In Charleston, as the militant capital of slavery, secession and southernism, jubilant crowds thronged the streets that day.
“We, perhaps, may have just commenced the opening of events that may not end in our . . . generation,” Francis W. Pickens, South Carolina’s governor, said proudly from the balcony of a Charleston hotel.
Eight months later, much of the joyous city — including the hall where the secession ordinance passed — was destroyed by a wind-blown fire that left it looking like a bombed-out wasteland for the rest of the war.
In the North, the Sumter attack galvanized a divided, indifferent population for “war, vigorous war, war to the bitter end,” as Douglass put it.
Inside Sumter, its commander, Maj. Robert Anderson, 55, who had desperately sought to avoid conflict, was broken by his ordeal.
“God grant that neither I nor any other officer . . . may again be placed in a position of such mortification and humiliation,” he had written a week earlier.
It is likely that no American officer has ever been in such a political, diplomatic and military pressure cooker for so long, with so much in the balance, and so little guidance from his government.
Anderson, a native of Kentucky who was wounded during the Mexican War and detested the brutality of combat, had been ordered to take command of Union forces at Charleston five months earlier, on Nov. 15, 1860.
This was nine days after the election of Abraham Lincoln, who opposed slavery and was determined to block its extension. South Carolina, where more than half the population was enslaved, had vowed that Lincoln’s election would mean its secession from the Union.
Anderson was first sent not to Fort Sumter, which sat unfinished and unoccupied, but to a sleepy, shore-side installation called Fort Moultrie outside the city.
Moultrie had a complement of about 80 men. And when Anderson arrived Nov. 21, he realized it had gone to seed.
Fort Sumter, on the other hand, was “the key,” he wrote. Although incomplete, it had 12-foot-thick brick walls that were 50 feet high, and it sat like a blunt arrowhead pointed straight at the shipping channel into the city.
As the crisis deepened, Anderson begged Washington for reinforcements. “The clouds are threatening,” he wrote, “and the storm may break upon us at any moment.”
On Dec. 20, 1860, South Carolina delegates, meeting in Charleston, voted to secede. And the major now found himself manning an isolated outpost in a hostile country.
“If attacked in force, headed by any one not a simpleton,” he wrote a friend, there was little chance he could hold out.