The Debunker: When Were the First Shots of the Civil War Fired?

by Ken Jennings

The month of April is inseparably connected with the American Civil War. The traditional bookends for the war—the firing on Fort Sumter in 1861, and Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in 1865—both took place in early April. But even though the Civil War hasn’t receded all that far into the past—the Associated Press reported last month that two children-of-Civil-War-vets are still alive and well and receiving government veterans’ benefits!—we may not remember very much about it. This month, Ken “Burns” Jennings will reveal that a lot of what you think you know about the Civil War is a bunch of Bull Run.

Civil War Myth #1: The First Shots of the War Were Fired at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861.

Since the north never recognized the Confederacy as a foreign government, but only as a “belligerent foreign power,” there was no formal declaration of war in 1861. As a result, historians tend to date the beginning of hostilities to April 12, 1861, when Brigadier General P. G. T. Beauregard ordered his batteries in Charleston harbor to fire on the besieged Union garrison of Fort Sumter. The fort surrendered before any casualties resulted, but the exchange led to a massive military build-up in the north and more secessions from the south. The war had clearly begun.

Sometimes forgotten in this chronology is an interesting fact: the bombardment of April 12 was, in fact, not the first exchange of fire between North and South in the South Carolina secessionist crisis. Three months before, President James Buchanan, in the closing days of his administration, had sent a merchant ship called the Star of the West (pictured here, in an old magazine illustration) to resupply Fort Sumter. Cadets from The Citadel (then called the South Carolina Military Academy) fired across the bow of the ship from nearby Morris Island as she entered the harbor. The ship was hit three times, and its captain abandoned the mission.

Those cadets, as the Civil War Trust puts it, “arguably fired the first shots of the Civil War.” Perhaps because they were firing on an unarmed merchant ship rather than Northern troops, the cadets’ bombardment is largely forgotten today—except at the Citadel, where the best drilled cadet each year still receives a “Star of the West” medal, made from the ship’s salvaged hull. Sadly, I went to college in the stodgy old North, where no one gets “Remember That Time We Seditiously Fired on Unarmed American Vessels, LOL!” medals.

Quick Quiz: What Union captain, who fired the first shot in defense of Fort Sumter, is sometimes mistakenly credited with inventing the game of baseball?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.