them that it is possible to overcome him. There is a great deal of community of sentiment between the darkies and me upon this subject: I do not yet believe the evacuation of Fort Sumter to be a military necessity. The question of the Major’s supplies is still in abeyance; meantime, he has the run of the market, such as it is.

Patriotic Women

A little circumstance came under my notice the other day which goes to prove my assertions already published in the New York Tribune, namely: that there are plenty of Union men even in Charleston. A very respectable and industrious man, a native of Pennsylvania, and who resides within the sound of St. Michael’s bells, has two intelligent daughters who were employed at the needle by a King street store; they were set to work the other day to manufacture some flags of the gim-crack Pro-Slavery Confederacy; the girls, with a nobleness which was alike creditable to their heads and hearts, positively refused to set a stitch in the treasonable bunting, and lost employment in consequence. They have, I am happy to say, been successful in obtaining work for some good and true friends of the Union.

More details from April 6 in Charleston were printed by the Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) on April 8, 1861:

Important from Charleston

Charleston, April 6

Information has been received from the North that reinforcements are ordered to Fort Sumter, and will be accompanied by a squadron under the command of Commodore Stringham. Five thousand Southern men, in addition to those at present in the fortifications, are ready to take the field within twenty-four hours.

The ultimatum, siege or surrender, has not yet been sent to Maj. Anderson, but with the supplies sent today he was notified by General Beauregard that they are the last, which is equivalent to a declaration of hostilities. This is positive.

Troops have been ordered to rendezvous at points remote from Charleston, but within supporting distance, to watch the movements of the enemy. They move at once.

Governor Pickens has been all day inspecting the batteries, accompanied by a portion of his Council and senior officers of the army. Everything throughout was in a state of efficiency. Bloodshed is inevitable. A formal demand for the surrender of the fort has not been made, and may not be made at all. For obvious reasons the intentions of the Confederacy are involved in mystery. The excitement is intense, and everybody is in fighting humor.

The following is a letter from a correspondent in Charleston. He wrote his account on April 6 as tensions were mounting in the city. The letter was printed in the April 15, 1861, issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania):

Our Charleston Letter

From our own correspondent.
Charleston, S.C., April 6, 1861

Proper arrangements not having been made [to implement a blockade], the supplies were sent to Fort Sumter yesterday as usual, but from today, nothing will be allowed to reach him [Major Anderson, commander of the Union garrison]; matters are coming speedily to a crisis, and in a very few days I shall either have to record the evacuation of Fort Sumter or the opening of civil war; the latter is an alternative much to be lamented and dreaded, but it is a matter of doubt in every mind whether it is not the duty of Northern and those Southern States which are still true to the Union, to form an alliance for the purpose of preventing any extension of the area over which treason now stalks, and possessing themselves of those forts and arsenals which, in view of the whole civilized world, are undoubtedly the property of the Federal Government.

…The failure of two old merchants is reported this morning; one of them desires to settle at twenty-five cents on the dollar. This, however, is only a beginning; before many months, as certain as the sun shines, a panic will be felt in Charleston, which, in its whole history, has never been approached in magnitude…There is, in fact, distrust and bankruptcy staring the whole community in the face. The only course which can prevent this state of things continuing for years to come, is the possible result that the State may soon seek for that tranquility and success within the Union which outside of it she can never enjoy.

One of the South’s leading newspapers, the Daily Picayune (New Orleans), had a correspondent posted on New York’s Wall Street during this worrisome time, and he makes it clear in his letter of April 9 that the financial district knew war was looming. The paper printed his letter on April 17, 1861:

