The Battle of Fort Sumter

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Posted : April 1, 2021

Part One of

The Battle of Fort Sumter

Adapted from Peter Ashley
by DuBose Heyward

 

[Publisher’s Note, by Gene Kizer, Jr. : 
DuBose Heyward is best known for his 1925 novel, Porgy, which eventually became the famous George Gershwin opera, Porgy and Bess.1

DuBose Heyward, author of Peter Ashley, and Porgy, around 1928.
DuBose Heyward, author of Peter Ashley, and Porgy, around 1928.
Dorothy and DuBose Heyward, late 1920s.
Dorothy and DuBose Heyward, late 1920s.

Heyward was born in 1885 in Charleston and died in 1940. He is descended from Thomas Heyward, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Much of his writing took place during the Charleston Renaissance, the period between World Wars I and II, when the arts flourished following the difficult period after the War Between the States. Writers included Heyward, John Bennett, Josephine Pinckney and Julia Peterkin, along with poets Hervey Allen and Beatrice Ravenel. Visual artists included Alfred Hutty, Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, and Elizabeth O’Neill Verner.2

The Southern Renaissance (also known as the Southern Renascence) took place at the same time as the Charleston Renaissance, the 1920s and ’30s. The Southern Renaissance featured writers such as William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Caroline Gordon, Margaret Mitchell, Katherine Anne Porter, Erskine Caldwell, Allen Tate (and the other Fugitive Agrarians of I’ll Take My Stand), Tennessee Williams, Robert Penn Warren, and Zora Neale Hurston.

Hurston was an African American anthropologist whose recently released book, Barracoon,3 is a truthful recounting of the origins of slavery in Africa whereby black tribal warfare produced captives who were held by other blacks in slave forts called “barracoons”. They were held to be sold to mostly New England slave traders (and the British before them).

DuBose Heyward, during his time, was perhaps the foremost authority in the country on Southern black culture. He portrayed blacks with respect and not condescension.

During the same time period, he wrote Peter Ashley, set on the eve of South Carolina’s secession from the Union. His goal was to capture the exhilaration and fire of the people of Charleston as they struck for independence.

Heyward was working on Peter Ashley (1932) at the same time he was working on Porgy and Bess with George Gershwin.

There is no better way to be transported back in time to an actual event as it happened than through exciting, accurate historical fiction.

Heyward wrote Peter Ashley, and Herbert Ravenel Sass wrote Look Back to Glory, and both of those works were adapted for the shorter Fort Sumter, 1861-1865, from which this blog article comes.

Citation: DuBose Heyward, Herbert Ravenel Sass, Fort Sumter, 1861-1865 (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, Inc., 1932).]

 

Foreword to Fort Sumter, 1861-1865:

FROM CHRISTMAS night in the year 1860 to the twelfth of the following April the attention of the civilized world was centered upon Fort Sumter, a fortification built upon a sand bar and commanding the entrance to the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. For there the great American experiment in government was facing its ultimate test, and the destiny of the Union hung in the balance.

Fort Sumter, 1861, before the bombardment.
Fort Sumter, 1861, before the bombardment.

Would Major Anderson, in command of the Federal garrison, evacuate the fort to the state of South Carolina and the newly formed Confederacy, or would he remain there flying the Stars and Strips and invite civil war?

President Buchanan whose tenure of office would expire on the fourth of March, reluctant to meet so grave an issue, took no action. When his successor, Abraham Lincoln, was inaugurated in March, 1861, the situation had reached an acute phase and an immediate decision was imperative. Anderson had exhausted his supplies and must either be reinforced or evacuated.

The new president decided to stand fast and send a fleet to Charleston with supplies. The Confederacy construed this as an overt act. The Battle of Fort Sumter ensued and the states were hurled into four years of devastating war.

In the spring of 1863 Fort Sumter, now in the possession of the Confederate States, became the scene of a second momentous drama, and again the eyes of the world turned toward the sand bar at the harbor mouth and the mass of defensive masonry that stood interposed between the city and the sea.

