Pony Brings News of Ft. Sumter
By April 1861, California had been a state of the Union for only ten and a half years. As yet, no telegraph lines connected it with the nation’s government in the East, nor was there a transcontinental railroad. Weeks-old mail and newspapers from the Atlantic States arrived by stagecoach and steamships—but for the past year, the dashing, exciting Pony Express had furnished the very latest news. On April 24, the Pony was the first to bring California the alarming report that Southern Rebels had attacked Fort Sumter on April 12.
The Pony Express’s dispatches—with the particulars—were rushed to press in local newspapers. On Friday, April 12, at 4:30 a.m., Confederate forces on land had opened fire on Union-occupied Fort Sumter, situated on an island in Charleston Harbor. Fireworks lit the skies above the harbor, shells burst in mid air above the beleaguered fortress, and cannons boomed in a bombardment that lasted for 34 hours. Through it all, the streets, balconies, housetops, wharves, and even the church steeples of Charleston, were thronged with excited spectators.
Three times, Confederate artillery set Fort Sumter’s barracks on fire, and twice were extinguished by Union soldiers. The third time, flames could be seen bursting through the roofs of the houses within its walls; indeed, from every quarter of the fort. On Saturday, April 13, Fort Sumter’s commander, Major Robert Anderson, surrendered—taking the American flag with him as he and his men evacuated.
The Confederacy was elated, believing the attack to be a necessary defense of its sovereignty, officially established February 4th as the Confederate States of America, following the secession of seven states from the federal union. Later in the day of Major Anderson’s surrender, South Carolina Governor Francis Wilkinson Pickens’ victorious oratory resounded from the balcony of the Charleston Hotel, to the cheers of Charleston’s citizens gathered below.
“The day has come; the war is open, and we will conquer or perish,” he declared. “We have humbled the proud flag of the Stars and Stripes that never before lowered to any nation on earth. The Stars and Stripes have triumphed for 70 years, but on this 13th day of April it has been humbled by the little State of South Carolina.”
Three thousand miles away in California, residents were well aware of the decades-long strife between North/South interests, the failed compromises, and the current secession crises, but thus far—despite a few skirmishes—no all-out war. Although there were many Southern sympathizers and secessionist advocates within its borders, the majority of California’s population was pro-Union. Editorials in the state’s leading newspapers reacted to the initial news of the attack on Fort Sumter with outrage at what they viewed as an immoral assault on American troops.
“The Jefferson Davis government, it was reported, would declare war. It has already done this by attacking Fort Sumter. No account is given of the damage and loss upon the side of the revolutionists, and we therefore conclude that the accounts of the capture all come from them. They give the losses of Major Anderson, but not their own….(they) have begun the civil war they profess to have so much dreaded, inaugurating the trial of strength by arms. And so ends the first scene in this terrible national tragedy…the fall of Sumter has presented a rallying point for the Union sentiment of the country.” –Sacramento Daily Union, April 25, 1861
The attack on Fort Sumter marked the official beginning of the American Civil War, a conflict that lasted four years, cost the lives of more than 620,000 Americans, and freed 3.9 million enslaved people from bondage.