Charleston at War: A Southern victory in Manassas, Va.
The parade began under a "threatening sky" that afternoon.
At 4:30 on May 6, a battalion of cadets from the Military College escorted the men of the Palmetto Guard through the streets of Charleston, a procession that stirred such excitement that even the weather could not dissuade the city's ladies -- "especially young ladies," the Mercury reported -- to a grand ceremony at Institute Hall.
There the Guard was presented with a blue silk flag, fringed with gold tassels, that sported a palmetto and the Guard's motto. It was a gift from the women of Charleston in appreciation of the troops' heroic actions in the battle of Fort Sumter. When Lt. Col. Wilmot G. DeSaussure of the South Carolina Artillery presented it to Capt. George Cuthbert, he urged the Guard to "make their future deeds worthy of their glorious past."
That glorious past would scarcely be forgotten anytime soon. The flag presentation was the second ceremony for the Palmetto Guard at Institute Hall in the past week. The prior Thursday, the men had been given a massive gold medal in a ceremony attended by Gen. Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard and the governor.
In the three weeks since the battle, there had been little talk in Charleston that did not focus on the glory of the Fort Sumter victory. But despite reports that the battle signaled the start of the war, little had happened since.
Still, gossip and rumor continued to run rampant through the city. The Mercury reprinted articles from Northern newspapers that suggested the United States already was plotting to re-take the fort and all the other federal property seized by the Confederates in Charleston.
The Mercury stirred partisan rancor by running the New York Tribune's summary of the skirmish, which referred to the Southerners as "seceders" who would soon be forced to "abandon their great conspiracy."
"We mean to conquer them -- not merely defeat, but to conquer, to SUBJUGATE them -- and we will do this the most mercifully, the more speedily we do it," the Tribune opined, according to the Mercury.
The newspaper responded with its own proselytizing, claiming in a front-page editorial that "God is with us" and would punish the South's enemies -- basically, Northern politicians.
"By tariffs, navigation laws, internal improvements, and infernal appropriations, they swallowed up all our revenues," the editorial said. "In their vanity and pride of heart they mocked at God -- forgot him -- mocked at us -- and now seek to destroy us."
For the rest of the month, Charleston was consumed with tragedies unrelated to politics or war. First, a fishing boat christened Dixie capsized in the harbor, killing two fisherman, an incident the Mercury called a "melancholy casualty."
On May 24, a slave got into a gunfight with the local militia. A guard had spotted Anthony -- "belonging to the estate of J.C. Beamann," the Mercury reported -- out late without a pass near the intersection of Meeting and Chalmers. When an officer tried to arrest Anthony, he fought back and eventually pulled a pistol. Before he was subdued, the slave had fired three shots.
No one was injured, but the next week a local court sentenced Anthony to six months solitary imprisonment and "twenty paddles on the first day of each month," the newspaper reported.
By the time Anthony finished serving his sentence, he would find Charleston irrevocably changed.
A growing Confederacy
Officially, there was no conflict.
The U.S. Congress and President Abraham Lincoln refused to formally declare war on the Confederate States. Their argument was that the United States only made such proclamations against recognized nations, and neither Lincoln nor the U.S. Congress would dignify the Confederacy with such status. To them, all of this was a rebellion -- nothing more.
The Confederate Congress did not quibble with such details, passing a declaration of war in Montgomery, Ala., just before the government moved its capital to Richmond, Va.
Even if the United States did not officially consider itself at war, Lincoln was nonetheless preparing a military buildup. After the battle at Fort Sumter and some trouble in other states, the president called for 75,000 volunteer troops. He asked the men to enlist for a three-month tour.
That, Lincoln thought, would be long enough to re-take all the federal forts and restore the Union.
The president's call for additional troops only escalated tensions in the country. Four Southern states that had resisted the Confederacy's overtures -- Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina -- chose to secede rather than supply troops to fight their neighbors.
The United States was quickly falling apart, and the Confederacy was up to 11 states. The flag flying over Fort Sumter would need additional stars.
Virginia not only provided the Confederacy with a new capital, it quickly became the nexus of the conflict as Northern and Southern troops converged there to intercept one another. There were small skirmishes, but nothing approaching a full battle until June 10 in Bethel Church, Va., on the Chesapeake Bay. The Mercury reported that the Southern troops were outnumbered three-to-one but still claimed an easy victory.
"The enemy were so completely and effectually repulsed, that they are unable to put any other face on the result, and are forced to confess their defeat, route and pursuit into the very streets of Hampton," the paper opined.
By the time this new reached Charleston, the Palmetto Guard was on its way north.
