Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that phrase in a poem immortalizing the moment April 19, 1775, in Concord, Mass., when Massachusetts patriots opened fire on the British redcoats and began the American Revolution. "The Shot Heard Round the World" has also been applied to the dawn of April 12, 1861, when secessionists in Charleston opened fire on Fort Sumter and began the American Civil War.
Historians generally concur that the first shot on Fort Sumter was a mortar on James Island fired by Capt. George S. James, a native of Laurens County, S.C. James offered the honor to Roger Pryor, a Virginia newspaper editor who was an ardent secessionist, but Pryor replied, "I could not fire the first gun of the war."
However, a man captured by Stoneman's soldiers in Salem, N.C., told a different story. Thomas Wheat was caught April 10, 1865, by Major William Wagner's battalion as they returned from a week-long bridge-burning expedition to Lynchburg, Va.
The Stoneman Gazette's chief war correspondent, Capt. Henry Weand, recorded the scene in his journal:
Among the rebels captured here was Thomas W. Wheat, who had the distinction of having loaded the first gun that fired on Fort Sumter. He was in a South Carolina battery, and captain Hallenquist, who commanded, pulled the lanyard which discharged the gun. Wheat’s captured comrades told us this, and our good-natured Major Wagner said to Wheat: “So you are the man who caused all this trouble? What did you fire on Fort Sumter for?” “Because I wanted to capture it,” retorted Wheat. With others, he was given his parole and an extra lot of provisions, and started off for his farm, way off on the Oostanaula River [in Georgia].Thomas H.* Wheat was a sergeant in the First South Carolina Artillery, which was commanded by Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard. That's the regiment that fired on Fort Sumter in 1861 and then defended the same fort against Union bombardment in 1863.
Wheat shared his story in 1896 with Montgomery M. Folsom, the Georgia correspondent from the New York Sun, and it was syndicated and published in newspapers across the country. The following clipping is from the Atlanta Constitution Nov. 15, 1896. The famed Atlanta editor Henry Grady was a mentor to Folsom.
CLINGS TO THE GRAYRome, Ga., November 14 (Special)—Six feet of mountain manhood, with an eye like an eagle peering out from under his bushy brows, stood the man who loaded the first cartridge fired at Fort Sumter.
Floyd County Man Still Wears His Old Confederate Overcoat.
LOADED FIRST CANNON FIRED
Thomas A. Wheat Began War at Fort Sumter and Quit at the End of the Strife.
———He is in his fifty-sixth year, but but does not look over 40. A typical soldier he must have been when he followed the red flag of the confederacy.He had just come in from his farm on the Oostanaula river, nine miles from Rome, where he has lived since the war, when he was pointed out to me as Thomas A. Wheat, the man who fired the first gun of the war.He wore an old overcoat of confederate gray, which was getting to be pretty badly frayed around the hem, and shows the effects of hard usage, but he has taken such good care of it that it is still a very serviceable garment.He wore it not because he was not able to afford a better, for he is a farmer in very good circumstances, but because he is still a confederate to the core and ready to raise the old rebel yell whenever he hears "Dixie."
He belongs to a race that is rapidly passing away and their numbers are growing scarcer every year. He was twenty-one years of age on Christmas day 1860 and like a great many other country bred youths he wanted to see a little of the world. So he went down to Augusta from his home in middle Georgia and started out for a holiday frolic. It proved to be the most memorable outing of his life.The Star of the West affair that Wheat mentions was a civilian steamship sent to resupply Fort Sumter three weeks after South Carolina voted to secede from the Union. Citadel cadets on Morris Island fired on the ship January 9, 1861, hitting it three times and forcing it to leave Charleston Harbor. Technically, those were the first shots of the Civil War, but they didn't reverberate "round the world" like those of April 12.
"The boys," he said, "got after me to go with a crowd of them down to Charleston and fight the Yankees. I had nothing against the Yankees, but I was in for anything that promised a little sport, and I agreed to go with them.
"I was a strapping youngster and the recruiting officer took my name very readily and I was attached to a South Carolina battery and stationed on Sullivan's Island. I had heard a good deal of talk about the war but Bob Toombs and other fire-eaters had taught us to believe that the war would not be more than a breakfast spell and that we would whip the Yankees so easily that if a fellow did not keep right at the front he would not get a chance to share in the fun.
"I found out better later on. After the Star of the West affair, we knew there was some movement on foot and were not surprised when the long roll sounded just after midnight on the morning of April 13, 1861, and we were ordered to take our places at the guns.
"It was my business to load the first cartridge for the ten-inch mortar, and while our commander, Captain Hallenquist, took his station near the gun, I measured out the powder, loaded the cartridge, and cut the fuse.
"It was just growing light and the fog hung heavy on the water between our position and Fort Sumter. We could see the dim outlines of the old fort and back to the landward, as the mist thinned, we could see figures moving to and fro along the battery in Charleston. It was the crowd gathering to witness the attack on the fort.
"Suddenly the signal was given, just as the fog lifted and revealed the outlines of the fort, and springing backward, Captain Hallenquist pulled the lanyard. 'Bomb!' the shot rang out and was echoed and re-echoed from shore to shore, and the frightened water fowls flew shrinking in every direction. It was like a clap of thunder from a clear sky, but in a moment the wild cheering of the crowd along the battery was borne across the water.
