149 years ago today


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The American Civil War began 149 years ago today.

The South Carolina coast is characterized by numerous islands that sit astride the mainland like the border-pieces of a puzzle waiting to be snapped into place. Several of these islands, Sullivan’s and Morris especially, form the shoulders of the nautical gateway into the harbor at Charleston, South Carolina. Since the American Revolution, the northern edge of this opening had been guarded by Fort Moultrie, the southern edge by several smaller forts. But the gap between the fortresses was too large, so in the early 19th Century, the US government built Fort Sumter atop a small pile of rock that sat in the middle of the harbor entrance. Any hostile ship trying to pass between Sumter and Moultrie would be caught in a deadly crossfire.

In the fall of 1860, the Federal fortifications were held by just two companies - less than 100 men - of the US Army, all under the command of Major Robert Anderson. Since the construction of Sumter had never been fully completed and because of its isolation in the middle of the harbor. Anderson and his men occupied Fort Moultrie. But Moultrie was designed to withstand attack from the sea, not from the land, and it would be extremely vulnerable should the South Caroline militia attempt to capture it. Consequently, at Christmas 1860, Anderson snuck his entire force across the harbor entrance, occupying Sumter and abandoning Moultrie, a move that infuriated the local residents.

While Anderson’s move was tactically sound, it also placed a limit on his ability to hold the fort without resupply. By early April, the troops at Fort Sumter were nearly out of food, a situation that compelled both the Lincoln administration and the still-new Confederate government to act.

A former Naval officer named Gustavus Fox (who would soon become Assistant Secretary of the Navy) came to Lincoln with a plan to resupply and reinforce the Sumter garrison by sea. In light of the scarcity of military resources - Fox’s fleet consisted primarily of rented civilian vessels and had only 100 Army recruits pulled out of basic training - the odds of success were almost non-existent.

But the South Carolina authorities did not know of the feebleness of Fox’s fleet; they only knew it was coming. Determined to prevent any resupply of the fort, the Confederate leadership ordered the local commander, Pierre Beauregard (who had been Major Anderson’s student at West Point) to capture the fort. Beauregard sent an ultimatum to Anderson on April 11, 1861 demanding that he surrender the fort immediately. Anderson formally refused, but as the Confederate emissaries were departing, Anderson blurted out that if they just waited a few days, starvation would force them to abandon the fort. This caused Beauregard to reconsider, and he sent his messengers back to Sumter in the middle of the night for clarification.

During this meeting with Anderson at the fort at 3:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, it became clear to the Confederates that further negotiations were pointless, so they informed Major Anderson that their attack would commence in one hour. They wished each other well and boarded their boat back to Charleston.

At 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, a Confederate mortar on Morris Island opened fire, lobbing a shell high in the air towards Fort Sumter. The forty-three Confederate cannon arrayed around the harbor opened fire and began pounding the fort. With limited amounts of ammunition on hand, Anderson waited until daybreak to return fire. He started shooting at 6:30 a.m., but only with the smaller cannons located inside the walls of the fort. Knowing that his biggest guns on the fort’s highest level were fully exposed to the Confederate fire, Anderson ordered his men to stay away from them lest they become quick casualties.

About 1 p.m., lookouts at Sumter spotted ships out to sea near the mouth of the harbor. Fox’s ships had arrived, but they loitered out to sea. Maybe they were waiting for darkness to attack, everyone thought. Regardless, the Union garrison ceased firing for the evening at 7 p.m., while the Confederates kept lobbing shells towards the fort through the night.


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Re: 149 years ago today PT 2

On April 13, 1861, the second day of the Civil War, the Confederate batteries ringing Charleston Harbor resumed firing on Fort Sumter at dawn and continued at a slow, methodical pace with the fort firing back only occasionally, to conserve dwindling ammunition. At 7:30 a.m., an explosive mortar shell fell atop one of the wooden barracks buildings inside the fort and a blaze erupted. From the shore, Sumter seemed engulfed by an inferno; within the fort, soldiers struggled to breath in the thick, acrid smoke.