Special Correspondence of the Picayune

New York, April 9, 1861

Wall street is as blue as blazes today; confidence seems clear gone, for no one can tell what an hour may bring forth. The street itself has not one quarter the bustle usually observable during business hours, and at one time it appears more like a holiday than a moment for dollars and exchange, cotton and real estate. Indeed, I cannot call to mind a day when there was such an utter feeling of despondency and want of confidence as is perceptible at this hour. One of the Republican papers last evening asserted that the waking up of the Government to an energetic endorsement of the laws, had sent a thrill of joy in every direction, but as the paper is one that now and then has a fondness for joking, I presume this was thought a good one, though to my mind rather a serious one. “Thrill of joy!” If not a joke, what an infamous deception! As commerce and finance are the great levers that move the world, and as every household in the land is watered by the springs of that same commerce, how do such random assertions meet the gloom of our business haunts today! Are there any “thrills of joy” in them? Not one!...“Thrills of joy” there are none, but in place of them freezing blood, shattered energies, and bewildered brains!

…And has it come to this? America, the glorious and free, apparently on the verge of a sacrilegious and desolating war – such a war as shall wipe out forever all the brotherly feelings between the North and the South – perhaps crush out the nationality of the latter and force her to a union with some foreign power! What a spectacle!

On April 10, 1861, Charleston was a beehive of activity, bursting with excitement and preparation. A Union fleet was on its way to relieve Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, and the Confederates were determined to attack the fort before its garrison could be strengthened. The opening shots of the Civil War were still two days away—the first mortar round was fired at 4:30 a.m. on April 12—but war fever already gripped Charleston.

A merchant in Charleston wrote his brother on April 10, describing the scene as only a firsthand witness can. His letter was printed in the April 17, 1861, issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania):

Letter from Charleston

From a merchant in that city to his brother in Philadelphia

Charleston, S.C., C.S.A., April 10, 1861

You should have been in this excited town on Monday night. The war feeling boiled over at last, and things really began to look like having a fight. Big oaths had been sworn, and big talking talked, all day. Rain was falling heavily, driving street speechifyers and swearers into the grog shops. The great cause of excitement was the fitting out of the fleet at New York, which, we are told, is for the purpose of chastising the rebellious States. As we had been about as rebellious as any of them, of course we thought our turn ought to come first. So orders had been given to our “Navy” to keep a sharp lookout for suspicious craft, and report if any should be seen. Seven guns from the Citadel were anxiously looked for as a signal that the suspicious craft was in sight, and that the reserved troops were to bestir themselves. About 11 o’clock, the seven guns gave their solemn notification to the chivalry. Old Charleston, (who keeps good hours), woke up and rubbed his eyes. Young Charleston rushed out of the bar-rooms into the wet, eager for the fray; went and got his gun and things, and by midnight was ready to go anywhere and do anything. “The enemy” was upon us. Our “hearths and homes” were invaded.

…I close in haste, and amid intense excitement. Look out for something desperate before many days. If Anderson don’t evacuate, the brave 6,000 will pitch into him.

The day before the attack on Fort Sumter, the Sun (Baltimore, Maryland) printed this account on April 11, 1861:

Correspondence of the Baltimore Sun

Washington, April 10, 1861

We have had rumors to the effect that war had been commenced. Last night a dispatch was received stating that five or six large vessels of war and transports were lying off the harbor of Charleston, and that a steamer with provisions was to come in this morning. Also that the sappers and miners and other troops were to be landed on Sullivan’s Island in case the batteries of South Carolina should be opened upon the steamers, and that Fort Sumter would also open upon those batteries.

But a few days of delay, in the beginning of a war that is to last for a generation, is of little importance.

By April 11 everyone in Charleston knew the attack on Fort Sumter was about to begin. The Albany Evening Journal (Albany, New York) printed this account on April 12, 1861:

The Impending War.

From Charleston.
Sumter Summoned to Surrender.
Refusal of Major Anderson to Comply.

Charleston, Thursday, April 11, 1861

A collision is hourly expected. Northern dispatches state than an attempt will be made today to reinforce Fort Sumter in small boats, protected by sand bags, the war vessels in the meantime to protect the landing party on Morris Island. It is reported that Gen. Beauregard has demanded the evacuation of Fort Sumter.

