Eyewitness: 1861 / Fall of Fort Sumter has Pittsburgh abuzz

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Speaking on the day that Fort Sumter fell, LeRoy Pope Walker, the Confederate secretary of war, predicted the secessionists' flag soon could wave over Washington, D.C., as well.

Speaking from the Confederacy's first capital in Montgomery, Ala., Walker warned that occupation of Washington would follow if the Lincoln administration didn't recognize Southern independence. His remarks were published in the April 15, 1861, edition of the Pittsburgh Daily Gazette.

The Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, located in the harbor of Charleston, S.C., began early on April 12. The fort's commander, Robert Anderson, surrendered the next day, but the story was not confirmed in Pittsburgh until the afternoon of April 14. News that the federal fort had been given up "produced a painfully depressing effect upon all classes," the Gazette reported the next morning.

"Here and there were to be found a few madcaps (to use no harsher term) -- men who sympathize with the rebels and traitors of the South and quietly cackle over the disgrace which robbery and treason have brought upon the flag of our glorious country!" the newspaper said. "Such men, thank heaven, are very few in this community ..."

The Gazette urged Pittsburgh residents to attend a City Hall meeting that night "to confer together upon the state of the country."

All the chairs were removed from the assembly room to allow as many as 5,000 people to crowd into the building, the newspaper reported the next day.

"The venerable Judge WILKINS -- a gentleman perhaps as old as the Constitution itself -- was called from his retirement to preside over the meeting," the story said. "The appearance of this venerable citizen and ardent patriot elicited the loudest applause, and he advanced to respond amid the wildest enthusiasm."

Blaming crowded conditions, the Gazette's reporter apologized for not being able to provide a transcript of Wilkins' remarks: "Having no facilities for reporting, we could not take notes and must content ourselves with presenting one or two thoughts from memory."

Regarding the age of Judge William Wilkins, the writer did not exaggerate. Born in December 1779, Wilkins turned 8 in 1787, the year the U.S. Constitution was written. A former federal judge, congressman, senator and U.S. secretary of war, he was 81 when he addressed the City Hall crowd.

While Wilkins and other speakers emphasized defense of the union, former Allegheny County Judge Peter Shannon raised the issue of slavery as a cause of the war. Referring to "the miserable attempt of the Southern traitors to build up a republic on the basis of slavery," he said that "they might as well attempt to build a fire upon the snow-capped summit of the Alps."

The Gazette that day also sought to reassure readers about the loyalty of a local militia unit called the Duquesne Greys. Some of its members had fallen under suspicion, in part because one of their officers, Capt. David Campbell, was "a consistent Democrat," the newspaper said.

It reported, however, that Campbell had proved himself "an ardent patriot," and that the evidence could be found in his having volunteered his military skills to Pennsylvania's Republican governor, Andrew Curtin. "Those who were disposed to cast suspicion upon the Greys as a company will undoubtedly have their minds disabused by this cheering announcement," the paper concluded.

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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