For now in the march of events had come the hour of the steel man-of-war, and the ironclad armada of the United States had arrived to match its strength against man’s immemorial stronghold of brick and stone.

It is perhaps because of the enormous richness of our national historical heritage that these two events, so dramatic in themselves and far-reaching in their consequences, have received but scant attention; there being, so far as the authors of this book are aware, no detailed narrative account accessible to the general public except those contained in the two novels, Peter Ashley and Look Back to Glory, from which the following chapters are adapted.4

This is our justification for salvaging from the limbo of a past season’s fiction two stirring and dramatic episodes of American history, and combining them in a convenient and readily accessible form. If we presume to present them in their new guise as history rather than mere entertainment, let it be said that they are based upon years of exhaustive research, and in some particulars are derived from sources that will not be available to future historians. For into these stories have gone not only a painstaking scrutiny of the written record, but the good talk of men now dead who knew the truth that lay behind the fact, and illumined it in the telling because they had felt as well as known.

With the exception of General Beauregard, Colonel Wigfall, Admiral DuPont, Colonel Rhett and other historical characters who are well known, the people who appear in the stories will be strangers to the reader, but this should not prove embarrassing. We have allowed them to remain so that through them he may glimpse the life of the time and place as we have reconstructed it, and see reflected in their talk and attitudes the forces which precipitated events and shaped history.

DuBose Heyward,
Herbert Ravenel Sass,
Charleston, South Carolina

 

Part One of

The Battle of Fort Sumter

THE READER is invited to witness the battle from the Chardon residence, a large Georgian dwelling situated on Charleston’s Battery and commanding a sweeping view of the harbor. Assembled within the hospitable walls, or gathered upon the roof the better to view the engagement, are Pierre Chardon, the host, who is a veteran of the Mexican War, a widower, and the devoted guardian of his nephew Peter Ashley; Thomas and Emily Ashley, Peter’s parents; Captain Wakefield Ashley, his brother; Damaris Gordon, his fiancee; and Proctor Gordon, Damaris’ father. Rene Berrenger, Alicia Pringle, and others who enter and leave casually are friends of Peter.

 

MARCH, mad month in the maddest of years. Up in Washington, President Buchanan, “The Property Man,” has handed the lighted fuse to Lincoln, and has dropped gently into oblivion. Lincoln, the untried, the unknown, standing amid the babel of advice, the pull of opposing wills, with his single immovable idea: “The Union must be preserved.”

But time is racing now. The fuse that he is holding must presently be stamped out or its fire will reach Fort Sumter and detonate the waiting charge. Shall Anderson be reinforced? Shall Anderson be withdrawn? The old question, but no longer to be evaded. And the world watching, waiting, holding its breath, for the word.

In Montgomery, President Davis and his cabinet are facing a delicate problem. The Confederate government must assume command of the military forces at Charleston. And Charleston is known to be difficult. The task calls for a soldier, but it also requires something of a diplomat, and, emphatically, a gentleman. And the God of Battles that smiles with such inspiring indulgence upon the new Confederation presents them with Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard. Beauregard, great-grandson of Jacques Toutant-Beauregard who, under Louis XIV, had been in command of the flotilla to the Province of Louisiana, and on the distaff side direct descendant of Francois Marie Chevalier de Reggio, royal standard bearer under the Spanish domain. Oh, most emphatically a gentleman, but a soldier as well—hero of Chapultepec, Cerro Gordo, Vera Cruz, and late commander of the military academy at West Point.

Healy portrait of Gen. Beauregard in the National Portrait Gallery, Washington.
Healy portrait of Gen. Beauregard in the National Portrait Gallery, Washington.

March fourth. General Beauregard arrives at Charleston and assumes command of the military forces. On the fifth, he appears publicly with Governor Pickens and his aids at a performance at the Charleston Theater. Little Misses Fanny and Julia dance and sing. A competent cast performs The Lady of Lyons. But the sensation of the evening is the glittering presence in the proscenium box, and Charleston, remembering Jacques Toutant-Beauregard and Francois Marie Chevalier de Reggio, feels safe in taking the general unreservedly to its heart. Overnight he becomes the fashion. Ladies denude their gardens and convert headquarters at Institute Hall into a bower. Lads who have patiently cultivated fierce and warlike beards trim them  down without a quiver to the Beauregard mustache and goatee. Huguenots with one accord forget that the general is a Catholic, and remember only that he is French.

