WWI Centennial: The Second Bolshevik Coup Attempt Succeeds

Yakov Vladimirovich Steinberg, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Yakov Vladimirovich Steinberg, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 293rd installment in the series.

November 6-8, 1917: Second Bolshevik Coup Attempt Succeeds

“The abyss has opened at last,” wrote Pitrim Sorokin, a moderate Socialist politician in Russia’s provisional government. In his diary, he recounted the incredible events of November 6-8, 1917 (October 24-26 in Russia’s old Julian calendar, which is why they’re known as the “October Revolution”) when Lenin’s radical communist Bolsheviks launched a second coup attempt—and succeeded:

Bolshevism has conquered … it was all very simple. The Provisional Government and the first All-Russian Soviet were overthrown as easily as was the Czarist regime. Through their Military Committees of Revolution the Bolsheviki got control of the regiments. Through the Petrograd Workers’ Soviet they became masters of the working classes. These soldiers and Petrograd workmen commandeered all automobiles in the street, occupied the Winter Palace, Petropavlovskaia Fortress, the railway stations, the telephones, and the posts. To destroy the old government and to establish the new required only a bare 24 hours.

As Sorokin’s stunned account suggests, Lenin’s second attempt succeeded where the first had failed, due chiefly to better planning and organization combined with a more favorable—that is, increasingly disastrous—external political and military situation.

Although the July coup attempt failed, it succeeded in raising the Bolsheviks’ profile, adding tens of thousands of new members and giving it leverage on soviets (councils) representing workers and soldiers across Russia, including the main All-Russian Congress of Soviets. Meanwhile, the Provisional Government under Alexander Kerensky remained weak and discredited by the failure of the summer offensive.

Other events also favored the Bolsheviks: in September 1917, facing General Kornilov’s “counterrevolutionary” coup attempt, Kerensky was forced to release leading Bolsheviks from prison and allow the Bolshevik supporters in the Red Guard to arm themselves in order to suppress the Kornilov Rebellion. Kornilov’s abortive putsch stirred fears of military-led reaction among soldiers who feared the return of Tsarist discipline, further increasing their support for the Bolsheviks, while Kerensky’s clumsy handling of it alienated whatever support he could still claim in conservative and military circles.

In fact, following the mass resignation of his cabinet, Kerensky ruled as the virtual dictator of the Provisional Government. But his position was weak and he failed to crack down on the Bolsheviks, who had the support of other socialists in the Petrograd Soviet. Impressed by Bolshevik commitment to action, and especially calls for peace, workers and peasants were switching their allegiance from the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionary Party to Lenin’s party by the thousands. For his part, Lenin, still working in exile, signaled his commitment to political upheaval with his latest theoretical work, State and Revolution, calling for the destruction of the bourgeois state in its entirety.


Erik Sass

Then, in October (amid falling voter participation) the Bolsheviks won a majority in the workers’ sections of the Petrograd and Moscow Soviets, reflecting factory workers’ growing disillusionment with the more moderate socialist parties. This gave them political cover to sideline the Ipsolkom, the moderate socialist leadership chosen by the All-Russian Soviet, in effect creating their own parallel Soviet organization—stacked with their own supporters, of course. The Bolsheviks began convening ad hoc local and regional conferences of Soviets, only inviting pro-Bolshevik representatives to create an appearance of democratic unanimity. The other members of the socialist leadership, Ipsolkom, protested the Bolshevik actions as illegitimate but were powerless to stop them, in part because their supporters were now armed and receiving more overt support from rank-and-file troops.