The long goodbye
Three days after the Palmetto Guard was feted at Institute Hall, they were on parade again. The occasion was far less celebratory than their last gathering, although it certainly didn't seem that way from the reaction of Charleston residents.
They set out from South Carolina Hall at 9 p.m. and marched up Meeting Street, "accompanied by at least a thousand friends, a very large proportion of whom were ladies," the Mercury reported. They stopped briefly at Military Hall on Wentworth Street, where the Guard was joined by its escort, a group of cadets and members of the Carolina Light Infantry. The procession then moved north to John Street and the Northeastern Railroad Depot.
And there the city said its good-byes to the Palmetto Guard. Ladies waved their handkerchiefs as a band played strains of "martial music." As the men lined up next to their train cars, someone proposed three cheers for Cuthbert, the Guard's commander.
And then they were gone -- as the Mercury said the next day -- "off to defend the soil of the Old Dominion."
The Confederates also thought the war would be a short one, but for different reasons. After their successes at Fort Sumter and Bethel Church, the Southerners expected a quick victory. Still, they would take no chances. The Confederate Army moved many of its best resources to Virginia, including Beauregard.
As the summer dawned, the city patiently awaited word from the front. When cannon fire echoed across the harbor on June 18, some feared the fighting had drifted south again. But it was only a test of local garrisons.
The next round of shelling came on July 4. Some Charleston residents assumed the forts were celebrating Independence Day -- a rumor local military leaders quickly put to rest. The Mercury suggested that from now on Independence Day would more appropriately be celebrated on Dec. 20.
On Friday, July 19, the Mercury reported that "the long-expected conflict between the forces of Beauregard and McDowell has begun" in Virginia.
Actually, the main battle was two days away. Called Bull Run by Union troops and Manassas by Southerners, the engagement disavowed both sides of their pre-conceived notions of a short conflict.
It was a messy battle. Beauregard and Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell initially tried to out-flank each other -- unsuccessfully -- and finally fell into a clumsy fight. At first, the U.S. troops held the upper hand, but when Confederate reinforcements arrived the momentum shifted.
Spectators from Washington, who picnicked on the outskirts of the battlefield, got more of a show than they expected.
In the bloody fight, the South lost 387 men; the North suffered 460 deaths. Both sides limped away with more than 1,000 wounded.
But the South had won again.
The Mercury would print a dozen or more accounts of the battle -- including some from Northern newspapers -- and pridefully opined that "a battle such as the New World had never yet beheld, has been fought at Manassas."
But the news Charleston residents most anxiously awaited came on July 24. The Mercury reported that the city's first casualties from the battle would arrive at the train station that morning.
"A squadron of mounted troops will receive the remains at the Northeastern railroad depot this morning, and escort them to City Hall, which has been draped in mourning for their reception.
"The remains of the deceased will lie in state for some hours, to enable our citizens to pay their last visit of respect."
The names of local men killed at Manassas trickled out over the next several days -- W.D. Porter, A.F. Ravenel, T.L. Hutchison and W.F. Colcock among them. Local troops marched the bodies of Gen. Bernard Bee and Lt. Col. Benjamin J. Johnson from City Hall to St. Paul's Church. Such ceremonies would soon become all too common in the city.
In the midst of all these funerals, the fight briefly returned to Charleston. On July 28, a privateer christened Petrel was sunk offshore as it was attempting to leave the harbor.
For months, local residents had worried that the U.S. Navy would try to blockade Charleston Harbor. There had been rumors that several U.S.-flagged ships had been spotted off the bar, but there had been no confirmation of those reports until the attack on the Petrel.
The ship had been a U.S. revenue cutter, the Aiken, that was seized after the secession vote and re-christened by a group of local businessmen. By July, the ship had been outfitted for her initial cruise. But the Petrel was only equipped with two guns.
The U.S. frigate St. Lawrence, by contrast, carried 52 guns.
The Petrel had snuck out of the harbor on the night of July 27 and spotted the St. Lawrence at dawn the next morning. Unable to outrun the warship, the Petrel's crew raised a Confederate flag and got off one good shot, hitting the frigate's mainsail. Soon, the St. Lawrence's crew returned fire. Within minutes, the Navy ship landed a shot on the Petrel's bow that ended the battle, such as it was.
Four members of the privateer's crew drowned and the rest were rescued by the St. Lawrence and carried to Philadelphia, where they would stand trial.
The news had greater implication for Charleston. It seemed the U.S. Navy was conducting an unofficial blockade of the port. Between this and the continuing funerals for the Manassas casualties, the realities of war were quickly coming to Charleston.
Next: The battle of Port Royal