History of the Civil War: When was the First Shot?

Fort Sumter

Fort Sumter, 1861


On April 12, 1861, the first formal hostilities of the American Civil War occurred when Confederate troops attacked the military installation at Fort Sumter in South Carolina.

The Fort, located in Charleston harbor, was a coastal fortification built after the War of 1812 as part of the U.S. coastal fortification system. After over 30 years in the building, it still was not finished when the first attack rang out in 1861.


The First Shot of the Civil War

South Carolina had already declared its secession from the Union four months earlier. Repeated requests by the state for the federal soldiers to evacuate had been ignored. One last request on April 11 was declined, and nearby Fort Johnson opened fire on Fort Sumter. For 34 continuous hours, Confederate batteries fired upon Fort Sumter starting, it is reported, at 4:30 AM.



Fort Johnson, Opposite Fort Sumter, Harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. Image: Harper’s Weekly, January 19, 1861


The next day, on April 13, Fort Sumter surrendered. No soldier in the Fort died during the battle, though one Confederate soldier later died of a wound from a misfired cannon. Hostilities escalated with President Lincoln calling for a volunteer army as four additional Southern states declared secession from the Union.


Civil War Firsts

This war developed many “firsts” that would play out in later wars. Trench warfare, developed by General Sherman in Georgia, would be seen in the fields of battle of World War I. Hand-crank-operated rapid-fire guns, like the Coffee Mill Gun and the Gatling Gun — presaging machine-gun warfare in WWI — allowed rapid shooting that could devastate an advancing line of soldiers.

The use of electrified technologies like railroad trains, telegraph, and mines — as well as highly mechanized approaches like torpedoes, ironclad ships, and aerial observation — made their debut during this War Between the States, or as it was called in the South, the “War of Northern Aggression.”


Civil War Deaths

But the most startling fact of this War, and perhaps the least appreciated, is that it was the deadliest of all the wars Americans had fought before or since. Six hundred twenty thousand soldiers, as well as unknown civilian deaths, occurred between 1861 and 1865.

Why so many?

Because casualties on both sides were counted as American deaths. Indeed, the Civil War accounted for over 95% of all American military casualties in all wars since the U.S. has been a country.

In the North, one-tenth of the adult male population under 45 died. But in the South, it was almost a third of the white males. For every man who died of battle wounds, two died of disease. There were 425 deaths per day.


Civil War Deaths

Civil War Deaths. Image: Civil War Trust


The Reconstruction era following the Civil War would last well over a decade, but with after effects until the end of the 19th century.


Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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About billpetro

Bill Petro writes articles on history, technology, pop culture, and travel. He has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.


  1. Marguerite Laginessm on November 26, 2013 at 5:04 pm

    Very interesting and I would like to see more articles like this.

  2. John Elliott on April 13, 2019 at 9:46 pm

    Good post. I believe a secondary driver for South Carolina being the first to secede was the export duties levied by the Federal government on cotton. Charleston, SC was the major port for cotton exports. The Charleston brokers thought the export duties limited their business. South Carolina had tried to secede previously but were shut down by Andrew Jackson.

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