By this time military discipline had deteriorated sharply, according to Anton Denikin, a former Tsarist commander who would become one of the top “White” counter-revolutionary generals. In September 1917, Denikin described how he and his colleagues narrowly escaped a lynch mob, composed of soldiers who openly debated executing one of Denikin’s fellow officers after he injured a rank-and-file soldier:

The meeting continued. Numerous speakers called for an immediate lynching … The soldier who had been wounded by Lieutenant Kletsando was shouting hysterically and demanding his head … The crowd raged. We, the seven of us, surrounded by a group of cadets, headed by Betling, who marched by my side with drawn sword, entered the narrow passage through this living human sea, which pressed on us from all sides … passing the pools left by yesterday’s rain, the soldiers fill their hands with mud and pelt[ed] us with it. Our faces, eyes, ears, are covered with its fetid, viscid slime. Stones come flying at us. Poor, crippled General Orlov has his face severely bruised; Erdeli and I, as well, were struck—in the back and on the head.

A young Russian officer, Ivan Stenvock-Fermor, later recalled an alarming experience as an aristocratic junior officer trying to travel incognito:

I realized that travelling all by myself, in boxcars filled with all kinds of people, mostly deserters and soldiers, and travelling there in the uniform of an officer was very, very risky. So I had my shoulder epaulettes, showing my rank, detached from my coat. It was an officers’ coat lined with sheepskin that every officer was wearing, and many soldiers had stolen or requisitioned similar coats, and they were all undisciplined—just a crowd all staring at me, trying to guess who I might be. Some suggested that I might be an officer and if so, I should be immediately thrown out of the freight car while the train was moving.

Against this backdrop of growing indiscipline, the Bolsheviks had little trouble convincing disaffected soldiers in the soviets, many who had been demanding peace for months, to support its attempt to overthrow the bourgeois Provisional Government. They were aided in this by the Petrograd Soviet’s panicked decision to create a Revolutionary Committee of Defense when the Germans menaced the capital, which the Bolsheviks immediately suborned and turned to their own ends (ironically while receiving financial support from the German enemy themselves).

By the fall of 1917, Lenin felt confident enough to strike at the Provisional Government directly, using Kerensky’s hollow dictatorship as a foil to rally the support of workers and soldiers with the slogan, “all power to the Soviets!” In late October the Bolsheviks sent out invitations for the Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets, which would form the Constituent Assembly, but once again only pro-Bolshevik deputies were included. After slipping back into Petrograd in mid-October, Lenin brushed aside objections from fellow Bolsheviks Kamenev and Zinoviev and argued in favor of a coup attempt that would precede the Second Congress of Soviets, hopefully taking their opponents by surprise.

The Bolshevik leadership remained divided over the coup plan until the last minute, with Lenin and Trotsky pressing for an immediate attempt to seize power. The Bolsheviks shouldn’t expect the Second Congress of Soviets to seize power on its own behalf, he reasoned, but instead should present it with a fait accompli, leaving the Congress and the Constituent Assembly to ratify the Bolshevik seizure of power. However, the Bolsheviks were forced to delay the coup repeatedly, ultimately launching it during the Second Congress of Soviets.

In early November the Bolshevik-controlled Revolutionary Committee of Defense sent out 200 commissars, most of them former junior officers who had been imprisoned for sedition, with instructions to rally Bolshevik sympathizers in the Petrograd garrison. A relatively small proportion of the garrison would respond to the call—about 8000 men, or 4 percent of all the troops in the Petrograd area—but this was enough, as the rest of the soldiers, who universally loathed Kerensky’s Provisional Government, opted to stay neutral.

With the Bolsheviks openly preparing for a coup, on the morning of November 6, 1917 Kerensky took belated action to defend the Provisional Government—but received no support from the army’s officer corps, which faulted his treatment of the imprisoned General Kornilov, whom they considered a patriot. Thus Kerensky was forced to order young cadets, a handful of Cossacks, and the “Women’s Battalion of Death” to defend key installations, while also ordering the arrest of the Revolutionary Committee of Defense to no avail. This just gave the Bolsheviks an excuse to proceed with the coup, to defend the Soviet against this “counterrevolutionary conspiracy.”

