A majority of Confederate leaders and most of their foes in blue held that the first shot of the war was fired in Charleston Harbor on April 12, 1861. Lincoln, commander in chief of U.S. forces, had a different view. It was his contention that no state had actually seceded; although eleven claimed to have done so, according to the president, they were still in the Union. Traditionally, war was regarded as a conflict between two sovereign states. Since the independence of the Confederacy was not recognised, Lincoln termed the sectional struggle an insurrection. it came about, he said, by "a combination of forces too powerful to subdue by ordinary means."

So viewed, the April artillery duel between Federal and Confederate forces didn't start a war. Thus it was impossible to label the initial shell fired at Fort Sumter as having been first in the war.

Pennsylvania-born James Buchanan, Lincoln's predecessor in office, was adamant in his insistence that only Congress could declare war. He wasn't interested in verbal subterfuge to justify sending troops to the South. More than anything else, Buchanan wanted peace. In a bid to secure that peace, Buchanan reluctantly endorsed the plans of his top military advisers. As a result, the merchant ship Star of the West was sent to Charleston Harbor with supplies and reinforcements for Maj. Robert Anderson and his tiny garrison at fort Sumter.

Having received advance warning that the ship was en route, the Secessionists were prepared. When the vessel entered Charleston waters early on the morning of January 9, 1861, cadets from The Citadel military academy manning a battery on Morris Island, close to the Federal installation, placed a shot across the ship's bow. By many standards, that shot was the first of the war. The records are clear and precise; it was fired by Cadet George W Haynesworth.

Full-scale military action would have followed this first shot in January had Lincoln, who was committed to the preservation of the Union at all costs, occupied the White House. Had that happened, Haynesworth would be much better known today. Debate over the identity of the man who launched the first shell toward Fort Sumter began very early and has never completely subsided. Many of his admirers credited this honour to Edmund Ruffin of Virginia, an ardent Secessionist who went to Charleston hoping to participate in the fireworks. Much evidence suggests that Ruffin was offered the opportunity to begin the shelling, but he shook his head in refusal. Three or four other prominent Confederates have been identified as firing that first shot in April, but the battery probably fired the shot that led Lincoln to try to put down an insurrection.

At least two members of the Fort Sumter garrison, both of whom later became prominent, claimed to have fired the first shot at a Confederate battery. Subsequently a brigadier, Jefferson C Davis claimed that the honour belonged to him, but those comrades in arms who detested him discounted his report.

Career artillerist Abner Doubleday, then a captain, insisted that he was the first to fire upon Southerners who were trying to drive the Federal forces from Fort Sumter. After the conflict was over, Doubleday wrote a volume of Reminiscences in which he said the honour was indisputably his. Doubleday was made a major general in 1862, and his postwar book was widely circulated. Maybe because of these factors, the man who had nothing to do with the invention of baseball is usually identified as the first to return the Confederate fire.

If it was Doubleday and not Davis who fired the first shot from the Federal fort, it was a dud. Doubleday admitted, "My first shot bounded from the sloping roof of the battery opposite without producing any apparent effect." Regardless of how effective his fire may have been that day, he was promoted one month later, again on February 3, 1862, and once more just nine months later. After the 1863 battle of Gettysburg, Major General Doubleday was relieved of field duty and assigned to a desk job for the duration.

No one has been identified as the person who fired the first shot at the first battle of Manassas (or Bull Run), but Confederate Brig. Gen. Richard S Ewell is believed to have been the first to lead his men into battle there. According to his report, Ewell's brigade was made up of Robert E. Rodes' fifth Alabama Infantry, John J Seibels' Sixth Alabama, and Horatio Seymour's Seventh Louisiana. Four companies of cavalry and a battery of artillery accompanied the infantry.

On the morning of July 21, 1861, Ewell followed his orders to hold himself "in readiness to advance at a moment's notice." As a result, he and his men may have been first to arrive at what became the first major battleground of the war.

Confederate historians say that the first artillery shot at Manassas roared from the mouth of a 30-pounder Parrott gun at about 5.00 a.m. It is credited to a battery commanded by Capt. J Howard Carlisle, who failed to record the name of the gunner.

Extract from More Civil War Curiosities by Webb Garrison

The above article first appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, February 2002