For southerners back when my generation were kids, Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor was something held a little bit sacred. It was there the American Civil War began in earnest 150 years ago today.
On April 12 and 13, 1861, Fort Sumter was bombarded as the South began its secession from the Union. Some 34 hours of artillery fire it took for the South to separate itself from the North. When the forces under the command of US Major Robert Anderson surrendered to the Confederate forces under the command of Brigadier General P.G. T. Beauregard.
Out gunned, outnumbered, and isolated from any help from Northern forces, Anderson relented, beginning a war that would rend the entire nation in two and ultimately end as the most costly war in human terms the United States has ever fought, even to this day. Not many know, but the shots fired on Fort Sumter were not actually the first of the war.
Earlier on, once the South had announced its succession the steamer, Star of the West, was fired upon by cadets from The Citadel (whose proud cadets still fill US ranks), The Military College of South Carolina, in an effort to prevent the ship transporting troops and/or supplies to Fort Sumter. The fort was actually a fall back position for Anderson, who had ordered his men to retreat from the indefensible Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island (image at bottom). President Lincoln had actually already ordered a fleet of ships to assist Anderson and protect Fort Sumter.
While accounts of the first battle for Fort Sumter vary, it is widely accepted that the first shots were fired on the fort by Lieutenant Henry S. Farley, commanding a battery of two mortars on James Island fired the first shot at 4:30 A.M. The next day the fort fell with Anderson and his men being allowed to sail North. When they arrived in New York City, they were greeted as heroes, a parade down Broadway being held in their honor. Interestingly, no soldiers were killed directly by fire onto, or either from Fort Sumter during those 34 brutal hours.
I remember being a child in the early 1960’s playing atop the cannons of what came to be know as “The Battery” (image below) – and looking out into the harbor at the lone sentinel there in the distance. Fort Sumter, and all the various landmarks about Charleston, became living landmarks to a time not many today can even imagine. History books do not accurately portray what it was like to be a Southerner, or a Yankee for that matter.
Nowadays the Civil War was just about freeing slaves – a truism within a much larger quilt of American history. I like to think of Mary Chesnut’s famous account of the Fort Sumter bombardment as a more true chronicle of chivalry and misplaced loyalties.
In Chestnut’s A Diary From Dixie, the chronicler suggested Charleston’s elite gathered upon the balconies and rooftops along The Battery to witness and cheer on the early triumph of their beloved Confederacy. As kids, we pretended to be Robert E. Lee, or his revered right hand Stonewall Jackson – sitting atop ancient cannons, running about beneath the marvelous oaks of White Point Gardens (image below). Unthinking, unaware we were, of the brutal cost of real estate, and yes – freedom.
Some 600,000 combatants lost their lives during the Civil War, and millions where displaced, their legacies forever altered – I cannot describe to you now, the bitterness of the poor white sharecropper nor the pitiful plight of African Americans in the South back then – the real casualties of victory and defeat.
For me it is a bit sweeter to think on my early childhood as an innocent, revelling in the pure light of honorable men and women. The dark underpinnings of all human endeavor are, in the end, ghastly. I had a great friend once, by the name of Charles Mullaley. He was a sort of mentor for me (much older and wiser), the reader need not know all the details. Suffice it to say Charlie (as I affectionately called him) was inextricably linked to Charleston and its history – he was the last gentleman I can recall imbued with the spirit of the Gentile Confederacy.
I mention his name only because he deserved such a salute – the endless hours of contemplative thought he placed in my mind. Oh, thanks so much for that brick from Fort Sumter Charlie! I will never forget. And for the reader I leave the best images I could find on short notice, along with this quote from Abraham Lincoln, which I oft use – it is from his famous Gettysburg Address:
“…It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Fort Sumter you see, is quite literally the most expensive piece of real estate in America. Let us not forget the “task remaining” before us.