Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Fort Sumter Through the Ages

Looking Back as We Move Forward

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter - the official beginning of the Civil War Sesquicentennial. (Ironically, this is also my 150th post on this blog.) Words cannot adequately emphasize the historical importance these next four years of commemoration will hold. The legacies of emancipation, reunion, a renewed government as well as continued racial and political strife remain fundamental to our national history and comprehending where our country is today.

In many ways, the war legally concluded in 1865, it also continues to be waged on a very personal and heated level with fiery rhetoric and historical passion. At the same time, historians and participants of the sesquicentennial generation must be wary not to repeat the gross errors of fifty years ago amidst the centennial. The largest task we face is making the conflict relevant, intimate, and accessible to the masses. Though a century and a half is not a long period of time in the larger scheme of history, most easily forget the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of the war and ensuing decades. Thus, the conflict must be interpreted not solely through strategic and militaristic means, but through societal themes and privileges which remain relevant today. Notions of citizenship, equality, duty, family, freedom, and country remain universally pertinent regardless of the century because they are all notions we prize and attempt to maintain. The same cannot be said for right flanks, lunettes, interior lines, and smoothbores. Rather, these latter terms should be used in describing or reinforcing the costs of the former phrases. By accurately intertwining struggles of the past with rights and luxuries of the present, one can make Civil War History more than relevant - one can make it emotionally powerful.

As commemorations kick off in Charleston today, the special events will most certainly be used as a model or barometer for related activities throughout the country over the next four years. In looking back on Sumter, we can view it as both a historical event and a template of examining the war as a whole. (The fort, after all, remained highly contested through 1865). Through some historic photographs and sketches, let us explore the history of Sumter in addition to some major themes we can use in interpreting the conflict in its vastness and complexity.

This sketch by correspondent Alfred R. Waud, as well as some of the following photos, represent the physical transformation the nation endured through four years of conflict. While the North prospered in awakening its war machine, the South was put to ruin by constant battle and inner mismanagement. With construction beginning in 1827, the coastal fortification was emblematic of a republic on the rise - militarily, economically, and socially. By 1861, Sumter remained unfinished (as did the nation) and would ultimately be destroyed and then reborn in the wake of an ensuing fratricidal war that would claim 625,000 lives. Several of those lives would be taken as Confederates retrofitted the fort and defended it throughout the rest of the war.

The first shots of the first battle were fired from Johnson's Island at approximately 4:30 a.m. on the morning of April 12, 1861. Soon after, heavy guns from Fort Moultrie (shown above) opened on the island fort seen in the distance. Meanwhile, Charlestonians watched the bombardment from their rooftops and porches as shot and shell flickered in the dark harbor. Much like the forts they once proudly boasted of, the city would be transformed into a heap of rubble by 1865. "We are going to be wiped off the face of the Earth," wrote southern diarist and Charleston resident Mary Chesnut. A question Chesnut often contemplated was "Why?"

She needed only to look to the exploits of men like her husband: a slave owner, secession delegate, and member of drafting the Confederate Constitution. The "peculiar institution" of American Slavery was an undeniable factor in instigating war. Here, black slaves are seen resting a piece of artillery in its carriage at nearby Fort Moultrie on April 12, painted by William Waud (Alfred's brother). Another flop of the centennial initiative of the 1960s was the failure to recognize slavery as an issue, coupled with a failure to link the broken promises of emancipation to the ongoing Civil Rights movement. It never ceases to amaze me that any American can claim slavery was not a deciding factor in fueling the flames of war. Just this past week in Florida, I was told by a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans that the "War of Northern Aggression" was fought over the tariff and the right of self-government.

But I needed only to mention South Carolina's (or any other southern state for that matter) articles of secession, which proclaimed in December of 1860: "A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that 'Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,' and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction . . . We, therefore, the People of South Carolina, by our delegates in Convention assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, have solemnly declared that the Union heretofore existing between this State and the other States of North America, is dissolved. . ."

Until we accept the truth of slavery's impact, we continue to fight the war we thought ended nearly 150 years ago.

