1861: “At Half-Past Four…A Cannon” (Fort Sumter)

Gazette665 Blog Series 1861: In Their Words

April 12, 1861 – Charleston, South Carolina, Confederacy

Anderson will not capitulate…

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 chimes. 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 corridor – all seemed hurrying one way. I put on my double gown and shawl and went, too. It was to the housetop.

The shells were bursting. In the dark I hear a man say “waste of ammunition.”

Fort Sumter, April 12, 1861

Fort Sumter, April 12, 1861

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 – he was to order the forts on our 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 from the women and imprecations from the men, and then a shell would light up the scene…

We watched up there – everybody wondered. Fort Sumter did not fire a shot…

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.

~Mary Chesnut

Fort Sumter

On April 12, 1861, Confederate on-shore batteries opened fire on the Federal fort in Charleston Harbor. Fort Sumter had been a point of contention for several months; Southerners wanted to control all forts in their “new nation” and the Federal government was not anxious to hand over their property. Abraham Lincoln took a strong stance against surrendering and spent the early weeks of his presidency playing a careful diplomatic game and trying to do the forbidden: send food and reinforcements to the fort.

The commander inside Fort Sumter was Major Robert Anderson. Several times prior to April 12, 1861, he had been summoned to surrender and take down the American Flag. He refused.

The Confederate military commander was General Pierre G.T. Beauregard, an experienced artilleryman, and a rising star in the Southern army. The first cannon shot was actually fired by Edmund Ruffin, a fire-eater secessionist from Virginia who had been advocating Southern independence for about twenty years.

The bombardment of Fort Sumter lasted two days. Major Anderson was forced to surrender, and the Confederates took possession of the fort.

Mary Chesnut

Mary Chesnut

Mary Chesnut

Mary Chesnut [b. 1823, d. 1886] was the wife of James Chesnut, Jr., a wealthy plantation owner, former U.S. Senator, and Confederate politician.

The quotation of the day comes from Mary Chesnut’s diary which is a lively and enlightening record about the war (and society) according to a wealthy Southern lady. As a native South Carolinian living in Charleston, Mrs. Chesnut had a prime vantage point for experiencing the bombardment of Fort Sumter; later, she would spend time in Richmond and continue her private journal commentary on the war from the Southern capital.

Historical Musings

I find Mary Chesnut’s account of April 12th very realistic. I can imagine exactly what she describes. Aside from the actual details for the bombardment, two things stand out in this passage:

  1. I sprang out of bed. And on my knees – prostrate – I prayed as I never prayed before. Sensing the importance of the moment and completely unsure what would happen next, Mary’s first response is prayer. She doesn’t specify what she prayed – probably for safety. In a terrifying historic moment when the opening cannon shots were beginning something – in reality a war of un-imaginable proportions – prayer for Divine guidance was the first thought in a South Carolinian lady’s mind.
  2. Sound and fury, signifying nothing. This sentence stands out as a horrifying lie at first glance. Then I recall that I’m thinking from a 21st Century perspective. Taking a step back and trying to evaluate as if it were April 12, 1861, reveals the reality of the comment. As far as Mary knew there had been no casualties, and, when she wrote, the fort still had not surrendered. It was her commentary as the cannon blasts became commonplace that day – just noise, nothing more. However, with dangerous hindsight, this sentence is incredibly ironic.

The situation at Charleston described that morning as “signifying nothing” was – in reality – the event which started the bloodiest war in American history.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. What sentence or phrase do you find particularly interesting in Mrs. Chesnut’s account?

Mary Chesnut, Fort Sumter

3 thoughts on “1861: “At Half-Past Four…A Cannon” (Fort Sumter)

  1. Pingback: 1862: “We Are Spartans” | Gazette665

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