The sight of the flames caused the Confederate gunners to quicken the pace of the shelling, and soon the fort’s flag pole was knocked down by a shell. While the fort’s occupants raced to re-erect the flag, viewers on the shore interpreted the disappearance of the flag as surrender and a Colonel Louis Wigfall, a political appointee on General Beauregard’s staff, commandeered a small row boat and headed to the fort. While Wigfall was in mid-harbor, Sumter’s flag re-emerged from the smoke and firing resumed.

Col Wigfall made it to the fort, however, and spoke with Major Anderson, urging him to surrender. Anderson replied that if granted the terms offered before the firing had began - departure from the fort with all men, weapons, equipment and the right to fire a salute to the American flag - he would cease firing. Wigfall agreed; Sumter replaced the US colors with a white flag; and all firing stopped. On the shore, there was confusion since no one knew of Col Wigfall’s mission to the fort. Wigfall was soon at Beauregard’s headquarters, however, and the General ratified the agreement and gave instructions that Anderson be allowed to fire his salute and evacuate the fort the next morning (April 14).

Out beyond the sand bars, Gustavus Fox and the naval commanders of the relief squadron were still unready to attack due to their lack of organization, assets and high seas. They did plan to mount a relief effort to the Fort that night, but were perplexed when the firing stopped. They sent a lieutenant in a small boat under a flag of truce into Charleston to investigate. He returned with news of Sumter’s surrender and plans for the night assault were abandoned. Inside the fort, the garrison slept soundly. Ashore, the inhabitants of Charleston celebrated wildly.

The Federal troops inside Fort Sumter were up well before daybreak on April 14, 1861, packing their undamaged gear for the voyage north. Throughout the morning, a flotilla of small boats from Charleston gathered around the fort, anxious to view the departure of the Federal troops and the raising of the South Carolina flag. At 2:30 pm with everything packed and ready to go, Major Anderson gave the order to commence the cannon salute tom the American flag, one of the non-negotiable terms he insisted upon before surrendering the fort. Anderson had ordered a 100-gun salute, but when reloading after the 47th shot, a bag of gunpowder being rammed into one of the cannon exploded prematurely, fatally injuring Private Daniel Hough and wounding the rest of the gun crew, one of whom died the next day. Anderson’s men rapidly fired off three more shots from other guns, and the salute ceased at 50. At 4:30 pm, Anderson marched his men out the front gate of Sumter and boarded a small steamer that would ferry the men and their equipment out to the US fleet waiting beyond the sandbars. They had waited too long, however, and low tide had grounded their ferry, so the men from Sumter spent another night in Charleston Harbor, forced to listen to the speeches and salutes of the triumphant Secessionists from within the fort.

Back in Lowell, there was no newspaper on the 14th - it was a Sunday - but the paper of Saturday, April 13 contained the following:
THE WAR BEGUN. By the accounts which we elsewhere publish, it will be seen that hostilities have actually commenced by the rebels of the Southern States. here is ow no longer a doubt as to their purpose, or as to the duty of the National Administration. The accounts thus far give no details by which it can be judged which party had the advantage yesterday, although the despatches are undoubtedly colored by the telegraph operators at Charleston.

After sunrise on April 15, 1861, Major Anderson and his men were shuttled from Fort Sumter to the ships of the US Fleet patrolling outside Charleston Harbor. Once aboard, the flotilla set sail for New York City.

In Washington, President Lincoln issued a proclamation that contained these lines: “. . . now, therefore that I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, in virtue of the power vested in me by the constitution and the laws, have thought fit to call forth, and hereby do call forth, the militia of the several states of the Union to the aggregate number of seventy-five thousand, in order to suppress said combination, and to cause the laws to be duly executed.”
In Lowell, the Daily Courier reported “The proclamation of the President is received with favor by everybody, ad all with whom we have conversed, say that the Government must be sustained, and the traitors punished for their treason. The various military companies have meetings this evening, and we trust a spirit will be evinced of readiness to aid in upholding the President, by volunteering their services if necessary.”

Later that day, the commander of the Sixth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment received the following order from the state’s Adjutant General: “Col. Jones: Sir, I am directed by His Excellency, the Commander-in-Chief, to order you to muster your regiment on Boston Common, forthwith, in compliance with a requisition made by the President of the United States. The troops are to go to Washington.”
That night, the soldiers assembled at their armories and were busy all night preparing for their departure.

