Blast from our Past

Cannon shot recalls Civil War's first shot

jholleman@thestate.comApril 12, 2011 

  • Programs marking the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War at Ft. Sumter

    Fort Sumter: Union re-enactors will be drilling at the fort through today; a re-enactment of the surrender ceremony will be Thursday, and Confederate re-enactors will be drilling Friday through April 17.

    Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island: Special programs offered 10 a.m-5 p.m., Sunday through Friday.

  • Coming Sunday

    Our next installment in a yearlong series looking at the legacies of the Civil War in South Carolina.

FORT JOHNSON After a thundering boom from the 10-inch mortar and a sparkle of fireworks marked the 150th anniversary of the first shot of the Civil War on Tuesday morning, Sen. Glenn McConnell said it’s time to move forward.

McConnell, R-Charleston, noted the many arguments since the war that pitted brother against brother and left more than 600,000 Americans dead.

“Why was the war fought? Was it about slavery or states’ rights?” McConnell asked during his speech at the first-shot ceremony. “What does the Confederate battle flag stand for? Is it a symbol of bigotry or a memorial to the valor of fallen soldiers? Many of those emotional issues still rage today.

“But the time has come to move beyond the petty disputes of the past. … We all have a common history and a shared culture.”

The challenge of remembering a past that split the country while moving ahead together permeated the first-shot events, from the scholarly lectures over the past few months to the musical presentations at Charleston’s Battery on Monday night and early Tuesday.

“We’re trying to present the Civil War through the various eyes during this sesquicentennial commemoration,” Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said before the Monday night concert. “We need to think about how the war affected all of the people.”

What started at Fort Sumter led to more than four years of devastating war and the freedom of millions of slaves. It also led to the collapse of the slave-supported economy in South Carolina, a blow which the state has been fighting to overcome ever since.

The sesquicentennial events will move on in coming months to other states, where more fighting occurred. In many ways, the 34-hour bombardment of Fort Sumter and its surrender was a high point for Confederates in South Carolina. They held the fort against massive shelling, only to surrender it back to the Union four years later as the war neared the end.

McConnell, a history buff who participates in re-enactments and owns a Confederate memorabilia store, left the re-enactment to others. He wore a dark business suit, with yellow shirt and red tie.

Those in period garb played the roles of the soldiers of Company C of the South Carolina Battalion of Artillery, which was stationed at Fort Johnson the morning of April 12, 1861. When Union Maj. Robert Anderson refused the final Confederate request to surrender Fort Sumter, Company C was ordered to fire the shot that began the war at 4:30 a.m.

Confederate diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut wrote of the mood 150 years ago: “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. … The shells were bursting. In the dark I heard a man say ‘waste of ammunition.’”

On Fort Sumter, Union Capt. Abner Doubleday described the moment: “The first shot really came from the mortar battery at Fort Johnson. Almost immediately afterward a ball from Cummings Point lodged in the magazine wall, and by the sound seemed to bury itself in the masonry about a foot from my head, in very unpleasant proximity to my right ear.”

Remarkably, no one was killed by the nearly 5,000 shells launched during the 34-hour bombardment. The battle was one-sided, with the small Union contingent isolated in the harbor in Fort Sumter lacking the supplies to compete with multiple Confederate batteries on land.

While there is some historical debate over who actually pulled the lanyard on the mortar to fire the first shot, the re-enactment organizers gave the honor to Lt. Henry Saxon Farley, whose descendents attended Tuesday’s event.

The ceremony started with the signal shot, which gave notice to other batteries around the harbor to begin firing on Fort Sumter. The fireworks accompanying the re-enactment signal shot were closer to a bottle rocket than the starburst cluster advertised by organizers, but the blast was deafening and smoke filled the air. Soon other puffs of smoke could be seen from around the harbor, followed by the delayed sounds of the cannon blasts.

McConnell urged those at the ceremony to let the signal shot light the way to the future rather than simply be a reminder of the past. “Let it show how far we’ve come, how much we’ve learned,” he said.

About 1,000 people watched the first-shot re-enactment at Fort Johnson on the point now occupied by a S.C. Department of Natural Resources facility.

After the first two mortar shots and McConnell’s speech, a re-enactor tossed a wreath in the harbor and buglers played taps, a reminder of the four years of horrors that followed that first shot. The sun rose over Sullivan’s Island in the distance as the ceremony began, and dark clouds hovered on the western horizon as it ended.

The Farley descendents were allowed to pull the lanyard to fire the mortar at the end of the ceremony.

“It was a celebration of a family that has had deep, deep roots in South Carolina,” said William Downs Farley, who lives in Decatur, Ga. “It was a completion of the circle that has to do with heritage.”

McConnell fired the mortar once, too, as the crowd was filing out, and a group in the crowd broke into an impromptu singing of “Dixie.”

Earlier, several hundred people strolled up to the bandstand at the Battery, solemnly listening to a brass ensemble play a 25-minute program of hymns.

The plaintive sound of the music rolled across White Point Garden to the walkway along the harbor’s edge, where several hundred more people awaited the ceremonial parting of the light beam shining from Fort Sumter. The music began on time at 4:30 a.m. The light for unexplained reasons didn’t split until about 13 minutes later.

Fred Kiger, who lectures on the Civil War at the University of North Carolina, was choked up at the early event.

“All my life, I’ve studied this history,” Kiger said. “Now, to be here to have some semblance of the weather and the sights and the moment … it’s very close to a religious moment.”

Kiger appreciated the tasteful nature of the commemoration, with no cannon fire or cheers when the beam split into two.

“As this fort was a symbol, what they’ve done here is symbolically reflect that we were at war with ourselves,” said Kiger, who came down for the week with 40 history buffs from Chapel Hill, N.C. “This is a very powerful moment, very sobering.”

Back in 1861, the mood in Charleston after the Union troops left Fort Sumter was far from sober. William Howard Russell, a correspondent for The Times of London, filed this dispatch:

“Crowds of armed men singing and promenading in the streets … the battle-blood running through their veins – that hot oxygen which is called ‘the flush of victory’ on the cheek; restaurants full, reveling in bar rooms, club-rooms crowded, orgies and carousings in tavern or private house. … Sumter has set them distraught; never such a victory; never such brave lads; never such a fight.”

But the true fight had only begun.

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