Building Fort Sumter

Fort Sumter will forever go down in history as the location of the opening shots of the Civil War on April 12, 1861. The Cartographic Branch holds architectural plans and drawings associated with the construction of forts throughout our nation’s history. This includes numerous plans relating to Fort Sumter’s lengthy construction. Today we are featuring a sampling of these plans, which are held within Record Group (RG) 77, Fortifications Map File.

Following the War of 1812, the United States began to strengthen its coastal defenses. The idea for a fortification that eventually became Fort Sumter first appears in an 1826 report to Congress. Initial plans were drawn up in the following years, including the 1828 plan below.

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Plan of a Casemated Battery designed for the Shoal opposite Fort Moultrie, Charleston Harbour, S.C., dated 1828. RG 77, Fortifications File, Drawer 66, Sheet 1.

Work commenced on the fort, but progressed slowly. A rock foundation was constructed on a shoal in Charleston Harbor. However, in 1834, a legal case concerning the ownership of the shoal area halted construction.

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Plan and Sections showing the condition of the Foundation of Fort Sumter, S.C. during the Years 1831, 1832 and 1833, dated 1833. RG 77, Fortifications File, Drawer 66, Sheet 2.

Construction resumed in 1841. Under the supervision of Captain A.H. Bowman, the original plans were modified to make the fortification stronger. However, troubles continued to plague the construction of the fort. A lack of supplies and the difficulty of transporting supplies by boat to the shoal made progress slow.

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Drawing showing normal high and low tides, dated 1843. Note the mark for the tide of October 6, 1842. Areas around Charleston, SC experienced higher than normal tides and flooding from October 4 – 6, 1842, due to a hurricane. RG 77, Fortifications File, Drawer 66, Sheet 10.
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Plan, section, and elevations of Fort Sumter exhibiting the condition of the work on 30th September 1846. RG 77, Fortifications File , Drawer 66, Sheet 36.

Work continued in the 1850s, but then stalled due to lack of funding. By 1860, Fort Sumter consisted of an unfinished five-sided stone masonry fort. Two tiers of gunrooms lined four of the fort’s walls. Officers quarters were located along the other wall. The fort also contained three barracks buildings for enlisted soldiers and a parade ground.

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Section through the middle of the first pier westward of the Western Magazine, dated 1854. RG 77, Fortifications File, Drawer 66, Sheet 70.
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Plans and Elevation of Officers’ Quarters at Fort Sumter, dated 1851. RG 77, Fortifications File, Drawer 66, Sheet 53.

As tensions between North and South escalated in December 1860 with the secession of the state of South Carolina, artillery troops occupied the unfinished fort. At that time, only 15 out of the planned 135 cannon were mounted and in place. Barracks, quarters, and gunrooms remained unfinished. After an attack by South Carolina troops on a ship attempting to resupply Fort Sumter in January 1861, the troops within Fort Sumter began strengthening their position in preparation for an attack against the fort.

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Plan for Fort Sumter showing Barbette Tier and Parade and 1st Tier Casemate, dated March 1861, only a short time before the firing on the fort by Confederate troops. RG 77, Fortifications File, Drawer 66, Sheet 82.

On the morning of April 12, 1861, tensions finally reached the breaking point. At about 4:30 a.m., Confederate batteries opened fire on Fort Sumter. After facing a severe bombardment, the Union-held fort surrendered the following day. Confederates held Fort Sumter until February 1865, only weeks before the surrender of General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865. Throughout the war, the fort suffered repeated bombardments and was severely damaged, as evidenced by the drawings below.

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Fort Sumter, South Carolina, at the time of its capture February 18, 1865. RG 77, Fortifications File, Drawer 66, Sheet 86.

The above plans provide only a small sampling of the plans of Fort Sumter that are available to view in the Cartographic Research Room at the National Archives. We invite you to visit to learn more about Fort Sumter and the other forts and fortifications for which we hold architectural drawings and plans.

Sources about the construction of Fort Sumter:

Barnes, Frank E. Fort Sumter National Monument.
https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/hh/12/hh12a.htm.

Hendrix, M. Patrick. A History of Fort Sumter: Building a Civil War Landmark. The History Press, 2014.

National Park Service. “Fort Sumter. History and Culture.
https://www.nps.gov/fosu/learn/historyculture/fort_sumter.htm

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