Eyewitness 1861: Pittsburghers react to attack on Fort Sumter

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A "feverish excitement" raised the political temperature in Pittsburgh as news circulated about the opening shots of what many feared would be civil war.

In the early morning of Friday, April 12, 1861, Confederate artillery in South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter and the U.S. flag waving above it.

"The news of the attack ... was received in the city about ten o'clock last night, and created the most feverish excitement," the Pittsburgh Daily Gazette reported on Saturday morning.

"[H]undreds were slow to credit the rumors, but on receiving assurances of the truth of the reports, the people upon the streets formed in knots discussing the all-absorbing topic of the hour," the paper said. Messengers were "running hither and thither, keeping up communications with the various printing offices, the telegraph office, and other sources of correct information."

A new play, "The Chimney Corner," had opened at the city's Pittsburgh Theater on Wood Street. It had drawn a large crowd for the Friday evening performance, the newspaper reported. Between the acts, a dispatch was read, announcing the opening of hostilities, the Gazette reported. "This elicited the wildest enthusiasm, the reader being interrupted by repeated bursts of applause."

Pittsburgh in 1861 had strong economic links to the Mississippi Valley, and many of its residents had roots below the Mason-Dixon Line. A significant minority were Democrats and sympathetic to the Southern cause. The Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, which was commanded by Major Robert Anderson, changed at least one theatergoer's view of the situation, the Gazette reported.

"At the close, a patriotic individual arose in the audience, exclaiming, 'I'm a democrat! But three cheers for Major Anderson!' "

"The sentiment sent a thrill through the entire audience," the newspaper said.

While headlines in the Republican-leaning Gazette simply said "WAR COMMENCED!" and "SURRENDER DEMANDED!" the city's main Democratic newspaper, The Pittsburgh Daily Post, was still looking for a peaceful resolution.

While the lead headline on the Post's editorial page admitted "THE WAR HAS BEGUN," a second commentary urged "HOPE ON, HOPE EVER."

"There is a feeling for Union, both North and South, which even now is having an immense influence upon all classes," the paper said. continuing that "the masses of the people still hope and believe that we shall escape this dire calamity."

The Confederates began shelling Fort Sumter, located in the harbor of Charleston, S.C., after President Abraham Lincoln affirmed his intentions to resupply its garrison and sent a relief squadron south.

The Post, nevertheless, saw reasons for optimism in reports of negotiations between the Secessionist South Carolina government and the fort's Union defenders. Confederate President Jefferson Davis would seek "to repress the fighting propensities of Southern chivalry and wait for the more practical course of compromise," the paper predicted.

"If the [Lincoln] administration supplies Fort Sumter, the President of the seceded states will probably make no opposition," The Post concluded.

The newspaper was a poor prognosticator.

Southern gunners already had shelled supply boats from the U.S. Navy's small flotilla when it arrived at Charleston. The Union ships then sat helpless outside the harbor, observing the fall of Fort Sumter.

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159. All Civil War-related stories can be read at www.post-gazette.com/civilwar /.


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