The Death Knell of Slavery

It was still dark on the spring morning of April 12, 1861, when the signal was given at 4:30 a.m. to fire the first shots at the Union fort in the middle of the harbor at Charleston, South Carolina, Fort Sumter. That signal was given by a civilian, a secessionist farmer who had been arguing for secession for 20 years.

That first shot would be the beginning of the incredibly violent cataclysm that we know as the Civil War. An unnamed person in the Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War said of that first shot fired: “The first gun fired sounded the death knell of slavery.”

What began there on that early pre-dawn morning in beautiful Charleston Harbor would prove to be the bloodiest war in the history of this country. All of the deaths in all of the wars that this country has fought in since that time do not add up to the losses of American lives that resulted from that bitter and destructive fratricidal war.

Photo: YouTube/UNUM Ken Burns

The commander of the Confederate forces in Charleston at the time of the attack on Fort Sumter was General Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard. He was born in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, on May 28, 1818. He graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he trained as an artillery officer and became so good that he was asked by his superiors to remain at the academy for another year to help teach younger officers in the arts of artillery warfare.

He would see combat in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and was wounded at the Battle of Chapultapec. He worked as a military engineer after that war, and, in 1861, he would serve for a brief time as the superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy but would leave that position to take sides with the Confederate Army. In one of many of the ironies of that war, the Union commander of Fort Sumter at the time of the shelling was Major Robert Anderson, who had been Beauregard’s instructor in artillery at West Point.

Photo: YouTube/UNUM Ken Burns

The shelling of Fort Sumter would go on for the next thirty-four hours, and the exchange of artillery fire from the fort would see the fort being severely damaged. But, ironically, the only casualty of the assault, and from the return of fire of the Union defenders, would be a single Confederate horse.

War is always a human failure. But there is nothing quite so sad or horrendous as a civil war. Over 700,000 Americans from both sides died on battlefields from Bull Run/Manassas in the beautiful countryside of Northern Virginia to the wooded hills and farmed valleys of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to the riverside city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, to the rolling farmland of Georgia Campaign, and to the major cities of Atlanta, Petersburg, and so many others. Many of those deaths would be from the diseases that would decimate the troops on both sides, diseases like typhus and cholera, caused by the devastation of that war.

Photo: YouTube/UNUM Ken Burns

It is hard for us now, 161 years later, to imagine what it must have been like to be alive at that time. The devastation was immense, especially in the South. The only thing we might compare it to would be the kind of devastation we are seeing to cities and villages in Ukraine today and the conditions that the civilian populations are having to endure. That would have been the kind of devastation that the people of Vicksburg and Richmond and Atlanta and so many other cities and towns, would have experienced. It is all just history to us now, but to the people who lived through it, it was truly a catastrophic period of time.

This video, you will recognize, is from the Ken Burns documentary of the Civil War. That documentary is one of the best ever made, and its handling of the Civil War is remarkable for its balance, its sensitivity, and its respect for both sides in the conflict, as well as for its balanced handling of the central cause of the war, slavery. It might be a documentary to look at again in conjunction with the anniversary of the opening shots of that Civil War at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861.

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