But Beauregard is now in seclusion at headquarters, facing a stupendous task, opposing order to chaos. Martial law is declared for the island defenses. There are no longer champagne punches and parties of laughing and delicately stepping ladies among the tents. Leaves are canceled.

March twelfth. By special correspondent of the News and Courier5 at Washington, “It is unofficially announced that the President favors withdrawal of Anderson from Sumter.”

March eighteenth. “It is now generally conceded that within a few days Sumter will be vacated.”

Maj. Robert Anderson, commander of Fort Sumter; Brig. Gen. from May 15, 1861.
Maj. Robert Anderson, commander of Fort Sumter; Brig. Gen. from May 15, 1861.

In his private office at Institute Hall, Beauregard takes the newspaper in his slender long-fingered hand, smiles his slow skeptical smile, and orders an extra draft of five hundred slaves to rush the work on the forts. That night, up the river, sledges ring on spikes until morning, where they are sheathing the floating battery with railroad irons.

On April second, the Honorable Louis T. Wigfall, late United States Senator from Texas, having decided to remove the seat of war from Washington to Charleston, arrives with his lady, and quarters himself at the Mills House. With his passing, Washington must seem strangely quiet, for the Senator’s private campaign at the Capital has been violent and sustained.

U.S. Senator from Texas, Louis Trezevant Wigfall, before the war.
U.S. Senator from Texas, Louis Trezevant Wigfall, before the war.
Louis Trezevant Wigfall, date unknown.
Louis Trezevant Wigfall, date unknown.

One by one the other Southern Senators and representatives had abandoned the fight as hopeless and left for their homes. Their deflection had only stiffened the resistance of the redoubtable Texan. Of tremendous physique, inexhaustible vitality, and known as a fearless and deadly duelist, he had set himself the task of destroying the hostile government at its source by the sheer power of his oratory. It was said that he never slept. Hour on hour the tremendous mellifluous voice poured its broadsides of invective into the ears of the exasperated but powerless Senators. At night he would pursue them to their clubs, and there, holding them with his fierce magnetic gaze, he would deliver a verbal chastisement that so exhausted them that, when he left in the morning fresh and vigorous to carry the fight back to the Senate chamber, they were incapable of following him. There was a half-hearted suggestion that he be arrested, tried for treason, and hanged, in the somewhat forlorn hope that he would thus be silenced. He laughed in their faces, told them that they were Yankee shopkeepers and poltroons, and that for his part he was done with them. They could consider themselves dismissed. He now had more important business before him. He would go to Charleston and attend to Major Anderson.

On the third of April the Senator appears at headquarters. He is wearing varnished top boots and huge Texas spurs. About the senatorial frock coat is tied a broad, red, tasseled sash, and through this is thrust a sword. In his hand he carried his black plainsman’s felt hat, and his magnificent leonine head is bare to the spring morning. When he emerges he is Colonel Wigfall, and a duly appointed aide to the commanding general.

It is evident that Beauregard has remembered that he is not only a soldier and a gentleman, but upon occasion a diplomat as well. But it is not unlikely, as the door of the private office closes upon his magnificent newest colonel, that he feels somewhat as though he has reached out and closed his hand upon the tail of a flaming comet.

As to whether or not Beauregard desired war, we have only to remember that for six hundred years his forebears had distinguished themselves upon the field of battle and that, at that particular moment, should hostilities eventuate, he stood practically unrivaled upon the threshold of the supreme command. It is not likely that these circumstances would have conspired together for the creation of an ardent pacifist. He knew that President Davis and his cabinet did not desire war. He must have known that President Lincoln did not desire it. Had he been consulted as to his views, he would doubtless have replied that it was not the province of the soldier either to believe or to disbelieve that a war was imminent — but to be prepared. And to this end, under the grave formal elegance of the man in the private office, there drove steadily forward all day and most of the night the irresistible momentum of a superb engineering machine.

