Wednesday, April 6, 2011

On The Charleston Waterfront, Up Close and Personal

What if I had been at Charleston Harbor in the wee hours of January 9, 1861?  I asked this question of myself, inspired by the on-the-scene reporting of antebellum literary luminary William Gilmore Simms during General Sherman’s sacking of Columbia (March 29 blog).

Maj. Peter F.
In early 1861, a corps of Cadets from The Citadel fired 17 shots at a non-military merchant steamer, Star of the West, chugging toward federally held Fort Sumter. The steamer's mission was to deliver supplies and men to the fort,  a symbol of the Union. South Carolina’s Gov. Francis Pickens had been warned about the covert mission.  Naturally this displeased the leader of the first state to secede from the Union back in December. 

Near daybreak, cadets from the Southern military academy fired the first hostile shots leading up to the Civil War. Maj. Peter Fayssoux Stevens commanded the unit of the Citadel, located at the tip of the Charleston peninsula.  Stevens, 30, graduated first in his class from the Citadel in 1849. Smart, religious and respected, Stevens went on to become the academy’s superintendent and later first bishop of the Reformed Episcopal Church.  

In my interview scenario, I approach Major Stevens, organizing his young men on the Charleston waterfront with the demeanor of an aristocrat and of a top-drawer military leader.

 “Major Stevens, sir, why are you doing this?”  I asked.

“I am a soldier," he answered. "I follow orders. Governor Pickens ordered it. He was duly elected by the people.  The governor expects me to carry out the will of the people.”

Historic Map of Charleston Harbor. Fort Sumter sits
mid-harbor.  Citadel cadets fired from Sullivan's
Island just north of the fort.
“But, sir, the majority of the people of South Carolina – 57 percent – are slaves. They can’t vote,” I pointed out  “And women, sir… they make up about half of the free population in the state.  They can’t vote either.“ 

“Yes, ma’am, but leaders of our state voted unanimously to walk away from the Union, which we freely joined," Stevens said. "What we can freely join we can freely leave." 

“When you speak of the political leaders of the state, you mean representatives in  the Secession Convention in 1860?” I asked. 

Stevens managed a nod of agreement then barked directions to his cadets.

“But, sir," I ventured, "one hundred percent of the 171 delegates voting at that convention were white males… and  90 percent of them owned slaves.  Even in South Carolina, most people didn’t own slaves, so how…..?

"It’s called democracy,” Stevens said, obviously wishing I would leave Sullivan’s Island, where the cadets had set up base.  “Besides, ma’am, this country is so big and states are so different, did anyone really think one government could run the whole thing?” he snapped.  “As for the Constitution, it preserves our sovereign rights as a state. That includes our right to walk away from the Union.”

“A gentleman’s agreement?” I wondered aloud.

Stevens couldn’t let that remark slide.

“War is inevitable,” he said above the clamor. “Blame it on our Founding Fathers. Our democracy preserves states’ rights – and slavery."

I scribbled the word “democracy,” in my notebook.  Stevens had a point.  The Constitutional  Convention of 1787 compromised with Southern leaders to ensure economic security, accommodated by slavery, to get the Constitution signed.  The founding document allowed slaves to be counted as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of representation.
More to Stevens' point, representative democracy allows Americans to hand over to their political leaders their hard-won, “by-the-people” privileges, to the point that most don’t even vote.  In the hotly contested presidential election of 2008, only 57 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot, but that marked a record high.  

The first promise of sunlight shot across the black-violet sky.  The Star of the West bobbed on distant waves.

“Sorry, ma’am,” Major Stevens said in an imperious yet courtly manner. “You must hasten to depart.”  The Citadel men scurried about the battery, giddiness mingling with the sobering reality that their actions might provide a flashpoint for war.  They readied the cannons. The Star of the West eased into range.

“Commence firing!” Major Stevens yelled.

First Classman George Edward Haynseworth pulled the lanyard on Gun Number 1. Cannons exploded again and again for ten minutes from Morris Island. Ear-splitting ordnance swished toward the bow of the merchant steamer. Although avoiding a direct hit, the Star of the West’s supplies never reached Fort Sumter.  The ship turned back.

Within days, the handful of Union troops who had fled Charleston to Fort Sumter, reduced nearly to rubble, ceremoniously left it. Fort Sumter stayed in Confederate hands throughout the war, an inspiring symbol of defiance.   

Some historians consider the cadets' surreptitious actions under the command of Major P. F. Stevens the first shots of the American Civil War. Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter followed in April 1861, escalating the standoff that would devastate the South, threaten to collapse a country not yet 75 years old, and claim the lives of about 620,000 Americans. 

It was the will of the people. 

RESOURCES:  U.S Census of 1860; Bordewich, Fergus M. “The Civil War Begins,” Smithsonian, 2011. “ Major Peter F. Stevens, SCM (1859-1861), The CITADEL online. Citadel cadets participate in Civil War reenactments and living history events through the Citadel Living History Society. For information go to Citadel Living History Society.

NOTE: Because of a storm-related electrical outage on Tuesday, this blog was posted a day late.