Charleston surrendered to the Union Army on Feb. 18, 1865. “And thus after a siege which will rank among the most famous in history,” a Union officer wrote, “Charleston became ours.”
For white Charlestonians, life as they had known it was at an end. For black Charlestonians, civilization was not at an end; it was just beginning. They would not have disagreed with Williams Middleton’s remark about the “utter topsy-turveying of all our institutions.” The difference was that they were happy about it.
Slavery was at end. The Day of Jubilee had arrived. Charleston was now the Promised Land. The gloom and doom which pervaded white aristocratic Charleston were unknown in black Charleston. It was a time of celebration.
And celebrations were frequent. On March 3, 1865, a huge crowd of black Charlestonians assembled at Marion Square and watched as 13 black women, elegantly dressed to symbolize the 13 original states, presented the Union commander with a flag, a bouquet of flowers, and a fan for Mrs. Lincoln.
On March 4, Major Martin R. Delany, editor, explorer, and the highest ranking African-American military officer in the army, arrived in Charleston. On March 29, one of the largest parades ever held in Charleston began at noon. Four thousand blacks participated. There were companies of soldiers, tailors, coopers, 50 butchers, 1,800 schoolchildren and their teachers, eight companies of firemen, sailors, and many other tradesmen.
Most dramatically there followed two carts, one carrying an auction block and an “auctioneer” selling two black women and their children. The other carried a coffin with signs proclaiming the death of slavery and that “Sumter dug his grave on the 13th of April, 1861.” Other celebrations took place in Zion church.
The greatest celebration was held on April 14, 1865, when Robert Anderson returned to Charleston to raise the garrison flag he had taken with him on that fateful day in April 1861.
President Abraham Lincoln had been invited to attend but could not. He sent a letter, which was read later that evening. The president had a great deal on his mind. He had wired the secretary of war, Edwin Stanton:
“I feel quite confident that Sumter fell on the 13th, and not the 14th of April, as you have it. It fell on Saturday, the 13th; the first call for troops on our part was got up on Sunday, the 14th, and given date and issued on Monday, the 15th. Look up the old almanac and other data and see if I am not right.”
Stanton changed the date, but as it turned out, Lincoln’s memory was inexplicably in error, and the correct date was soon substituted.
The secretary of war had begun planning for this celebration weeks before. On March 27, he had written General Order No. 50:
“First. That at the hour of noon on the 14th day of April, 1865, Brevet Major General Robert ANDERSON will raise and plant upon the ruins of Fort Sumter, in Charleston harbor, the same United States flag which floated over the battlements of that Fort during the rebel assault, and which was lowered and saluted by him and the small force of his command when the works were evacuated on the 14th day of April, 1861.
“Second. That the flag, when raised, be saluted by one hundred guns from Fort Sumter, and by a National salute from every fort and rebel battery that fired upon Fort Sumter.
“Third. That suitable ceremonies be had upon the occasion, under the direction of Major General WILLIAM T. SHERMAN, whose military operations compelled the rebels to evacuate Charleston, or, in his absence, under the charge of Major General Q. A. GILLMORE, commanding the Department. Among the ceremonies will be the delivery of a public address by the Reverend HENRY WARD BEECHER.
“Fourth. That the naval forces at Charleston, and their Commander on that station, be invited to participate in the ceremonies of the occasion.
“BY ORDER OF THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: EDWIN M. STANTON, Secretary of War.”
The city closed down for the festivities. Three thousand African Americans went to Fort Sumter to watch the ceremonies. Robert Smalls was there with the Planter. John G. Nicolay, President Lincoln’s secretary, was there. Major Delany and his son, a soldier in the Massachusetts 54th, were there. Denmark Vesey’s son was there. Leading abolitionists, including Henry Ward Beecher and William Lloyd Garrison, were there.
Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brother, shared the platform with another leading abolitionist, Theodore Tilton. (In later years Beecher created a national scandal by having an affair with Tilton’s wife.) Just after noon, Sergeant Hart, the man who had lowered the tattered flag four years earlier, raised it again.
“As the banner reached its apex,” Benjamin Quarles wrote, “the acclamation became ear splitting. The bay thundered with the roar of cannon from ship and shore.”
The harbor was filled with boats, large and small. A steamer had brought down a large contingent of visitors from the North.
Gen. Robert Anderson, tired and broken at age 60, spoke:
“I am here, my friends, my fellow citizens, and fellow soldiers, to perform an act of duty to my country dear to my heart, and which all of you will appreciate and feel. Had I observed the wishes of my heart, it should have been done in silence; but in accordance with the request of the honorable Secretary of War, I make a few remarks, as by his order, after four long, long years of war, I restore to its proper place this flag which floated here during peace, before the first act of this cruel Rebellion. I thank God that I have lived to see this day, and to be here to perform this, perhaps the last act of my life, of duty to my country.”
In his speech, Beecher, who had been burned in effigy in Charleston four years earlier, called for national unity and education for black South Carolinians. He blamed the war on “the polished, cultured, exceedingly capable and wholly unprincipled ruling aristocracy who wanted to keep power.” He also congratulated President Lincoln:
“On this solemn and joyful day, we again lift to the breeze our father’s flag, now, again, the banner of the United States, with the fervent prayer that God would crown it with honor, protect it from treason, and send it down to our children, with all the blessings of civilization, liberty and religion. Terrible in battle, may it be beneficent in peace. ... We offer to the President of the United States our solemn congratulations that God has sustained his life and health under the unparalleled burdens and sufferings of four bloody years, and permitted him to behold this auspicious occasion of that national unity for which he has waited with so much patience and fortitude, and for which he has labored with such disinterested wisdom.”
Later in the evening there were a ball, a supper, and fireworks. Gen. Anderson made a toast to the president: “I beg you, now that you will join me in drinking the health of ... the man who, when elected President of the United States, was compelled to reach the seat of government without an escort, but a man who now could travel all over our country with millions of hands and hearts to sustain him. I give you the good, the great, the honest man, Abraham Lincoln.”
That same night, in Washington, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.
Robert N. Rosen, a Charleston lawyer, is the author of “A Short History of Charleston and Confederate Charleston.”