His watch in hand, Capt. George James followed the seconds tick towards 4:30 a.m. He had a deadline to meet. It was one he surely was not going to miss.
No doubt, the weight of the moment rested heavily on James’ shoulders. After all, one man already turned down the chance to fire the first shot of the war that April 12, 1861 morning.
James made sure everything was ready. His 13-inch mortar which had the honor of opening the bombardment of Fort Sumter was loaded and primed. James looked at his watch again before peering towards the dark mass of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor just over one mile away.
George James took a long and circuitous route to reach this moment. He was a native South Carolinian (it is only fitting that one of the state’s own would inaugurate this conflict). In 1846, the seventeen-year-old joined the United States Army in the war with Mexico. He returned to the Palmetto State at the war’s conclusion to continue his studies but found the life of a soldier constantly calling him. James joined the United States Army for a four-year stint which the growing hostilities and the secession of South Carolina terminated. He resigned and returned home to offer his services to his native state. The experienced soldier became a captain in the South Carolina Artillery stationed in Charleston. There, destiny waited for him.
In the days leading up to April 12, 1861, Capt. James took command of two batteries on James Island. He was anxious to fire the war’s opening salvo.
The captain looked at his watch tick the seconds by one more time. 4:30. He took one more glance toward his silent target in the harbor, one last look to ensure the readiness of his command. “Fire!” he yelled. Lt. Henry Farley yanked the lanyard. Fire and smoke from the charge quickly engulfed the battery. In the sky, the mortar shell arced its way towards Fort Sumter and exploded directly above the fort. A perfect shot. Soon, a second mortar from the island fired. Together, these two shots signaled the beginning of the Southern bombardment of Sumter.
Beyond Charleston, the first shot of the war sounded like a muffled roar on the horizon until far enough away from the city, it was not even audible. But like the Massachusetts minutemen’s “shot heard round the world,” the shot that James ordered to be fired echoed across North America for the next four years. Did George James know what he had inaugurated that April 12 morning?
Sadly, James did not escape the fire that spread across North America following his actions at Charleston Harbor. The captain afterward joined the 3rd South Carolina Battalion and became its commander. Though the unit spent nearly the next year in Charleston, it eventually became engaged in the escalating conflict by 1862.
On September 14 of that year, James commanded his battalion at Fox’s Gap, a pass through South Mountain in western Maryland. He stubbornly fought with his command against superior enemy numbers and fell with a mortal wound to the chest. Lt. Col. George James died that evening. His stand cost his command 136 of its 160 men.
The echoes of James’ first shot were heard far beyond Charleston Harbor on the morning of April 12, 1861.