Around 4.30am on 12th April 1861, Confederate artillery fire erupted on the U.S. occupied Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. These shots marked the start of the American Civil War. Some two and a half hours later, at about 7am, the guns of Sumter replied to the barrage, firing the first shots in defence of the Union. Captain Abner Doubleday was the officer in charge of the gun that fired this first round in anger for the North- but was the soldier who actually pulled the lanyard an Irishman?
Captain Abner Doubleday is the man generally regarded to have fired the first Union shot of the war from Sumter. The New Yorker would eventually rise to the rank of Major-General of volunteers during the conflict. He later described the circumstances surrounding this ‘first shot’:
As I was the ranking officer, I took the first detachment, and marched them to the casemates, which looked out upon the powerful iron-clad battery of Cummings Point. In aiming the first gun fired against the rebellion I had no feeling of self-reproach, for I fully believed that the contest was inevitable, and was not of our seeking…My first shot bounded off from the sloping roof of the battery opposite without producing any apparent effect. It seemed useless to attempt to silence the guns there; for our metal was not heavy enough to batter the work down, and every ball glanced harmlessly off, except one, which appeared to enter an embrasure and twist the iron shutter, so as to stop the firing of that particular gun. I observed that a group of the enemy had ventured out from their intrenchments to watch the effect of the fire, but I sent them flying back to their shelter by the aid of a forty-two-pounder ball, which appeared to strike in among them. (1)
So Abner Doubleday certainly aimed the first gun and gave it the command to fire. But what of the gun crew? Of the 86 officers and men in the Fort Sumter military garrison, nearly 44% were Irishmen. Indeed the 38 Irish-born soldiers even outnumbered those born in the United States, who amounted to only 23 of the contingent. Some of these Irishmen manned the gun that Doubleday commanded to fire, and one would later claim to be the man who physically discharged the fateful shot. (2)
The Union men in Fort Sumter had initially been located at Fort Moultrie, but following South Carolina’s secession their commander Major Robert Anderson determined to shift the garrison to the more secure Sumter, which lay in the middle of Charleston Harbor. Anderson made the move on the night of 26th December 1860, but from here effectively became besieged. This sparked the crisis that came to a head with the action of April 12th 1861, when the Confederates opened fire on Sumter to prevent its imminent relief.
Prior to this decisive moment, the early months of 1861 had seen the nation gripped by the crisis; on the 7th January 1861 the New York Times reported that it was able to bring its readers the thoughts of one of the soldiers inside besieged Sumter for the first time. The Rochester Democrat had originally published the letter, which was from Private James Gibbons of Company E, 1st U.S. Artillery. He had penned the letter to his wife on 29th December, only three days after he and his comrades had moved to Sumter. The Times reported it as follows:
He [Gibbons] writes under the date of Dec. 29, gives a brief account of the withdrawal of the little army of Major Anderson from Fort Moultrie on the night of the 23d of December [sic.], and says, “We set the fort on fire, and cut down the flag-staff before we left.” He also states that 300 men from Charleston came the next day and occupied Fort Moultrie. This soldier is supposed to breadth the spirit that prevails in Fort Sumter, for he says “we are ready to fight, and intend to clean ‘em out.” Such a letter from an honest soldier in the fort, addressed to his wife, is of more value as indicating the state of affairs there than telegraphic dispatches sent from Charleston from secession sources. This is the first that we have heard of the feeling of the soldiers at Fort Sumter since that position was occupied by Maj. Anderson’s party. (3)
James Gibbons was one of the Irish contingent in the garrison. He had been born in Co. Galway around 1833, and had most likely emigrated to the United States as a result of the Famine. By 1861 he was already a ten-year veteran of the army; on 14th November 1851 he had enlisted in Rochester, New York where he was described as a 5 foot 7 3/4 inch, 20-year-old laborer, with grey eyes, brown hair and a fair complexion. It is possible to track the Galwegian as he served at locations such as San Diego Barracks, California (1852), Fort Clark, Texas (1854) and Fort Columbus in New York (1859-1860) amongst other locations. His career had not gone completely without a hitch- the November 1859 return for Fort Columbus lists that Gibbons, then a member of Company I of the 1st U.S. Artillery, was ‘casually at the post’, awaiting trial for desertion. However by February 1860 the issue had been resolved, as Gibbons was then awaiting transfer to Company E of the unit and his fateful move to Fort Moultrie, which would take place on 18th February 1860. (4)
Why the focus on this one individual? The potential significance of James Gibbons emerges in an 1890 article originally published in the Erie Dispatch of Pennsylvania about one of their local veterans- none other than the Galway native. Describing him as a modest man averse to newspaper notoriety, the laborer was by then employed at the Anchor Line Company and lived on No.348 East Second Street in Erie. Entitled ‘The First Gun of the War’, the piece tells of Gibbons’ part during the fighting at Fort Sumter, claiming him to be the man who fired the first shot at the Confederates. It explained that ‘at the command of Anderson and Doubleday Gibbons pulled the lanyard of the 42-pounder that sent back Sumter’s defiance to the battery behind the barrier of railroad iron at Cumming’s Point’. The paper also gave the Irishman’s own memories of the momentous occasion:
