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Martin Abbott is Associate Professor of History at Oglethorpe University and is a native of South Carolina. He holds the Ph.D. from Emory University and has published in Agricultural History, the Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, and the Georgia Historical Quarterly. The First Shot at Fort Sumter MARTIN ABBOTT excitement was mounting, like a BRUSHFiRE whipped by wind; rumors leaped outward in an ever-widening circle; small knots of people clustered to ask the latest news or to report the latest word; soldiers thronged the streets, shouting, marching, singing; hundreds jammed every point affording a view of the harbor, waiting and watching expectantly to see if the still of the evening would be shattered by the cymbal-crash of cannon. Earlier in the afternoon a delegation had gone out from the city to the fort to demand its surrender, but its commander had refused immediate compliance . Now, according to gossip, the fort was to be reduced. Rut as midnight approached and then passed without incident, most of the milling crowd deserted their posts and straggled home to bed. Yet for some, sleep would not come; the times were too tense, the crisis too real. For them the only alternative was a night-long vigil, listening and wondering. Then suddenly it happened. At exactly four-thirty in the morning a single shell rose in a long, lazy arc and burst directiy over the fort. Responding to the cue, other guns soon beganbarkingatthe enemy, and shortlythe sky was ablaze with cannon fire. In such a manner did the Civil War commence on April 12, 1861, as Confederate guns loosed a bombardment against Fort Sumter in the mouth of Charleston Harbor.1 But hardly had the smoke cleared before Carolinians were disputing over who actually had struck the first blow in behalf of Soutiiern independence . Many argued that the first shot had been fired by James Chesnut; others, by Captain George S. James; and still others, by one of the Gibbeses The scenes of excitement, gaiety, and confusion are most effectively presented in Mary B. Chesnut, A Diary from Dixie (Ben Ames Williams, ed.; Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1949), pp. 34-39. 41 42MARTIN ABBOTT of Charleston. Some, apparently, subscribed to a more romantic version which said thatthe small daughterofGovernor F. W. Pickens, whileheld in the arms of General P. G. T. Beauregard, had pulled the lanyard firing the first cannon. Then there were those who maintained vigorously that the distinction really belonged to Edmund Ruffin, who for years had engaged in a colorful and ardent campaign to urge secession upon the South. This story was lent credibility by the fact that the gray-haired Ruffin, in his determination to be among the first to act in behalf of Southern independence , had hurried from his Virginia home to Charleston at the first scent of trouble.2 Appomattox ended the conflict which had begun with the firing on Fort Sumter, but not the disagreement over who did the first firing. Twenty years after the close of the war, Alfred Roman, in a work actually written largely by General Beauregard, asserted categorically that the first shot of the struggle was fired "not by Mr. Edmund Ruffin . . . but by Captain George S. James"; yet at about the same time a relative of Ruffin's argued with equal conviction, on the basis of his kinsman's journal and contemporary newspaper reports, that Ruffin had done the first firing.3 Each view found its enthusiastic supporters. Historians of later generations have exhibited a similar inability to agree on the point. Some respected authorities, it is true, have made no effort to answer the question. Ruffin's biographer, for example, avoids the issue by observing that after the signal to fire had been given "the old Southerner struckhis firstblow at the enemy."4 R. S. Henry writes simply that the first gun against Sumter was fired from James Island; and E. Merton Coulter, that "tradition early in the making awarded him [Ruffin] the honor of firing the first gun."5 But others have been more positive. Ben Ames Williams, for example, in editing Mrs. Chesnut's diary, commented that Ruffin is "usually accorded the 'first shot' distinction"; George Fort Milton...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 41-45
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
No
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