When Fort Sumter was fired on in 1861, modern America was born

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The Civil War began here shortly before dawn when a mortar on the starlit beach fired a single shot high into the sky over this proud and elegant city.

From Fort Sumter, the gun’s target out in the harbor, and from points ashore, people watched the shell arc overhead, the path marked by its burning fuse.

It was a fateful moment — one of the most profound in U.S. history — and in many ways the moment modern America was born.

Turn back the pages of the nation’s story, chapter by chapter, decade by decade, across the past century and a half, and you eventually get here: a place of pilgrimage today, where 700,000 people come every year to imagine what it was like.

April 12, 1861. Capt. George S. James of the South Carolina battalion of artillery, standing by his stubby gun on the beach, holding his pocket watch, waiting to open fire

In town, on Meeting Street, the bells of white-steepled St. Michael’s church strike 4 a.m. The minutes pass. At 4:30, there is the distant flash of James’s gun. A delayed boom, like a firework on the Fourth of July....

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