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Confederate States
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South Carolina had long before the American Civil War been a region that heavily supported individual states’ rights and the institution of slavery. Political leaders such as John C. Calhoun and Preston Brooks had inflamed regional (and national) passions, and for years before the eventual start of the Civil War in 1861, voices cried for secession. South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union, saw the first shots of the Civil War when Citadel cadets fired on a civilian merchant ship Star of the West bringing supplies to the beleaguered Federal garrison at Fort Sumter January 9, 1861. The April 1861 Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter ignited what became a four-year struggle that divided the nation.

South Carolina was a source of troops for the Confederate army, and as the war progressed, also for the Union as thousands of ex-slaves flocked to join the Union forces. The state also provided uniforms, textiles, food, and war material, as well as trained soldiers and leaders from The Citadel and other military schools. Relatively free from Union occupation until the very end of the war, South Carolina hosted a number of prisoner of war camps.

Among the leading generals from the Palmetto State were Wade Hampton III, one of the Confederacy’s leading cavalrymen, and Joseph B. Kershaw, whose South Carolina infantry brigade saw some of the hardest fighting of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Prewar tensions

Very few South Carolina whites saw emancipation as an option. Whites feared that if blacks– the vast majority in most parts of the state– were freed, they would try to “Africanize” their cherished society and culture as they had seen happen after slave revolutions in some areas of the West Indies. Carolinian leaders were divided between devoted Unionists that opposed any sort of secession, and those who believed secession was a state’s right. John C. Calhoun noted that the dry and barren West could not support a plantation system and would remain slaveless. Thus, Calhoun proposed that Congress should not exclude slavery from territories but let each state choose for itself whether it would allow slaves within its borders. After Calhoun’s death in 1850, however, South Carolina was left without a leader great enough in national standing and character to prevent more militant Carolinian factions’ desire to secede immediately. Andrew Pickens Butler argued against Charleston publisher Robert Barnwell Rhett, who advocated immediate and, if necessary, independence. Butler won the battle, but Rhett outlived him.

When it was seen that President Abraham Lincoln would be elected, a number of conventions organized around the Deep South to discuss the options. States with strong pro-secession movements such as Alabama and Mississippi sent delegates to the convention where they advised the Carolinians to “take the lead and secede at once”. On December 20, 1860, South Carolinians in Charleston voted to secede from the Union. President James Buchanan declared the secession illegal but did not act to stop it for he also declared going to war to stop it was also illegal.

[edit] Fort Sumter

Fort Sumter, 1861, flying the Confederate Flag.

Six days later, on the day after Christmas, Major Robert Anderson, commander of the U.S. troops in Charleston, withdrew his men against orders into the island fortress of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. South Carolina militia swarmed over the abandoned mainland batteries and trained their guns on the island. Sumter was the key position to preventing a naval invasion of Charleston, so Carolina could not afford to allow federal forces to remain there indefinitely. More important, having a foreign country (the USA) control its largest harbor meant that the Confederacy was not really independent—which was Lincoln’s point.

Mississippi seceded several weeks after South Carolina, and the rest of the lower South followed. On February 4, a congress of Southern states met in Montgomery, Alabama, and approved a new constitution for the Confederate States of America. Lincoln argued that the United States were “one nation, indivisible” and denied the Southern states’ right to secede. Upper Southern states such as Virginia and North Carolina, which had not yet seceded, called a peace conference, to little effect.

On January 9, 1861, the U.S. ship Star of the West approached to resupply the soldiers in the fort. South Carolina entered the Confederacy on February 8, 1861 thus ending fewer than six weeks of being an independent State of South Carolina. Then, Virginian orator Roger Pryor barreled into Charleston and proclaimed that the only way to get Old Dominion to join the Confederacy was for South Carolina to instigate war with the United States. The obvious place to start was right in the midst of Charleston Harbor.

On April 10, the Mercury reprinted stories from New York papers that told of a naval expedition that had been sent southward toward Charleston. The Carolinians could no longer wait if they hoped to take the fort without fighting the North’s Navy at the same time. About 6,000 men were stationed around the rim of the harbor, ready to take on the 60 men in Fort Sumter. At 4:30 a.m. on April 12, after two days of intense negotiations, and with Union ships just outside the harbor, the firing began. Students from The Citadel were among those firing the first shots of the war, though Edmund Ruffin is usually credited with firing the first shot. Thirty-four hours later, Anderson’s men raised the white flag and were allowed to leave the fort with colors flying and drums beating, saluting the U.S. flag with a 50-gun salute before taking it down. During this salute, one of the guns exploded, killing a young soldier—the only casualty of the bombardment and the first casualty of the war.