Secession News & Political Perspective

Author’s Note: Even today, the political landscape of the American Civil War can evoke extremely strong feelings and reactions. The purpose of this post is to relate to the reader what the citizens of Elmira were experiencing based on extant sources. It is not the intent to argue for or against any position. The reader is simply presented with the data as it was available to persons living in 1860’s Elmira, to contemplate what the citizens knew at the time and consider how that may have influenced their future thoughts and actions.


After completing our introductory tour of Elmira, we retired to our rooms at the Brainard House for a well-deserved respite. The Brainard House served not only as traveler accommodations, but also as a permanent rooming house & eating establishment that was a social gathering place facilitating the exchange of newsworthy events.

Brainard House

Photo courtesy of the Chemung Valley History Museum

The ruckus and hullaballoo surrounding the election of Abraham Lincoln began to die down and the community started to settle into the normal routines. Elmirans were looking forward to the Christmas and New Year holiday seasons, skating parties and winter sleigh rides, when the buzz about town in January of 1861, was changed radically by two major events.

The first occurred on December 20, 1860 when South Carolina became the first to declare its intent to secede from the United States. Throughout the first quarter of 1861,  six more states would follow South Carolina in declaring their intentions:

Charleston Merc Union Dissolved
Original Print in collection of Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History 

                      South Carolina, Dec 20, 1860

 

                      Mississippi, Jan 9, 1861

                       Florida, Jan 10, 1861

                        Alabama, Jan 11, 1861

                       Georgia, Jan 19, 1861

                        Louisiana, Jan 26, 1861

                       Texas, Feb 1, 1861

The local newspapers like the Elmira Weekly Advertiser and Corning Journal, as well as, other leading publications including the New York Times, Harpers Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper  were filled with articles concerning the individual state secession votes and reprints of the secession ordinances.

The second event was the evacuation of US forces at Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter by Major Anderson. The following is an extract of an article published in the New York Times as reported by the Charleston Courier.

In its details of Maj. ANDERSON’s movements, the Courier says: “The evacuation of Moultrie commenced a little after sundown on Wednesday. The men were ordered to hold themselves in readiness, with knapsacks packed; but up to the moment of leaving had no idea of abandoning the fort. They were reviewed on parade, and were then ordered to two schooners lying in the vicinity, where they embarked, taking with them all the necessaries, stores, etc. Several trips were made during the night, under cover of which a great part of the provisions and camp furniture were transported…. On the ramparts of the fort fronting Fort Sumter were nine 8-inch columbiads, mounted on wooden carriages. As soon as the evacuation was complete, these carriages were burnt, and the guns thereby dismounted. These guns, as well as those constituting the entire armament, were spiked before the fort was abandoned. This is the only damage done to the fortifications, further than cutting down the flagstaff, and breaking up of ammunition-wagons, to form ramparts on the walls of the fort.

Major Anderson’s decision to move his command to Fort Sumter resulted in several different responses. Charleston and secession supporting newspapers would declare the transfer indicative of hostile intentions. The US Administration, which was still under President Buchanan’s leadership, would disavow Anderson’s actions and declare it had no knowledge of the affair, nor condoned it. Local papers would carry both of those positions, but editorials in the Elmira Weekly Advertiser would come down on the side of Major Anderson.

This incident would continue to provide fodder for news in Elmira. The internet of the time, the telegraph, contributed to the headlines of the day:

Stirring Times at Charleston!

franklesliesilluv1112lesl_0099

Frank Leslies Illustrated Newspaper

          FORT SUMTER BESEIGED!

          Fort Moultrie Repaired and Guns Mounted!

           NEW BATTERIES ERECTED ON SHORE! 

          Major Anderson Determined Never to Surrender!

          A Plot on foot to Capture the City of Washington!                                     

  As news of additional takeovers of Federal facilities occurred,

The State troops of Georgia now occupy the forts of Pulaski and Jackson and the US Arsenal of Savannah.


  Fort Morgan was taken this morning by the Mobile troops. It is now garrisoned by 200 men.


 Important from North Carolina. Gov Hills of North Carolina has dispatched troops to seize upon Fort Macon at Beaufort, the forts at Wilmington and the US Arsenal at Fayetteville. This information has been brought here by a gentleman connected with an insurance office in this city; who has just returned from Wilmington. It is deemed trustworthy.”

news of the treatment of non supporters of secession,

“No Northern man can now travel in the Slave States without being watched by the police and janizaries and liable at any moment to be arrested and imprisoned on suspicion of being in favor of Free Soil. All over the South, Northern men are thrown into jail, driven and warned “out of the State.” Ridden on rails, tarred & c. But there is not a single Doughface paper, in the free States, that condemns such actings and doings—not one that even alludes to such actings. A bill is before the Alabama Legislature, prohibiting any person teaching school, who has not resided in the State TEN YEARS.


 An old pensioner returning from Washington where he had been for his bounty land warrant, was seized in Martinsburg, Va and thrown into jail on suspicion of being an “abolitionist”. He was kept in jail two weeks and released on the day “old Brown” was hanged.


