On this date a century and a half ago, the fractured Union and its erstwhile member states, then in a state of succession, began the four-year long national tragedy of the American Civil War. Newly-inaugurated President Abraham Lincoln had sent a supply ship to replenish the garrison at Fort Sumter in the harbor of South Carolina’s port of Charleston, where Major Robert Anderson had retreated from Fort Moultrie with his little command of seventy-eight men. General P. G. T Beauregard, with around 500 men and a number of formerly Federal shore batteries, would not allow the ship to pass.
The standoff continued until the early hours of 12 April 1861, when Beauregard ordered his shore batteries to begin a bombardment of the Federal garrison. The small Federal garrison returned fire, but the unequal contest was over by the next afternoon. Ironically, the opening act of the great and bloody contest was nearly bloodless, without a mortal casualty on either side, and fewer than two dozen wounded. But the battle represented a gate that, once exited, could not be re-entered. Though many can argue with conviction that the the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Harper’s Ferry two years before, or even in Lawrence, Kansas, in the middle of the previous decade, it was the roar of cannon at Fort Sumter that signaled that war had arrived. Abraham Lincoln somewhat optimistically asked for 75,000 volunteers to help put down the rebellion.
Nearly four years later, Lee’s starving and threadbare Army of Northern Virginia would surrender to Grant’s massive Army of the Potomac. In the interim was four years of unprecedented slaughter at places like Malvern Hill, White Oak Swamp, Antietam, Chickamauga, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg. More than 650,000 American soldiers had died in a war that stretched from St Alban’s Vermont to Pichaco, Arizona, and saw the first widespread military use of railroads, telegraphs, repeating rifles, and metal warships.
The Civil War has been described as a struggle between two types of warfare, the modern and the obsolete. The character of the American Civil War in 1861 differed little from the last great battles in 1815. By the end, the struggle in the shell-pocked trenches at Petersburg, and the images of streams of refugees in front of Sherman in Georgia more closely resembled 1915 than 1815.
In 1861 Helmuth von Moltke dismissively described American armies as “mobs that wander about in fields carrying muskets”. By 1864, both the North and South fielded vast armies of disciplined, battle-hardened veterans, led by talented and experienced commanders. These armies could march great distances, possessed unparalleled firepower, and showed an ability to endure punishment at Antietam, Shiloh, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor, and the Wilderness that astonished European observers. Indeed, the armies of 1864-65 were the most powerful on Earth, dwarfing in size and combat power any other armies fielded anywhere until the First World War.
In the end, the Union had survived. Slavery was abolished through force of arms. And in the words of a President who would be slain just days after the Southern surrender, “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” remained and remains to this day. The seminal event in American history, the great watershed that continues to shape our consciousness and outlook on ourselves and the world around us, began a century and a half ago, this day.