Firing the First Shot: George James Begins the Civil War

George James in his United States Army uniform (Courtesy of NPS)

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 sword that Capt. James was wearing when he ordered the first shot of the war to be fired is on display at Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie National Historical Park (Courtesy of the author)

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.

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6 Responses to Firing the First Shot: George James Begins the Civil War

  1. Edward S. Alexander says:

    I’d imagine a lot of Confederates tried taking that credit, I know Edmund Ruffin wanted to.

  2. Robert Rainey says:

    Some would advocate that the war actually began in Baltimore.

  3. Mike Maxwell says:

    Thought provoking and informative article, with the minor exception of one typo: reference to use of 13-inch mortar by Captain George James on 12 April 1861. OR 1 page 18 (Report of U.S. Army Engineer, J. G. Foster) indicates this was a 10-inch mortar; and Edwin C. Bearss in “Fields of Honor” page 28 describes the first shot as coming from a “10-inch seacoast mortar.” Why is this important? The 10-inch mortar fired a shell weighing slightly less than 100 pounds, so could be manhandled into position by two men. The 13-inch mortar fired a shell weighing 227 pounds, and required special loading equipment (described as a gibbet.) Finally, the 13-inch mortar had been designed, but not produced in time for action at Fort Sumter. The Fort Pitt Foundry in Pennsylvania was the only producer of these massive weapons (weighing 8 and 1/2 tons) and production was contracted by Major General Fremont for use aboard special “mortar rafts” and intended for use against fortifications on high bluffs (Fort Columbus, Fort Donelson.) But, in process of completing the first 13-inch mortars in late 1861, the priority for delivery changed: the first mortars went to David D. Porter’s fleet of “mortar schooners,” acquired for use against Forts Jackson and St. Philip below New Orleans. (Flag-Officer Andrew Foote received his first functioning mortar rafts a couple of days AFTER the surrender of Fort Donelson; the first use of the Model 1861 Fort Pitt Foundry 13-inch mortar in combat was at Island No.10 in March 1862.)

  4. Dr. Jon Willen says:

    When he was mortally wounded at South Mountain he was likely treated by Dr. Simon Baruch who was a surgeon with the 3rd South Carolina Battalion. South Mountain was his first battle. He is the father of financier Bernard Baruch.

  5. Robert Doughty says:

    In February, 1861 the merchant ship New York City was fired upon while trying to re-supply Fort Sumter. It turned around before getting to the Fort. I consider that the first shots fired in insurrection.

    • Robert Rainey says:

      Some think insurrection, others think fighting for their independence as our founding fathers had. Three colonies would not join unless they were reassured that should their people decide they no longer wanted to remain in the union, they could leave. They were given that assurance and it was applicable to any state.

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