previous next

Chapter 2:


Seven miles from the Atlantic Ocean, and looking out upon it to the southeast, stands the city of Charleston, built at the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper rivers. It is on a tongue of the mainland, consisting of gray sandy soil, and extends southward, tapering in width from two miles to half a mile. Here the Ashley turns from the west and sweeps around, to mingle its waters with those of the Cooper, whose principal current passes close along the east or sea-front of the city. A marshy mud-flat, called Shute's Folly Island, rises east of Charleston on the farther side of this branch of Cooper River, and beyond it is the sand-strip and beach of Sullivan's Island. The lesser stream of Cooper River, flowing to the north and east of Shute's Folly, passes the mainland at Haddrell's Point and Mount Pleasant, and off the western extremity of Sullivan's Island unites with the other waters of the bay. South of Charleston, across the water, lies James Island, with its uplands extending about two and a half miles down the harbor. It is separated by a marsh and creek from the low white sand-bank of Morris Island. On account of the flatness of the country, the waters ebb and flow many miles up the Ashley and Cooper rivers, with a mean tide of seven feet at the city. Thus constituted, the harbor of Charleston averages two miles in width, and forms a beautiful sheet of water.

Out in the bay, three miles from the city, stands Fort Sumter. It is built on a shoal just south of the main channel, which it is [24] intended to command, and is a mile from Fort Moultrie, which lies to the northeast, across the entrance, on Sullivan's Island. It is thirteen hundred yards from Morris Island, which lies to the south-southeast; fifteen hundred yards from Fort Johnson, which stands to the southwest, on James Island, and two miles from Castle Pinckney, on Shute's Folly, which lies to the northwest. Fort Sumter is—or was, at the time of which we are writing—a pentagonal work of formidable strength, built for mounting one hundred and forty pieces. The height of its walls, from the water's edge to the parapets, is sixty feet; the fort is divided into three tiers, two of which—the lower ones—were casemated, and the upper en barbette. With its commodious officers' quarters, its barracks, mess-rooms, magazines, and hot-shot furnaces, it had been considered one of the best-built forts under the control of the United States government, and did honor to the ability of the engineers who designed and executed its construction.

Fort Moultrie was a low brick work, without casemates, but with terre-pleins for batteries en barbette, the principal of which were ‘the sea battery,’ facing southeast, and ‘the Sumter battery,’ facing southwest.

Fort Johnson was an antiquated and dilapidated work, that had been abandoned. Castle Pinckney, opposite the city, across Cooper River, was an old-fashioned, half-moon fortification of brick, with one row of casemates for small ordnance and a terre-plein above.

In 1860, Charleston contained about fifty thousand inhabitants. Besides its commercial importance, it was the residence of many intelligent and educated planters, cultivating rice in the malarial tide-swamps, and sea-island cotton along the rich coast region of the ‘low country.’ It was the centre of the factorage business of the State, of the supply market, of banking and exchange. It was also headquarters in matters of church and school, society and politics. The town was old and respectable-looking, evidently built for personal convenience, not for show; and its people spent, their money in substantial good-living within doors, rather than in outward display. With many churches and public schools, no private palaces and few brown-stone fronts were visible; but its' separate dwellings of brick and of wood, with their enclosed gardens and luxuriant shrubbery, unique rows of rooms accessible to the sea breeze, with tiers of spacious piazzas, gave it an air of exclusive individuality and solid comfort. [25]

General Beauregard arrived in Charleston on the 1st of March, 1861, and immediately repaired to Governor Pickens's headquarters, which were then established at the Charleston Hotel. Governor Pickens was found in earnest consultation with eminent citizens of the Palmetto State. A hearty welcome was extended to the Confederate commander, whose arrival from Montgomery had been announced in advance of time, and was anxiously awaited by all.

Governor Pickens proposed to put General Beauregard in command without delay, but his offer was declined; General Beauregard preferring first to acquaint himself thoroughly with the forces collected in and around Charleston, the sites of the various batteries then in course of erection, and the available resources in ordnance.

A retrospective glance over the causes which induced the course adopted by South Carolina and the Southern States, and a cursory sketch of the condition of the public mind at that juncture, cannot fail to be of interest to the reader.