It may have appeared that, knowing the reluctance of Montgomery to precipitate the effusion of blood and finding himself in Charleston which already considered itself at war, his position would have been embarrassing. But it was singularly the reverse. He was scrupulous in his dealings with the Confederate command. In every decision he deferred to Davis and awaited instructions. And he was in complete harmony with the Carolinians. He must have understood their temper completely. He surrounded himself with a group of aides taken for the most part from civil life, and incongruously attired in black frock coats, sashes and swords. They represented the flower of the commonwealth. Statesmen, orators, men of high courage, very great gentlemen, arrant individualists, they were, with their latest recruit Colonel Wigfall, the comet to which the general had attached himself and the Confederate States of America, while he kept flashing his full and punctilious reports out across the void toward Montgomery.

 

In Washington, on April seventh, Secretary of State Seward sends his famous message to the Confederate commissioners through the person of Associate Justice Campbell: “Faith as to Sumter fully kept. Wait and See.”

On April eighth the papers contain official announcement that Lincoln had already dispatched his messenger to Charleston to state that Fort Sumter would be relieved peaceably or by force. The Powhatan, first vessel of the flotilla, had put to sea for Sumter on the sixth.

And now, dramatically, the moment has arrived. Destiny has leaped beyond human control. It remains only for those in authority to preserve a decent reluctance, to write into the record those final brief dispatches by which each side hopes to convince posterity that the other is the aggressor.

In Charleston the excitement is terrific. For two days the crowds never leave the bulletin boards.

The newspapers bombard them with headlines:

“Washington, April tenth. Special correspondent to The Courier reports: Lincoln’s policy coercion and war. Fort Sumter to be relieved at all hazards. Anderson to open on Batteries. Four light draft cruisers have already sailed with troops.”

“Montgomery calls for three thousand troops from each state.”

“Leaving Columbia for Charleston: The Governor’s Guards, Columbia Grays, Congaree Riflemen.”

Orators thunder invective:

While the South has been listening in good faith to the promises of Seward, while Lincoln has pretended to consider Anderson’s peaceable withdrawal, the Yankees have been deliberately playing upon the credulity of the south and making ready for war. Davis is openly criticized. Does he expect Charleston to sit calmly by until the arrival of reinforcements for Sumter?

But Beauregard will not be stampeded. He dispatches Colonel Chestnut and Captain Lee to Anderson with a demand that he surrender, and offering him the opportunity of evacuating with all supplies and a fifty-gun salute to his flag. Anderson refuses but states that he will be starved out and have to vacate in a few days if, in the meantime, he has not been battered to pieces.

General Beauregard confers with Montgomery and submits: “If you will state the time at which you will evacuate Fort Sumter, and agree that in the meantime you will not use your guns against us, unless ours shall be employed against Fort Sumter, we will abstain from opening fire against you.”

At two-thirty A.M. April twelfth, Anderson replies that he will vacate by noon on April fifteenth, should he not receive prior to that time “controlling instructions” from his government or additional supplies.

The Confederate command, knowing that “controlling instructions” are already on their way to Fort Sumter, and that the relief flotilla is expected momentarily off the bar, sees in the reply a continuation of the tactics that have been employed by Washington, merely a postponement against a more complete preparedness.

At three-twenty A.M. on April twelfth, the final dispatch crosses the harbor toward Sumter:

“To Major Anderson,
United States Army, Commanding
Fort Sumter.

Sir:

By authority of Brigadier-General Beauregard, commanding the provisional forces of the Confederate States, we have the honour to notify you that he will open the fire of his batteries on Fort Sumter in one hour from this time.

We have the honour to be, very respectfully,
Your obedient servants,
James Chestnut, Jr., Aide-de-Camp.
Stephen D. Lee, Capt. S.C. Army
and Aide-de-camp.”

 

*   *   *   *   *

The windows of Chardon’s room were open and through them came the damp heavy pressure of an east wind. The sky was overcast, and when he looked down into the street he could distinguish nothing. But up out of the night came the sound of low, excited voices, and the shuffling of feet.

