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Davis on the surrender of Ft Sumter - History

Davis on the surrender of Ft Sumter - History


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HERE, in the brief hour immediately before the outburst of the long-gathering storm, although it can hardly be necessary for the reader who has carefully considered what has already been written, we may pause for a moment to contemplate the attitude of the parties to the contest and the grounds on which they respectively stand. I do not now refer to the original causes of controversy-to the comparative claims of statehood and union, or to the question of the right or the wrong of secession -but to the proximate and immediate causes of conflict.

The fact that South Carolina was a state whatever her relations may have been to the other states-is not and cannot be denied. It is equally undeniable that the ground on which Fort Sumter was built was ceded by South Carolina to the United States in trust for the defense of her own soil and her own chief harbor. This has been shown, by ample evidence, to have been the principle governing all cessions by the states of sites for military purposes, but it applies with special force to the case of Charleston. The streams flowing into that harbor, from source to mouth, lie entirely within the limits of the state of South Carolina. No other state or combination of states could have any distinct interest or concern in the maintenance of a fortress at that point, unless as a means of aggression against South Carolina herself. The practical view of the case was correctly stated by Douglas, when he said: "I take it for granted that whoever permanently holds Charleston and South Carolina is en-titled to the possession of Fort Sumter. Whoever permanently holds Pensacola and Florida is entitled to the possession of Fort Pickens. Whoever holds the States in whose limits those forts are placed is entitled to the forts themselves, unless there is something peculiar in the location of some particular fort that makes it important for us to hold it for the general defense of the whole country, its commerce and interests, instead of being useful only for the defense of a particular city or locality."

No such necessity could be alleged with regard to Fort Sumter. The claim to hold it as "public property of the United States was utterly untenable and unmeaning, apart from a claim of coercive control over the state. If South Carolina was a mere province, in a state of open rebellion, the government of the United States had a right to retain its hold of any fortified place within her limits which happened to be in its possession, and it would have had an equal right to acquire possession of any other. It would have had the same right to send an army to Columbia to batter down the walls of the state Capitol. The subject may at once be stripped of the sophistry which would make a distinction between the two cases. The one was as really an act of war as the other would have been. The right or the wrong of enter depended entirely upon the question of the rightful power of the federal government to coerce a state into submission-a power which, as we have seen, was unanimously rejected in the formation of the federal Constitution, and which was still unrecognized by many, perhaps by a majority, even of those who denied the right of a state to secede.

If there existed any hope or desire for a peaceful settlement of the questions at issue between the states, either party had a right to demand that, pending such settlement, there should be no hostile grasp upon its throat. This grip had been held on the throat of South Carolina for almost four months from the period of her secession, and no forcible resistance to it had yet been made. Remonstrance's and patient, persistent, and reiterated attempts at negotiation for its removal had been made with two successive administrations of the government of the United States-at first by the state of South Carolina, and by the government of the Confederate States after its formation. These efforts had been met, not by an open avowal of coercive purposes, but by evasion, prevarication, and perfidy. The agreement of one administration to maintain the status quo at the time when the question arose, was violated in December by the removal of the garrison from its original position to the occupancy of a stronger. Another attempt was made to violate it, in January, by the introduction of troops concealed below the deck of the steamer Star of the 'West but this was thwarted by the vigilance of the state service. The protracted course of fraud and prevarication practiced by Lincoln's administration in the months of March and April has been fully exhibited. It was evident that no confidence whatever could be reposed in any pledge or promise of the federal government as then administered. Yet, notwithstanding all this, no resistance, other than that of pacific protest and appeals for an equitable settlement, was made until after the avowal of a purpose of coercion, and when it was known that a hostile fleet was on the way to support and enforce it. At the very moment when the Confederate commander gave the final notice to Major Anderson of his purpose to open fire upon the fort, that fleet was lying off the mouth of the harbor, and hindered from entering only by a gale of wind.