The State of South Carolina was the first to dissever the ties that bound her to the Union. She was actuated, in so doing, not by motives of profit, of ambition, or love of strife, but by principle, and a sense of right to control her own destiny, and escape the ruin she foresaw in falling under the rule of a hostile sectional party, regardless of the limitations of the Constitution, which alone gave security to the minority in the South.

Time and again had the South, in a spirit of unwise conciliation, yielded to unconstitutional encroachments, knowing them to be such, but with no better result than to increase this aggression upon her rights.

The bond of union—namely, the Constitution—was virtually broken. The antagonistic relations of the two sections had culminated in the election of a President believed to be unfriendly to the States of the South. It was thought that, as a speedy sequel, the South would be excluded from the common territory; that the guarantees of the Constitution would no longer-exist; that the Southern States would lose the power of self-government, and Federal authority predominate over all.

To have acquiesced passively in such a new order of things, whereby the Government of the United States was no longer the government of confederated republics, but of a consolidated Democracy, [26] would have been lending a hand to despotism. This, South Carolina would not do. By such an act she would have belied her past history, and condemned that noble struggle for liberty, as a result of which the American colonies had been acknowledged by Great Britain and the world to be ‘free, sovereign, and independent States.’

Whatever may have been the hopes of South Carolina, when, on the 20th of December, 1860, she dissolved her connection with the Union, she had no certainty that her Southern sister States would follow the course she had thought proper to adopt. She acted alone, impelled by her own sense of duty, of independence and self-respect, as a sovereign.

Her example, and the tone of her leading men, foremost among whom stood that profound statesman, the late Robert Barnwell Rhett——the friend and successor of John C. Calhoun—had no small influence in determining the subsequent withdrawal of the other States of the South. The weight of Northern hostility had been felt by each and all; and the decisive action of any one of them was more than sufficient to kindle the latent fires of selfpreserva-tion by disunion.

At the time of which we are now writing, and no matter what may have been the previous divergence of opinions among the leaders of that gallant State, there was but one feeling, one sentiment, and one resolve animating every South Carolina heart: to retake possession, at any cost, of the arsenals, forts, and other public property then in the hands of the Federal authorities, and to assume and exercise all the rights appertaining to a free and independent commonwealth.

The object of her Commissioners in Washington, as shown by their official correspondence with President Buchanan, was to obtain a just, honorable, and peaceable settlement of the question at issue between South Carolina and the Federal Government.

‘We have the honor to transmit to you,’ wrote these Commissioners to the President, ‘a copy of the full powers from the convention of the people of South Carolina, under which we are authorized to treat with the government of the United States for the delivery of the forts, magazines, lighthouses, and other real estate, with their appurtenances, within the limits of South Carolina, and also for the apportionment of the public debt, and for a division of all other property held by the government of the United States [27] as agent of the confederated States, of which South Carolina was recently a member; and generally to negotiate as to all other measures and arrangements proper to be made and adopted in the existing relation of the parties, and for the continuance of peace and amity between this commonwealth and the government at Washington.’ 1

These negotiations failed.

The removal of the United States garrison, on the 25th of December, 1860, from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter—the gun carriages of the former work having been fired and the guns injured by the retiring troops—whatever may have been its cause, or by whomsoever suggested, was the first overt act of war, and the real beginning of hostilities between the two sections. That it was due to the action of a United States officer and representative of the Federal government, is beyond doubt. The question, whether he obeyed orders or acted on his own responsibility, in nowise affects the fact.

All hesitation and all illusions, on the part of the South Carolina authorities, were, from that moment, swept aside; and, as a logical sequence, on the day following, the Palmetto State flag was raised over smoking Moultrie, and over the other defences of the harbor, Sumter excepted. The South Carolina Commissioners retired from Washington and returned home, having had the full assurance from President Buchanan that he would not remand Major Anderson to Fort Moultrie, withdraw the United States troops from Fort Sumter, or give up the latter to the State authorities.

Vigorous preparations for the coming struggle were now begun by the State of South Carolina, with entire unanimity and a most admirable spirit among her people. Works were thrown up, and batteries constructed, at various points of the harbor, where it was thought they could best defend the city, and cut off outside communications with Fort Sumter.

