Fort Sumter: 1829-1947
Speaker: Rick Hatcher
Report By: John Laskey
Round Table members welcomed Rick, who has worked at six locations of the US National Park Service, most recently at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. The Round Table also welcomed as its guests a student group from Lawrence University, Appleton, Wisconsin.
Rick outlined the origin of Fort Sumter. The War of 1812 with Great Britain had led to a Presidential decree for the strengthening on all US seaboard fortifications. Along with three lesser fortifications at Charleston Harbor, Moultrie, Johnson and Pinckney, the new fort was to be named after Thomas Sumter, the last surviving Patriot general of the Revolutionary War. Rick added that, though General Sumter had been nicknamed the ‘Gamecock of Carolina’ by his British opponents, he came - like Rick - from Virginia!
Progress on the new fort was slow, in particular due to disputes about site ownership and the declining pressure of the original directive as time wore on. It was not until 1829 that building started and 109,000 tonnes of rock rubble were moved in place to set Sumter’s foundation. The fort was intended to hold 136 guns on three levels with walls 5ft thick and have accommodation for 650 soldiers.
Even by December 1860, when the Secession Crises became focussed on Charleston itself, Fort Sumter was still not fully ready. And it was unmanned. As the crises deepened, US Major Robert Anderson shifted his small garrison of US troops from the smaller Fort Moultrie into the stronger defences of Sumter. The other forts were duly occupied by South Carolina volunteers under General Pierre Beauregard, who prepared to put Sumter under siege.
After Anderson declined an ultimatum to hand over the Fort in April 1861, Southern forces opened a heavy bombardment. Three thousand rounds were fired at the fort, and 600 hit it. Though the walls were not penetrated, fires broke out inside, forcing its surrender. In spite of all this no-one on either side was killed during the bombardment.
Rick emphasised how the fort then became a touchstone of the rebellion- for the North it was where secession, treason and rebellion had begun so its recapture became a military and political priority. And Robert E Lee recognised its significance early in the war when he advised General Robert Pemberton not to abandon Charleston but to defend it “to the last extremity”.
The Union were to put Charleston’s resolve to the test; though Rick believed its failure to recapture the fort – and Charleston – was due to lack of command coordination rather than of resources. After three major and six minor battles, the Union forces had fired over 7 million pounds of ordnance and Sumter was reduced to ruins. It was finally abandoned when Confederate forces evacuated the city in February 1865, making the siege the longest (i.e. 587 days) of the war.
After the war the derelict site became the fixing point for Coast Guard beacon. With the onset of the 1898 War with Spain, the Fort was put back to defensive use when Battery Isaac Huger was emplaced there. The site was upgraded again in 1942, to counter the mining of Charleston Harbor by German U-boats. The site was the first in the USA at which foreign prisoners of war had been held since 1812. After the war, the site was handed to the National Parks Service where it remains a popular visitor destination (there were 800,000 visitors in 2010 alone).
Rick continued to demonstrate his remarkable knowledge of the Fort – and of the Civil War – in the question and answer session, highlights of which included:-
• The question of southern-born Major Anderson’s loyalty to the Northern cause. Rick believed it was unimpeachable, and Anderson had been personally selected for the difficult job by General Winfield Scott. Anderson died in 1874 and is buried at West Point - next to General George Armstrong Custer. One of his officers, Lt. Richard Kidder Meade did however go over to the Confederacy after the fort was surrendered – he died at Petersburg
• Given the Union’s priority to take Charleston, why wasn’t more effort made? The fact was Charleston had strong defences and was surrounded by natural marshland. Even General Sherman decided to outflank it by seizing Colombia. Union General Foster put the cause of the failure to take Charleston down to a "lack of clarity”.
• Edmund Ruffin did not fire the first shot of the Civil War! That fiery advocate of the rebellion, who chose suicide when the war was lost rather than having to live amongst the “Yankee race”, probably did fire the first cannon shot. But the first shot of the opening siege was fired from a mortar by the less well-known Cpt. George S James!
Rick ended his talk with his generous donation of two full-size reproductions of the Confederate and Union flags that had actually flown over the Fort until this year – the 150th anniversary of the opening siege.