The forbearance of the Confederate government, under the circumstances, is perhaps unexampled in history. It was carried to the extreme verge, short of a disregard of the safety of the people who had entrusted to that government the duty of their defense against their enemies. The attempt to represent us as the aggressors in the conflict which ensued is as unfounded as the complaint made by the wolf against the lamb in the familiar fable. He who makes the assault is not necessarily be that strikes the first blow or fires the first gun. To have awaited further strengthening of their position by land and naval forces, with hostile purpose now declared, for the sake of having them fire the first gun, would have been as unwise as it would be to hesitate to strike down the arm of the assailant, who levels a deadly weapon at one's breast, until he has actually fired. The disingenuous rant of demagogues about "firing on the flag" might serve to rouse the passions of insensate mobs in times of general excitement, but will be impotent in impartial history to relieve the federal government from the responsibility of the assault made by sending a hostile fleet against the harbor of Charleston, to cooperate with the menacing garrison of Fort Sumter. After the assault was made by the hostile descent of the fleet, the reduction of Fort Sumter was a measure of defense rendered absolutely and immediately necessary.

Such clearly was the idea of the commander of the, when be declined, as Captain Fox informs us, without orders from a superior, to make any effort to enter the harbor, "there to inaugurate civil war." The straightforward simplicity of the sailor had not been perverted by the shams of political sophistry. Even Horace Greeley, with all his extreme partisan feeling, is obliged to admit that "whether the bombardment and reduction of Fort Sumter shall or shall not be justified by posterity, it is clear that the Confederacy had no alternative but its own dissolution."

According to the notice given by General Beauregard, fire was opened upon Fort Sumter from the various batteries which had been erected around the harbor, at half-past four o'clock on the morning of Friday, April 12, 1861. The fort soon responded. It is not the purpose of this work to give minute details of the military operation, as the events of the bombardment have been often related, and are generally well known, with no material discrepancy in matters of fact among the statements of the various participants. It is enough, therefore, to add that the bombardment continued for about thirty-three or thirty-four hours. The fort was eventually set on fire by shells, after having been partly destroyed by shot, and Major Anderson, after a resolute defense, finally surrendered on the 13th-the same terms being accorded to him which had been offered two days before. It is a remarkable fact-probably without precedent in the annals of war-that notwithstanding the extent and magnitude of the engagement, the number and caliber of the guns, and the amount of damage done to inanimate material on both sides, especially to Fort Sumter, nobody was injured on either side by the bombardment. The only casualty attendant upon the affair was the death of one man and the wounding of several others by the explosion of a gun in the firing of a salute to their flag by the garrison on evacuating the fort the day after the surrender.

A striking incident marked the close of the bombardment. Ex-Senator Louis T. Wigfall of Texas a man as generous as he was recklessly brave when he saw the fort on fire, supposing the garrison to be hopelessly struggling for the honor of its flag, voluntarily and without authority, went under fire in an open boat to the fort, and climbing through one of its embrasures asked for Major Anderson, and insisted that he should surrender a fort which it was palpably impossible that he could hold. Major Anderson agreed to surrender on the same terms and conditions that had been offered him before his works were battered in breach, and the agreement between them to that effect was promptly ratified by the Confederate commander. Thus unofficially was inaugurated the surrender and evacuation of the fort.

The President of the United States, in his message of July 4, 1861, to the federal Congress convened in extra session, said:

"It is thus seen that the assault upon and reduction of Fort Sumter was in no sense a matter of self-defense on the part of the assailants. They well knew that the garrison in the fort could by no possibility commit aggression upon them. They knew they were expressly notified that the giving of bread to the few brave and hungry men of the garrison was all which would on that occasion be attempted, unless themselves, by resisting so much, should provoke more."

Lincoln well knew that, if the brave men of the garrison were hungry, they had only him and his trusted advisers to thank for it. They had been kept for months in a place where they ought not to have been contrary to the judgment of the general-in-chief of his army, contrary to the counsels of the wisest statesmen in his confidence, and the protests of the commander of the garrison. A word from him would have relieved them at any moment in the manner most acceptable to them and most promotive of peaceful results.