In Petrograd the coup came off so smoothly that many inhabitants didn’t notice at first. Under the direction of Trotsky acting through the Revolutionary Committee of Defense, soldiers and sailors in Bolshevik-controlled units seized control overnight of almost all the key buildings in Petrograd, including the telephone and telegraph exchanges, military staff headquarters, bridges, railroad stations, and post offices—gathering all of Petrograd’s communications and key transportation facilities in one swoop. Only the Winter Palace held out, with some ministers remaining after Kerensky fled the city in disguise on the morning of November 7, 1917, to beg frontline commanders for help.

The defenders of the Winter Palace held out bravely, forcing back several attempts by Bolshevik forces to capture the remaining government ministers, but at 10 a.m. Lenin went ahead with the proclamation of the seizure of power on behalf of the Petrograd Soviet, along with vague promises of a “democratic peace” and “worker control of production.” Lenin presented the coup as a move on behalf of Russian soldiers and workers, aiming to secure the power of the Soviet won in March 1917—even though it was obviously a Bolshevik coup.

Finally, facing fire from both the neighboring Peter and Paul Fortress as well as the cruiser Aurora, both under Bolshevik control, the last holdouts at the Winter Palace gave up shortly after midnight on November 8. As a furious mob looted the palace, the remaining ministers of the Provisional Government were placed under arrest; Kerensky, still trying to drum up support from the Russian army, was deposed in absentia.

Moderate socialists in the Second Congress of Soviets, including Mensheviks and Right Socialist Revolutionaries, initially denounced the coup, but they were outnumbered by hand-picked Bolshevik delegates and sympathizers from the Left Social Revolutionaries, allowing Lenin to give a democratic veneer to the coup. The Congress of Soviets, in reality a Bolshevik-controlled rump assembly, duly approved his proposals to form a Council of People’s Commissars to run the country until the constituent assembly, immediately begin peace negotiations, and redistribute all commercially owned land. It also voted for a new Soviet leadership, Ipsolkom, which would control the upcoming constituent assembly.

Mayhem in Moscow

Things didn’t go nearly as smoothly in Moscow, Russia’s main industrial city and the center of Russian arms production, where the Provisional Government’s defenders put up a surprisingly stiff resistance from November 7-15 (top, a Bolshevik patrol). Again, young officer cadets played a major role in the defense of the dying liberal regime, this time with more success, while soldiers sympathetic to the Bolsheviks were apparently slower to get involved. Eduard Dune, a young Latvian Red Guard member working at a factory in a Moscow suburb, remembered receiving a breathless report from a fellow Bolshevik recently returned from the city, pleading with the soldiers’ council for help:

Sapronov outlined what he had seen on the streets of Moscow and reported that cadets and officers were laying siege to the Moscow Soviet in the mansion of the governor-general and the party committee in the Dresden Hotel. The district was still holding out, thanks to the selfless efforts of several dozen Red Guards, armed with revolvers, but they had neither rifles nor cartridges. He explained that similar street fighting was going on in Petrograd and asked for the soldiers’ help in overcoming the counterrevolutionary forces.

Of course it probably didn’t help that many of the Red Guards, including Dune himself, had never used firearms before:

We young people had never held a weapon in our hands before, and here we were, face to face with a real “cannon.” The long thick rifle was so heavy that we could barely hold it in a horizontal position on our shoulders. It was made still longer by the bayonet-saber. In addition, the several dozen thick cartridges with lead bullets were heavy enough to tear our pockets. As soon as dawn arrived, we resolved to study our weapons and use one cartridge on a test fire.