The rebels opened on us just before daylight with a shot from Fort Johnson that came singing over our parapet. It was about two seconds before another came along, and then another, and another, until the 360 guns at Fort Johnson, Fort Moultrie, and Cumming’s Point were playing upon us. It was about five o’clock when the Southerners began firing. It was seven o’clock, fully an hour after daylight, before we responded. We had only two companies there, E and H, of the First Regiment United States Artillery. The men and officers numbered seventy-one, and besides these there were sixteen laborers in the fort. Captain Doubleday had command of Company E, and was ordered by Major Anderson to fire on Cumming’s Point. Captain Doubleday stood two feet behind me as I held the lanyard, and at his command I pulled it. It was a good shot, for it struck the wall at the Point, but the next shot, from the adjoining gun, was a better one. The rebels had laid a lot of railroad iron along the ramparts, and one of their men was walking on the slanting surface. The shot struck the iron, and the effect must have been prodigious, for the man who was walking over the iron shot up into the air and fell inside the walls of the fort. (5)
Gibbons continued his account with a description of the actions of John Carroll, who threw a burning shell into the ditch during the bombardment, before going on to describe the surrender and evacuation of Sumter. Some weight is added to Gibbons’ version of events by the fact that Abner Doubleday clearly regarded the Galwegian highly, as he supplied him with the following reference on his discharge from the service in 1862:
Washington, March 31, 1862
Private Gibbons of Company E, First Regiment of the United States Artillery, has been in the United States service for many years. He has crossed the Continent overland and has undergone great hardships and dangers among the Indian tribes in the far west, in Texas, and also more recently in Florida. He was one of the most loyal, efficient, gallant, and zealous defenders of the flag at Fort Sumter. He has always been a good soldier and I cheerfully recommend him to the good offices of those who value courage, patriotism, and good conduct.
A. DOUBLEDAY. Brig. Gen. Vol. (6)
James Gibbons seems to have been widely accepted as the man who fired the North’s first shot of the war in the years following 1890. The story was reprinted by the New York Irish World, and in later years was mentioned by papers across the United States*. He died at 216 1/2 East Second Street, Erie on 19th February 1910, and was survived by his daughter Mrs. Mary Murray. His death brought another flurry of references to him and his involvement in firing the first gun for the Union, and was recorded by newspapers in States as disparate as Maryland, Texas, Ohio, Oregon and Illinois**.(7)
Abner Doubleday is widely regarded as the man who fired the first shot for the Union in the American Civil War. However in his own account of the event he does not actually state that he physically fired the round, and it is possible that what he means is that he ordered the aiming of the gun and gave the verbal command for it to fire, as would have been usual at the time. James Gibbons claims to have been the man who physically pulled the lanyard that sent the first shell on its way towards the target. It is of course somewhat immaterial to distinguish between the officer who commanded the gun to be fired and the soldier who physically executed the order- both would have a right to claim that they fired the ‘first shot.’ Nonetheless the Galwayman does have a strong claim to involvement in the event, and one which is certainly worthy of further examination. The first Union death of the Civil War was an Irishman- Tipperary native Private Daniel Hough of the Sumter garrison- it maybe that his countryman James Gibbons may yet be rescued from relative obscurity, and be seen as the first man to fire in defence of the cause of Union.
* See for example the Elkhart Daily Review of 18th March 1893 (Elkhart, Indiana); Daily Telegram of 20th February 1893 (Adrian, Michigan); Philadelphia Inquirer of 25th January 1904 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania).
**See for example ‘Saw Fort Sumter Fired On. James Gibbons, Who Sighted First Union Gun, Dead’ in the Sun of 20th February 1910 (Baltimore, Maryland); ‘James Gibbons Dead’ in the Beaumont Enterprise of 20th February 1910 (Beaumont, Texas); ‘Fired the First Shot. Civil War Veteran, Who Opened Conflict at Fort Sumter, Dies’ in the Plain Dealer of 20th February 1910 (Cleveland, Ohio); ‘Sumter Survivor Dies. Man Who Sighted First Gun Fired by Union Forces Passes’ in the Oregonian of 20th February 1910 (Portland, Oregon); ‘Hero of Fort Sumter Dead’ in the Daily Illinois State Journal of 21st February 1910 (Springfield, Illinois);
(1) Doubleday 1876: 145-6; (2) NPS: Fort Sumter’s Garrison by Nationality, Irish World; (3) New York Times; (4) U.S. Army Register of Enlistments 1798-1914, U.S. Returns for Military Posts 1806-1916; (5) Irish World; (6) Irish World; (7) Civil War Pension Index Card, Baltimore Sun;
References and Further Reading
Baltimore Sun 20th February 1910: Saw Fort Sumter Fired On. James Gibbons, Who Sighted First Union Gun, Dead
Civil War Pension Index Card of John Gibbons (Fold 3)
Doubleday, Abner 1876. Reminiscences of Forts Sumter and Moultrie in 1860-’61
Fort Sumter National Park Service: Fort Sumter’s Garrison By Nationality
New York Irish World 7th June 1890: The First Gun of the War Fired From Sumter By James Gibbons. An Erie Pennsylvania Veteran Bears The Honor
New York Times 7th January 1861: Letter From A Soldier in Fort Sumter
U.S. Army Register of Enlistments 1798-1914 (Ancestry.com)
U.S. Returns From Military Posts, 1806-1916 (Ancestry.com)