"My blood was up, and in a twinkling another charge was rammed down the black throat of the old mortar, and I was permitted to fire the second shot. Had I known all that it meant then, I might not have been so eager for the honor, but I was young and my blood was hot, and I was ready for anything that might turn up.
"The firing, of course, became general, and the guns from old Sumter answered our challenge and the deep baying of the war dogs soon became a continuous roar. I was kept so busy working the guns that I paid little heed to what was going on until the order came to cease firing.
"Then I saw the officers in the boat being rowed across to the fort to complete the articles of surrender. A detachment, including myself, was sent over to the fort, and we witnessed the entire proceedings. Of course that is a part of history, but I witnessed one tragedy connected with the surrender that I have never seen mentioned in any of the accounts.
"When Anderson got ready to leave he fired a salute of thirteen guns, as you know. He had planted a number of hand grenades along the ramparts, and the grass catching fire caused one of them to explode, killing one of his men. He was buried near the walls of the fort, and his grave was marked so that the body could be removed afterward, I suppose.
"Well, I witnessed the burial, and, in 1862, when the Federals bombarded the fort in their turn, I witnessed his resurrection in a most unexpected manner. The spot where he was buried was exposed to the federal fire, and suddenly a 300-pound Parrott shell went screaming through the air and fell plump on the soldier's grave and exploded. It tore a hole in the soft earth as big as a small house, smashed the coffin into a thousand fragments, and scattered the remains of the poor fellow to the four winds of heaven.
"I remained in the service during the four long, weary years that followed, and escaped without a scratch and without being captured until we reached Salisbury, N.C., in 1865, when we surrendered to the Fifteenth Pennsylvania Regiment. Captain Waggoner [Major Wagner] was in command and the boys played a sort of joke on me, telling him that I was the worst rebel in the army and that I had fired the first shot at Fort Sumter and was responsible for the whole trouble.
"'So,' said he, 'you are the cause of all this trouble. Why did you fire that shot at Fort Sumter?'
"'Because we wanted to capture it,' said I, trying to brave it out, for I had a horror of being sent to prison, and I thought that the best plan was to put a bold face on the matter.
"'Well,' said he, seeming to consider the question a little, 'if I give you your parole will you promise to go home and not bear arms against the United States any more?'
"'That depends on what the other boys do, Captain,' I replied. 'If they are ready to quit I am, but if they get into it again I shall have to help them out.'
"Captain Waggoner seemed to be a clever sort of fellow, for he gave me my parole and a ham and sent me back to my command. We came home and I settled down here and have been trying to make a living ever since. But I have had the honor of drinking a glass of wine with Beauregard, who complimented me on being the man who opened the ball at Fort Sumter."
As he seated himself in the photographer's chair, the latter remarked to him:
"Now, Mr. Wheat, "look just here and imagine that you are watching for that shell to strike the wall of Fort Sumter," and a grim smile lighted up the rugged features of the old veteran as the exposure was made. With his slouched hat and old gray overcoat buttoned up to his chin, the brass buttons showing the "I" of his old branch of service, he looked the typical confederate soldier of 1865, just home from the camps around Richmond.
He is a remarkably well-preserved man of superior attainment and of superb courage. He is very highly respected in the community where he lives and is full of fun and ready for any sort of a frolic. He claims to be the swiftest runner in his neighborhood and is ready to back up the assertion by running a race with any of the young men who doubt his speed and endurance.
Daniel J. Carey, who lives in Dalton, is the man who fired the first gun in the attack on the Star of the West that preceded the attack on Fort Sumter. He was a member of the South Carolina Zouaves and was stationed as a patrol on the beach. They expected the Harriet Lane but the federal thought to elude the vigilance of the South Carolina troops, there was no confederacy then, by sending the Star of the West through the channel to Fort Sumter.
It was about 11 o'clock in the morning, Carey says, when the vessel hove in sight. There were a number of smooth-bore guns planted on shore so as to command the channel and when the vessel came near enough he fired his musket as a signal. Immediately afterwards the big guns opened on the vessel and at the ninth shot her commander struck his colors.
So Carey claims the distinction of having fired the first shot of the war. But my friend Wheat comes nearer up to my ideal of a real confederate veteran than any man that I have met since the dark days that followed the surrender, and the old soldier still glories in his career as a warrior.MONTGOMERY M. FOLSOM
On the other hand, it's impressive that the details he gave to the Yankees in 1865 match those he recited in 1896 to Folsom. He was correct in naming Capt. James H. Hallonquist, a West Point graduate who commanded the Enfilade Battery on Sullivan's Island. Those four cannons pounded Fort Sumter with 1,825 shots—almost one shot every minute.
Regardless of his actual role in "the shot heard round the world," there is wonderful irony in Wheat's claim to have witnessed the surrender of Major Robert Anderson at Fort Sumter. Because the Yankees who captured Wheat on April 10, 1865, in Salem were from the Fifteenth Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry, who called themselves "the Anderson Troop" in honor of Major Anderson.
———* NOTE: Wheat's middle initial is listed as H on the regimental rosters maintained by the National Park Service, A according to Folsom's story, and W per Weand. It's also puzzling that Folsom says that Wheat's coat had "I" buttons (for infantry) when the records show that he was in the artillery instead.
NEXT: The Medal of Honor and even bigger prizes