He heard Caesar’s tread, then the front door opened and closed. Boots took the steps two in a stride, rang strong and vital on the corridor, and paused before his door. Then, with “I’m coming in, Uncle Pierre,” Wake was in the room. He was carrying a lantern that he had taken from Caesar. The light, hanging low, showed Chardon military boots and gray breeches. Above, in the fainter, reflected glow, he saw the face of his nephew, flushed, eager, excited.

Wake said, “Hurry and dress, Uncle Pierre. We’re opening on Sumter at half-past four.”

Chardon, shivering in his nightshirt, answered testily: “You are, are you? Well, come in and close the door.”

“But you don’t understand, sir. I have some of the boys from the Rifles here, and we’re hoping that some of the ladies will join us. I hope you don’t mind, sir, but I’m having Caesar open the trap door to the roof. We want to be there for the first shot.”

Something in Chardon wanted to cry out. Wanted to warn the boy that war was not, after all, a gala festival. But, as he often did when deeply affected, he sought concealment in irony.

“Perhaps,” he suggested, “you had better send orders to Beauregard to hold his fire until you have your gallery arranged and your ladies seated. It would be a pity to have them miss the first act.” Then his manner changed. He asked sharply: “Where’s Peter?”

“I don’t know,” Wake told him. “He’s on duty tonight. That’s how we got the word so promptly. He knew when Colonel Chestnut sent the last dispatch to Anderson, and he sent Washington out to the camp on Starling to tell us to come down.”

He stood a moment looking at his uncle, then said, “I hope you don’t mind us coming here, sir. It’s not going to last long, you see; we had to hurry. Someone said—”

“Yes, yes, I know. You’ll probably be breakfasting in Washington. But get along to the roof now, with your friends, and I’ll join you as soon as I am decently covered.”

Chardon lifted his head and shoulders through the trap door and looked about him. Clouds, heavy with moisture, hung low and dense. A wind from the Atlantic drove steadily westward over the roofs. It had body, substance, and when it flung its weight against Chardon, his footing became uncertain on the ladder.

But he was immediately sighted by the group of men who were gathered about the lantern on the flat roof of the rear piazza. Lawrence and Wake were at his side in a moment. They lifted him out lightly, as though he had been a child, to the secure footing of the roof. Their tenderness and solicitude embarrassed him, as, each holding him by an arm, they conducted him across the short distance to the group. His bad leg always stiffened up while he slept, making his lameness more apparent. He was compelled to say with dignity: “You needn’t carry me. I am fully capable of maintaining my own footing.”

He pulled himself together, welcoming them to his home, and summoning Caesar to bring up a decanter and glasses.

He noticed then that lights were coming up on adjacent roofs, and from one to another excited voices were calling across the darkness. The De Saussures had assembled quite a party. He could see hoop skirts swinging in the wind like large bells, and negroes were bringing up chairs and rugs for the ladies.

Presently the Gordons and Alicia Pringle arrived. Damaris kissed Chardon in silence, and slipped an arm through his. They stood a little apart from the others, saying nothing, their eyes staring out into the darkness. Caesar came with decanter and glasses, supplied the guests, and retired.

Wake was standing by the lantern, his watch in his hand. Chardon had seen him often with that look of concentration on his face, as he stood timing the start of a race on the Pineville track.

“We’ve only three minutes to wait,” he announced. “It is four-twenty-seven.” A great silence had fallen over the roofs. From the street came the sound of hurrying feet, but  no talk.

Wake’s voice came wire-tense in the stillness.

“Time.”

Minutes passed. The suspense became unbearable. Feet shuffled. Alicia Pringle cried, “I can’t bear it!” Chardon, with his finger nails pressing little pains into his palms, stood motionless, his gaze focused on the spot in the night where the fort stood waiting.

The boats of the night patrol were coming in. He could see the flares moving toward the town, bright gouts of blood on the water, with smears drawn from them toward the shore.

 

To be concluded next week, April 8, 2021.

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