Bombardment of Fort Sumter, Charleston Harbor

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Bombardment of Fort Sumter, Charleston Harbor
Currier and Ives
10 x 14 in.
Chicago History Museum, Gift of Charles B. Pike

The Civil War began on April 12, 1861, when South Carolina troops fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. They launched their attack at 4:30 a.m. with a single cannon shot from Fort Johnson, located on nearby James Island. The bombardment then continued for nearly two days. Do you see the American flag flying above the fort? On the afternoon of April 13, a rebel shot struck the flagpole and brought down the colors. Federal troops resisted, but they were overwhelmed. With fires raging inside the fort and no relief in sight, the commander of the Fort, Major Robert Anderson, surrendered. On April 14, federal troops marched out of Fort Sumter and boarded Confederate boats as prisoners. In response, President Lincoln called for 75,000 troops to put down what he called a rebellion.

A wave of patriotic fervor swept the North after Fort Sumter fell, prompting Currier & Ives, a New York printing firm, to issue this colorful lithograph commemorating the momentous event. These prints were cheap (many sold for as little as twenty-five cents) and very popular with citizens eager to “see” what was happening at the front. Even though the soldiers in the lithograph wear blue uniforms, they are Confederates, and the point of view is from Charleston. Perhaps Currier and Ives purchased the drawing from an artist documenting events in the city; numerous painters and draftsmen were sent to, or stayed in, the South to do just this sort of work.  

1. Do you see the white banner? It is the state flag of South Carolina, featuring a palmetto tree design still used in the state flag today. Why do you think the artist so prominently feature this flag as well as the Stars and Stripes?

2. The lithograph was originally printed in black and white, and then hand colored. Why do you suppose the artist chose blue to color the Confederate soldiers’ uniforms? What other colors are featured in the work, and why?

3. If you were alive then, how might you have reacted to Fort Sumter’s fall?

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