On November 8, 1917, after a unit sympathetic to the Bolsheviks briefly seized control of the Kremlin, the cadets successfully counterattacked, recapturing the historic fortress the following day. After a short-lived ceasefire, with more pro-Bolshevik troops on hand, on November 12, 1917 the Moscow Revolutionary Committee ordered a new attack, leading to a wave of violence across the city, including fierce fighting from building to building. Despite his lack of familiarity with his weapon, Dune found himself caught up in his first firefight with defenders of the Provisional Government near Lubianka Square, where he also saw his first combat death:

We ran to the other side, under shelter of the building itself, but couldn’t get inside, as this section of the street was under fire from the opposite direction. We had no alternative but to return fire. It was now daylight and we were clearly visible. The only cover we had were the iron posts of the street lamps, so we returned fire from behind them… Soon, seeing the futility of our shooting, I cried to him: “Come on, let’s get away.” It was only then that I noticed he was stretched motionless on the sidewalk, with his rifle lying across his body. While I ran for the nurse, I thought how easy and quietly a man can die, without words or groans. Perhaps he had had a premonition of something painful, for he had been humming a sad and melancholy tune as we were coming on the train, and he had walked along, weary and silent.

Another participant, Anna Litveiko, then a teenager, remembered nursing wounded Bolshevik fighters in the besieged offices of the Moscow Soviet:

All of a sudden there was a loud noise. Shattered glass fell all over the floor, and someone started moaning. Someone else shouted: “We’re being shot at from an armored car!” Everyone rushed down the street. We did, too. Outside, everybody was shooting at an armored car that was standing right in front of the building. There was so much shooting that I was totally confused. I had my Smith & Wesson in my hand… While I was trying to decide where to aim, the armored car fired one last round and quickly disappeared.

The arrival of artillery on the Bolshevik side finally settled the issue, forcing the pro-government Committee of Public Safety to surrender on the afternoon of November 15, 1917. Spared the fate of cities destroyed by the First World War, much of Moscow lay in ruins after the fighting. Dune described the scene in the Moscow telephone exchange, where pro-government defenders had holed up:

When the occupied building had been cleared of all the prisoners, we were told to go around the rooms in search of any people still hiding and to collect weapons and cartridges that had not been handed over. We couldn’t get to the top floor, as the staircase had collapsed after the explosion of the shell. The other floors were intact, but the windows of all the rooms were either smashed or peppered with bullet holes. Under a layer of dust, plaster, and broken glass, the parquet floors no longer shone. Tables and cupboards had been moved from their original places. Apparently people had been sleeping on some of them, for pillows and stacks of paper were piled on them. Everything else—inkwells, pens, pencils, rulers, a lot of clean paper—was strewn on the floor.

The Bolsheviks had triumphed in Petrograd and Moscow, and soon set to work gaining control of local and regional soviets across Russia. But their support outside the big cities was scant, and large parts of the countryside soon descended into quiet anarchy, as peasants appropriated landlord land and waited for the chaos in the cities to pass. Meanwhile Russia was still at war with Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire, and despite their calls for immediate peace talks, Lenin, Trotsky, and the rest of the Bolshevik leadership didn’t have a realistic program for a negotiated settlement (reflecting their hope that the Bolshevik coup would trigger a worldwide communist revolution).

Finally, for ordinary and elite Russians alike, the Bolshevik coup came amid worsening conditions, according to Sorokin, who lamented the situation in Petrograd in the winter of 1917:

Everything is closed, schools, shops, banks, offices. Hunger is everywhere increasing. Kerensky is defeated. The Bolsheviki have taken the banks, state and private, and my former friend Pyatakoff has been made Commissary of Finance. From the front come new tales of horror … Our army is now a wild flying mob which destroys everything that stands in its path. German invasion is inevitable.

It wasn’t long before Lenin’s Bolsheviks showed their true faces, crushing dissent and imprisoning hundreds of “bourgeois” and “liberal” figures without charges. They also moved quickly to stamp out free speech, triggering protests from their Socialist comrades—to no avail. Sorokin himself was forced to go on the run after writing a signed column criticizing the Bolshevik coup:

Invasion of editorial offices and printing plants have become an everyday routine. Bolshevik soldiers destroy copy and even presses. As a matter of form, we obey orders to cease our publications, but they reappear immediately under slightly altered names … Today again I narrowly escaped arrest. As I entered the courtyard of our building a band of persecutors followed me, some going to the office, other remaining at the gate. Fortunately, they did not know me by sight, and as it was dark I lingered outside devising plans of escape.

