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.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.

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.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.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

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Why Does the Supreme Court Have Nine Justices?

Front row, left to right: Stephen G. Breyer, Clarence Thomas, (Chief Justice) John G. Roberts, Jr., Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel A. Alito. Back row: Neil M. Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Front row, left to right: Stephen G. Breyer, Clarence Thomas, (Chief Justice) John G. Roberts, Jr., Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel A. Alito. Back row: Neil M. Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Fred Schilling, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States // Public Domain

Some facets of the U.S. government—like presidential terms and post offices—were written into the original Constitution after (often lengthy) deliberations by the Founding Fathers. The number of Supreme Court justices was not one of those things.

The document did establish a Supreme Court, and it stated that the president should appoint its judges; it also mentioned that a “Chief Justice shall preside” if the president gets impeached. Since it was left up to Congress to work out the rest of the details, they passed the Judiciary Act of 1789, which outlined an entire court system and declared that the Supreme Court should comprise one chief justice and five associate justices. As History.com explains, they landed on six because the justices would have to preside over federal circuit courts, one of which was located in each state. Traveling wasn’t quick or easy in the horse-and-carriage days, so Congress wanted to minimize each justice’s jurisdiction. They split the courts into three regions, and assigned two justices to each region.

According to Maeva Marcus, director of the Institute for Constitutional History at George Washington University Law School, the even number of justices was a non-issue. “They never even thought about it, because all the judges were Federalists and they didn’t foresee great disagreement,” she told History.com. “Plus, you didn’t always have all six justices appearing at the Supreme Court for health and travel reasons.”

Over the next 80 years, the number of Supreme Court justices would fluctuate for two reasons: the addition of federal circuit courts, and presidents’ partisan motives. John Adams and his Federalist Congress reduced the number to five with the Judiciary Act of 1801, which they hoped would prevent Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson from getting to fill a seat after he took office that year. By the following year, Jefferson’s Congress had passed another judicial act that returned the number of justices to six, and they upped it to seven after forming another circuit court in 1807.

The nation grew significantly during the early 19th century, and Congress finally added two new circuit courts—and with them, two new Supreme Court seats—during Andrew Jackson’s presidential tenure in 1837. Republican Abraham Lincoln then briefly increased the number of justices to 10 in order to add another abolitionist vote, but Congress shrunk it to seven in 1866 to keep Andrew Johnson from filling seats with Democrats. As soon as Republican Ulysses S. Grant succeeded Johnson, Congress set the number back to nine, where it’s remained ever since.

Sketched portraits of the U.S. Supreme Court justices through 1897.Popular and Applied Graphic Art Print Filing Series, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

In 1911, Congress did away with circuit courts altogether, so the number of Supreme Court justices stopped being contingent upon their expansion (though each justice does still oversee a region to help with occasional tasks). As for presidents shifting the number to serve their own goals, it’s now looked down upon as “packing the court.” When Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to increase it to 15 in the 1930s to push his New Deal through the Supreme Court, the Senate opposed the bill by a whopping 70 to 20 votes.

In short, the depth of the Supreme Court’s bench changed a lot in America’s early years not only because the country was expanding, but also because the federal government was still testing out its system of checks and balances. And though presidents do still appoint justices based on their own political party, we’ve gotten used to the idea that the Supreme Court is, at least ideologically, supposed to be unbiased. If Congress and the president kept up the habit of adding and subtracting justices at will, it would tarnish this ideal.

“If Congress increases the size of the Supreme Court for transparently partisan political reasons, it would cement the idea the justices are little more than politicians in robes, and that the court is little more than an additional—and very powerful—arm through which partisan political power can be exercised,” Steve Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, wrote for NBC News. “Indeed, that Congress has not revisited the size of the court in 150 years is a powerful testament to just how ingrained the norm of nine has become—and how concerned different political constituencies have been at different times about preserving the court’s power.”

[h/t History.com]