Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, is known as the place where the “Civil War” began. The South is normally portrayed as the aggressor, the side which fired the “first shot,” and is thus given the blame for starting the war. The whole truth is, however, that the governments of South Carolina and the Confederate States of America made repeated efforts to resolve the crisis of Fort Sumter peacefully before any shots were fired. Though they knew that secession might bring on a conflict, and made defensive preparations, the Southern leaders desired a peaceful separation from the union, not one bought with blood. The war that followed the bombardment of Fort Sumter was one of the North’s choosing.
On April 13, 1861, the day of Fort Sumter’s surrender, South Carolina’s governor Francis W. Pickens made a public speech outside the Charleston Hotel. It was soon afterwards published in a Charleston newspaper, and as a broadside (a large printed sheet). Although there are now electronic versions available, Pickens’ speech has rarely (if ever) been fully reproduced in print since 1861.
Speaking to enthusiastic crowds gathered in the street, the governor emphasized that the Confederates had taken every reasonable action to take possession of the fort without hostilities, but had been left with no alternative except “to make the last sad appeal to arms…”
Of his Excellency Governor PICKENS, of South Carolina, in reference to the greetings of the citizens, on
the Evening of the Surrender of Fort Sumter, April 13th, 1861
I am in very poor condition for speaking in this open air, in such a noisy place with the passing of vehicles before us. But I thank you, gentlemen, for the very kind manner in which you have been pleased to welcome me. It is indeed a glorious and exulting occasion that has called you together. It is an occasion well calculated to awaken the proudest and most glorious feelings that can belong to any free people. The events of the last day or two are well calculated to fill the heart with gratitude to a superintending Providence for his kindness in protecting so many brave and good men from misfortunes incident to all. Although, fellow-citizens, I do not pretend to say that the triumphant and victorious results are in any degree scarcely attributable to any skill of mine, yet I will say that there has been no citizen in this wide spread land, who for the last three months has felt such a deep and intense anxiety as I have. There has not been a single day, nor a single night, which has passed over me that has not filled my heart with the deepest anxiety for my beloved country.
When I reflected that so many brave and patriotic young men, who, called to the rescue of the State, were placed somewhat under my care, and that they composed the flower, and the hope and pride of South Carolina, I confess to you that often, often at night, my heart was sunk under me with the deep responsibilities under which I labored. I know I have often been blamed by the impetuous and the zealous because I have not been quick enough to attempt an attack upon Fort Sumter, and to bring these young men under her raking fire. But, fellow-citizens, believe me when I tell you, I abstained because I clearly saw that the day was coming when we would triumph beyond the power of man to put us down. [Applause.]
When I was called upon to preside over the destinies of this State, after an absence of three or four years from home, I felt that the heaviest and most painful situation of my life had come. But so far as I was concerned, as long as I was Chief Magistrate of South Carolina, I was determined to maintain our separate independence and freedom at any and every hazard. [Great applause.] I felt that the State was in a peculiar position; that we were immediately and at first thrown upon the most scientific and expensive branches of modern warfare. We were then but ill-prepared to meet the sudden issues that might be forced upon us, so that our cause had to present firmness and decision on the one side, with great caution and forbearance. We were, in fact, walking alone over a dangerous gulf. The least misstep or want of coolness might have precipitated our great cause into endless ruin. With the heavy ordnance we had to procure, and the heavy batteries that we were compelled to erect, I felt under these circumstances it required time, exact calculation and high science, and it would have been madness, it would have been folly, to have rushed the brave and patriotic men in my charge upon a work that was pronounced the Gibraltar of the South. But when proper time had come, when I knew we were prepared, there was not a moment that I was not prepared and ready to strike the blow for my State and the independence of my country, let it lead to what it might, even if it led to blood and ruin. [Great applause.] Thank God the day has come—thank God the war is open, and we will conquer or perish. [Renewed applause.] They have vauntingly arrayed their navy, and they have called us but a handful of men, a weak and isolated State full of pride, and what they call chivalry, and with the hated institution of slavery, as they supposed a source of weakness, too, but which, in fact, is a source of strength in war, and they have defied us. But we have rallied; we have met them, and met them in the issues they have tendered in their stronghold, by which they expected to subjugate our country. We have met them and we have conquered. [Great applause.] We have defeated their twenty millions, and we have made the proud flag of the stars and stripes, that never was lowered before to any nation on this earth, we have lowered it in humility before the Palmetto and the Confederate flags, and we have compelled them to raise by their side the white flag, and ask for an honorable surrender. [Long continued applause.]