See the previous installment or all entries.

8 Momentous Facts About Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

An illustration of Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address from 1905.
An illustration of Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address from 1905.
Sherwood Lithograph Co., Library of Congress // No known restrictions on publication

Seven score and 17 years ago, Abraham Lincoln uttered fewer than 280 words in front of Union mourners at the site of the Battle of Gettysburg. Brief as it was, the Gettysburg Address captured the democratic spirit of the nation and galvanized the North to redouble their efforts in the Civil War.

Read on to learn more about the speech that originated the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people” and taught us all that longer doesn’t always mean better.

1. Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

The Union triumphed over Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces at the Battle of Gettysburg—often considered the turning point of the Civil War—in July 1863, but both sides suffered grievous losses. Townspeople formed a committee to replace more than 3500 temporary battlefield graves with a national cemetery, and committee leader David Mills invited Abraham Lincoln to deliver “a few appropriate remarks” at the dedication ceremony on November 19. Though Lincoln spoke for just two minutes, his 272-word Gettysburg Address remains one of the most famous speeches ever delivered.

2. The Gettysburg Address wasn’t the main speech of the event.

edward everett
Edward Everett
Internet Archive Book Images, Flickr // No known copyright restrictions

The star speaker of the ceremony was Edward Everett, a former Harvard president, U.S. congressman and governor of Massachusetts, and Millard Fillmore’s secretary of state. Everett lived up to his reputation as the greatest orator of the time with an epic, impassioned two-hour speech that he delivered from memory. But he, too, was impressed with Lincoln’s concision.

“Permit me also to express my great admiration of the thoughts expressed by you, with such eloquent simplicity & appropriateness, at the consecration of the Cemetery,” he wrote to Lincoln in a letter the following day. “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

3. Abraham Lincoln probably didn’t write the Gettysburg Address on the train.

Legend has it that Lincoln hastily scrawled his brief speech on the back of an envelope on the train ride from Washington, D.C. to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. However, one copy was partially written on official White House stationery, leading experts to believe that Lincoln worked on his speech before leaving home and finished it the night before the ceremony. Also, the bumpy train rides of the 1860s would have affected Lincoln’s handwriting, and both of his early manuscripts are written in his characteristically neat, even script.

4. Abraham Lincoln may have had smallpox when he delivered the Gettysburg Address.

On the train ride to Gettysburg, Lincoln reportedly told one of his private secretaries that he felt weak, and his health deteriorated rapidly in the days after the speech. In 2007, researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston studied the symptoms of his mysterious illness—which included high fevers, headaches, backaches, and scarlet blisters all over his skin—and suggested that he had actually suffered from a life-threatening case of smallpox. Fortunately, Lincoln made a full recovery, and resumed his regular presidential duties three weeks after falling ill.

5. The Gettysburg Address has similarities to Pericles’s funeral oration from 431 BCE.

pericles's funeral oration
Pericles's Funeral Oration by Philipp Foltz, 1852.
Philipp Foltz, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 431 BCE, Athenian statesman Pericles delivered a rousing speech to commemorate those who had already perished in the Peloponnesian War (which would last for nearly 30 more years). Not only do both speeches honor the soldiers’ sacrifice, but they also recognize those who came before them, emphasize equality in the eyes of the law, and encourage the surviving citizens to continue to fight for the greater good.

6. Not everyone loved the Gettysburg Address at the time.

Though many Union supporters and Republicans praised Lincoln’s carefully chosen words, Democrats and other skeptics did nothing to hide their derision—in fact, certain publications practically shouted about it. The Chicago Times said that “the cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly flat dishwatery utterances of a man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the president of the United States,” and Pennsylvania’s Daily Patriot and Union recommended that the nation never repeat or think about “the silly remarks” ever again. Even the Times of London thought the ceremony “was rendered ludicrous by some of the sallies of that poor President Lincoln.”

