An electric shock throughout the land

News of the fall of Fort Sumter electrified both North and South like nothing ever before in America. It was quickly followed by President Abraham Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion. This, according to the New York Times, “will thrill like an electric shock throughout the land, and establish the fact that we have a Government at last.”

This proved true, as recruiting stations were flooded with men eager to put down the rebellion. Most northern states exceeded their volunteer quotas as crowds gathered in cities and towns to hear impassioned speeches and patriotic music. Massachusetts became the first state to respond to Lincoln’s proclamation by mustering in a militia unit just one day after the call was made. A Harvard professor noted: “The heather is on fire. I never before knew what a popular excitement can be…”

Several Republican newspapers predicted easy Federal victory in the war. The New York Times opined that the war would be won within a month. The New York Tribune declared “that Jeff. Davis and Company will be swinging from the battlements at Washington… by the 4th of July.” The Chicago Tribune guessed that the North would secure victory “within 2 or 3 months at the furthest.”

Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln’s political rival, led northern Democrats in joining with Lincoln and the Republicans to oppose the Confederacy. There were also vocal Unionists in largely pro-Confederate states, such as Tennessee. At Knoxville, newspaper editor William G. Brownlow announced that he would “fight the Secessionist leaders till Hell froze over, and then fight them on the ice.” A Knoxville resident raised a U.S. flag and dared anyone to try to remove it.

But Unionism in the South was more the exception than the rule, as the vast majority of southerners joyously celebrated the Confederate victory at Fort Sumter. Like in the North, patriotic rallies and celebrations took place throughout the South, and volunteers hurried to join the ranks to fight for their new country. When Lincoln issued his call for Federal volunteers, nearly all the slave states that had not yet joined the Confederacy balked. It soon became clear that more states would leave the Union.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis had hoped to reach a peaceful settlement with the U.S., but that hope was dashed by Lincoln’s proclamation. Davis accused Lincoln of usurping the congressional power to authorize military mobilization by issuing his call when Congress was not in session. Moreover, Lincoln would not assemble Congress for nearly three months, giving him sole power in the interim to wage war. To many Confederates, this decree simply validated what they had suspected all along: that Lincoln and the Republicans wanted to suppress the South and attain absolute rule.

Davis responded by issuing proclamations of his own. The first called for 32,000 volunteers to defend the Confederacy against invasion. Davis had been authorized to call as many as 100,000 men, but the new nation only had the means to furnish a third of that number for now. The second invited shipowners in “service in private armed vessels on the high seas” to apply for letters of marque and reprisal that would enable them to seize Federal commercial shipping.

Without an effective navy, the Confederacy would have to rely on privateering, an ancient form of wartime piracy, to disrupt enemy shipping. The European powers had condemned piracy as a form of warfare, but the United States had not, largely because of her effective use of piracy against the British in both the War for Independence and the War of 1812. The Davis administration argued that since the U.S. did not renounce piracy, the Confederacy was legally entitled to wage such warfare against her.

Davis’s naval proclamation considered captured Federal shipping to be contraband of war and allowed the privateers to sell it for profit. The Confederate government also offered to pay 20 percent of the value of any Federal ship destroyed.

Meanwhile, Raphael Semmes, formerly of the U.S. Navy, met with Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory at Montgomery. Mallory confided to Semmes that the Confederacy had no vessels to raid commerce on the high seas. Semmes read a report on the 520-ton screw steamer Habana, which traded between New Orleans and Havana, Cuba, and said, “Give me that ship. I think I can make her answer the purpose.” Semmes’s request was granted, and he immediately began converting the ship into a sloop of war. She was later rechristened the C.S.S. Sumter.

Back in the North, Federal officials scrambled to strengthen defenses in Washington, the critical point in the U.S. Lucius E. Chittenden, arriving in Washington to become Treasury register, wrote that the city had “the aspects of a besieged town,” with every street blocked and guarded, and the air “filled with flying rumors of various descriptions.”

Editor Alexander McClure met with General-in-Chief Winfield Scott and worriedly asked him how many troops were on hand to defend the capital. Scott told him: “Fifteen hundred sir; fifteen hundred men and two batteries… General (P.G.T.) Beauregard commands more men at Charleston than I command on the continent east of the frontier.” Scott guessed that if Beauregard wanted to march on Washington, it would take him three or four days, by which time reinforcements from the North should be arriving. McClure asked: “General, is not Washington in great danger?” Scott strongly replied: “No, sir, the capital can’t be taken; the capital can’t be taken, sir!”

Northern state governors rushed to raise volunteer forces and send them to defend Washington. Massachusetts Governor John Andrew wired the capital: “Two of our regiments will start this afternoon—one for Washington, the other for Fort Monroe; a third will be dispatched tomorrow, and the fourth before the end of the week.” The four regiments were commanded by Brigadier General Benjamin F. Butler. Within two days of Lincoln’s proclamation, troops of the 6th Massachusetts regiment left Boston on a train bound for Washington.

On the 18th, some 250,000 people took part in a Union rally in New York City, formerly a hotbed of pro-southern sentiment (the mayor had even proposed seceding from the rest of the state to become a free trade zone). A city merchant wrote, “The change in public sentiment here is wonderful–almost miraculous.” Influential New Yorker George Templeton Strong wrote: “Immense crowd; immense cheering. My eyes filled with tears, and I was half choked in sympathy with the contagious excitement. God be praised for the unity of feeling here!”

The 6th Massachusetts marched down Broadway and received a tremendous reception from the thousands of onlookers. They were treated to an extravagant meal at the Astor House before leaving that night for Philadelphia, then continuing on to Washington. That same day, Major Robert Anderson and his Federal troops from Fort Sumter arrived in New York aboard the Baltic. They were given a heroes’ welcome.

Meanwhile, five Pennsylvania companies totaling 500 soldiers became the first to arrive in Washington. Due to the state’s decrepit militia system and strong Quaker and Mennonite influences, the troops had little training and no weapons. Nevertheless, their quick arrival later earned a congressional vote of thanks. There were no barracks for the men, so they were housed in the U.S. Capitol and fed from a kitchen hastily built in the basement.

Ominously, the Pennsylvanians shared their experience passing through Baltimore, where secessionists had cursed them and pelted them with stones. Secretary of War Simon Cameron warned Maryland Governor Thomas H. Hicks and Baltimore Mayor George Brown of “unlawful combinations of misguided citizens” interfering with troop transport, but he did not inform them when the next northern contingent might pass through so they could take precautions. The reception that Baltimoreans would give to other northern troops would only get worse.


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