April 1861 The Civil War

Charleston Under Arms

A Northern journalist records his visit to Charleston during the Fort Sumter standoff.
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A Currier & Ives lithograph depicting the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, April 1861.


On December 20, 1860, fearing the consequences of Abraham Lincoln’s election as president the previous month, South Carolina withdrew from the Union. But federal forces still held Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor, and a tense standoff ensued as Confederate forces massed along the shore.

A month into the standoff, the Connecticut-born journalist John William De Forest ventured south to Charleston, where he wandered the streets, took note of the mood, and asked South Carolinians for their thoughts, recording his observations for the pages of The Atlantic. The month his piece was published, Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter and the Civil War began.

—Sage Stossel

On Saturday morning, January 19, 1861, the steamer Columbia, from New York, lay off the harbor of Charleston in full sight of Fort Sumter. It is a circumstance which perhaps would never have reached the knowledge of the magazine-reading world, nor have been of any importance to it, but for the attendant fact that I, the writer of this article, was on board the steamer. It takes two events to make a consequence, as well as two parties to make a bargain.

The sea was smooth; the air was warmish and slightly misty; the low coast showed bare sand and forests of pines …

And here, in the midst of all things … at the entrance of the harbor proper, and nearly equidistant from either shore, though nearest the southern, frowned Fort Sumter, a huge and lofty and solid mass of brickwork with stone embrasures, all rising from a foundation of ragged granite boulders washed by the tides. The port-holes were closed; a dozen or so of monstrous cannon peeped from the summit; two or three sentinels paced slowly along the parapet; the stars and stripes blew out from the lofty flag-staff … Its whole air is massive, commanding, and formidable.

Eighty or a hundred citizens, volunteers, cadets from the military academy, policemen, and negroes, greeted the arrival of the Columbia at her wharf …

[Charleston’s] streets are well-policed, untrodden by mobs, and as orderly as those of most cities … in short, the revolution so far has been political, and not social. At the same time exports and imports have nearly ceased; business, even in the retail form, is stagnant; the banks have suspended; debts are not paid.

After dinner I walked up to the Citadel square and saw a drill of the Home Guard. About thirty troopers, all elderly men, and several with white hair and whiskers, uniformed in long overcoats of homespun gray, went through some of the simpler cavalry evolutions in spite of their horses’ teeth. The Home Guard is a volunteer police force, raised because of the absence of so many of the young men of the city at the islands, and because of the supposed necessity of keeping a strong hand over the negroes. A malicious citizen assured me that it was in training to take Fort Sumter by charging upon it at low water …

Our hotel was full of legislators and volunteer officers, mostly planters or sons of planters, and almost without exception men of standing and property. South Carolina is an oligarchy in spirit, and allows no plebeians in high places. Two centuries of plenteous feeding and favorable climate showed their natural results in the physique of these people. I do not think that I exaggerate, when I say that they averaged six feet or nearly in height, and one hundred and seventy pounds or thereabouts in weight … They struck me as less tidy than the same class when I saw it four years ago; and I made a similar remark concerning the citizens of Charleston,—not only men, but women,—from whom dandified suits and superb silks seem to have departed during the present martial time. Indeed, I heard that economy was the order of the day; that the fashionables of Charleston bought nothing new, partly because of the money pressure, and partly because the guns of Major Anderson might any day send the whole city into mourning; that patrician families had discharged their foreign cooks and put their daughters into the kitchen; that there were no concerts, no balls, and no marriages …

My first conversation in Charleston on Secession was with an estimable friend, Northern-born, but drawing breath of Southern air ever since he attained the age of manhood. After the first salutation, he sat down, his hands on his knees, gazing on the floor, and shaking his head soberly, if not sadly.

“You have found us in a pretty fix,—in a pretty fix!”

“But what are you going to do? Are you really going out? You are not a politician, and will tell me the honest facts.”

“Yes, we are going out,—there is no doubt of it. I have not been a seceder,—I have even been called one of the disaffected; but I am obliged to admit that secession is the will of the community. Perhaps you at the North don’t believe that we are honest in our professions and actions. We are so. The Carolinians really mean to go out of the Union, and don’t mean to come back. They say that they are out, and they believe it. And now, what are you going to do with us? What is the feeling at the North?”

“The Union must and shall be preserved, at all hazards. That famous declaration expresses the present Northern popular sentiment. When I left, people were growing martial; they were joining military companies; they wanted to fight; they were angry.”

“So I supposed. That agrees with what I hear by letter. Well, I am very sorry for it. Our people here will not retreat; they will accept a war, first. If you preserve the Union, it must be by conquest. I suppose you can do it, if you try hard enough. The North is a great deal stronger than the South; it can desolate it,—crush it. But I hope it won’t be done … Our people believe that the States are independent and have a right to recede from the Confederation without asking its leave. With few exceptions, all agree on that; it is honest, common public opinion. The South Carolinians sincerely think that they are exercising a right, and you may depend that they will not be reasoned nor frightened out of it; and if the North tries coercion, there will be war. I don’t say this defiantly, but sadly, and merely because I want you to know the truth”

Such was the substance of several conversations …

“Why do you venture on this doubtful future?” I asked of one gentleman … “Your great grievance is the election of Lincoln?”