But suppose the Confederate authorities had been disposed to yield, and to consent to the introduction of supplies for the maintenance of the garrison, what assurance would they have had that nothing further would be attempted? What reliance could be placed in any assurances of the government of the United States after the experience of the, attempted ruse of the Star of the West and the deceptions practiced upon the Confederate commissioners in Washington? He says we were "expressly notified" that nothing more "would on that occasion be attempted' '-the words in italics themselves constituting a very significant though unobtrusive and innocent-looking limitation. But we had been just as expressly notified, long before, that the garrison would be withdrawn. It would be as easy to violate the one pledge as it had been to break the other.

Moreover, the so-called notification was a mere memorandum, without date, signature, or authentication of any kind, sent to Governor Pickens, not by an accredited agent, but by a subordinate employee of the State Department. Like the oral and written pledges of Seward, given through Judge Campbell, it seemed to be carefully and purposely divested of every attribute that could make it binding and valid, in case its authors should see fit to repudiate it. It was as empty and worthless as the complaint against the Confederate government based upon it is disingenuous.


Fort Sumter

The attack on Fort Sumter marked the official beginning of the American Civil War—a war that lasted four years, cost the lives of more than 620,000 Americans, and freed 3.9 million enslaved people from bondage.

How it ended

Confederate victory. With supplies nearly exhausted and his troops outnumbered, Union major Robert Anderson surrendered Fort Sumter to Brig. Gen. P.G.T Beauregard’s Confederate forces. Major Anderson and his men were allowed to strike their colors, fire a 100-gun salute, and board a ship bound for New York, where they were greeted as heroes. Both the North and South immediately called for volunteers to mobilize for war.

In context

By 1861, the country had already experienced decades of short-lived but ultimately failed compromises concerning the expansion of slavery in the United States and its territories. The election of Abraham Lincoln as president of the United States in 1860—a man who declared “I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free”—threatened the culture and economy of southern slave states and served as a catalyst for secession. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina seceded from the United States, and by February 2, 1861, six more states followed suit. Southern delegates met on February 4, 1861, in Montgomery, AL., and established the Confederate States of America, with Mississippi senator Jefferson Davis elected as its provisional president. Confederate militia forces began seizing United States forts and property throughout the south. With a lame-duck president in office, and a controversial president-elect poised to succeed him, the crisis approached a boiling point and exploded at Fort Sumter.

In Charleston, the birthplace of secession, tempers are on edge. A delegation from the state goes to Washington, D.C., demanding the surrender of the Federal military installations in the new “independent republic of South Carolina.” President James Buchanan refuses to comply. Charleston is the Confederacy’s most important port on the Southeast coast. The harbor is defended by three federal forts: Sumter Castle Pinckney, one mile off the city’s Battery and heavily armed Fort Moultrie, on Sullivan’s Island. Major Anderson’s command is based at Fort Moultrie, but with its guns pointed out to sea, it cannot defend a land attack. On December 26, Charlestonians awake to discover that Anderson and his tiny garrison of 90 men have slipped away from Fort Moultrie to the more defensible Fort Sumter. For secessionists, Anderson’s move is, as one Charlestonian wrote to a friend, “like casting a spark into a magazine,”

Adding to the major’s concern is his dangerously dwindling store of supplies. On January 5, 1861, the Star of the West departs from New York with some 200 reinforcements and provisions for the Sumter garrison. As the ship approaches Charleston Harbor on January 9, cadets from the Citadel fire, forcing the crew to abandon its mission. On March 1, Jefferson Davis orders Brig. Gen P.G.T. Beauregard to take command of the growing southern forces in Charleston. On April 4, Lincoln informs southern delegates that he intends to attempt to resupply Fort Sumter, as its garrison is now critically in need. To South Carolinians, any attempt to reinforce Sumter means war. “Now the issue of battle is to be forced upon us,” declared the Charleston Mercury. “We will meet the invader, and the God of Battles must decide the issue between the hostile hirelings of Abolition hate and Northern tyranny.”