They have surrendered, and this proud fortress, that was attempted to be a fortress for despotism, has now become, as its name indicates, a fortress for our independence. [Continued applause.] Besides one of their most scientific officers on the 26th of last December escaped from what he called a weak fort and untenable, and went over to this strong and powerful position, because he could maintain himself, and because it was pronounced the key of our harbor. He left Fort Moultrie because it was untenable and at the mercy of Sumter. He chose Sumter as his fortress. We took the one he has deserted, and with it whipped him to his heart’s content. [Enthusiatic cheering.] And this proud fort of ours, so consecrated in the history of our country, has again, on this 13th day of April, achieved our independence as it did in the memorable days of the revolution. [Renewed applause.] Yes, it was exultingly proclaimed that we had not the power to do it. We were ridiculed, and we were held up as the chivalry of this country, and they attempted to throw upon us even scorn and contempt.
Fellow-citizens, the danger may not yet be over, and I would be the last man to counsel any premature or extreme measures. I never would counsel my fellow-citizens in the day of proud victory to anything else but a noble forbearance and a noble generosity. The man who defended that Fort has many of the attributes of a brave soldier. Let us not only show that we are a brave people, but a generous and a magnanimous people, and that we would not use any extreme or exulting language calculated as unworthy of a high-toned and chivalrous race. [Applause.] Remember that the danger is not yet over. We, perhaps, may have just commenced the opening of events that may not end in our day and generation. Remember that there is now a hostile fleet of seven sail off your harbor, directed by bitter and malignant foes. They have come here proudly scorning and contemning your position. They may attempt to enter, but I say to them this night in defiance, let them come, let them come. If they do, although we may not wrap them in flames, as we have Sumter, we will wrap them in the waves and sink them too deep ever to be reached by pity or mercy. [Great applause.]
But three months ago I was ridiculed for attempting to fortify the Channel on Morris Island, and I was ridiculed for attempting to hold Fort Moultrie under the fire of Sumter. I was ridiculed for attempting to keep out what they call the United States Navy. Many men, although our best men, thought it was a fruitless undertaking. But in the short period of three months we have the Channel fortified, so that at this moment it defies the proud Navy of the United States.
We have had a great many delicate and peculiar relations since the 20th of December last. We took the lead in coming out of the old Union and in forming this new Confederacy. We, therefore, had certain relations to those who were to come out and stand by our side. We owed a great deal to those who were expected to come with us. We were bound to consult their feelings and their interests, and it was due that we should be forbearing as well as free. We are now one of the Confederate States, and they have sent us a brave and scientific officer, to whom the credit of this day’s triumph is due. He has led you to victory, and will lead you to more if occasion offers. [Great applause.]
I hope on tomorrow, Sabbath though it be, that under the protection of Providence, and under the orders of General BEAUREGARD, commander of our forces from the Confederate States, you shall have the proud gratification of seeing the Palmetto flag raised upon that fortress, and the Confederate flag of these free and independent States side by side with it; and there they shall float forever, in defiance of any power that man can bring against them. [Applause.] The stars and stripes have been lowered before your eyes this day, but there are no flames that shall ever lower the flag of South Carolina while I have the honor to preside as your Chief Magistrate. And I pronounce here, before the civilized world, your independence is baptised in blood, your independence is won upon a glorious battle-field, and you are free now and forever, in defiance of a world in arms.
We have gone through, under the guidance of Providence, so far successfully and triumphantly. We have met the danger and the peril amid the storm and the booming of cannon; and yet, wonderful to say, triumphant and glorious as the result has been, there has not been a single human being sacrificed in this cause so much identified with the liberty and independence of our country. This must be the finger of Providence. We at first stood alone, but we are now in a new Confederacy of States, calculated to protect the peace and independence of our country, and at the same time to exercise a wise forbearance and generous and manly conduct toward all other nations.
All we ask is plain justice, liberality, honor and truth from others, and all we ever shall submit to is, and, I trust, we shall ever extend to all others, the liberality, the justice, the forbearance and moderation which become an enlightened and great people.
In the events which have developed themselves in the last few days, we are at least without blame. This Fort was held up as the fortress by which we were to be subjugated and kept permanently under the control of a Government we had repudiated and that was odious to us. We made every advance that reasonable men could make to ask for its possession, and there was nothing but the desire to subjugate that could at all make it an object of such importance to be possessed by a Government from which we had withdrawn. It was peremptorily refused, and I was informed from the highest quarters that it was to be supplied, and that those supplies should be sustained, if necessary, by force.
Under these circumstances, there was no alternative but to make the last sad appeal to arms, and the God of Battles, and this day has triumphantly shown that we were right and our opponents wrong.
