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  • Writer's pictureGordon Thorsby

Questions and Controversies Surrounding Ft. Sumter

By Gordon Thorsby

Ft. Sumter (LOC)

For students and historians of the Civil War, there are many questions and controversies about everything. That is what we like to debate. Otherwise, there would not be much left to discuss. The first shots at Ft. Sumter had its share of questions so let's get to them. Some are well known and some are not so well known.

Were there deaths and casualties in the Ft. Sumter bombardment? If defined narrowly, this is technically no, but we do not define battles in this way. We look at before and then after. The dates of the bombardment of Ft. Sumter is April 12-April 14. There are two independent published sources, one Union and one Confederate that confirm that there were casualties. The first was Benjamin Cason Rawlings in his unpublished diary of 1908, who was there, “…one of the guns burst killing three or four men…” Rawlings was in a South Carolina outfit under Maxcy Gregg at Ft. Cummings during the bombardment. He was not in the fort as he was on the parapets of his post across the water.

Abner Doubleday was vice commander of the garrison. The brief ceremony of taking down of the American flag on the 14th, was accompanied by a gun being fired off in salute (described by Doubleday). "When the gun was fired, the gun burst blowing off the right arm of the gunner, Daniel Hough and instantly killing him." Sparks hit a bag of powder sending several others into the air and mortally wounding several of them. These men were “George Fielding, John Irwin, George Pinchard, Edwin Galway, and possibly James Hays.” In the time when the battle occurred 12-14th, there were casualties based on the two reports confirming casualties. Accidents and battle casualties are not separate if within the framing of the event. Agree or disagree? If agreed, there were casualties. If disagreed regarding Ft. Sumter, are we to classify the types of wounds for all battles?

There were no Southern casualties… or were there? Doubleday is the only source for this discussion but he supports the claim. He cites a report that Charleston officials stated there were no casualties. He inferred that Charleston officials were masking their casualties so as not to rile the volunteers. Doubleday was writing a book. Was he putting enticing entries into the book to increase sales? Let's recognize that Doubleday was a bit of a self-promoter. From Doubleday,:

“Peter Hart, [reported] some years after the war, that a schooner, to his certain knowledge, came from Charleston during the battle, and took off a number of killed from Ft. Moultrie, who were taken to Potter’s Field, on Cooper River, and buried there on Saturday, at 41/2 AM. I have seen the same story published as coming from Charleston.”

"... a man, Galloway, who had visited another Southerner, Fielding, who had been wounded by shellfire” while serving the guns at Ft. Moultrie and that he “had seen with his own eyes a number of killed and wounded there.”

Then, Doubleday placed a caveat in the page, not easily interpreted, that high Charleston officials reported no casualties and that there might not have been casualties. The entry is somewhat baffling because it counters his entire argument. However, the entire no-casualty thing is perplexing. Could Northern officials have created a no-casualty narrative for the purposes so as to focus on their preferences of the Ellmer Ellsworth death at Alexandria and First Manassas as the firsts of the Civil War?

By January, 1861, was the Civil War preventable? Here were some of the actions that indicate that it was not and possibly for some time. “On the 11 December, 1860, we were able to get our provisions from town without exciting observation. On the same day, the enemy began to build batteries at Mt. Pleasant and at Sullivan’s Island, guns having already been sent there. The proposed attack was no longer a secret.”( Doubleday.)

South Carolina commissioners called on President Buchanan (12/27/60) to humble himself for the past, give guarantees for the future by immediately ordering Ft. Sumter vacated.” President ordered up a man-of-war to go to Charleston but cooler heads prevailed in the likes of Gen. Winfield Scott. Or should a man-of-war gone?

Urgent inquiries from Richmond arrived in late February as to strength of our defenses and the number of available troops in the harbor.” It seems the Davis Administration was deciding when and how to start things.

When the Star of the West came opposite the new battery on shore in January, a shot fired to bring her to. “The battery was still firing but the transport had passed by. At the same time, it was approaching within gunshot of Ft Moultrie. The latter immediately opened fire from one or two guns. the ship, struck twice, turned about, and left the harbor.” Should these be considered the first actual shots of the Civil War?

Where did the Confederates get all of the guns and rifles. Beauregard’s weapons to fire against Ft. Sumter included Blakely guns, 42 pounders, 10” Columbiads, and 13” mortars. Most had been possessed by the garrison and who abandoned them. However, the infantry in Charleston had rifles, lots of them. The Secretary of War, John Floyd in the Buchanan Administration allocated from the U.S. arsenal 2,000 Enfield muskets and shipped them to SC to Carolinian officials. This was in 1860. Why would the Secretary of War from the Buchanan Administration send them and did Buchanan know about it?

Did the Union Garrison's commander, Maj. Robert Anderson do the best to defend the fort under the circumstances? Did Anderson have divided loyalties? The consensus is

that he was a military man doing a military duty as a soldier and taking orders. Did he handle Ft. Sumter faithfully? Did he have pro-Southern sympathies and did it impact his handling of the Sumter affair? After the surrender at Ft. Sumter, Anderson (right) was celebrated as heroic. The press and parades in New York heralded his efforts. Anderson was from Louisville, KY and President Lincoln appointed him military Governor for Kentucky in May 1861. He was suddenly replaced on October 7, 1861 when William T. Sherman was appointed to the position. Was Anderson an interim governor? No. Was there question as to his performance? There doesn’t seem to be. unless it was due to his glacial speed at distributing arms to new and loyal Kentucky troops. There was nothing stated specifically. Anderson officially retired in 1863. There were sources that conveyed that Lincoln "preferred" his quick removal from the post in the time frame. Explanation?

Who was Edmund Ruffin and what happened to him? Edmund Ruffin is the very long-haired man seated with a rifle in all Sumter stories and is the man who fired the first shot. That

depends if you consider the first shot to be on the structure of the fort or the firing on the Star of the West. Long gray-haired Ruffin (right) was actually Virginian and came to help South Carolina around January, 21, 1861 so he was somewhat new to the situation. It may be a conspiratorial thought but was Ruffin picked out for his ornery looks and his age? A media darling for 1861? An interesting thing is Virginia was the last State to secede.

After Ft. Sumter, Ruffin faded into history. In his diary, here is a portion of the last entry:

“I here repeat, & would willingly proclaim, my unmitigated hatred to Yankee rule—to all political, social and business connections with Yankees, & to the perfidious, malignant, & vile Yankee race.”

On June 25, 1865, as the war had just come to an end, He wrapped himself in the Confederate flag, put the muzzle of his rifle into his mouth and forced the trigger.


Reminiscences of Forts Sumter and Moultrie, by Abner Doubleday, 1876. Ppgs. 167-172.

Benjamin Cason Rawlings, First Virginia Volunteer for the South, by Tribble, Byrd Barnette, Butternut and Blue, 1996, p. 17-18, Reminiscences of 1904.

Blue and Gray Navies, by Tucker, Spencer C., Naval Institute Press, 2006.

Letter from Joshua Speed Fry in reference to Kentucky Military Governor John Anderson.

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