On April 9, Davis and the Confederate cabinet decide to “strike a blow!” Davis orders Beauregard to take Fort Sumter. The next day, three of Beauregard’s aides sail to the fort and courteously demand the garrison’s surrender. Anderson is equally courteous, but refuses: “I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your communication demanding the evacuation of this fort, and to say, in reply thereto, that it is a demand with which I regret that my sense of honor, and of my obligations to my Government, prevent my compliance.” He also informs the delegation that the garrison’s supplies will only last until April 15.


The Telegram That Broke News of the Civil War

Following South Carolina’s secession from the United States and Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration as President, on April 10, 1861, Brigadier General Pierre G.T. Beauregard of the provisional Confederate forces demanded the surrender of the besieged U.S. garrison of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

The rebel forces numbered 10,000 well-equipped men while the defenders had only sixty-eight soldiers with inferior armaments and scant food and supplies. But the fort’s commander, U.S. Army Major Robert Anderson, refused to concede.

On Friday, April 12 at 4:30 a.m., Confederate Lieutenant Henry S. Farley, commanding a battery of two 10-inch siege mortars on James Island, fired the first shot at the U.S. fort, beginning a long cannonade. At about 7:00 a.m., Captain Abner Doubleday, Sumter’s second in command, fired the first salvo in response, aware that his guns weren’t capable of reaching their target. The Confederates’ bombardment continued for thirty-four hours.

Realizing that resistance was futile and lacking hope of immediate reinforcements, Anderson raised a white flag of surrender on April 13 at 2:30 p.m.

He was allowed to evacuate the following day and escaped to the North. As soon as he was able to do so, on April 18 at 10:30 a.m. Anderson telegraphed from the steamship Baltic off Sandy Hook to U.S. Secretary of War Simon Cameron in Washington, informing him of what had transpired. "HAVING DEFENDED FORT SUMTER FOR THIRTY HOURS," he reported, "UNTIL THE QUARTERS WERE ENTIRELY BURNED THE MAIN GATES DESTROYED BY FIRE. THE GORGE WALLS SERIOUSLY INJURED. THE MAGAZINE SURROUNDED BY FLAMES AND ITS DOOR CLOSED FROM THE EFFECTS OF HEAT. " 

The document’s import was immediately clear. Robert Toombs, the Confederate Secretary of State, said at the time, "The firing upon that fort will inaugurate a civil war greater than any the world has yet seen." Upon receiving the telegram, President Lincoln ordered 75,000 volunteers and called Congress into session. The assault became a rallying cry for the Union cause.

Although the attack resulted in just two Union soldiers killed and two wounded, with no casualties on the other side, the incident marked the opening engagement of the exceptionally bloody Civil War.

The original Fort Sumter telegram is kept in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

This article is excerpted from Scott Christianson's "100 Documents That Changed The World," available November 10.

100 Documents That Changed the World

A tour of the history of the world through the declarations, manifestos, and agreements from the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence to Wikileaks.


The Civil War&rsquos First Shots

At 4:30 AM, April 11, 1861 Lt. Henry S. Farley, acting on the command of Captain George S James, fired the first shots of the Civil War. The first shot was a signal to the others to begin fire. Soon, in a counter-clockwise motion with 2-minute intervals, 43 guns opened fire on Fort Sumter. The shelling of Fort Sumter from the batteries ringing the harbor awakened Charleston&rsquos residents (including diarist Mary Chesnut), who rushed out into the predawn darkness to watch the shells arc over the water and burst inside the fort.

Major Anderson held his fire and waited for night to fall. When night came he would attempt to leave the fort peacefully, but the weather did not allow for that to happen. Unfortunately, Anderson did not have the manpower to man the 60 guns that were available and since the fort was built for sea invasions he did not have the proper cannons to fire at Fort Moultrie. He also did not want to risk casualties and did not place men on guns that would leave them exposed to enemy fire. Abner Doubleday fired the first shot in defense of the fort.

