Monday, January 17, 2011

Fort Sumter Remembered

Shots changed SC forever

A shell roared out of a 10-inch mortar at Fort Johnson at 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, forever changing South Carolina and the United States of America.

Decades of bellicose debate about slavery and federal authority over states, and months of prickly negotiations about the Union troops holed up on a man-made island in the mouth of the Charleston harbor, had come to this — a shell exploding over the 33-star U.S. flag. The explosion was a signal to the 43 Confederate cannons around the harbor to begin firing on Fort Sumter.

It also ignited the Civil War.


Some of the events commemorating the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War in Charleston in April 1861

Feb. 3-5: “Storm Clouds on the Horizon,” conference presented by Blue & Gray Education Society, Mills House Hotel, 115 Meeting St., Charleston

April 8-July 10: “A Soldier’s View of Charleston,” exhibition of 33 paintings by Conrad Wise Chapman depicting Charleston Harbor during the Civil War, Gibbes Museum of Art, 135 Meeting St., Charleston

April 8-July 10: “Stephen Marc: Passage on the Underground Railroad,” photographs and digital montages explore the history of freedom seekers, Gibbes Museum of Art, 135 Meeting St., Charleston

April 8: Lectures by USC professor Walter Edgar, College of Charleston professor Bernard E. Powers Jr. and Middlebury College professor Barbara Bellows, Charleston Museum, 360 Meeting St., Charleston, 7 p.m., free

April 9: Episode 1 of Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” will be shown at the Old North Charleston Picture House, 4920 Jenkins Ave., North Charleston, 7 p.m., free

April 9: Episode 1 of Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” will be shown at Marion Square, Charleston, 7 p.m., free

April 9: Lecture by Columbia University professor Barbara Jeanne Fields and Stanford University professor Gavin Wright, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, 67 Anson St., Charleston, 10 a.m., free

April 9: Lecture by Queens University Belfast professor Catherine Clinton and University of Georgia professor Stephen Berry, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, 67 Anson St., Charleston, 2 p.m. free

April 10: Episode 1 of Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” will be shown at Marine Resources Research Institute Auditorium, 205 Fort Johnson Road, James Island, 4 p.m., free

April 11: Concert at White Point Garden, Charleston Symphony, Mt. Zion AME Spiritual Ensemble and the Jay Ungar and Molly Mason Family Band performing portions of the score from Ken Burns’ “The Civil War,” Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait,” and other music relevant to the war, 7:30 p.m., free

April 12: Candlelight Sunrise Concert, Charleston Symphony Orchestra Brass Ensemble, commemorating first shots fired from Fort Johnson on Fort Sumter, White Point Garden, The Battery, Charleston, 5 a.m., free

April 12: Lecture by Princeton University professor James M. McPherson, Gibbes Museum of Art, 135 Meeting St., Charleston, 7 p.m.

April 14: Lecture by J. Roderick Heller III, author and founding chairman of the Civil War Trust, Charleston Library Society, 164 King St., Charleston, 7 p.m.
Two days later, the U.S. flag came down and Maj. Robert Anderson surrendered the fort to the Confederacy.

Exactly four years and more than 600,000 deaths later, Anderson returned to raise the U.S. flag again over the fort. The Civil War, as far as critical military battles, was over.

But for South Carolina and, especially for the state’s image, it never has ended.

South Carolinians forever will be remembered as the people who started the war — the first to secede, the first to fire on the U.S. flag.

“The state bears that burden, whether it wants to or not, like no other state in the Union,” said Eric Emerson, director of the S.C. Department of Archives and History.

While South Carolina’s image has taken a pounding because of the war — and the subsequent Jim Crow and civil rights eras, as well as fights over the Confederate flag — the state’s role in the war also has had some benefits.

Tourists spent nearly $10 billion a year in the state. Surveys rank history at the top of their reasons for visiting, and Fort Sumter is the state’s top historical destination, drawing more than 700,000 people in 2009.

“Many people come to Charleston to visit Fort Sumter,” said longtime Charleston Mayor Joe Riley. “And many come because Charleston is a beautiful, historic city made more so by the presence of Fort Sumter.”

The Winter of 1860-61

South Carolina proudly was the first state to leave the Union, seceding on Dec. 20, 1860.

But Maj. Anderson, who was in charge of Federal troops then housed at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, felt threatened even before the Ordinance of Secession was approved. He worried about clashes between his soldiers and sometimes rowdy secessionists.

Anderson knew the island isolation of Fort Sumter offered more protection, but he also knew moving his troops to that still-under-construction fortress in the harbor could lead to bigger problems. S.C. Gov. Francis Pickens had an agreement with Anderson’s superiors in Washington that the staffing of federal structures around the harbor wouldn’t change unless the two sides agreed on the moves. But those same Washington superiors also had made it clear to Anderson that he had the authority to move his troops if he felt threatened.