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Anderson's Sumter Command Caption: Nine men in uniform posing, including Capt. Abner Doubleday (1819-1893), [originally thought the] originator of baseball, who aimed first shot fired at Confederates in Civil War. Anderson, Robert; Crawford, Samuel, Wylie, 1829-1892; Foster,John Gray, 1823-1874; Seymour, Truman, 1824-1891; Snyder, Lt. G. W.; Davis, Jefferson Columbus, 1828-1879; Meade, 2nd Lt. R. K.; Talbot, 1st Lt. T.

But the Civil War proved to be the first modern war in regard other than weaponry and tactics. Newspapers and increased readership made it one of the first "current" wars, making news more accessible and diverse than it had ever been before. Like cable news channels of today, few newspapers were objective and were just as sensationalistic. The freedom of the press would be challenged in the war following the Sumter attack, but would ultimately be preserved along with the nation as a result of that same war. The above front page from Harper's Weekly proudly displays fort commander Robert Anderson and his officers.

September 1863 painting by artist A. Vizitelly.

The Confederate occupation of the site was a harrowing one. Despite a crew of approximately 500 slaves strengthening Fort Sumter over the course of 1863, the defense still remained highly susceptible to northern gunboats and nearby gun emplacements on shore. The fort's defenders discovered the advancement of war's technology the hard way. At the time of its initial construction, Sumter was a bastion of strength against smoothbore artillery rounds. By the 1860s, however, rifled guns had the ability to hurl shells at greater distance and strength. The walls came crumbling down as a result. Technology was an unquestionable factor and legacy of the conflict. The U.S. patent office in 1861 received tens of thousands of patent applications and, by 1862, had expanded by 125%. Nearly all aspects of our modern society are somehow linked to the advancements of the era. I have no doubt about it.

An interior photo of Sumter near or at the end of the war reveals the true level of devastation sustained through he four years. The flagpole at center might be the same one Union Lt. Norman J. Hall mounted during the bombardment in 1861 to re-raise the stars and stripes amidst the bombardment. Understanding the importance of patriotism and the symbolism of the flag is vital in comprehending and appreciating the reasons men fought. The most significant legacy related to this is interpreting the Civil War as the conflict that made us under one flag, thereby enabling all under it to the same liberties.

Like newspapers, photography brought the war to the living rooms and parlors of the average American. Never before had an American witnessed physical destruction or combat fatalities unless they saw it with their own eyes. Such visuals both fascinated and horrified the general public. Being among the select collection of tangible items surviving from the war, photos from the conflict remain incalculably vital in visualizing the carnage and those who endured it.

An April 14, 1865 photo taken from the interior of Fort Sumter. This day marked the raising of the American flag by former commander Robert Anderson over his old command. Commemoration of the war began before the conflict even ended. By 1862, monumentation already popped up on the Manassas battlefield as well as others. The sacrifices of the fallen were obviously important to those of the 1860s. But perhaps the greater point is to ask if those sacrifices are still important to the citizens of the 2010s. This will be one of the many questions answered throughout the duration of the sesquicentennial.

Hundreds, if not thousands, crammed into the tight confines of the war-ravaged fortress to witness the proceedings of April 14. Tears streamed down the faces of witnesses as they watched Anderson raise the stars and stripes while the Star Spangled Banner was played. How might these crowds compare with those of today?

Abraham Lincoln had been invited to this ceremony but declined the offer. Desiring to relax in the wake of recent victory, he decided to attend a play at Ford's Theater that night.

Union naval vessels fired celebratory volleys and flew all their colors that same day in honor of Sumter's capture. These ships underscore the maritime importance of Charleston Harbor, the Union blockade of southern ports, and the significance of the northern navy as a whole.

In subsequent decades, Fort Sumter received several face lifts as America evolved into a world power and became embattled in other wars. In 1898, during the Spanish American War, a concrete bunker (now the visitor center) was constructed inside the old fortress. A lighthouse and other outbuildings were also constructed. Nevertheless, the site remained visible in the national memory and became a National Park in 1948 following World War II. Above, Army officers in an early 1900s photo catch a boat to the historic site.

How might you remember Fort Sumter on this day? How will our nation commemorate the sesquicentennial there and throughout the country over the course of the next four years? I'm as excited to find out as you are. . .

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