“I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your communication, demanding the evacuation of this fort, and to say, in reply thereto, that it is a demand with which I regret that my sense of honor and my obligations to my Government prevent my compliance.” – Major Robert Anderson
So continued the chain of events that led to the firing on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, and the beginning of the American Civil War. For this post, I went back to some of the firsthand accounts I loved to read when doing research for my historical fiction novel, Shades of Gray. I don’t think we can really imagine the terror that the firing of the fort wrought, but you can see from Mary’s experience on the rooftop that night, it almost caused her to go up in smoke!
Here is Mary Chesnut’s entry in her diary for April, 12, 1861. Note that the negotiator sent to Fort Sumter was her husband:
Anderson will not capitulate.
Yesterday’s was the merriest, maddest dinner we have had yet. Men were audaciously wise and witty. We had an unspoken foreboding that it was to be our last pleasant meeting.
Our peace negotiator, or envoy, came in – that is, Mr. Chesnut returned. His interview with Colonel Anderson had been deeply interesting, but Mr. Chesnut was not inclined to be communicative. He wanted his dinner. He felt for Anderson and had telegraphed to President Davis for instructions – what answer to give Anderson, etc. He has now gone back to Fort Sumter with additional instructions. When they were about to leave the wharf A. H. Boykin sprang into the boat in great excitement. He thought himself ill-used, with a likelihood of fighting and he to be left behind!
I do not pretend to go to sleep. How can I? If Anderson does not accept terms at four, the orders are, he shall be fired upon. I count four, St. Michael’s bells chime out and I begin to hope. At half-past four the heavy booming of a cannon. I sprang out of bed, and on my knees prostrate I prayed as I never prayed before.
There was a sound of stir all over the house, pattering of feet in the corridors. All seemed hurrying one way. I put on my double-gown and a shawl and went, too. It was to the housetop. The shells were bursting. In the dark I heard a man say, “Waste of ammunition.” I knew my husband was rowing about in a boat somewhere in that dark bay, and that the shells were roofing it over, bursting toward the fort. If Anderson was obstinate, Colonel Chesnut was to order the fort on one side to open fire. Certainly fire had begun. The regular roar of the cannon, there it was. And who could tell what each volley accomplished of death and destruction?
The women were wild there on the housetop. Prayers came from the women and imprecations from the men. And then a shell would light up the scene. To-night they say the forces are to attempt to land. We watched up there, and everybody wondered that Fort Sumter did not fire a shot.
Last night, or this morning truly, up on the housetop I was so weak and weary I sat down on something that looked like a black stool. “Get up, you foolish woman. Your dress is on fire,” cried a man. And he put me out. I was on a chimney and the sparks had caught my clothes. Susan Preston and Mr. Venable then came up. But my fire had been extinguished before it burst out into a regular blaze.
Do you know, after all that noise and our tears and prayers, nobody has been hurt; sound and fury signifying nothing – a delusion and a snare.
This next entry has little to do with the opening salvos of the war, but I include it because it shows that even women of the 1860s could be somewhat malicious when talking about other women.
Louisa Hamilton came here now. This is a sort of news center. Jack Hamilton, her handsome young husband, has all the credit of a famous battery, which is made of railroad iron. During her first marriage, she had no children; hence the value of this lately achieved baby. To divert Louisa from the glories of “the Battery,” of which she raves, we asked if the baby could talk yet. “No, not exactly, but he imitates the big gun when he hears that. He claps his hands and cries ‘Boom, boom.'” Her mind is distinctly occupied by three things: Lieutenant Hamilton, whom she calls “Randolph,” the baby, and the big gun, and it refuses to hold more.”
I do not wonder at Louisa Hamilton’s baby; we hear nothing, can listen to nothing; boom, boom goes the cannon all the time. The nervous strain is awful, alone in this darkened room. “Richmond and Washington ablaze,” say the papers – blazing with excitement. Why not? To us these last days’ events seem frightfully great. We were all women on that iron balcony. Men are only seen at a distance now. Stark Means, marching under the piazza at the head of his regiment, held his cap in his hand all the time he was in sight. Mrs. Means was leaning over and looking with tearful eyes, when an unknown creature asked, “Why did he take his hat off?” Mrs. Means stood straight up and said: “He did that in honor of his mother; he saw me.” She is a proud mother, and at the same time most unhappy. Her lovely daughter Emma is dying in there, before her eyes, of consumption. At that moment I am sure Mrs. Means had a spasm of the heart; at least, she looked as I feel sometimes. She took my arm and we came in.