An opening on Fort Sumter is expected every moment. The Battery is crowded with people in expectancy, and troops are pouring in. Business is suspended. The Citadel Cadets are guarding the Battery with heavy cannon. Thousands are waiting to see the attack commence. One thousand mounted men and two thousand patrols, heavily armed, are guarding the city.


Major Anderson has refused to surrender. His reply is to the effect that to do so would be inconsistent with the duty he owes to his Government.

Hundreds of persons have been waiting for hours on the wharves and other points of observation, to see the beginning of the conflict, among them a great number of ladies. The people are out on the housetops watching with feverish interest for the first signal of attack. The excitement in the city is intense. Every train brings throngs of citizens and soldiers to town. Twenty-two car loads came from Columbia tonight.

…Stirring times are at hand. The ball may open at any moment with terrible slaughter.

All negotiations for the surrender of Fort Sumter ended at 4:30 in the morning of April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces began a bombardment of the fort. Newspaper readers in Louisiana received the news that same day; this article was printed by the Daily Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana) on April 12, 1861:

Fire Opened on Fort Sumter!

Montgomery, April 12
The Secretary of War (L. Pope Walker) informs me that fire was opened on Fort Sumter this morning, at half past 4 o’clock, by Gen. Beauregard.
(Signed) D.G. Duncan

The above dispatch was transmitted to us, as also to other journals of the city, about half-past nine o’clock this morning. It was also transmitted, in the same form, to Mayor Monroe. We have assurances, moreover, from the telegraph office, that it is authentic and may be implicitly relied upon, and therefore we give it publicity.

The Macon Telegraph (Macon, Georgia) presented the news this way, on April 13, 1861:

War! War!! War!!!

The Ball Fairly Opened!!!!

We have undoubted reason to believe that firing has commenced on Fort Sumter. The Charleston batteries opened on the Fort at 4 ½ o’clock, this morning.

From Charleston

(We are kindly permitted to copy the following private telegram from Charleston, to a gentleman of this city.—Telegraph)

Charleston, April 12—Commenced bombardment of Fort Sumter this morning at 4 ½ o’clock. A brisk fire has been kept up all day, Anderson fires as if he had more men than we gave him credit for. None of our troops seriously hurt. We are making a breach in the fort. It must be ours. There are three war vessels outside—expect to have warm work tonight.

Anxious readers all around the country picked up their local papers that day to read the news many dreaded but most knew was coming: war had begun. The New York Herald began its war coverage with a front-page article; their correspondent’s opening line said it all: “Civil war has at last begun.” Here are excerpts from that front-page story, from the April 13, 1861, issue of the New York Herald (New York, New York):

The War Begun.

Very Exciting News from Charleston.

Our Special Despatches from Charleston.
Charleston, April 12, 1861

Civil war has at last begun. A terrible fight is at this moment going on between Fort Sumter and the fortifications by which it is surrounded.

In my last despatch I stated that negotiations had been reopened between General Beauregard and Major Anderson. This was done with a view to prevent an unnecessary effusion of blood. The issue was submitted to Major Anderson of surrendering as soon as his supplies were exhausted, or of having a fire opened on him within a certain time.

This he refused to do, and accordingly, at twenty-seven minutes past four o’clock this morning Fort Moultrie began the bombardment by firing two guns. To these Major Anderson replied with three of his barbette guns, after which the batteries on Mount Pleasant, Cummings’ Point, and the Floating Battery, opened a brisk fire of shot and shell.

…The excitement in the community is indescribable. With the very first boom of the gun thousands rushed from their beds to the harbor front, and all day every available place has been thronged by ladies and gentlemen, viewing the solemn spectacle through their glasses. Most of these have relatives in the several fortifications, and many a tearful eye attested the anxious affection of the mother, wife and sister, but not a murmur came from a single individual. The spirit of patriotism is as sincere as it is universal. Five thousand ladies stand ready today to respond to any sacrifice that may be required of them.