The celebration in the streets after the ordinance was signed convinced Anderson he had to make a move. On the night of Dec. 26, Anderson’s troops packed their belongings in small boats and rowed 1.1 miles across the harbor to Fort Sumter.

As S.C. leaders the next day realized what had happened, they fired off complaints to Washington. Secessionists also took control of Castle Pinckney, an unsecured federal arsenal on an island in the interior harbor.

But Castle Pinckney was a pawn. Fort Sumter was the king in a harbor that ranked alongside New Orleans as the most important in the South, according to Rick Hatcher, current-day historian at Fort Sumter National Monument. And access to harbors was key to trade with Europe, an essential in building a new nation.

“It is a major thorn in the side of the Confederacy if Anderson controls ships, coming in and out of the harbor,” Hatcher said. “Fort Sumter has growing importance in the eyes of the Confederacy. It is very strategic.’

Two weeks after Anderson’s big move, Citadel cadets stationed on Morris Island fired on the steamship Star of the West, which was bringing supplies to Fort Sumter. The steamship turned around, but the momentum toward war could not so easily be reversed. That same day, Mississippi became the second state to secede. Within six weeks, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas had joined what, on Feb. 8, became the Confederate States of America.

“There is great excitement in Charleston,” Hatcher said. “Troops are coming in from the interior. ... There are some people who have concerns. Are we doing the right thing? Are we going too fast? But the excitement has a snowball effect. Everyone is asking: Are you with the state or are you not with the state?”

‘Mad, mere maniacs’

James Petigru, South Carolina’s most famous Unionist, famously said after the secession vote: “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.”

Many outside of South Carolina agreed with him.

South Carolinians “are mad, mere maniacs, and I want to lock them up till they become sane; not kill them,” Henry Adams of Massachusetts, the great-grandson of President John Quincy Adams, wrote in a letter to his brother on Jan. 8, 1861.

That image of South Carolinians to many outside the state has changed only slightly since then.

Jannie Harriot, former chairwoman of the S.C. African-American Heritage Commission, was among the hundreds of thousands of African-Americans who left the state during the mid-1900s. Harriot returned to South Carolina in 1990 and feels better about her home state now. But she wonders if others ever will.

Harriot lived a large part of her adult live in New Jersey, working in New York City. Since returning to South Carolina, she says she cannot count the number of times her Northern friends have asked her, “How do you live there?”

“They think we are all dumb and don’t know how to act,” Harriot said. “I tell them I have a very good life, a very fulfilling life, and I really enjoy my work in preservation. I invite my out-of-state friends to come down and visit, and they’re always so impressed.”

Archivist Emerson has had the same experience — with relatives from North Carolina.

Leaders in that state weren’t as staunchly anti-Union 150 years ago. They didn’t pick a fight with Washington, only joining the Confederacy when there appeared to be no other choice.

“There’s this disconnect,” Emerson said. “They come to Charleston and see the beauty and immerse themselves in the history, but they still feel there’s an untoward and unseemly side to the state.”

The negative attitude toward South Carolina from outsiders began to take shape with the Ordinance of Secession.

Fort Sumter gave it a focal point.

The long wait for war

From late December through early April of that fateful winter, some political leaders still hoped for a peaceful solution. But the Union soldiers in Fort Sumter and S.C. soldiers on shore prepared for war.

Anderson, with only 84 men in a fort designed for 250, increased his number of working cannons to 60 from 15 during those three months. He also had his troops fill in the second-story gun windows in the fort’s 50-foot-tall brick walls, fearing attacking soldiers might storm through openings he did not have the manpower to defend.

Meanwhile on shore, South Carolinians — alone at first and, later, with the help from Confederate troops — built new gun batteries in the dunes on Morris Island and Fort Johnson, to the south of Fort Sumter, and at Fort Moultrie, to the north. Some batteries were fortified with metal, some built on floating platforms. Others simply were sunk into the sand.

The men on Sumter were at a distinct disadvantage in the arms race. They only had the military supplies that had been left on the island. Early in the standoff, Gov. Pickens allowed Anderson to come to Charleston to buy food and drink, and to send telegraph messages to Washington. Eventually, those privileges were cut off.

By early April, basic provisions were running low at Fort Sumter. Confederate leaders searching for a peaceful solution hoped Anderson would surrender the fort when his men no longer could survive. The more belligerent in Charleston were itching for Washington to try to resupply Fort Sumter and give them an excuse to fire.

Anderson had an honorable excuse for evacuating, but he felt more strongly about his obligation to follow orders and wait until supply ships, promised by Washington, arrived.