Although Sumter was a masonry fort, there were wooden buildings inside for barracks and officer quarters. The Confederates targeted these with Heated shot (cannonballs heated red hot in a furnace), starting fires that could prove more dangerous to the men than explosive artillery shells. At 7 p.m. on April 12, a rain shower extinguished the flames and at the same time the Union gunners stopped firing for the night. They slept fitfully, concerned about a potential infantry assault against the fort. During the darkness, the Confederates reduced their fire to four shots each hour. The following morning, the full bombardment resumed and the Confederates continued firing hot shot against the wooden buildings. By noon most of the wooden buildings in the fort and the main gate were on fire. The flames moved toward the main ammunition magazine, where 300 barrels of gunpowder were stored. The Union soldiers frantically tried to move the barrels to safety, but two-thirds were left when Anderson judged it was too dangerous and ordered the magazine doors closed. He ordered the remaining barrels thrown into the sea, but the tide kept floating them back together into groups, some of which were ignited by incoming artillery rounds. He also ordered his crews to redouble their efforts at firing, but the Confederates did the same, firing the hot shots almost exclusively. Many of the Confederate soldiers admired the courage and determination of the Yankees. When the fort had to pause its firing, the Confederates often cheered and applauded after the firing resumed and they shouted epithets at some of the nearby Union ships for failing to come to the fort&rsquos aid.


“History”!

It relates that on the night of April 12, 1861 a group of secession enthusiast headed by Roger Pryor visited Fort Sumter to demand immediate surrender of the garrison, a demand that its commander refused. Thereupon, dissatisfied with Major Anderson’s attitude, with no notification to Confederate General Beauregard and without approval of Jefferson Davis, Pryor took it upon himself to order an attack, and the bombardment began at once. The paragraph ends with the information, “Neither Davis nor Lincoln had ordered it. It was war.”

The Official record tells a different story. By instruction of Confederate Secretary of War Walker, Beauregard demanded evacuation of the Fort. Anderson declined to surrender but remarked on the hopelessness of his position. Thereupon, again by direction of Walker, Beauregard withdrew his demand, proposing that Anderson set his own date for leaving. The new proposal came to naught, whereupon Beauregard’s aides, Chestnut and Lee, personally informed Anderson: “By the authority of Brigadier-General Beauregard, we have the honor to notify you that he will open the fire of his batteries on Fort Sumter within one hour from this time.”

Note carefully the “history”, that “Neither Davis nor Lincoln had ordered” the bombardment.


Fort Sumter

The clouds of war were swirling across the United States in early 1861. The election of Abraham Lincoln to President of the United States in November of 1860 served as a catalyst for secession throughout the Deep South. After decades of short-lived but ultimately failed compromises largely revolving around the expansion of slavery in the United States and its territories, many in the South felt that after Lincoln assumed office on March 4, 1861, “The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.” Others claimed that their “position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world…and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.”

Thus, on December 20, 1860, South Carolina seceded from the United States, and by February 2, 1861, six more states followed suit. Southern delegates met on February 4, 1861, in Montgomery, AL., and established the Confederate States of America, and Mississippi senator Jefferson Davis was elected as its provisional president. Rebel militia forces began seizing United States forts and property throughout the south. With a lame-duck president in office, and a controversial president-elect poised to take office, the crisis approached its boiling point.

War could erupt at any moment, with Federal installations threatened in Pensacola, Florida, and Charleston, South Carolina. An uneasy truce of sorts had been worked out in Pensacola between the newly appointed Confederate commander in the area, Brig. Gen. Braxton Bragg, and his Union counterparts. In Charleston, it was a different case. In the birthplace of session, tempers were on edge. A delegation from the state went to Washington, D.C., demanding the surrender of the Federal military instillations in the new “independent republic of South Carolina.” President James Buchanan refused to back down to the rebels. Meantime, the situation in Charleston grew tenser. On December 26, 1860, the Federal commander of the Charleston defenses, Maj. Robert Anderson moved his tiny garrison of fewer than 90 men from Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island to Fort Sumter, situated in the middle of Charleston Harbor. Construction of this fort began in 1829, and as of 1860, it was still under construction.

Anderson’s move enraged many Charlestonians. The plight of Anderson’s men was made worse by the fact that his garrison was running low on supplies. On January 5, 1861, the Star of the West departed from New York with some 200 reinforcements and provisions for the Sumter garrison. As the ship approached Charleston Harbor on January 9, cadets from the Citadel fired on the ship forcing the crew to abandon its mission. On March 1, Davis ordered Brig. Gen. Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard to take command of the growing southern forces in Charleston.

Both sides communicated throughout March and the first week of April. Lincoln informed southern delegates that he intended to attempt to resupply Fort Sumter, as its garrison was now critically low on supplies.

On April 9, Davis and the Confederate cabinet decided to “strike a blow!” The next day, Davis ordered Beauregard to reduce Fort Sumter. Beauregard and Anderson exchanged messages. The Creole sent three aides to the fort—Col. James Chesnut, Jr. Capt. Stephen D. Lee and Lt. A. R. Chisolm—demanding the garrison surrender. Anderson refused but did inform the delegation that the garrison’s supplies would be exhausted by April 15. The delegation made their way to a battery on James Island commanded by Lt. Henry S. Farley. At 4:30 a.m. on April 12, Farley pulled the lanyard of a ten-inch siege mortar. A flaming shot arched into the air and exploded over Fort Sumter. Upon this signal, Confederate guns from fortifications and floating batteries around Charleston Harbor roared to life. Outmanned, outgunned, undersupplied, and nearly surrounded by enemy batteries, Anderson waited until around 7:00 a.m. to respond. His response was from a 32-pounder cannon commanded by Capt. Abner Doubleday.

For nearly 36 hours the two sides kept up this unequal contest. A shell struck the flag pole of Fort Sumter, and the American flag fell to the earth, only to be hoisted back upon the hastily repaired pole. Confederates fired hotshot from Fort Moultrie into Fort Sumter. Buildings began to burn within the fort. With supplies nearly exhausted, and in a no-win situation, Anderson surrendered Fort Sumter to Confederate forces at 2:30 p.m. on April 13. Major Anderson and his men were allowed to strike their colors, fire a 100-gun salute, and board a ship bound for New York with their personal baggage. Sadly, the only casualties at Fort Sumter came during the 100-gun salute when a round exploded prematurely, killing Pvt. Daniel Hough and mortally wounding another soldier. Anderson and his men were greeted in New York as heroes, and Beauregard, too, was propelled to hero status in the south.

With the firing on Fort Sumter, the American Civil War was officially upon both the North and the South—a war that lasted four years and cost the lives of more than 620,000 Americans and freed 3.9 million people from the bondage of slavery.


Aftermath

Union losses in the battle numbered two killed and the loss of the fort while the Confederates reported four wounded. The bombardment of Fort Sumter was the opening battle of the Civil War and launched the nation into four years of bloody fighting. Anderson returned north and toured as a national hero. During the war, several attempts were made to recapture the fort with no success. Union forces finally took possession of the fort after Major General William T. Sherman's troops captured Charleston in February 1865. On April 14, 1865, Anderson returned to the fort to re-hoist the flag he had been forced to lower four years earlier.


