Lately, I have been blogging about events in Charleston commemorating the 150 year anniversary of the first shots of the Civil War at Fort Sumter. A couple of weeks ago, thousands of Charleston residents and visitors lined the shore of Charleston Harbor to watch a re-enactment of the Confederate shelling of Fort Sumter on the morning of April 12, 1861. The Charleston Post and Courier recently posted an excellent video of the re-enactment of the bombardment of Fort Sumter on the fateful morning. The video does a great job caputuring the excitement of the flash and report of cannon fire, but what goes untold is the human side of that famous morning, the personal stories of the unmentioned hundreds of people who were part and partial to the skirmish that would lead to a war that was both bloody and devastating to both sides, Union and Confederate alike. These spectators had set their alarms early on this day to come and witness a remake of Charleston History and it got me thinking that they probably experienced some of the excitement and anticipation that the residents and visitors in the Holy City must have known that morning in 1861 when they sprang from their beds in the early morning to rush to the roof tops and piazzas of the houses lining the Battery to witness what many were sure would be a Confederate victory in a battle that would secure their Southern independence.
The Sesquecentenial activities inspired me to re-visit one of my favorite history books to read about the historic days surrounding April 12, 1861. Charleston! Charleston! The History of A Southern City By Walter J. Fraser, Jr. provides a factual and intriguing account of not only the political circumstances at the root of the conflict but it also examines the human side from the perspective of the Charlestonians of the day.
For weeks the city of Charleston had been buzzing with rumors and speculation about an imminent attack by the Federals. There was a nervous optimism persisting among the citizens fueled by Confederate pride and confidence. Scores of military regiments had assembled and dozens of militia companies joined with the regulars to train and prepare for battle. While the military presence busied themselves with preparation for war, the city was swelling daily with throngs of people arriving to witness the fight. The mood around Charleston, especially within the social elite, was almost holiday like. While husbands, fathers, sons and brothers busied themselves with war games and military parades, the ladies enjoyed afternoon teas and socials. The evenings were filled with receptions and promenades where the military officers and politicians mixed with debutantes and socialites. And the lively discussion always centered on the "taking back of the fort." As the days and nights passed the excitement and anxiety increased and the mood became more and more garish. In fact, Mary Boykin Chestnut, whose husband Colonel James Chestnut a South Carolina Senator turned military officer who delivered the evacuation notice to Major Anderson, recounts in her Diary From Dixie that on the evening prior to the start of the bombardment "we enjoyed the merriest,maddest dinner we have had yet...We had an unspoken foreboding it was to be our last pleasant meeting." Her feelings couldn't have been more perceptive. Late that evening, April 11th, 1861 while Colonel Chestnut and his counterparts rowed toward Fort Sumter with a final ultimatum for the Federal Garrison there, Mrs. Chestnut and several other military wives were nervously trying to rest at the Mills House knowing that if Anderson didn't surrender by morning there would surely be shots fired. Mary Boykin Chestnut was not alone in her travails, there is another very enlightening personal account of the night provided in the diary of Nancy Bostick De Saussure, wife of Dr. Henry William De Saussure, a surgeon who served the Confederacy. Mrs. De Saussure tells about her arrival in Charleston on the very evening prior to the attack on Fort Sumter. She tells about being terrified to the point that she couldn't sleep. She remembers, "toward morning, about four o'clock, the first gun was fired, and it seemed to me as if it were in my room. I sprang up, as I suppose everyone else did in the city. I hurriedly dressed myself and went down to cousin Louis De Saussure's house. From its numerouns piazzas, which commanded a fine view of the harbor, we watched every gun fired from the two forts, Moultrie and Sumter. The house was crowded with excited mothers and wives, who had sons and husbands in the fight, and every hour added to their distress and excitement, as reports which afterwards proved false, were brought to them of wounded dear ones." Meanwhile, over at Mills House, Mary Boykin Chestnut "dropped to her knees -prostrate- praying as I have never prayed before."
The Confederate shelling of the fortress in the harbor continued throughout the next thirty-six hours until the afternoon of April 13, 1861 when Major Anderson surrendered the fort. What joy and celebration erupted from the streets of Charleston. Hats flew in the air, hands slapped and spirits flowed from tall bottles and flasks, for days it seemed Charlestonians celebrated the secession battle. Perhaps Mrs. Nancy Bostick De Saussure said it best years later in the form of a letter to her granddaughter, "we little realized the long years of struggle that were to follow ending in defeat and ruined homes and country." The battle was won, for sure, but the bloody war that would pit brother against brother, cousin against cousin and country against countrymen had begun, in earnest.