-- Reflections --

Fort Sumter's Defense

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If, for argument's sake, the Fox expedition succeeded in landing provisions and troops, would it have made any difference to the course of events? Would a strengthened Sumter have been able to hol d out against Confederate resistance?

Ironically, Fox concluded that if he had succeeded in relieving Sumter, the outcome of events would not have changed. The fort would still have fallen to the enemy because Sumter had proved unexpectedly vulnerable to attack. "Had the place been provisioned and reinforced, the final result would have been delayed but a few days," he asserted. Fox, therefore, considered relief practicable but, as it turned out, undesirable. The additional troops would only have shared the fate of Anderson's garrison, and casualties might have been higher.

Anderson himself doubted that Fox's expedition could relieve the fort without a loss of life which would "more than pay for the good to be accomplished." Sumter's commander sought to avoid a collision between Confederate and federal troops, and he the refore hoped the fort would be abandoned. But he also questioned whether he could maintain possession of the fort with anything less than a large-scale military effort. And in order to make the fort worth holding, the government would also have to capture the "strong works" which surrounded it .

However, some officers at Sumter itself gave a different assessment of the fort's condition. Both the chief engineer and surgeon at Sumter thought the structure came through the shelling in satisfactory shape. The chief engineer reported that the damage from two days of firing was largely confined to such structural elements as the chimneys, which should have been removed before the battle. He concluded that after the shelling, the fort was "actually . . .in a more defensible condition than when the action commenced"! If essential supplies such as cartridge bags and troop reinforcements had been effected, the battle for the fort would have been "greatly protracted." Even a direct assault by the enemy's vastly superior forces "would have been very doubtful in its results."

Other contemporaries also suggested that Sumter could have been retained by the Union. General Beauregard, after carefully assessing the situation in Charleston Harbor, declared that if Sumter were "properly garrisoned and armed, it would be a perfect Gibraltar to anything but constant shelling, night and day, from the four points of the compass." Beauregard, therefore, considered it essential to prevent the fort from being reinforced. Montgomery Blair agreed with Beauregard's assessment of Sumter's position. Recalling the Sumter events years later, Blair blamed Seward for misleading Anderson into thinking the fort would be surrendered and, therefore, failing to make the necessary preparations to de fend it. Had Anderson taken proper measures, "the fort was impregnable," as evidenced by the fact that Union forces never managed a successful direct assault against Sumter during the Civil War. These accounts indicate that even though Sumter was surrounded by enemy positions, the United States could have provided sufficient relief to maintain possession, at least in the short run.


Bibliography: OR, pp. 11, 25; Fox, Confidential Correspondence, pp. 34, 40-41; Crawford, Genesis of the Civil War, p. 445; OR, pp. 26, 294; Welles, Lincoln and Seward, pp. 66-67.


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