LIFE IN VIRGINIA.—A private letter from a Postmaster in Virginia, whose locality we dare not indicate for fear of exposing him to mob violence, says:

“We are in the midst of a Reign of Terror here. There is no certainty that letters duly mailed will not be opened on their way. All men of Northern birth now are under surveillance by the so called Vigilance Committee; and anyone suspected of thinking Slavery less than Divine, is placed under care. Those who have been taking the New York Tribune are objects of especial ban. A company of ten men came into our office last Monday and gave notice that I must not give out any more Tribunes to the subscribers here. The law of Virginia punishes by fine and imprisonment a Postmaster who gives out what are denounced as incendiary journals. The law of the United States punishes by and imprisonment, and further incapacitated forever hold to office again, who shall withhold or refuse to deliver any paper sent to a regular subscriber at his office. So here I am in a pretty fix.”

and the firing on the Star of the West continued to roll in;

BY TELEGRAPH     (Reported over the New York and Erie Lines)

 Arrival of the Star of the West at Charleston!

 Fired into by the SC Troops!

Charleston January 9

 The Star of the West in endeavoring to enter our harbor about daylight this AM was opened upon by the garrison on Morris Island and also by Ft Moultrie.  The steamer put about and went to sea.  I have not been able to learn whether the steamer or any person on board was injured.  The belief is that no injury was sustained.  Ft Sumter did not respond… Major Anderson has sent word to the authorities at Charleston that if they don’t disown the firing on the Star of the West yesterday, he will open on the City of Charleston.  The authorities have telegraphed to the President asking him to order Major Anderson to do nothing of the kind. Major Anderson sent Lieutenant Hall to the Governor with instructions to inform him that if the Star of the West was fired into again, he would fire upon Ft Moultrie and if necessary they would fire on the City.  The Star of the West made second attempt in the afternoon, when she was again fired into, doing considerable damage…. The messenger from Major Anderson to Governor Pickens was the bearer of the following letter: “two of your batteries this morning fired on an unarmed vessel carrying the flag of my government; as I have not been notified that war has been declared by South Carolina against the United States, I can not but think this is a hostile act committed with out your sanction or authority; under that hope I refrained from opening a fire on your batteries.  I have the honor therefore,to respectfully ask whether the act was committed in obedience to your instructions, and notify you, that if it is not disclaimed, that I regard it as an act of war and I shall not after a reasonable time for the return of my messenger, permit a vessel to pass within the range of the guns of my fort.  In order to save, as far as in my power the shedding of blood I beg you will take due notice of my decision, for the good of all concerned”.

Signed    R Anderson 

 The editorial opinions grew stronger:

“The First Overt Act.”

By our Telegraphic despatches, it will be seen that the steamer Star of the West, chartered by the Government to carry men to reinforce Ft Sumter, was fired upon by troops acting under the authority of South Carolina.

 We agree with the Gazette of Wednesday when it says: as matters now stand, we see no alternative but civil war; and yet with all the evidence of a speedy conflicts tearing us in the face, we are reluctant to believe that the people of this enlightened, Christian age, are so devoid of sense; so bad to the impulses of patriotism; so blinded to their own interests; so regardless of everything near and dear to every American heart, as to plunge this prosperous and happy country into the untold, unfathomable horrors of civil war.  Who can measure or estimate them?  Who can describe the misery, outrage and desolation; the blighted hopes, though ruined homes, the loss of life, the destruction of property, that will follow in the track of this tornado of evil passions let loose upon the country?  Who can contemplate it without a feeling of horror?  All the instance of our race; our responsibilities as a nation favored above that of any other nation under the sun; the principles of Christianity by which we profess to be governed; the ties of nonsanguinity; of laws of self preservation, forbid it.

 But upon the rebels who defy the constituted authorities, and inaugurate war by acts of resistance thereto be the responsibility.  We have no patience with those who continually charge the treason of South Carolina to the blame of the Republican Party.  Even the Gazette says truly, and in the present emergency, there is no alternative but to enforce the laws at all hazards.  And yet, with amazing effrontery, it denounces those, standing in high places with all the responsibilities of delegated power pressing upon them because they refuse to be intimidated by either threats or overt acts of rebellion!  While it upholds the Government in executing the laws at all hazards, the Gazette yet denounces the party about to assume the reins of government for not at once yielding all the rebels claim.  These rebels openly declare that nothing short of this will appease them.  If the supremacy of the government and the dignity of the laws are to be vindicated, then this arrogant claim must be resisted.  How, then, does the Gazette propose to have us avert a threatened war?

Discussion of the above questions surely lead to a number of spirited and boisterous debates within the Elmira community. Throughout January, February and March, the opposing parties were relatively peaceful in response to growing the growing National divide. April of 1861 would soon change that.


 

 REFERENCES:

Elmira Weekly Advertiser

Frank Leslie’s Newspaper

Harpers Weekly 

New York Times 

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