In the morning on a drizzly April 16, a steady stream of Lowell residents visited the various armories where the militia companies of the Sixth Regiment had gathered the night before, bringing food, supplies, money and support. By 9 am, the remaining companies of the Sixth - Company B from Groton, Company E from Acton, and Companies F and I from Lawrence - had also arrived in Lowell. (There were four companies from Lowell and three other companies - from Stoneham, Boston and Worcester - were attached to the Regiment the next day for this deployment).

At 10 am, a civic send-off ceremony commenced at Huntington Hall, the 19th Century equivalent of today’s Lowell Memorial Auditorium which was located at the corner of Merrimack and Dutton Street. Speakers included Regimental Commander Colonel Jones, Mayor Sargent, Rev Amos Blanchard and several other dignitaries. By 11:45 am, the Regiment had boarded a special train bound for Boston (the train station was on the first floor of Huntington Hall) and soon departed.
In Boston, the Sixth marched through streets lined with cheering citizens, stopping for a while at Faneuil Hall and then continuing on to Boylston Hall on Washington Street, where they would spend the night.

That day’s Daily Courier reported on the confusion that ensued at the State House upon receipt of President Lincoln’s request for troops. That summons had called for several “fully uniformed and equipped regiments of ten companies each” but the Massachusetts militia had long been organized only as independent companies and only recently began to coalesce into larger, regimental sized units. None yet had ten companies (not to mention uniform uniforms). Governor Andrew and his advisors, after receiving “quite an amount of gratuitous advice . . . from warlike gentlemen who were about”, began mixing and matching companies and regiments. According to the Courier, “Col Jones’ regiment - the Sixth - appeared to be the favorite among all hands” with the “most popular plan” being to bulk up the Sixth and Eight Regiments with companies from the Ninth and Tenth until they reached full strength (hence the Stoneham, Worcester and Boston units that accompanied the Lowell-based regiment to Baltimore).

On the morning of April 17 (a Wednesday), the companies of the Sixth Regiment marched to the Massachusetts State House where the old muskets carried by the troops were replaced with new rifled muskets and each man was issued “an overcoat, flannel shirt, drawers, and a pair of stockings.” Governor Andrew then presented the regiment with its official flag and made a speech. At 7 pm, the regiment marched to “the Worcester depot” with large crowds lining the route. Thousands of people gathered in Worcester to watch the train carrying the regiment pass through on its overnight trip towards New York City.
The Daily Courier on April 17 reported on the regiment’s activities in Boston and contained this observation:
“THE FEELING IN LOWELL - Never has there been a time in the history of this city when there has been such a unity of feeling among all classes as exists at the present. All party distinctions seem to be buried, and all are united in a determination to do their part in sustaining the Union, the Constitution and the Laws. Now and then an isolated individual will attempt to speak against the universal sentiment, but the words of indignation, the frown and the hint soon silence all such. Lowell has a great interest at stake in maintaining the Government, and has with unprecedented alacrity, already sent forth two hundred of her young men - a portion of her bone and sinew - to protect it, and holds in reserve many times that number, should future exigencies arise to demand their service”.

April 18, 1861 was a Thursday. The train bearing the Sixth Regiment rolled into New York City early in the morning after the all-night journey from Boston. The troops marched through the city past great crowds that cheered their passage. At noon, the regiment boarded a ferry that transported the troops across the Hudson and into New Jersey, where they boarded a southbound train.

The Sixth arrived in Philadelphia at 8 pm and were met by dense crowds of cheering citizens. The officers went to a reception at the Continental Hotel while the soldiers bunked at a place called Girard House. While the troops slept, Colonel Jones met with local officials and railroad executives regarding the remainder of the journey. People in Philadelphia had started to hear of civil unrest in Baltimore, brought on by pro-Southern sentiments. Jones decided that rather than wait until morning to depart Philadelphia, he would leave immediately which would get the regiment to and then through Baltimore early in the day, before any opposition had the opportunity to organize.