7. There are five known manuscript copies of the Gettysburg Address.

bliss copy gettysburg address
The Bliss copy of the Gettysburg Address.
Smithsonian Collection, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The two early manuscripts that Abraham Lincoln entrusted to his private secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay, are both housed in the Library of Congress. Sometime after he delivered the speech, Lincoln penned three more copies. One was for Everett, which is now kept at the Illinois State Historical Library; another, now at Cornell University, was requested by historian George Bancroft; and a third, for Bancroft’s stepson, Colonel Alexander Bliss, now lives in the Lincoln Room of the White House.

The five manuscripts differ slightly, and so do people’s opinions on which one is considered standard. Some prefer the Bliss copy, since it was Lincoln’s final draft and also the only copy he signed, while others think the Associated Press transcription from the actual event is a more accurate version of the speech.

8. There’s only one confirmed photo of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg.

abraham lincoln at gettysburg
David Bachrach, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1952, archivist Josephine Cobb was studying a glass negative of a photo taken by David Bachrach when she spotted a familiar face in the crowd at the Gettysburg dedication ceremony. It was Abraham Lincoln, his hat-less head slightly bowed as he waited for his turn at the podium later that afternoon. Alexander Gardner also snapped a photograph at the occasion that might show Lincoln, too, but people disagree about exactly where Lincoln appears. John Richter, director of the Center for Civil War Photography, identifies him on horseback, while former Disney animator Christopher Oakley places him on the ground several yards to the right.

10 Facts About Fort Sumter

Cannons used in the Civil War are on display at Fort Sumter.
Cannons used in the Civil War are on display at Fort Sumter.
ovidiuhrubaru/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Though it was built in response to an earlier conflict, Fort Sumter in the Charleston Harbor was the birthplace of the American Civil War. Tensions between the North and South had been high for years, but the situation didn’t escalate into an all-out war until Confederates took the Union-occupied garrison in April 1861. Here are 10 things you should know about Fort Sumter, its origins, and its ever-relevant legacy.

1. Fort Sumter was named after a Revolutionary War hero.

General Thomas Sumter (1734-1832) served in the French and Indian War as an officer in the Virginia militia. He later relocated to South Carolina, where he attained national hero status once the American Revolution began. Sumter’s guerilla-style attacks kept the British on their toes and helped him score a surprise victory at the Battle of Blackstock's Farm in present-day Union County, South Carolina. Following the war, Sumter represented the state on Capitol Hill as both a U.S. congressman and, eventually, a senator. Here’s a fun tidbit for college sports fans: Ever wonder why the University of South Carolina’s athletic teams are called “The Fighting Gamecocks?” It’s a tip of the hat to Sumter, who was nicknamed “The Carolina Gamecock” during the Revolution because of his rooster-like vigor (or possibly his ego).

2. The War of 1812 spurred Fort Sumter’s development.

The War of 1812 proved that many of America’s coastal cities were vulnerable to attacks from foreign navies. So in 1816, Congress appropriated more than $800,000 (equal to about $14.5 million in today’s dollars) for new seaside fortifications. Although construction on Fort Sumter didn’t actually start until 1829, its origins can be traced back to this development.

3. Fort Sumter sits on an artificial island.

Fort Sumter was built on an artificial island.
Fort Sumter was built on an artificial island.
Thinkstock/Getty Images

When the plans for Fort Sumter were approved in 1828, its designers envisioned “a pentagonal, three-tiered, masonry fort with truncated angles to be built on the shallow shoal extending from James Island.” They had their work cut out for them: Not only did the sandbar get totally submerged at high tide, but it also tended to shift around in the current. Before the fort could go up, more than 109,000 tons of rock had to be deposited at the site to create a stable artificial island.

