Sunday, 2 March 2014

Work | An eyewitness account of the first battle of the American Civil War

“Bombardment of Fort Sumter by the batteries of the Confederate states,” 1861. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number LC-USZ62-90258. <>

A few weeks ago I wrote about how I look for words with phonetic representation in historical letters from Irish emigrants. Usually, I don't pay much attention to what the letters are actually about, because that would slow me down too much. But sometimes I get carried away by the simple fact that I am reading a personal account of someone who lived many, many years ago. An account, even, that was never meant for anyone else than the addressee on the envelope.

Admittedly, most letters are quite mundane. I don't know how many letters I've read informing family back home about the weather, crops, the farm, prices of wheat, skins, clothes etc. But sometimes I stumble on a gem and make a note of it. Some are funny, like the policeman who, in every letter to his niece, always mentions the escapades of his pet pig. Others are haunting, with family members expressing their deep-felt grief over the loss of a husband, sister, or child. And some are simply interesting for the historical insights they provide. I will share a good many in this blog.

Fort Sumter

One of the first times I became engrossed in one of the letters, and also the first time I became acutely aware that these letters were historical documents, was when, last year, I read the following: 

In my last letter I brought the history of our present difficulties down to our safe arrival in Fort Sumter. Well as time wore on the clouds of disunion thickened around us and we were being gradually hemmed in by formidable batteries erected under our very noses. Our Government suffered matters to go so far that the re-enforcement or relief of Sumter was declared an impossibility to any force under twenty thousand men. Thus we were left at the mercy of the rebels, dependent on them for supplies and completely surrounded by their hostile batteries. (John Thompson, 28.04.1861)

Boys will be boys, so the mere fact that this was a soldier's letter to his father about a battle was already interesting me, but something about the name 'Fort Sumter' caught my attention. I knew I had heard of it before, so I did what any academic worth his salt does: looked it up on Wikipedia.

Fort Sumter is a fort in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina and the place where the first shots of the American Civil War (18611865) were fired. I remembered the name from a course in American history. In short, the United States' fort was bombarded by the Confederate States during the Battle of Fort Sumter from 12
14 April 1861, at the end of which it capitulated.


Private John Thompson

The letter quoted above was written by private John Thompson two weeks after the battle. Thomson was born in Anticlave, County Londonderry, Ireland and eventually emigrated to America. He enlisted in the US Army in 1856 and was with Battery E, 1st US Artillery in Fort Moultrie, also in Charleston Harbor. The forts in Charleston Harbor were manned due to the rising tensions between the Confederate Stated and the United States of America. Fort Sumter, however, appeared to be a better location as it was better situated and newer. It was also only a mile away, and so, as Thomson explains in an earlier letter written 14 February:

On the night of the 26th Dec. [December?] shortly after sun down, we were formed in heavy marching order, and quietly marched out of Moultrie leaving only a few men behind on Guard, and embarking on board a number of small boats that were in readiness were safely landed in Sumter. (14.02.1861)

He goes on to give a short description of the fort:

Fort Sumter which we now occupy is a five sided brick work walls from 12 to 5 1/2 feet thick mounting three tier of the heaviest calibre, and completely surrounded by water. It is situated on the very edge of the ship channel, so that every vessel passing in or out of the harbor passes directly under our guns. In fact, it is the key of the harbor and completely commands all the other fortifications. Sumter was far from being in a defensible condition, very few guns were mounted and everything was in admirable confusion. However we went to work assisted by 50 or 60 laborers [labourers?], and now we can say We are ready. (14.02.1861)

Surrounded by Confederate troops, Fort Sumter slowly started to run out of provisions ('On the eleventh one biscuit was our allowance, and matters seemed rapidly coming to a crisis.' (28.04.1861)). Sending supplies actually became the first crisis newly appointed President Abraham Lincoln had to deal with. It was unsuccessful.

Thompson was still in high hopes in February when he wrote: 'You need not be in any unnecessary anxiety on my account, for to tell the truth in spite of all their bluster I am almost sure they never will fire a shot at us, indeed I think they are only too glad to be let alone' (14.02.1861). But early in the morning on 12 April the first of 4,000 cannon and mortars started a two-day bombardment of the fort.


The Battle of Fort Sumter An eyewitness account

I will leave you with the rest of the letter which details the bombardment as witnessed by the soldiers stationed alongside John Thomson and the closure of the Battle of Fort Sumter:

