The bloodiest war in American history began with a battle that ended bloodlessly, notes historian Geoffrey Ward.
It almost never began at all.
Fort Sumter, sitting like bait in the mouth of Charleston harbor, was one of a handful of federal properties within the newly organized Confederate States of America.
Following Abraham Lincoln’s election and South Carolina’s secession, federal troops at nearby Fort Moultrie withdrew to the island under the command of Major Robert Anderson and awaited resupply.
Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, counseled Lincoln to abandon efforts to reinforce Fort Sumter, but the new president went forward nevertheless.
Meanwhile, Georgian Robert Toombs, the first secretary of state for Southern President Jefferson Davis, advised Davis against attacking Fort Sumter.
“The firing on that fort will inaugurate a civil war greater than any the world has yet seen,” Toombs warned Davis, as recorded by historian Shelby Foote.
“... You will wantonly strike a hornets’ nest ... Legions now quiet will swarm out and sting us to death. ... It puts us in the wrong. It is fatal.”
Davis, like Lincoln, ignored his counsel.
Commanding the Southern guns pointed at Fort Sumter was Louisiana native Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, who had learned gunnery tactics at West Point from none other than the same Major Anderson he was now opposing.
It was Beauregard who got the command from Davis to snap the jaw shut on that island bait.
“Reduce it,” was the order.
When a series of last-minute negotiations failed, Beauregard offered the honor of firing that first shot to Virginian Roger Pryor. But Pryor couldn’t accept.
“I could not fire the first gun of the war,” Pryor said, according to Foote.
Southern tradition and some historians hold that the honor then fell to ardent secessionist Edmund Ruffin, who had no qualms about inaugurating what would follow. In the early morning of April 12, 1861, with Lincoln’s relief expedition nearby, Southern gunners poured thousands of rounds into Fort Sumter. Anderson returned fire, but he was overwhelmed and undersupplied, and surrender was inevitable.
It came April 13. Not a man on either side had died.
The South celebrated its, victory but Lincoln was the real winner. He had maneuvered Davis into firing the first shots of the war. When that news reached the North, there was an explosion of support for the Union.
Historian James McPherson quotes an observer who described the Northern response as “one great eagle scream” for the American flag. War rallies were held, and Lincoln capitalized on the fervor, asking for 75,000 volunteers.
The first of those legions Toombs feared were gathering.