The Shots that Didn’t Start the War
April 3, 1861. The first shots fired in the Civil War actually came before the famous April 12 attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina harbor. Just as the first spark doesn’t necessarily start the forest fire,
two previous incidents of shelling in Charleston harbor did not ignite the war.
On January 9, 1861, before the Confederacy was even formed, batteries fired on the Star of the West, a steamship hired by the US government to resupply Fort Sumter. The ship was given a warning shot across the bow and was hit three times; it abandoned its mission of reaching Fort Sumter, turned about, and returned to its home port of New York City.
Then on April 3, a second incident occurred. Brevet Major General Abner Doubleday, who was then at Fort Sumter, would later recall:
“. . . The schooner R. H. Shannon, of Boston, . . . en route for Savannah with a cargo of ice, sailed into the harbor of Charleston on account of a fog. As the captain did not read the papers he did not know that anything unusual was going on. A battery on Morris Island fired a shot across the bow of his vessel to bring her to. Very much astonished at this proceeding he ran up the Stars and Stripes to show that he was all right. This was regarded as a direct defiance and a heavy cannonade was at once opened on the vessel. Very much puzzled to account for this hostility, he lowered his flag and the firing ceased. A boat’s crew now put off from the shore to ascertain his character and purpose in entering the harbor.
While this was going on, we [in Ft. Sumter, in Charleston harbor] were formed at our guns, in readiness to fire, but were not allowed to do so, although there was every probability that the vessel would be sunk before our eyes. It is true we could not have reached the particular battery that was doing the mischief; but the other works of the enemy were all under our guns, and, not expecting immediate action, were in a measure unprepared. . . .
Although this affair attracted very little attention or comment at the North, I was convinced, from the major’s [the commanding officer at Ft. Sumter, Major Robert Anderson] depression of spirits, that it acted a great deal upon his mind. He evidently feared it [his inaction when a ship flying the American flag was fired upon] might be considered as a betrayal of his trust, and he was very sensitive to everything that affected his honor.
I have already stated the reasons for his inaction. In amplifying his instructions not to provoke a collision into instructions not to fight at all, I have no doubt he thought he was rendering a real service to the country. He knew the first shot fired by us would light the flames of a civil war that would convulse the world, and tried to put off the evil day as long as possible.
SOURCE: Abner Doubleday, Reminiscences of Forts Sumter and Moultrie in 1860-’61, Harper & Brothers, New York, 1876, pp. 135-136. This book is available in several e-reader formats via Project Gutenberg.
– Text submitted by Tom Ledoux