Shared from the 11/1/2020 Post & Courier eEdition

Charleston sets itself, and the country, on path to civil war



EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the 26th installment in a serialized history of Charleston to commemorate the city’s 350th anniversary.

A“long and continued cheering” echoed down Broad Street on the evening of Nov. 6, 1860.

The men of Charleston had crowded the sidewalks and street in front of the city’s telegraph office, awaiting news of the presidential election. The results trickled in throughout the evening until, finally, The Associated Press declared the inevitable: Abraham Lincoln would become the 16th president of the United States.

The Mercury, with its offices conveniently next door to the telegraph office at the east end of Broad, felt the need to clarify that Charlestonians were not cheering Lincoln, but “a Southern Confederacy.”

Just as the Mercury’s ownership had planned. For years, the newspaper’s editors (among others) had shamelessly promoted the idea of secession, and it had taken hold across the state … especially in Charleston. The next day, federal officials around the city began resigning their posts.

By week’s end, the state Legislature announced a Dec. 17 convention to “take into consideration … their relations with the Federal Government.” Under the excuse of a smallpox outbreak in Columbia, the convention was moved to St. Andrew’s Hall in Charleston — which was a much friendlier environment for secession.

After a few days of speechifying, the inevitable vote was 169-0, prompting perhaps the most famous newspaper headline in Charleston, or American, history: The UNION is DISSOLVED. The Mercury had declared secession a necessity because the federal government — particularly under a Lincoln administration — was intent on denying “states’ rights.” When the secession convention drafted its “declaration of immediate causes,” however, about the only violation of states’ rights listed was the government’s attempts to regulate slavery ... which was mentioned nearly 20 times.

One delegate suggested disagreements over tariffs be included in the document, probably so their reasoning wouldn’t look so one-dimensional.

The Ordinance of Secession was signed in a ceremony at Institute Hall on Meeting Street, which followed a parade of the delegates from St. Andrew’s Hall on Broad Street. Locals redubbed Institute Hall as Secession Hall.

The trouble started almost immediately. Although the Buchanan administration initially agreed to negotiate with South Carolina officials to determine ownership of federal property within the state, things quickly went south.

Maj. Robert Anderson, the new commander at Fort Moultrie, soon received reports that the state militia had set up cannons on Sullivan’s Island to stop any ship attempting to resupply the fort. Also, there were rumors the fort was surrounded by sharpshooters.

The night of Dec. 26, Anderson quietly took his troops and retreated to the unfinished Fort Sumter. Sitting on its own island in the mouth of the harbor, it was an infinitely more defensible position. Although the actions of South Carolina had provoked Anderson’s move, state officials took it as an act of war.

In January, as other Southern states began to follow South Carolina out of the Union, Citadel cadets on Morris Island fired at the Star of the West, a ship that was allegedly only bringing food and supplies to Anderson’s men at Fort Sumter. But reporters had also seen troops filing onto the ship before it departed New York.

Some considered the incident the first shots of a war, but nothing was formal until more than a month after President Lincoln took office — and the Confederate States of America was formed.

Lincoln made it clear he did not intend to surrender the fort, but he promised to send no more troops to the state if he could deliver food to Anderson’s starving men. Gen. Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, the Confederate military commander at Charleston, sent word to his old friend Anderson that any attempt to resupply Sumter would by stopped with force.

The stalemate continued throughout the first week of April 1861, and Charleston residents waited impatiently for war to begin. As April 11 faded to the 12th, so did the hope of successful negotiations. It was only a matter of time.

That night, the women of Charleston gathered on The Battery, waiting for war as if it were a fireworks display. The Mercury reported the ladies were anxious for their husbands and sons, “and yet there was but one regret expressed, and that was at the delay and procrastination of hostilities.”

They would not have to wait long, and later would regret their delight at the pending “hostilities.” Charleston had drawn the country into war and would become one of its many casualties.

Reach Brian Hicks at

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