“The war may never have happened if Anderson had decided to evacuate,” Fort Sumter historian Hatcher said. “It shows how those little decisions in history can have significant impact. ... Anderson could have made the decision to give it up. They had almost no food -- it would have been honorable to evacuate. But he felt if he didn’t stay until the bitter end, it would be a blemish on his record.”

As Confederate leaders learned supply ships were nearing Charleston, they sent emissaries out to Fort Sumter on April 11, asking Anderson to surrender. He refused. Given one last chance, Anderson turned down another offer to surrender early in the morning of April 12.

With the U.S. flag still flying at 4:30 a.m., the first shot was fired.

“Now, we’ve reached the point of no return,” Hatcher said.

Drawing attention to dark times

As the 150th anniversary of the war approached, historians and tourism officials formed the S.C. Civil War Sesquicentennial Advisory Board to plan commemoration efforts. State Sen. Glenn McConnell, a Charleston Republican and Civil War history buff, sponsored the legislation that set up the board in 2008.

The group held public meetings throughout the state to determine how residents felt the anniversary should be observed. The ideas ranged from Civil War history trails to travelling history exhibitions to battle re-enactments. Everyone seemed to like the idea of a Web site that could use graphics and photos to hook youngsters on history.

But as the committee continued to meet over three years, it became clear there would be no money coming from the state, federal government or companies.

That’s a big change from 1961, when the state kicked in money and major corporations sponsored events. Esso, the precursor to Exxon, and Sinclair Oil Co. gave out maps, adorned with Confederate flag logos, to battlefield sites. Kids could buy bubblegum cards with bloody drawings of Civil War events.

Just why business executives likely will take a pass on the war’s 150th anniversary can be seen in the response given to a late November New York Times article detailing some of the early sesquicentennial events. The Times focused on celebratory events, including a “Secession Gala” sponsored by the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Charleston on Dec. 20. The online comments — more than 400 in the first 36 hours — were scathing.

“Quotes that contain phrases like ‘We in the South” and ‘our people’ really leave me quite speechless. As if the South and its people are still fighting for their imagined right to be another country,” wrote an unidentified commenter from Upstate New York.

On MSNBC’s “The Countdown with Keith Olbermann,” the host couldn’t understand why anyone would want to celebrate the Civil War. “The 150th anniversary of, you know, treason and defense of servitude and murder and suicide, billed as a joyous night of fun, dancing, food and drink,” Olbermann said. “Don’t forget the silent slave auction.”

As state archives director Emerson and other historians planned for the commemoration of the war’s sesquicentennial, they found themselves fighting the always lingering fallout of that first shot over Fort Sumter.

“Some people, rather than trying to understand that burden, say, ‘I’m proud of it,’ ” Emerson said. “You don’t want to feel all the pain and suffering and death was in vain, so you try to rationalize it.”

Others want to downplay that period in the state’s history, hoping it won’t get much attention. State officials quietly denied permission to display the Ordinance of Secession in the State House on the 150th anniversary of its origin in Columbia.

“A lot of people don’t want to touch this,” Emerson said. “The past is there. It’s just whether you chose to acknowledge it.”

‘It’s our national history’

Tourism officials haven’t shied away from Civil War history.

A 2010 report from the Office of Tourism Analysis at the College of Charleston listed “history” as the top asset listed in a survey of visitors to the Charleston area. It noted 1.54 million visitors to the area’s major attractions, 3.93 million total tourists and an economic impact of $2.8 billion for all tourism.

“Charleston has achieved a brand, the name of the city conveys so many positive things,” Charleston Mayor Riley said. “The negative things have not had sufficient traction, relative to Charleston, to diminish the great qualities of the city.”

The more than 700,000 people who visited Fort Sumter National Monument in the 2008-2009 fiscal year represented a slight drop from previous years, likely due to economic conditions. The visitors find exhibits at the new visitors center, next to the S.C. Aquarium, that detail the role of slavery in the pre-war economy of the South and in the buildup to the war.

Tourist Teresa Otto of Lincoln, Neb., decided to visit Fort Sumter in early December while in Charleston with her daughter. The family tries to stop by historic sites whenever they travel.

“It’s our national history,” Otto said. “Knowing your country’s history is vital.”

The National Park Service is aware of complaints about the lack of attention to the African-American aspects of the Civil War during the centennial 50 years ago, along with the impression the war was celebrated then. The Park Service’s vision statement for its sesquicentennial efforts says it will discuss the war’s causes and consequences.

“The NPS will address the institution of slavery as the principal cause of the Civil War,” the statement reads. “As well as the transition from slavery to freedom — after the war — for the 4 million previously enslaved African Americans.”