…Troops are pouring into the town by hundreds, but are held in reserve for the present, the force already on the island being ample. People are also arriving every moment on horseback, and by every other conveyance. Within an area of fifty miles, where the thunder of the artillery can be heard, the scene is magnificently terrible.

The next day, readers of the New York Herald picked up their papers and learned that Fort Sumter had surrendered—the opening battle of the Civil War had ended with a Confederate victory. A correspondent in Charleston churned out a series of rapid dispatches to keep the newspaper’s readers informed of the battle and the entire scene at the waterfront. Here are excerpts from that front-page Fort Sumter surrender story, as printed in the April 14, 1861, issue of the New York Herald (New York, New York):

The War.

The Conflict at Charleston.
The Bombardment Fiercely Continued.
Fort Sumter on Fire.
The Surrender of Fort Sumter.

Charleston, April 13, 1861, 12 noon

The entire roof of the barracks at Fort Sumter are in a vast sheet of flame. Shells from Cummings’ Point and Fort Moultrie are bursting in and over Fort Sumter in quick succession. The federal flag still waves.

Major Anderson is only occupied in putting out fire. Every shot on Fort Sumter now seems to tell heavily. The people are anxiously looking for Major Anderson to strike his flag.

Charleston, April 13, Later

Two of Major Anderson’s magazines have exploded. Only occasional shots are fired at him from Fort Moultrie. The Morris Island Battery is doing heavy work. It is thought that only the smaller magazines have exploded.

The greatest excitement prevails. The wharves, steeples and every available place are packed with people.

The United States ships are in the offing, but have not aided Major Anderson. It is too late now to come over the bar, as the tide is ebbing.

Charleston, April 13, Evening

Major Anderson has surrendered, after hard fighting, commencing at half past four o’clock yesterday morning, and continuing until five minutes to one today.

The American flag has given place to the palmetto of South Carolina.

Major Anderson stated that he surrendered his sword to General Beauregard as the representative of the Confederate government. General Beauregard said he would not receive it from so brave a man. He says Major Anderson made a staunch fight, and elevated himself in the estimation of every true Carolinian.

During the fire, when Major Anderson’s flagstaff was shot away, a boat put off from Morris Island, carrying another American flag for him to fight under – a noteworthy instance of the honor and chivalry of the South Carolina seceders, and their admiration for a brave man.

The scene in the city after the raising of the flag of truce and the surrender is indescribable – the people were perfectly wild. Men on horseback rode through the streets proclaiming the news, amid the greatest enthusiasm. On the arrival of the officers from the fort they were marched through the streets, followed by an immense crowd, hurrahing, shouting, and yelling with excitement.

Six vessels are reported off the bar, but the utmost indignation is expressed against them for not coming to the assistance of Major Anderson when he made signals of distress. The soldiers on Morris Island jumped on the guns every shot they received from Fort Sumter while thus disabled, and gave three cheers for Major Anderson and groans for the fleet.

The public feeling against the fleet is very strong, it being regarded as cowardly to make not even an attempt to aid a fellow officer.

Had the surrender not taken place, Fort Sumter would have been stormed tonight. The men are crazy for a fight.

The bells have been chiming all day, guns firing, ladies waving handkerchiefs, people cheering, and citizens making themselves generally demonstrative. It is regarded as the greatest day in the history of South Carolina.

There was little if any newspaper censorship during the Civil War, and it is sometimes startling to see how much information the papers presented to their readers. On April 13, the day the Battle of Fort Sumter ended, secret Confederate messages were already being printed in newspapers. Before the commencement of the attack, General Beauregard (the Confederate officer in charge at Charleston) and LeRoy Walker (the Confederate Secretary of War in Montgomery) exchanged a flurry of telegrams discussing the situation. The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), with the help of some clever “surveillance,” obtained and printed the Confederate telegrams on April 13, 1861.

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