Long before daylight, at 4 1/2 a.m. the first shell came hissing through the air and burst right over our  heads. The thrill that ran through our veins at this time was indescribable, none were afraid, the stern defiant look on each man's countenance plainly told that fear was no part of his constitution, but something like an expression of awe crept over the features of everyone, as battery after battery opened fire and the hissing shot came plowing [ploughing?] along leaving wreck and ruin in their path. The rebels for some time had all the play to themselves as our batteries were not opened until six and a half in the morning. 
It would be useless for me to attempt to describe the scene for the next four  hours. If viewed from a distance it must have been grand. The men were eager for the work, and soon had become perfectly familiarized to the bursting of bombshell, not that they had forgotten the destructiveness of these customers, the numbleness [nimbleness?] with which they dodged into the safest corner on the approach of one of these messengers put that question beyond doubt. The battle raged on both sides for about two hours, when the fire from Fort Moultrie began to slacken, this, added to the fact that we had nobody hurt on our sides raised a cheer from our begrimed cannoneers, and the bombardment continued. 
We had been playing on the magazine of Moultrie with considerable effect, for the Carolinians admitted that they left the Fort entirely for some time thinking we were using red hot shot. The batteries doing us most damage were on Morris Island, distant about 1400 yards mounting heavy 8 inch Columbiad guns, and what was worse for us a 24 pounder Rifled Cannon throwing shaft and shell similar to those used with the Armstrong gun. This shot with astonishing  precision. Almost every second shot would come in through the embrasure, and those who failed to come in had struck all round the embrasure knocking it completely out of shape and endangering the men's lives inside from the shower of broken brick knocked loose at every shot. Here we had three men lightly wounded in the face not so severely as to require the services of a surgeon. 
Towards mid-day we could destinctly [distinctly?] see a fleet of war vessels off the bay, and we were certain they were an expedition fitted out to relieve us, and the hopes of speedily getting assistance compensated for the lack of anything in the shape of dinner. The action continued without any unusual occurrence until dark when the word was given cease firing for the night. After loading our guns with grape and cannister [canister?]  and posting a sufficient guard we went to sleep by our guns in the safest places we could get. So ended the first days
bombardment, with none injured on our side, it was something miraculous, and as our Commander said, certainly, "Providence was on our side."
The damage done to our Fort however was considerable. Our quarters especially the officers were knocked into a cocked hat and had been three times on fire from the bursting of shell. The enemy kept up a slow but steady fire on us during the entire night, to prevent our getting any rest, but they failed in their object, for I
for one slept all night as sound as ever I did in my life. We confidently expected the fleet to make some attempt to land supplies and re-enforcements [reinforcements?] during the night, it being as dark as pitch and raining, but we were disappointed. Morning dawned and with appetites unappeased and haggard look, although determined and confident all took their positions for the days work.
The second day opened on us with a fair prospect for us, we could distinctly see the destruction our first days fire had worked, and our guns were all just as we wanted them, so we anticipated a good days work. But alas, shortly after we had got everything in full blast, the quarters were again observed to be on fire. The enemy seeing this cheered and doubled their fire with red hot shot, and it very soon became apparent that the quarters must be allowed to burn. Our magazine was becoming enveloped in flames, and our own shell were constantly bursting around us and the increased fire of the enemy made our position at this moment not to be envied. 40 barrels of powder taken from the magazine for convenience had to be thrown into the sea to prevent an explosion, and the fire from our guns for the time being ceased, we only returning a shot every two or three minutes to let then know we were not giving up yet. 
The heat and smoke inside was awful. The only way to breathe was to lay flat on
the ground and keep your face covered with a handkerchief. About this time we had our first man seriously but not fatally wounded. A large piece of shell tearing some frightened flesh wounds in his legs. He is now doing well.
As the smoke began to clear away a little and our batteries about to be opened more generally some excitement caused our cannoneers to congregate on the left where I was stationed. All were armed with their muskets. It turned out to be Col. Wigfall with a white flag. Myself and another countryman were at the embrasure when the individual above mentioned made his appearance, and we stubbornly refused him admittance for a while, but he begged so hard, exhibited the flag he carried and even surrendered his sword, that at last we helped him in. He begged us to stop firing. An officer answered "We obey no orders here but those of Major Anderson". He then desired to be shown to the Major who at this moment made his appearance. 
He begged the Major "For God's sake to stop firing and they would grant any terms". This the Major after a little deliberation deemed satisfactory and the word was passed "cease firing". Previous to this however Wigfall had been waving his handkerchief from an embrasure, but the smoke was so thick that it could not be seen, and the batteries who were not aware of Wigfalls presence still kept firing. At the rebel gentleman's request the white flag was shown from our ramparts, and the firing ceased. 
As soon as all was quiet the flag of truce was hauled down, and our Commander submitted or rather dictated his terms; which were that we should leave with the honors of War, salute our flag, and be furnished with transportation anywhere North we desired. Thus ended the fight and here I am without a scratch, no one being wounded in the fight but the men above aluded [alluded?] to. I forgot to mention that during the fire on the second day our flag was shot down, but it only remained down a few moments when it again floated from our ramparts nailed with tenpenny nails to a new stick. 
                                Your affectionate son

                                John Thompson (28.04.1861)


Two letters from John Thompson, USA to Robert Thompson, Co. Londonderry. Dated 14.02.1861 and 28.04.1861.

Chepesiuk, Ron and John Thompson. 'Eye Witness to Fort Sumter: The Letters of Private John Thompson.' The South Carolina Historical Magazine Vol. 85, No. 4 (Oct., 1984), pp. 271-279. <>.

Edith M. Johnston. 'Inside Sumter: Letters from a Federal Artillerist.' Civil War History 8.4 (1962): 417-424. Project MUSE. Web. 2 Mar. 2014. <>.


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