Mary Chesnut of Charleston, South Carolina, aristocratic wife of lawyer and former U.S. Senator James Chesnut, did not need any newspapers to tell her of the firing on Fort Sumter. Her husband, serving now as a colonel with the South Carolina militia, had been actively involved in the negotiations with Federal troops in the fort out in Charleston harbor. In the dark hours before dawn on April 12, 1861, Mary Chesnut lay in bed, fully aware that Confederate forces would commence a bombardment at 4:30 if the Federals did not abandon the fort.
She could not sleep. “I count four St. Michael’s bells chime out,” she later wrote, “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.’”
In other places further from Charleston, the news of the bombardment on April 12 and the surrender of the fort on April 13 arrived almost simultaneously.
Near midnight on April 13, Walt Whitman, poet and New York journalist, had just come from an opera on 14th Street. He was walking down Broadway, on his way to Brooklyn, when he heard newsboys shouting, louder than usual, causing a tremendous scene. Curious, Whitman bought a paper, then crossed the street to the steps of the Metropolitan Hotel where the bright gas lamps allowed him to read it.
“For the benefit of some who had no papers,” he later wrote, “one of us read the telegram aloud, while all listened silently and attentively. No remark was made by any of the crowd, which had increased to thirty or forty, but all stood a minute or two, I remember, before they dispersed. I can almost see them there now, under the lamps at midnight again.”
Another writer and journalist, Mary Livermore, was in Boston when she heard the news. Livermore would become a prominent leader in the United States Sanitary Commission during the war to come. On April 12, she had arrived in Boston, her native city, to help care for her dying father. She was tending to him on April 13 when the news arrived.
Despite the fervor in the days leading up to the battle, to Livermore the news still seemed unreal. The South’s “high-sounding talk of war was obstinately regarded as empty gasconade, and its military preparations, as the idle bluster of angry disappointment.” Therefore, when she heard of the surrender of the fort, the news struck her “like a thunderbolt.” When they informed her father, on his deathbed, he turned his face to the wall and cried, “My God, now let me die! For I cannot survive the ruin of my country.”
William Tecumseh Sherman, a former U.S. Army officer, had just taken a job as president of a street car company, the St. Louis Railroad. He and his wife had occupied a house in St. Louis just two weeks earlier. It was a city bitterly divided between unionists and secessionists and Sherman, “tried my best to keep out of the current and only talked freely with a few men.” On April 14th when the news reached St. Louis, Sherman later wrote, “We then knew that war was actually begun.”
Shortly thereafter, Sherman was summoned to the home of Francis Blair, an influential politician, who informed him that the current Federal commander in Missouri, General Harney, was to be removed and Blair wanted Sherman to take the job. “I told him I…had made business engagements in St. Louis, which I could not throw off at pleasure; that I had long deliberated on my course of action, and must decline his offer, however tempting and complimentary. He reasoned with me, but I persisted.” Sherman’s refusal made his friends question his loyalty to the Union.
Ulysses Grant, another former U.S. Army officer, was working as a leather goods merchant in Galena, Illinois. On April 15, Lincoln issued the call for troops to put down the rebellion. The day that Lincoln’s call reached Galena, the citizens organized a mass meeting at the court house to recruit a company. Grant was asked to preside over the meeting because he had been a soldier, although several people expressed their disappointment that a newcomer to the city, and one so poor at public speaking, presided over so important an occasion. They nonetheless offered Grant the captaincy of the company they raised. He declined.
There were radicals on both sides who actually welcomed war. One of them was abolitionist Frederick Douglass. “God be praised!” he wrote not long after receiving the news, “war has come at last!…The slaveholders themselves have saved the abolition cause from ruin. The government is aroused, the dead North is alive, and its people united…Drums are beating, men are enlisting, companies forming, regiments marching, banners are flying…”
On the morning of April 18, an exhausted Major Robert Anderson was aboard the steamship Baltic off of Sandy Hook in Lower New York Bay. Just days after evacuating Fort Sumter, he and his troops were about to disembark in New York City.
Too weary to write himself, he had an aide take down his official report to the War Department. “Having defended Fort Sumter thirty-four hours, until our quarters were entirely burned, the main gates destroyed by fire….four barrels and three cartridges of powder only being available, and no provisions but pork remaining. I accepted the terms of evacuation offered by General Beauregard….and marched out of the fort on Saturday afternoon, the 14th inst., with colors flying and drums beating….and saluting my flag with fifty guns.”
He probably had cause to wonder about his reception in New York. He must have been greatly relieved when he was greeted by massive throngs, cheering him, crazed with excitement. On April 19, Major Anderson was present for the departure of the 7th New York Regiment, and was asked to stand with the dignitaries on Broadway. He even hoisted the flag that had flown at Fort Sumter which he had taken with him, much to the delight of the wild crowd. The next day he again displayed the flag at a war rally in Union Square attended by 100,000 people, the largest assembly in North America up to that time.
It was all parade, pomp and pride on both sides. Then, three months after Fort Sumter, Mary Chestnut, who had heard the first guns, had a sobering check to her enthusiasm during a visit with Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
“His tone was not sanguine,” she wrote in her diary, “There was a sad refrain running through it all. For one thing, either way, he thinks it will be a long war. That floored me at once. It has been too long for me already. Then he said, before the end came we would have many a bitter experience.”
Perhaps President Davis, who had ordered the firing on Fort Sumter, was one of the few who truly grasped the enormity of what was to unfold.
[Sources: Mary Chesnut, A Diary from Dixie, (1905), p. 35 and 71; Walt Whitman, Specimen Days, (1882), p. 21; Mary Livermore, My Story of the War, (1889), p. 86; William T. Sherman, Memoirs of General William T. Sherman, (1875), p. 170; Ulysses Grant, Personal Memoirs, (1998 ed.), p. 116; Stephen Oates, The Approaching Fury, (1998), p. 423; Robert Watson, White House Studies Compendium vol. 2, (2006), p. 316.]