“Yes” …

“Is Lincoln considered here to be a bad or dangerous man?”

“Not personally. I understand that he is a man of excellent private character, and I have nothing to say against him as a ruler, inasmuch as he has never been tried. Mr. Lincoln is simply a sign to us that we are in danger, and must provide for our own safety.”

“You secede, then, solely because you think his election proves that the mass of the Northern people is adverse to you and your interests?”

“Yes.”

“So Mr. Wigfall of Texas hit the nail on the head, when he said substantially that the South cannot be at peace with the North until the latter concedes that slavery is right?”

“Well,—I admit it; that is precisely it.”

I desire the reader to note the loyal frankness, the unshrinking honesty of these avowals, so characteristic of the South Carolina morale … All those Charlestonians whom I talked with I found open-hearted in their secession, and patient of my open-heartedness as an advocate of the Union …

“But have you looked at the platform of the Republicans?” I proceeded. “It is not adverse to slavery in the States; it only objects to its entrance into the Territories; it is not an Abolition platform.”

“We don’t trust in the platform; we believe that it is an incomplete expression of the party creed,—that it suppresses more than it utters. The spirit which keeps the Republicans together is enmity to slavery, and that spirit will never be satisfied until the system is extinct” …

When I asked one gentleman what the South expected to gain by going out, he replied, “First, safety. Our slaves have heard of Lincoln,—that he is a black man, or black Republican, or black something,—that he is to become ruler of this country the fourth of March,—that he is a friend of theirs, and will free them. We must establish our independence in order to make them believe that they are beyond his help” …

My impression is, that a prevalent, though not a universal fear, existed lest the negroes should rise in partial insurrections on or about the fourth of March. A Northern man, who had lived for several years in the back-country of South Carolina, had married there, and had lately travelled through a considerable portion of the South, informed me that many of the villages were lately forming Home Guards, as a measure of defence against the slave population …

[Peaceable secession] is what is most particularly desired at Charleston, and, I believe, throughout the Cotton States … Not only Governor Pickens and his Council, but nearly all the influential citizens, were opposed to bloodshed. They demanded independence and Fort Sumter, but desired and hoped to get both by argument …

“We shall never attack Fort Sumter,” said one gentleman. “Don’t you see why? I have a son in the trenches, my next neighbor has one, everybody in the city has one. Well, we shan’t let our boys fight; we can’t bear to lose them. We don’t want to risk our handsome, genteel, educated young fellows against a gang of Irishmen, Germans, British deserters, and New York roughs, not worth killing, and yet instructed to kill to the best advantage. We can’t endure it, and we shan’t do it”

Other men, anti-secessionists even, assured me that war was inevitable, that Fort Sumter would be attacked, that the volunteers were panting for the strife, that Governor Pickens was excessively unpopular because of his peaceful inclinations, and that he would soon be forced to give the signal for battle … Several dull and costly weeks had passed since the passage of the secession ordinance. Stump-speeches, torchlight-processions, fireworks, and other jubilations, were among bygone things … It must not be understood, however, that there was any visible discontent or even discouragement. “We are suffering in our affairs,” said a business-man to me; “but you will hear no grumbling.” “We expect to be poor, very poor, for two or three years,” observed a lady; “but we are willing to bear it, for the sake of the noble and prosperous end” …

During the ten days of my sojourn, Charleston was full of surprising reports and painful expectations. If a door slammed, we stopped talking, and looked at each other; and if the sound was repeated, we went to the window and listened for Fort Sumter. Every strange noise was metamorphosed by the watchful ear into the roar of cannon or the rush of soldiery. Women trembled at the salutes which were fired in honor of the secession of other States, fearing lest the struggle had commenced and the dearly-loved son or brother in volunteer uniform was already under the storm of the columbiads …

A favorite subject of argument appeared to be whether Fort Sumter ought to be attacked immediately or not. A lieutenant standing near me talked long and earnestly regarding this matter with a civilian friend, breaking out at last in a loud tone,—

“Why, good Heaven, Jim! do you want that place to go peaceably into the hands of Lincoln?”

“No, Fred, I do not. But I tell you, Fred, when that fort is attacked, it will be the bloodiest day,—the bloodiest day!—the bloodiest !!”

And here, unable to express himself in words, Jim flung his arms wildly about, ground his tobacco with excitement, spit on all sides, and walked away, shaking his head, I thought, in real grief of spirit …

Four days more had I in Charleston, waiting from tide to tide for a chance to sail to New York, and listening from hour to hour for the guns of Fort Sumter.


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