Now, fellow-citizens, go to your homes. Be moderate and abstain from every act and every sentiment of extreme language or unworthy violence. Show that you are not only really free, but that you deserve to be free; keep cool, keep firm, keep united. A brave people are always generous and always magnanimous. We can meet our foes clad in steel and make them feel the weight of our metal upon any field of battle, but at the same time we can treat them with the liberality and noble magnanimity that always belong to a generous and a brave people.
I said on the 17th of December last, on an occasion similar to this, that true, South Carolina stood alone, but in this there was nothing to fear, for she had on a memorable occasion previous to the Declaration of Independence itself, stood alone and fought the battle of Fort Moultrie, where she had sunk the ships of one of the proudest nations of the earth. [Great applause.] And I said to you that on the bloody battle-field of Cherubusco our noble regiment had marched across that field under a fiery storm such as has seldom been seen, and that if need be she could now stand alone again and fight alone for her independence and her liberty. And now, fellow-citizens, on this, the 13th day of April, 1861, she has again fought alone and defeated an arrogant and assuming power, and she has gloriously triumphed alone, and thus again Fort Moultrie, which was so dear in our independence of 1776, has again answered, and is consecrated and baptized over again in our independence of 1861. [Applause.]
I studiously declined receiving any volunteers, who so nobly and so gallantly offered themselves, from other States, because we had so many among ourselves who desired a place of danger and peril, and demanded it as a right. I besides desired, as we had begun it first and alone without consultation, and as some said, rashly, I desired under these circumstances, that if we had to fight for our independence again, that the battle should be fought and won by South Carolina alone, upon the same bloody field where she had fought for her independence in the days of her first revolution. [Great applause.] True, true, we owe much to the science and to the gallantry of Gen. BEAUREGARD, who was sent to us by the President of the Confederate States. We do owe to him all honor and all gratitude for his high and manly bearing and noble conduct; but as far as our own companies, our battalions, our regiments and our men were concerned, the triumphs of this day have been due literally to South Carolina troops alone. [The applause was so great at this time that it was some moments before Gov. PICKENS could proceed.] I do not mean to say this (said the Governor) by way of exultation, but as due to the truth of history, and I say it because South Carolina has been peculiarly singled out and abused and traduced and sneered at as being too weak and too small to defend herself, and was accused of arrogance and presumption. But this day shows that weak as we were supposed to be, we have defied the power of our enemies, and defied them upon their sought and chosen battle-field.
And now I here, in the name of South Carolina, return the gratitude of the State to those gallant and intelligent officers who have come forward and so generously served their State in this her day of trial. And they are too numerous even to mention in detail; and I return the thanks and the gratitude of the State to those brave and true, those patriotic young men who have left their business, who have sacrificed their greatest interests, to come forward and to seek eagerly to defend their country when it was supposed that peril, danger and even death were inevitable. It is indeed to them not only a glorious day of triumph, but I, too, with feelings of deep gratitude am enabled to return them back to their fond homes and kindred uninjured, and with the proud consciousness that the honor of their State has been unstained, and that their gallantry has been shown by the noble manner in which they have manned the batteries for their country’s independence. It is to those men and those officers that we owe everything; and I do not pretend to claim anything myself, except that my heart has been filled with deep anxiety, and I have spent my nights in painful and constant examination of all the details and all the points that might be necessary not only to save the lives of our brave men, but to defend the independence of my country, and when the day had come at the proper time to strike, and to strike for her independence, at any and at every hazard, let the consequences be what they may. [Prolonged applause.]
We have now taught a great lesson to this Confederacy. It is now clear that for all purposes of justice, of equality, and of common liberty, our American institutions are as strong as any that have ever been offered for the government of man. But when they are perverted to the purposes of injustice and fanaticism, of insult and wrong, that those same institutions are powerless; and that when they lose that power which comes from right, that as far as the American people are concerned they are impotent and imbecile, because the heart, the great heart of the American people in reality, beats for what is right. [Immense cheering.] We stand upon the inalienable right of a people to choose their own institutions, and that all just government rests upon the consent of the governed, and that any government that attempts to exercise power without this consent, not only is unjust to a brave, true, and patriotic people, but that people can defy that power, and they can conquer, and they can triumph. [Applause.]
But let me say again, fellow-citizens, that I am in rather a poor condition to speak at this time of night, under the confusion that comes from a noisy street, and I return to you my thanks, and hope that there may be no events to sadden the future, but that the present glorious day will ever be remembered and sink so deep into the hearts of a grateful people, as to show that by virtue and firmness, they not only can be free, but prove to the world that they deserve to be free. [Loud and prolonged applause.]
The Governor then retired.