These precautionary measures were taken none too soon. At dawn on the 9th of January, the steamer Star of the West, with a reinforcement of several hundred men, and supplies of food and ammunition for Sumter, appeared off the bar of Charleston [28] harbor. She entered Ship Channel, and was rapidly approaching when a shot was fired across her bow from a battery on Morris Island, as a signal to heave to. Disregarding this warning, she hoisted the United States flag and boldly continued her course. Five rounds were then fired at her in quick succession, two of which took effect. At the sixth discharge she rounded to, lowered her flag, and steamed out of the harbor. Fort Moultrie had also opened fire on her.

Events now followed one another in rapid succession. Major Anderson, demanding to know of Governor Pickens whether or not he had authorized the firing on a transport bearing the United States flag, was answered in the affirmative. Soon afterwards Governor Pickens formally summoned Major Anderson to surrender Fort Sumter to the State authorities. This Major Anderson refused to do, but offered to refer the matter to his government, at Washington.

As a proof of the conciliatory spirit still animating both the people and the authorities of South Carolina, Governor Pickens acceded to this request, and the Honorable Isaac W. Hayne was accordingly sent to Washington, with power to act in the premises. Protracted negotiations ensued, but brought about no satisfactory result, the answer of Mr. Holt, the new Secretary of War, leaving but little hope of an amicable settlement.

Thus, under these perplexing circumstances, with an earnest desire for peace, but with insufficient courage to avow and promote it, Mr. Buchanan's administration came to a close. Congress had been as irresolute as the President himself, and had taken no step to avoid the impending danger of collision.

In the meantime, other Southern States, to wit, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas, had severed their connection with the Federal Government, and linking their destinies with that of South Carolina, had regularly organized, at Montgomery, the Provisional Government of the Confederate States of America.

All eyes were now fixed upon the Palmetto State, the pivot around which turned the fortunes of the South, in this grand effort for constitutional liberty which was about to be made. To her honor be it said, she proved worthy of the leadership which fate had confided to her hands. Her State troops and volunteers answered with more than alacrity to the call of the constituted [29] authorities, and poured in from every district, eager to be counted among the first to strike a blow in defence of the cause in which their lives—and more than their lives—were now enlisted. The difficulty among the officers was, not to elevate the morale of these patriotic freemen, or prepare them for the dangers they were about to encounter, but to restrain their ardor, and maintain them within the bounds of prudence and moderation.

Such was the condition of affairs in South Carolina, and such the tone of the public mind in the city of Charleston, when General Beauregard arrived there.

Having made a thorough inspection of all the works, he came to the conclusion that a great deal still remained to be done by way of preparation for active measures against Fort Sumter.

The system and plan of operations which had been adopted seemed to be to concentrate all the available guns and mortars at two points, namely: Fort Moultrie, on Sullivan's Island, and Gumming's Point, on Morris Island, where a few guns and about half a dozen mortars of heavy caliber were being put in position. Battery Star of the West—so called, from its repulse of the steamer of that name-contained four 24-pounders, which enfiladed the main south channel, known as the Morris Island Channel.

General Beauregard determined to alter that system, but gradually and cautiously, so as not to dampen the ardor, or touch the pride, of the gallant and sensitive gentlemen who had left their comfortable homes, at the call of their State, to vindicate its honor and assert its rights. They had endured, for weeks, the privations and exposures of a soldier's life, on bleak islands, where it was impossible, at times, to see objects at a greater distance than a few yards, because of the sand drifts created by the northers, prevalent on the coast at that season of the year.

General Beauregard noted, with feelings of admiration, an old gentleman, standing sentry at one of the camps on the island, who had organized, armed, and equipped a whole company of infantry at his own expense, and had placed it under the command of his youngest brother. This had been his contribution to his country's cause; and, deeming it insufficient, he had also offered his services and his life, as a private in his own company.

Among the privates there assembled for duty were planters and sons of planters, some of them the wealthiest men of South Carolina, diligently working, side by side with their slaves. Not a [30] word of complaint from any of them did General Beauregard hear during his inspection tour, except, perhaps, against the long delay in attacking Fort Sumter. Numerous were the plans—each ‘infallible’—suggested by these high-spirited gentlemen, for taking the formidable work which loomed up majestic and defiant in the distance, like a mountain risen from the sea its barbette guns grimly crowning its summit.

1 See letter dated Washington, Dec. 28th, 1860, of Messrs. R. W. Barnwell, J. H. Adams, and James L. Orr, South Carolina Commissioners, to President Buchanan.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: