Approached by sea, Fort Sumter is an unimpressive structure. Nearby Isle of Palms has larger houses. When Major Anderson withdrew his undermanned United States Army garrison to this structure in 1861, they found it alarmingly substandard and spent the next several weeks improving it. Their work was rushed at first, until they realized that South Carolina was too busy designing pretty uniforms to attack right away.
Charleston was the heart of darkness in the slaveholding south. Slaves outnumbered free whites in South Carolina by the early 1800s. Because of slave revolts in the previous century, the state had the most restrictive laws and inhuman regulations in the South. South Carolina had played an outsize role in America’s foundational compromises on slavery. By 1860, Charleston’s population had reached a fever pitch of militarism, with gun clubs and militias forming up in anticipation of Northern aggression against thier peculiar institution.
At that time, the United States was virtually alone in the world by even allowing slavery. Led by Southern senators, Congress had failed to ratify an international treaty to end the practice. The Czar of Russia abolished serfdom in the same year the American Civil War began.
Slave labor had grown and harvested the rice that built Charleston, the cotton that built Vicksburg, and the tobacco that had built Virginia. A highly-developed class system had evolved within an economy based on chattel slavery instead of wages. More than anywhere else in the South, Charlestonians had convinced themselves that this way of living was not simply rightful and honorable, but deserved to be perpetual. They didn’t want to change.
South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession complained of mistreatment by free states. In fact, Southern politicians had been the most aggressive on the issue. They pushed hard for new slave states to be admitted to the union. Some even pressed for Cuba to be admitted to the union as a new slave state. Southern congressmen passed the Fugitive Slave Act, overriding the laws of free states and nullifying later claims that the Civil War was about state’s rights.
Southerners made no pretense of any other purpose to this policy. Slavery was simply their peculiar institution, and they would not live without it. In 1860, the South voted against Abraham Lincoln as a block, and not because he promised emancipation but because he even entertained the idea. But with a slave being only three-fifths of a person, Southern political and electoral power had diminished too much to stop Lincoln’s election.
Only a tiny minority of South Carolina’s population held the voting franchise, and hypersensitive hokum was almost universal among the demographic. Firepower was the only acceptable kind of empowerment to the ruling class of Charleston in 1861. While Major Anderson evacuated his command to Fort Sumter, however, this governing minority was busy designing different uniforms in imitation of various European styles for the militia companies forming up all around town.
Charlestonians quickly realized how impractical this was; almost everyone wound up wearing butternut gray. But the pause gave Anderson time to fill the gaps in his defenses. Anderson put his time to good use and did a fair job, but lacked the resources to replace Sumter’s flammable interior wooden structures.
Meanwhile, the American government tried to finesse the situation in Charleston from far away in Washington. Anderson was in desperate need of resupply, and the continued presence of the Stars and Stripes over Charleston’s harbor was vital to the federal claim on a major Atlantic port as a part of the United States. But any attempt to reach Fort Sumter could set off the battle Washington did not want, which meant the mission requirements would be more political than practical. Without the benefit of radio and other modern navigation aids, boats missed their rendezvous and the complex relief mission was scrubbed.
Low on supplies, Anderson and his men resorted to the salt pork and biscuit that would become characteristic of camp life during the war. With the clock already running out on the garrison’s ability to hold Fort Sumter, Charleston suddenly ran out of patience and started shooting anyway.
During the bombardment, any observer would have noted the burning buildings within its walls were a major weakness. When the United States Navy later came around to deal with Sumter’s confederate defenders, however, its new masters had simply rebuilt the same flammable wooden buildings, which burned again. War always brings fire. America’s descent into armed conflict was naive, even childlike, and this lesson about fire was a harsh one for Charleston.
In December of the same year that Charleston achieved its victory over Major Anderson’s tiny command, the city center was burned to the ground. Most of the white, male residents who would ordinarily fight such a blaze were miles away, guarding the city from besieging union forces. The building that had hosted the signing of their Ordinance of Secession was now ashes, along with many cherished landmarks and monuments.
Charleston’s amateur fire brigades had a steam-powered pump, but did not deploy it soon enough to stop the conflagration. It was a machine, whereas they were men who reckoned their courage to be more powerful than fire. There are many moments in the Civil War that may stand for the rest, but this one is informative: the South had no idea what kind of war it had started, or how to win it.
The city had woken a dragon. The United States Navy blockaded Charleston, hampering any rebuilding effort and adding to the damage through years of bombardment. Enduring eight minor and three major bombardments as well as a magazine explosion, Sumter proved durable however many times it burned. Yet it was never enough to prevent the union fleet from closing the harbor. That would have required a navy.
Having started the war without one, Charleston soon set out to build it, producing the famous H.L. Hunley. The city cheered its apparent success, mourned the loss of its crew, and then despaired as the blockaders refused to be impressed by their superweapon and maintained their choke-hold on the city. When Charleston finally fell, six more semi-submersible boats were discovered in various stages of construction. To volunteer for service aboard these dangerous new designs was necessarily to accept a suicide mission. These weapons were innovations born of desperation, not hope.
When Sherman’s forces turned North from Savannah, General Beauregard was finally forced to withdraw from Charleston. Union troops entered close behind them, finding a city in collapse. A child playing with damaged, unguarded gunpowder set off an explosion at the Northwestern Railway depot. Residents looted abandoned stores. Fires raged unchecked. Meanwhile, a union officer stepped onto the island and raised the United States flag over an empty, abandoned Fort Sumter. There were even more stars on it than before.
Battered beyond recognition, the tiny fortress that had so offended Charleston was now obsolete. Modern, rifled artillery was already too much for it, especially when mounted aboard ironclad ships. Fort Sumter no longer had any legitimate military use, and as the epicenter of the Civil War it became a shrine to misbegotten ideas about the conflict.
For in the decades to come, Southern societies would reimagine the war as an act of Northern aggression, and their own hostile escalations as a courageous defense of freedom. The peculiar institution that Southern states had cited upon their secession became an irrelevant footnote. Southern social organizations, most famously the Daughters of the Confederacy, set out to memorialize the honorable sacrifices of wartime as a redemption of the war itself. Southern apologists scratched out homilies on the virtues of slave life.
As a result of their efforts, Southern apologetics has never lacked expression in the culture. In part, I think this is because a ‘rebel image’ appeals to our American love of the underdog. But Charlestonians did not imagine themselves as the underdogs. Rather, they saw themselves as the seat of culture and civilization, and their fight as the Last Stand of all that was good. Slavery, they deemed, was a good thing — worth killing and dying for, anyway. They were masters, not underdogs, and aimed to stay on top.
Taking Fort Sumter from an underfed, undermanned garrison had seemed enough of a victory in April of 1861. By Christmas, that impression of glorious independence had been burned away. In February of 1865, it must have been painfully obvious to everyone in Charleston that the whole enterprise had always been insane. A lone American flag fluttering on a tiny sandbar island in their harbor had been too shameful to tolerate; now their city was in ruins, humiliated by utter defeat and outnumbered by a great nation.
South Carolinians fired on Fort Sumter to preserve slavery. At great cost, they had occupied Fort Sumter to preserve slavery. It was only after being forced to leave the fort that anyone in Charleston cited any other motive besides the preservation of slavery for their delusional and aggressive behavior. Southern apologetics provides fully-rationalized excuses, but those fortress walls know better. They have seen it all.