A sleepy Sixth Regiment departed Philadelphia by train at 1 am on Friday, April 19, 1861. The original plan was to leave first thing in the morning, but railroad officials warned Colonel Jones of talk that people in Baltimore planned to prevent any troops from passing through the city. Jones decided to leave Philadelphia immediately which would get them through Baltimore earlier than expected, and too early for trouble-makers to react, he hoped.

Like other US cities (Boston, for instance), a train arriving in Baltimore from the north could not continue directly through the city and continue its journey south. A train arriving in Baltimore from the north arrived at the President Street Station which was on the northern side of the city’s inner harbor. If the train was to continue south, it’s cars were decoupled from the original engine and then pulled through the city by horses on the street car tracks on Pratt Avenue to Campden Station which was on the south side of the inner harbor.

Colonel Jones knew of this procedure and planned accordingly. Rather than allowing his regiment to pass through the city piecemeal in this manner, Jones decided to dismount the entire unit at the first train station and march en masse through the city to the second station. The mass of the entire regiment marching in formation, he hoped, would deter any active resistance. Before leaving Philadelphia, he planned the loading of the train in great detail so that his unit could rapidly disembark and assemble in traveling formation as soon as it reached the city.
Jones plan went awry long before reaching Baltimore. The first mix-up occurred when the train reached the southern border of Delaware and prepared to cross the Susquehanna River into Maryland at a place called Havre-de-Grace. There, the cars of the train were ferried across the river where they were reunited and attached to a new locomotive. Other cars were added to the train and those carrying the troops from Massachusetts were rearranged. For some reason, neither Colonel Jones nor any of his subordinates seemed to notice this reshuffling of the cars.

The train reached Baltimore at 10 am and railway workers quickly attached the first seven cars of the train to horse teams and dragged them through the city, again without either Jones or any of his commanders seeming to notice. While these first cars made it through the city without their occupants suffering any serious injuries, their passage was not without incident. Here is an account of the next few minutes as described in “History of Middlesex County” which was written shortly after the war:
“On Pratt Street, the mob detached the horses [that were pulling the cars], in proximity to a pile of paving stones. Here a most furious and determined attack was made with stones and fire-arms, wounding several soldiers in the car. Major Jones ordered the men to shelter themselves, as far as possible, by lying upon the floor of the car, while he went out among the crowd, and by threats, and the formidable appearance of his revolver, compelled the driver to reattach the horses. They had proceeded but a short distance, when the horses were again detached and the same scene was repeated; the car was then drawn to the Washington depot without further trouble.”

“The painful rumors of last evening respecting the attack upon the Sixth Regiment, at Baltimore, are confirmed by this morning’s advices, though the reports are very contradictory as to those killed belonging to the Massachusetts Regiment . . . The Lowell and Stoneham Companies were in the thickest of the fight. The mob endeavored to seize the colors which were bravely defended by Sgt Sawtell. Colonel Jones and his officers and men are in good spirits ready for service.”

That day’s Courier also printed “Dispatches”, by which I believe is meant telegrams, received from Baltimore the night of the riot. There are brief, on-the-scene reports that are not necessarily reliable. To a 21st Century reader, they have a certain Twitter-esque feel to them.

FIRST DISPATCH: Baltimore, April 19 - Terrible scene here. The Pratt Street track torn up. The troops attempted to march through but were attacked by a mob with bricks and stones and fired upon. They returned fire. Two men are killed and several wounded. The fight is now going on. Awful scene.

SECOND DISPATCH: Cannot say certain what portion of the troops were attacked. They bore a white flag as they marched up Pratt Street, but were greeted with a shower of paving stones. There was an immense crowd and the streets were blocked. The soldiers finally turned and fired on the mob. Several of the wounded have just been carried off the street in carts.

THIRD DISPATCH: The mob rushed the Guards Armory for arms.

FOURTH DISPATCH: At the Washington Depot [Campden Station?] an immense crowd assembled. The rioters attacked the troops at the depot. Several of the latter were wounded - some fatally. There are said to be four of the troops killed and four of the rioters killed.

FIFTH DISPATCH: It was the Massachusetts regiment that was attacked, and they have marched through. Three of the mob are known to be dead. Also three soldiers, and many wounded. The stores are closing. The military are rapidly forming.
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