The Civil War's First Death Was An Accident
April 14 marks the date 150 years ago that the first person was killed in the Civil War — but there's more to the story.
The First To Die
The first shots of the War Between the States were fired at Fort Sumter in South Carolina's Charleston Harbor in 1861. Federal troops, under command of Maj. Robert Anderson, surrendered to Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard after an artillery bombardment that had begun on April 12.
No one was killed during the actual engagement, but as the Union soldiers lowered their flag, they honored it with a 100-gun salute. A premature discharge from one cannon caused an explosion that killed Pvt. Daniel Hough of the 1st U.S. Artillery. Not technically a battle death, but it did make Hough the first person killed in the Civil War.
A Special Connection
Hough had been a friend of Patrick Murphy, part of the Fort Sumter garrison and my great-great grandfather.
Murphy was a musician who had been stationed with the military band in Charleston for several years. He had married and started a family, and Hough was the godfather of one of his daughters.
Families Leave Loved Ones Behind
Women and children weren't with Federal soldiers during the actual bombardment, but had accompanied the men when they took possession of Fort Sumter the previous December. The families were stationed with the garrison outside Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island, but the location was indefensible, so Anderson secretly had them moved to Fort Sumter — still under construction at the time.
Anderson begged the government to send supplies and reinforcements, but lame duck President James Buchanan waffled. He did finally send a ship, but it was fired on by the southerners as it entered the harbor and went back home instead.
Now desperately concerned about supplies and safety, Anderson arranged for a ship to evacuate the women and children (including Murphy's family) in February. Harper's Weekly had this report on Feb. 23:
"On nearing the fort the whole garrison was seen, mounted on the top of the ramparts, and when the ship was passing fired a gun and gave three heart-thrilling cheers as a parting farewell to the dear loved ones on board, whom they may possibly never meet again this side the grave."
SCOTT SIMON, host:
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SIMON: That's Kee Malesky, NPR's heralded research librarian - in our studio, not at the other end of a phone. And, of course, an author in her own write - as who put that, Kee?
MALESKY: Uh, John Lennon?
SIMON: That's right.
MALESKY: He wasn't talking about me, though.
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SIMON: Glad you're back here. Thanks for being with us, Kee.
MALESKY: Thank you.
SIMON: Now, April 14th, most years, is a day a lot of people stay up late to work on their taxes. This year, though, it marks the 150th anniversary of the first man who was killed in the U.S. Civil War. First shots were fired at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Give us a quick primer, if you could.
MALESKY: Federal troops, under command of Major Robert Anderson, surrendered to Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard after an artillery bombardment that had begun on April 12th. Nobody was killed during the engagement, on either side. But as the Union soldiers lowered their flag and honored it with a hundred-gun salute, as they prepared to evacuate the fort, there was a premature discharge of the canon - a huge explosion, and Private Daniel Hough of the 1st U.S. Artillery was killed. Not technically a battle death, true, but the first man killed in the War Between the States.
SIMON: Now, of course, all Americans have a personal interest in the Civil War; it made us the country that we are. You have a particular personal interest, don't you?
MALESKY: I do. I have a connection to this story. My great-great grandfather, Patrick Murphy, was part of that Fort Sumter garrison. He was a musician, a member of the band, and had been stationed there in Charleston for several years. He married, started his family, and Daniel Hough was Patrick's friend and the godfather of one of his daughters.
SIMON: Now, were the families in the fort with the soldiers?
MALESKY: Well, not at the time of the bombardment. They had accompanied the men when they took possession of Fort Sumter back in December. Now, Anderson is begging the government to send supplies and reinforcements. But the president - and of course, this is President Buchanan, not Lincoln, because he doesn't get inaugurated until March. So Buchanan is a lame duck. He's waffling, procrastinating, but he finally did send a ship to relieve the garrison. But it was fired on by the Southerners as it entered the harbor. So it turned around and went home. Now, Anderson is desperately concerned about supplies and safety. So he arranged for a ship to evacuate the women and children, including Patrick's family.
And here's the report from "Harper's Weekly," February 23rd: On nearing the fort, the whole garrison was seen, mounted on the top of the ramparts, and when the ship was passing fired a gun and gave three heart-thrilling cheers as a parting farewell to the dear loved ones on board, whom they may possibly never meet again this side the grave.
SIMON: I mean, that's a letter that could have come out of a Ken Burns' film.
SIMON: Which is an interesting 'cause this week, the National Archives are making their newly digitized Civil War records available online. And I guess Ken Burns, the noted filmmaker, revealed that one of his ancestors was a Confederate.
MALESKY: Apparently so. The records...
SIMON: You think of him as such a New Englander.
MALESKY: Well, but many of us have relatives and ancestors in other parts of the country as well. So it's not unusual for a Yankee to discover there were Confederates in their past.
Those records will be free to the public through the website Ancestry.com until next Wednesday.
SIMON: A general question: It wasn't so long ago when people went to the archives or library in search of information, and needed help. Now, so much is available online. Does that mean you get fewer calls from the likes of us?
(Soundbite of laughter)
MALESKY: Not at all, because it takes some skill and practice to search those databases efficiently and successfully. So NPR - and the world, I think - still needs librarians.
SIMON: Of course. NPR's reference librarian Kee Malesky. You can read more of Kee's facts on our website, NPR.org.
SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.