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A Nation Divided.  The Civil War in contemporary prints
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1861: April
--The War Begins--

[ Fort Sumter | Aftermath | Virginia | Maryland ]


Fort Sumter & the opening shots of the war

Lincoln felt he had to support the federal troops in Fort Sumter but still hoped to prevent actual hostilities with the southern states. On April 6th, Lincoln sent a message to Governor Pickens of South Carolina, informing him that the ships under way to Sumter were instructed only to provide provisions for the fort, unless they were attacked.

The Confederate government felt that it could not allow U.S. federal troops to remain on territory over which it claimed sovereignty, so orders were given to prevent the resupply of Fort Sumter. On April 11th, the commander of the Confederate forces in Charleston, P. G. T. Beauregard, demanded that Major Robert Anderson surrender the fort. Though the Union garrison of 87 officers and men was surrounded by a much superior force, Anderson replied he would not surrender, though he realized his supplies would soon run out even if his command was not wiped out by a bombardment.

Bombardment of Fort Sumter
Thus it was that at 4:30 on the following morning, April 12th, the opening shots of the Civil War were fired by the Charleston batteries at Fort Sumter. Anderson returned fire, but he was seriously out-gunned and also short of supplies. After 34 hours of continuous bombardment, Anderson agreed to evacuate the fort.

Bombardment Fort Sumter
However, Anderson insisted that his troops could exit with full military honor, including a full 100-gun salute to the United States flag. On April 14th, Anderson surrendered the fort to the Confederates. Unfortunately, a round accidentally exploded during the salute, killing Private Daniel Hough and mortally wounding another Union soldier. As none had died during the bombardment, these were the first fatalities of the Civil War, to be followed over the next four years by about 620,000 further deaths.


Major Robert Anderson made sure that the American flag received its due honor when he surrendered Fort Sumter on April 14th. He carried the flag with him when he left and it was hoisted to the mast of the ship as he and his troops returned to the North, defeated but unbowed. As news and images of the attack on the U.S. fort and its flag caused outrage in the North and a swell of patriotic fever.

Heaven Born Banner
Henry Ward Beecher gave a famous talk glorifying "The National Flag," in which he stated that "The stars upon it were to the pining nations like the bright morning stars of God, and the stripes upon it were beams of morning light," and the flag soon became a rallying point for supporters of the Union. This generated a outpouring of patriotic prints in the North, many with the flag as primary symbol.

Swearing in volunteers
President Lincoln felt he had the moral high ground and a strong political advantage because it was the southern states that had initiated hostilities. On April 15th, he proclaimed that a state of insurrection existed and he called for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion.

At the same time, the capture of Fort Sumter caused celebrations throughout the South. When Lincoln called for his volunteers, Jefferson Davis labeled Lincoln's proclamation a "declaration of war," though the Confederacy already had 60,000 men under arms.


Lincoln's proclamation caused another reaction which had a profound effect on the subsequent course of the war. It infuriated Virginians and on April 17th, the Viriginia legislature voted to secede from the Union, a result which was ratified by a state-wide referendum on May 23rd. Virginia was the richest and most populous southern state, with many ties to the North, not to mention bordering the nation's capital, so this was a grave blow to Lincoln and the federal cause.

Of equal significance was the fact that Virginia's secession led to the Confederacy acquiring her greatest champion, Robert E. Lee. Less was not a supporter of secession and felt himself a patriotic American. However, he felt that his first loyalty had to be to his home state of Virginia. He thus turned down Lincoln's offer to command the federal forces and, on April 20th, he resigned his commission in the U.S. Army.

As he wrote in a letter to his sister: "We are now in a state of war which will yield to nothing. The whole south is in a state of revolution, into which Virginia, after a long struggle, has been drawn; and though I recognize no necessity for this state of things, and would have forborne and pleaded to the end for redress of grievances, real or supposed, yet in my own person I had to meet the question whether I should take part against my native state. With all my devotion to the Union, and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. I have therefore resigned my commission in the army, and, save in defense of my native state--with the sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed--I hope I may never be called upon to draw my sword."

Despite his hope to be able to remain on the side lines, a few days after resigning his commission, Lee, the greatest general of his generation, was appointed commander of the Virginia Confederate forces.

Destruction of Norfolk Navy Yard
With the secession of Virginia, the U.S. Navy yard in Norfolk became vulnerable to seizure by the Confederates, so the order was given to destroy the facilities, supplies and ships left there. This was done on April 20th, as seen in a dramatic Harper's Weekly print, though the destruction was only partial.


The secession of Virginia threw into high relief the question of what Maryland would do. Maryland, was a slave state with much of its population sympathetic to the South (only 2 percent voted for Abraham Lincoln in the election the previous year). While there were also many with strong social and economic ties to the North, it was a real question as to whether Maryland would secede or not.

Maryland was, of course, of crucial strategic importance to the United States. Not only did it border the nation's capital, but any troops from the northeast had to pass through Baltimore on their way to Washington or further south. One of the first to respond to Lincoln's call for troops was the 6th Massachusetts Regiment, which arrived in Baltimore by train from Philadelphia on April 19th. The soldiers had to change trains to board the B&O to Washington, which entailed their marching through Baltimore.

Baltimore Riot
A large pro-Southern mob gathered and began to attack the Massachusetts troops with stones and bricks. In reply, the panicked soldiers opened fire and a full scale riot developed in which four soldiers and twelve citizens were killed. These were the first fatalities of the war that were the result of actual conflict and the news of the event raced through the states, North and South.

For a time this stopped the flow of troops to Washington and many of Maryland's southern sympathizers resigned their government and military posts. On May 13th, the Union army occupied Baltimore and placed it under martial law. Maryland subsequently voted not to secede, which was crucial in keeping the capital secure and allowing the Union army to bring its troops to what would soon be the front between two warring armies.

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