The Fort Moultrie-Fort Sumter Historical Trust, a nonprofit group supporting the parks, is leading the Lowcountry sesquicentennial effort. The Trust helped put together a scholarly seminar on the war in early December at The Citadel, built a Web site — — and is planning multiple events around the anniversary of the first shots.

But most media attention, thus far, went to the Secession Gala, a project of the Confederate Heritage Trust and a local group of Sons of Confederate Veterans. Jeff Antley of Mount Pleasant, who helped organize the ball, says he was stunned by the backlash against the December event.

"I’m amazed at how they have no idea of the history,” Antley said of the gala’s detractors. “Their talking points — North is good, South is bad, South equals slavery — are so simplistic.”

Antley saw the ball as a chance to celebrate brave men who stood up to a federal government trying to tell them what to do. He is glad South Carolinians still are viewed as having that attitude.

“This is one of the few states where people say they are from South Carolina and they’re proud of their state,” Antley said. “We’re thicker skinned about what people say from outside the state.”

Dot Scott, president of the Charleston branch of the NAACP, found the celebratory nature of the gala offensive.

"History is what it is,” Scott said. “If you want to commemorate it and not sanitize it, then it’s not a problem.

“But there’s nothing we can see where there should be a celebration of the Confederacy, not from our vantage point.”

Short battle, long legacy

The first battle of the war lasted 34 hours and was remarkably one-sided.

Anderson could match the Confederates in armaments, but he lacked a basic tool — needles to sew cloth cartridges of gunpowder necessary to fire cannons. The six needles in the fort weren’t enough to keep up with the need for cartridges, according to the fort engineer’s report.

Anderson had to use his cannons judiciously, at one point limited to six guns. He also decided not to use the cannons on Sumter’s top level because their location, while ideal for hitting Confederate targets, would put his men at the most danger. After one long lull from Fort Sumter, the troops at Fort Johnson cheered when the Union forces finally fired back.

Meanwhile, Confederate forces were throwing everything they could at the fort, knocking off large chunks of its brick walls. Still, Anderson could have held out longer if not for the fires started when incendiary shells hit the wooden floors in the fort’s barracks. Finally, in the afternoon of April 13, Anderson agreed to evacuate on the condition that he and his men be allowed a ceremony the next day to salute the flag before leaving via ship.

“Having defended Fort Sumter for thirty-four hours, until the quarters were entirely burned, the main gates destroyed by fire, the gorge walls seriously injured, the magazine surrounded by flames, and its door closed from the effects of heat, four barrels and three cartridges of powder only being available, and no provisions remaining but pork, I accepted terms of evacuation offered by General Beauregard,” Anderson wrote.

Incredibly, considering nearly 5,000 shells had been fired, no soldiers on either side were killed in the battle. But one Union soldier was killed and another mortally wounded in a mishap during the final salute to the flag.

In New York, Anderson’s troops were greeted as heroes. In Charleston, many people celebrated a war they felt easily would be won.

Four country-changing years later, South Carolina had been devastated.

Today, 150 years later, South Carolina in some ways still embraces the war more than most states.

"When you win a war, you put it to the side,” said Eddie Dyer, assistant vice president at Coastal Carolina University and a political science professor. “When you lose it, you try to keep fighting. It’s human nature. ... I think the Civil War is more important in South Carolina and the region than it is outside the region.”

But there is interest in the war everywhere.

Just go to any bookstore and see how many tomes have been written about it. “The books are there because the public wants to read about it,” said Allen Roberson, director of the S.C. Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum in Columbia.

Trying to capture that interest, coastal South Carolina will commemorate important Civil War moments in the state — the 1862 Battle of Secessionville, the most important S.C. land battle; Beaufort County slave Robert Smalls’ commandeering of a Confederate transport ship and turning it over to the Union in 1862; the Siege of Charleston from 1863-’65; and the Battle of Battery Wagner in 1863, featuring the Union’s Massachusetts 54th Regiment of African Americans, immortalized in the movie “Glory.”

April 12: 150 years later

The Fort Moultrie-Fort Sumter Historic Trust plans observances for each of those events.

But trust board members know the most attention will be focused on the anniversary of the first shot of the war.

In April, Union re-enactors will camp at Fort Sumter for five days. They will be replaced by Confederate re-enactors on April 15.

On April 11, the Charleston Symphony Orchestra will play a concert on the waterfront at White Point Gardens, featuring composer Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait.” A smaller ensemble will play spirituals in a candlelight observance beginning at 4 a.m. on April 12, leading up to a burst of fireworks above Fort Sumter to recreate the first shot.

“It will be very moving,” Charleston Mayor Riley said. “We have to be alert to misconceptions (that the event is a celebration). If we do it well, then the message to the world is we’re not doing this the way it was done in the 1960s but as a serious, thoughtful and inclusive observance of an important period in our history.”

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