Fort Sumter

Fort Sumter was a fortified federal facility whose purpose was to guard the mouth of Charleston harbor. It was constructed in the 1830s on a man-made island composed of granite and seashells. The fort boasted walls eight to 12 feet thick and 50 feet high. By 1861 Fort Sumter was in some disrepair and meagerly manned, but was one of two major federal installations in the South that had not been taken over by Confederate forces. The commander, Major Robert Anderson, had sent word to Washington that supplies were running low. The political leaders on both sides faced a dilemma. Jefferson Davis was not anxious to move against Fort Sumter or Fort Pickens (at Pensacola, Florida). He felt strongly that it was necessary to secure a foreign alliance before hostilities began. Further, more time was needed to lure other slave states into the Confederacy. This caution angered radical Southerners. Abraham Lincoln also wanted to move with caution. Fearing assassination, he had disguised himself for the train ride into Washington for his inauguration in March 1861. He hoped to prevent the still-loyal slave states from joining the Confederacy. When word of Anderson’s plight arrived, Lincoln decided to resupply the fort rather than surrender it. The onus for firing the first shot would rest on the South. Lincoln informed South Carolina authorities that he was dispatching a ship carrying food, not arms. The state officials decided that allowing the ship to pass would amount to cowardice and instructed General P.G.T. Beauregard to open artillery fire on April 12, 1861. Fort Sumter surrendered the next day. The Civil War had begun. Lincoln commenced mobilization by summoning militia forces and putting out a call for volunteers. A blockade of Southern port cities was proclaimed. Before the end of May the states of Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina joined the Confederacy, bringing the total number of seceded states to eleven.


When They Got the News of Fort Sumter

Mary Chesnut of Charleston, South Carolina, aristocratic wife of lawyer and former U.S. Senator James Chesnut, did not need any newspapers to tell her of the firing on Fort Sumter. Her husband, serving now as a colonel with the South Carolina militia, had been actively involved in the negotiations with Federal troops in the fort out in Charleston harbor. In the dark hours before dawn on April 12, 1861, Mary Chesnut lay in bed, fully aware that Confederate forces would commence a bombardment at 4:30 if the Federals did not abandon the fort.

She could not sleep. “I count four St. Michael’s bells chime out,” she later wrote, “and I begin to hope. At half-past four the heavy booming of a cannon. I sprang out of bed, and on my knees prostrate I prayed as I never prayed before. There was a sound of stir all over the house, pattering of feet in the corridors. All seemed hurrying one way. I put on my double-gown and a shawl and went, too. It was to the housetop. The shells were bursting. In the dark I heard a man say, ‘Waste of ammunition.'”

In other places further from Charleston, the news of the bombardment on April 12 and the surrender of the fort on April 13 arrived almost simultaneously.

Near midnight on April 13, Walt Whitman, poet and New York journalist, had just come from an opera on 14th Street. He was walking down Broadway, on his way to Brooklyn, when he heard newsboys shouting, louder than usual, causing a tremendous scene. Curious, Whitman bought a paper, then crossed the street to the steps of the Metropolitan Hotel where the bright gas lamps allowed him to read it.

“For the benefit of some who had no papers,” he later wrote, “one of us read the telegram aloud, while all listened silently and attentively. No remark was made by any of the crowd, which had increased to thirty or forty, but all stood a minute or two, I remember, before they dispersed. I can almost see them there now, under the lamps at midnight again.”

Another writer and journalist, Mary Livermore, was in Boston when she heard the news. Livermore would become a prominent leader in the United States Sanitary Commission during the war to come. On April 12, she had arrived in Boston, her native city, to help care for her dying father. She was tending to him on April 13 when the news arrived.

Despite the fervor in the days leading up to the battle, to Livermore the news still seemed unreal. The South’s “high-sounding talk of war was obstinately regarded as empty gasconade, and its military preparations, as the idle bluster of angry disappointment.” Therefore, when she heard of the surrender of the fort, the news struck her “like a thunderbolt.” When they informed her father, on his deathbed, he turned his face to the wall and cried, “My God, now let me die! For I cannot survive the ruin of my country.”

