In 1619, the English brought the first documented African slaves to Jamestown. At the time, England was at war with Portugal and the Africans, originally from Ndonga, a kingdom located in present day Angola, were captured from the Portuguese and transported to the American colony. They were used to help establish and expand the agriculture of Jamestown, especially the growing of tobacco.
From that time on, slaves played a key role in the colonization and growth of America. (Just a side note, by the time Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Africans weren’t the only slaves in America. Many Irish immigrants also ended up as slaves, but you rarely hear about them.)
Over the next century and half, America grew in size and the population rapidly increased. The extensive use of slaves helped that growth, mainly in the south. By the time America won its independence from Great Britain in 1783, there was already a growing division between the northern and southern states over the issue of slavery.
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Of the original 13 states, 7 were free and 6 were slave. Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and Delaware relied heavily on slavery to sustain their economy. New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New Hampshire for the most part banned slavery.
As each new state was admitted to the nation, there was controversy about over whether or not it would be a free or slave state. Northern states didn’t want to allow slave states to become a majority and southern states didn’t want free states to continue their majority.
In 1820, Congress passed the Missouri Compromise in an attempt to resolve the issue, but that was later deemed to be unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court.
In 1854, the issue of slavery had divided the Whig Party to the extent that abolitionists in broke away to form a new political party, the Republican Party.
In 1857, the Supreme Court ruled on the case of a slave named Dred Scott who filed a lawsuit claiming that since he had lived a number of years in Illinois, a free state that he should be a free man and not a slave. At the time, the Supreme Court was loaded with pro-slavery southerners. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the court’s decision which stated that blacks cannot be citizens of the United States and therefore, Scott had no legal basis on which to file a lawsuit and his case was thrown out.
The rift between free and slave states continued to increase and took on violent overtones. The 1860 nomination of Abraham Lincoln as the Republican nominee for the presidency brought that tension to a head. Southern states vowed to secede from the Union if Lincoln was elected.
In November 1860, Americans were faced with a choice of 4 candidates. Abraham Lincoln – Republican; John C. Breckinridge – Southern Democratic; John Bell, Constitutional Union and Stephen A. Douglas – Democratic. When the votes were counted, Douglas ended up with 12 electoral votes, Bell won 39 electoral votes, Breckinridge won 72 electoral votes and Lincoln won and overwhelming 180 electoral votes and the White House.
Even though Lincoln wasn’t sworn into office until March 4, 1861, South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860. Six days later, US Army Major Robert Anderson decided to move his 85 troops from Fort Moultrie, located near Charleston Harbor to the well-fortified Fort Sumter which was located in the middle of the South Carolina Charleston Harbor.
Anderson’s move brought strong protests from southern leaders. They were concerned about what they called a foreign force occupying a fort in South Carolina’s territory. They were demanding that Anderson and his forces leave immediately or face military action to remove them.
In early March, just after Lincoln was sworn into office, Anderson sent word to his superiors that he only had about 6 weeks of food and supplies left. The South Carolina military had blockaded the fort so that no supplies were getting into Anderson and his troops.
On April 11, 1861, Anderson received a demand from Confederate Brigadier General Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard to surrender the fort. Anderson refused the demand to surrender and vowed to defend his position.
On this day, April 12, 1861, Beauregard sent a second demand for surrender to Anderson at 3:25am. The demand read:
“’FORT SUMTER, S.C., April 12, 1861, 3:20 A.M. – SIR: By authority of Brigadier-General Beauregard, commanding the Provisional Forces of the Confederate States, we have the honor to notify you that he will open the fire of his batteries on Fort Sumter in one hour from this time. We have the honor to be very respectfully, Your obedient servants, JAMES CHESNUT JR., Aide-de-camp. STEPHEN D. LEE, Captain C. S. Army, Aide-de-camp.”
In response to Anderson’s continued refusal to surrender, Beauregard’s Confederate forces opened fire on the Union forces at Fort Sumter at 4:30am. The Union troops didn’t return fire until 7:00am when Union Captain Abner Doubleday, Anderson’s second in command, fired the first round in defense of the fort. (Just a side note that Capt. Doubleday is the same man that was credited for inventing the game of baseball, but eventually it was proven not to be true.)
The Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter continued for 34 hours, hitting the fort with over 4,000 canon shells. Anderson’s forces fired about 1,000 canon rounds at the Confederates. With the fort on fire and the danger of the powder magazine exploding, along with running out of food, Major Anderson surrendered the fort to the Confederate forces on April 13, 1861.
The fatality of the engagement was a mule, however, the first shots of the Civil War had been fired and the nation was further split apart for four long years.
Sources for the above includes: Fort Sumter: The Civil War Begins; The Civil War begins; Fort Sumter fired upon; Fort Sumter; A Brief Overview of the American Civil War; The First Shot of the Civil War; Fort Sumter: How Civil War Began With a Bloodless Battle; [VIDEO] – Today, March 3, 1820: Missouri Compromise Passed by Congress; Today, March 20, 1854: The Republican Party was Established; Today, March 6, 1857: SCOTUS Rules Blacks Cannot be US Citizens.