United States and American History: 1861

About the history of the United States in 1861, an examination of Fort Sumpter and the start of the Civil War, the first income tax law is passed.


--The Chicago Times stated its credo: "It is a newspaper's duty to print the news, and raise hell."

Jan. 9 The Star of the West, a merchant steamer carrying Union recruits to reinforce Major Anderson at Fort Sumter, was fired on. Anderson, cut off by land by South Carolina's secession 2 weeks earlier, had moved his 75 men out to the red brick fortress in Charleston harbor. Rebel Charles Haynesworth, a Citadel cadet, fired a handgun at the ship, shooting the 1st shot of the Civil War. In a later volley, a cannonball was put across the Star's bow, alerting the Southern militiamen at Sullivan Island's Fort Moultrie. They hit the unarmed vessel twice before it turned about and fled.

Apr. 12 At 4:30 A.M., following a one-hour ultimatum, Confederate batteries fired on Union forces in Fort Sumter. Edmund Ruffin, a fiery Virginia secessionist, is often credited with firing the 1st shot. Despite this legend, the signal shot probably came from Capt. George James's post at Fort Johnson. Ruffin fired from the battery on Cummings Point, and the sequence of firing orders called for this battery to fire after James's.

Anderson's 84 men in Fort Sumter rotated in firing the fort's 48 guns, assisted by 43 workmen. Their heaviest-caliber weapon--the barbette--had to be abandoned after Confederates tore down a house on Sullivan's Island to reveal a secret battery that enfiladed the barbettes.

Sumter's garrison ignored the initial hail of cannonballs and shells until after breakfast, a repast that took several hours and produced a silence that thoroughly baffled the Rebels. Capt. Abner Doubleday then fired the Union's 1st defensive shot, aiming at Cummings Point.

Brought under attack from 4 directions--Fort Moultrie, Fort Johnson, Cummings Point, and a floating battery--Major Anderson surrendered after 34 hours of bombardment in which over 4,000 projectiles were fired. No one was killed, and only a few were injured, by falling bricks.

In the pomp-and-circumstance surrender ceremony, a 50-gun salute was delivered. On the 50th reloading, a spark accidentally touched off a premature explosion, killing Daniel Hough. His was the 1st death of the war. The hot embers fell on the cartridges stacked below, exploding these as well, injuring 5 other men.

Sumter would have fallen anyway, having nothing to eat except salt pork. But Southern politicians, fearful that the new Confederacy would splinter "unless you sprinkle blood in the face of the people," ordered that 1st shot to be fired.

July 18 Much of Washington society turned out for a trip to Bull Run, Va., to watch the Federal troops crush the Rebels. But confusion was the order of the day. In the general fight that followed, as many as 12,000 soldiers could be seen wandering about aimlessly in the smoke of battle. In the ensuing Union rout, a panicked mix of wagon and carriage, of soldier and civilian, retreated back to the capital.

The news of Union defeat came to the Rev. Henry Cox of Illinois while he was preaching. He closed the service with "Brethren, we'd better adjourn this camp-meeting and go home and drill."

Aug. 5 Congress enacted the 1st income tax law. The sum of $20 million was to be raised by a levy on real estate and on personal earnings. The latter rate: 3% on income of over $800 a year.

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