4. Construction at Fort Sumter was held up over a legal dispute.

Progress on Fort Sumter stalled from 1834 to 1841, thanks to questions about land ownership and, more broadly, federal authority. Trouble started when William Laval, a private citizen, claimed he owned the shoal upon which the fort was being built. At the same time, many of South Carolina’s elected officials believed the decision to build a military garrison in the Charleston Harbor infringed on their state’s rights. The matter was finally resolved in ’41, when the Palmetto State gave the title on that disputed terrain to the federal government.

5. Fort Sumter wasn’t finished when the Civil War began.

South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860. Six days later, Major Robert Anderson, a Union loyalist who’d been put in command of Charleston’s Federal troops, gathered his men and ferried them to Fort Sumter, which could be more easily defended than any of the harbor’s other fortifications. At the time, several components of their chosen refuge remained unfinished. Portions of the gunrooms, barracks, and quarters were missing when Anderson and company arrived—and while the facility was designed to house 135 cannons, only 15 had been set up there.

6. There were no casualties in the 1861 attack on Fort Sumter—but someone died in the aftermath.

Civil War cannon at Fort Sumter.
A Civil War cannon at Fort Sumter.
Martina Birnbaum/iStock via Getty Images

Stranded on the island, Anderson and his forces languished at Fort Sumter until the spring of 1861. Hostilities escalated that April, when President Abraham Lincoln tried to resupply the garrison. In response, Confederate gunmen led by General P.G.T. Beauregard started firing at Fort Sumter on the morning of April 12, 1861. The attack commenced just after 4:30 a.m. Some 34 hours later, on April 14, Anderson surrendered. Not a single human life was lost during the bombardment, but as the Union Flag was being lowered, Private Daniel Hough of the 1st U.S. Artillery was unintentionally killed by a ceremonial cannon-shot.

7. Another battle erupted at Fort Sumter in 1863—and it was much bloodier.

The battle—a follow-up to a failed naval assault—took place on September 7 and 8, 1863. Four hundred Union sailors and marines advanced on the garrison, which was believed to be largely unoccupied. But unfortunately for the Union troops, it wasn’t. Some 300 Confederates attacked them from within the structure. “Two-thirds of the amphibious [Union] force escaped, but nearly two dozen of them were killed or wounded and more than a hundred were captured on the face of the fort,” recounts the National Park Service website. “No Confederates were injured.”

8. When Fort Sumter was recaptured, Anderson got to raise the Union Flag.

Raising the flag over Fort Sumter.
Raising the flag over Fort Sumter.
Wikimedia Commons // public domain

The Second Battle of Fort Sumter may have been a Confederate victory, but over the next 15 months, from September 1863 through February 1865, the Union shot 50,000 projectiles at the building. Then, on February 18, 1865, Charleston was surrendered to the Union. At the invitation of Lincoln’s War Department, Robert Anderson made the trip down to Fort Sumter from his New York City home. On April 14, 1865—the same day Lincoln was fatally shot at the theater—Anderson hoisted the Union flag over the garrison he’d lost exactly four years earlier.

9. Fort Sumter was upgraded for later wars.

After the battered fort was patched up in the 1870s, Fort Sumter was mostly used as a lighthouse until the Spanish-American War began in 1898. To prepare for a potential enemy assault, it was fitted with a set of long-range rifle cannons. The fort was again made battle-ready for World Wars I and II. During the latter, four rapid-fire 90-millimeter anti-aircraft guns were installed.

10. Fort Sumter is part of a National Historical Park.

Fort Sumter was deactivated in 1947 and became a national monument the following year. On March 12, 2019, its status was revised: Today, the human-made island and its famous occupant are part of the newly designated Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie National Historic Park. (Fort Moultrie is an older facility that was the site of a 1776 Patriot victory in the American Revolution.) Fort Sumter attracts thousands of visitors every year and on April 14, 2015, reenactors gathered to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Robert Anderson’s 1865 flag raising ceremony.

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