On April 12, 1861, Confederate troops fired the opening shots of the Civil War at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. This month marks the 160th anniversary of the beginning of the war, the deadliest conflict ever fought on American soil. The Civil War lasted four years and resulted in an estimated 620,000 deaths and 1.5 million casualties. Approximately one in four soldiers that went to war never came back home. This impacted families, communities, and the entire country for generations to come.
The years leading up to the beginning of the Civil War were filled with increasing tensions between northern and southern states. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected president by a strictly northern vote. The election was the impetus for southern states, who were already wrangling with the North on issues like slavery, states’ rights, and westward expansion, to begin the process of secession. Four days after the election, South Carolina Senator James Chesnut resigned his Senate seat and began drafting secession documents. Before long, six more states joined South Carolina to form the Confederate States of America on February 8, 1861. That number increased to 11 states after the fall of Fort Sumter. Four border states (Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri) held enslaved persons but remained loyal to the Union.
Fort Sumter, originally built as a coastal garrison, was located at the entrance to Charleston Harbor. Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard, from the newly formed Confederate States Army, demanded federal officials turn over the fort. He claimed the fort was located in Confederate territory and thus belonged to the South. The North refused and made attempts to send a ship to resupply the fort. The ship was turned away by Confederate guns.
Tensions grew, and Beauregard finally sent US officials an ultimatum – abandon the fort or face destruction. At 4:30 a.m. on April 12th, some 500 soldiers from the South Carolina Militia opened fire on 80 Federal soldiers inside the fort. The bombardment continued for 34 hours until the afternoon of April 13th, when the garrison commander, Major Robert Anderson, surrendered the fort. Though there were no fatalities on either side during the Battle of Fort Sumter, the conflict marked the beginning of more than 10,000 military engagements that occurred between 1861-1865.
Fold3® has an extensive collection of Civil War records including:
- Brady Civil War Photos: The Civil War is considered the first major conflict to be photographed extensively. Mathew Brady led a photography team that captured images of the war using a mobile studio and darkroom.
- Civil War Maps: This collection of 2,000 detailed battle maps provides insight into Civil War engagements. Some maps show the placement of regiments and the movement of troops.
- Civil War “Widows Pensions” Files: Only 20% of Civil War pension files are digitized, but if you are lucky enough to find the pension file for your ancestor, you’ll uncover a treasure trove of information.
- Civil War Service Records: We have service records for both Union and Confederate troops. These records are organized by state.
- Service Records for US Colored Troops: Approximately 179,000 Black men served in the US Army and another 19,000 in the US Navy. Despite facing racism and discrimination, the US Colored Troops served with valor and honor. These records are organized by regiment.
- Southern Claims Approved: After the war, the US government established the Southern Claims Commission. This office accepted petitions for compensation for items taken by Union troops during the war.