William Tecumseh Sherman, a former U.S. Army officer, had just taken a job as president of a street car company, the St. Louis Railroad. He and his wife had occupied a house in St. Louis just two weeks earlier. It was a city bitterly divided between unionists and secessionists and Sherman, “tried my best to keep out of the current and only talked freely with a few men.” On April 14th when the news reached St. Louis, Sherman later wrote, “We then knew that war was actually begun.”

Shortly thereafter, Sherman was summoned to the home of Francis Blair, an influential politician, who informed him that the current Federal commander in Missouri, General Harney, was to be removed and Blair wanted Sherman to take the job. “I told him I…had made business engagements in St. Louis, which I could not throw off at pleasure that I had long deliberated on my course of action, and must decline his offer, however tempting and complimentary. He reasoned with me, but I persisted.” Sherman’s refusal made his friends question his loyalty to the Union.

Ulysses Grant, another former U.S. Army officer, was working as a leather goods merchant in Galena, Illinois. On April 15, Lincoln issued the call for troops to put down the rebellion. The day that Lincoln’s call reached Galena, the citizens organized a mass meeting at the court house to recruit a company. Grant was asked to preside over the meeting because he had been a soldier, although several people expressed their disappointment that a newcomer to the city, and one so poor at public speaking, presided over so important an occasion. They nonetheless offered Grant the captaincy of the company they raised. He declined.

There were radicals on both sides who actually welcomed war. One of them was abolitionist Frederick Douglass. “God be praised!” he wrote not long after receiving the news, “war has come at last!…The slaveholders themselves have saved the abolition cause from ruin. The government is aroused, the dead North is alive, and its people united…Drums are beating, men are enlisting, companies forming, regiments marching, banners are flying…”

On the morning of April 18, an exhausted Major Robert Anderson was aboard the steamship Baltic off of Sandy Hook in Lower New York Bay. Just days after evacuating Fort Sumter, he and his troops were about to disembark in New York City.

Too weary to write himself, he had an aide take down his official report to the War Department. “Having defended Fort Sumter thirty-four hours, until our quarters were entirely burned, the main gates destroyed by fire….four barrels and three cartridges of powder only being available, and no provisions but pork remaining. I accepted the terms of evacuation offered by General Beauregard….and marched out of the fort on Saturday afternoon, the 14th inst., with colors flying and drums beating….and saluting my flag with fifty guns.”

The departure of the 7th New York by Thomas Nast. Major Anderson flew the Fort Sumter flag from the flagstaff on the building at left.

He probably had cause to wonder about his reception in New York. He must have been greatly relieved when he was greeted by massive throngs, cheering him, crazed with excitement. On April 19, Major Anderson was present for the departure of the 7th New York Regiment, and was asked to stand with the dignitaries on Broadway. He even hoisted the flag that had flown at Fort Sumter which he had taken with him, much to the delight of the wild crowd. The next day he again displayed the flag at a war rally in Union Square attended by 100,000 people, the largest assembly in North America up to that time.

It was all parade, pomp and pride on both sides. Then, three months after Fort Sumter, Mary Chestnut, who had heard the first guns, had a sobering check to her enthusiasm during a visit with Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

“His tone was not sanguine,” she wrote in her diary, “There was a sad refrain running through it all. For one thing, either way, he thinks it will be a long war. That floored me at once. It has been too long for me already. Then he said, before the end came we would have many a bitter experience.”

Perhaps President Davis, who had ordered the firing on Fort Sumter, was one of the few who truly grasped the enormity of what was to unfold.

[Sources: Mary Chesnut, A Diary from Dixie, (1905), p. 35 and 71 Walt Whitman, Specimen Days, (1882), p. 21 Mary Livermore, My Story of the War, (1889), p. 86 William T. Sherman, Memoirs of General William T. Sherman, (1875), p. 170 Ulysses Grant, Personal Memoirs, (1998 ed.), p. 116 Stephen Oates, The Approaching Fury, (1998), p. 423 Robert Watson, White House Studies Compendium vol. 2, (2006), p. 316.]


Watch the video: North and South - Battle of Fort Sumter (June 2022).


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