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

Bill Petro
3 min readApr 12, 2022

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. 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 over 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.

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. Escalation of hostilities accelerated with President Lincoln calling for a volunteer army as four additional Southern states declared their secession.

Civil War Firsts

This War developed many “firsts” that would play out in later wars to follow. 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, 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. 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. The Reconstruction period would last well over a decade.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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Bill Petro

Writer, technologist, historian. Former Silicon Valley tech exec. Author of fascinating articles on history, tech, pop culture, & travel. https://billpetro.com