One hundred fifty years ago, on Friday, April 12, 1861, shots were fired that echo yet today. The Civil War divided, then defined the country we would become, shaping the people who lived through it and setting them apart by its experience, as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., described it, adding: “Through our great good fortune, our hearts were touched with fire.”
Although the end date of the war is often, and erroneously, linked to Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House, the conflict began with the firing on Fort Sumter by Confederate General P. T. Beauregard. After 34 hours of bombardment, the fight ended with Federal Major Robert Anderson’s surrender and one known casualty—a Confederate horse. However, an accidental explosion at the Federal surrender ceremony on April 14 killed one private, mortally wounded another, and injured four others.
The next day, President Lincoln called for 75,000 militia troops to suppress the insurrection. Virginia refused and promptly joined the Southern ranks, passing an ordinance of secession which was approved by popular vote on May 28. Stephen Vincent Benet, in his 1928 Pulitzer Prize-winning epic poem “John Brown’s Body”, described the rest of the country’s reaction to Lincoln’s call to arms:
North and South they assembled, one cry and the other cry.
And both are ghosts to us now, old drums hung up on a wall.
But they were the first hot wave of youth too-ready to die,
And they went to war with an air, as if they went to a ball.
Dress-uniform boys who rubbed their buttons brighter than gold,
And gave them to girls for flowers and raspberry lemonade,
Unused to the sick fatigue, the route-march made in the cold,
The stink of the fever camps, the tarnish rotting the blade.
Men and boys answered the call to arms for various reasons: duty to country, to family, to home. Peer pressure, because their friends or relatives were joining, because they would seem cowardly if they didn’t. Because they felt it was right, because they were afraid to miss out on the glory and honor of the battlefield—even though more would meet inglorious death in the invalid camp that attain the “beautiful death” idealized by Victorian society. Whether the promise of youth ended too soon, the sweet, gallant young man caught in the cauldron of the fight, or the more mature man of principles was cut down in the prime of his life, with a heart full of honor and courage and ideals, the nation mourned their noble fallen, while the survivors came to terms with the grim realities of war.
Yes, the war had moments of glory, too few and far between for the average soldier. Many of the early volunteers who answered the call to arms served their three months without seeing any action. They marched and drilled and waited, wondering when their chance would come. For many, it never did. Boys who’d never been far from home, crowded into camps with unsanitary conditions and clueless as to how diseases spread (the germ theory was as yet unknown), succumbed to a myriad of ailments, dying of dysentery, typhoid, smallpox, measles, diarrhea, exposure.
Danger was not limited to disease. The 6th Massachusetts left home to the sound of fanfare and arrived in Baltimore to face a hostile crowd. The ensuing riots left at least four soldiers and nine civilians dead. The poor condition of the 6th Massachusetts on their arrival in Washington, D.C. would ignite a philanthropic fire in a patent office clerk named Clarissa Harlowe Barton and set her on a path of service to humanity that lasted a lifetime.
While Northern militia protected the nation’s capital, Illinois troops garrisoned Cairo, strategically located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Civilians, ready to aid the war effort in any way they could, showed support by wearing Union bonnets, or Confederate cockades, according to allegiance. Flags hung from windows, doors, and rooftops, and were flown on steeples, staffs, and ship masts. The New York Yacht Club even offered their vessels for Federal government use.
North and South, the streets were filled with the sounds of drums, while inside homes, the parlor air became “fluffy” as women scraped linen cloth to make lint and cut bandages from flannel and cotton. Needles, sewing machines and patent bandage rollers were put to use, making socks, havelocks, shirts, blankets, uniforms, and hospital supplies. While young women proudly displayed the calluses of their labors, new recruits grew tough in the field, marching, drilling, preparing for a war from which over 627,000 would never return.
© 2011 Anita Quick, All Rights Reserved.
This article was originally published in the May 2011 issue of The Shrapnel, the newsletter of the Turner Brigade. For information about The Shrapnel, contact Capt. Randy Baehr, Editor.