April 1861 The Civil War

Charleston Under Arms

A Northern journalist records his visit to Charleston during the Fort Sumter standoff.

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.”

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