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Fort Sumter: How Massachusetts reacted to the start of the Civil War

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  April 12, 2011 02:33 PM

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001drresize.jpgThe Civil War started 150 years ago this morning, when Confederate forces fired the first shots on Fort Sumter in South Carolina.

But it took a full day for clear news reports of the attack to reach Boston. Today, the Massachusetts Historical Society excerpts the diary of one Boston merchant, who noted the "greatest excitement" as crowds gathered around newspaper offices to learn the details as they emerged.

"We are fallen upon evil times," he wrote. "Our glorious & so much exalted & boasted Union sent in pieces and brothers engaged against brothers. I never expected to live to see this day."

Lucy Larcom, a native of Beverly and a faculty member at Wheaton Seminary, shared a similar view in a journal entry, and placed blame for the war squarely on the southern secessionists who, she said "have no high principle at the heart of their cause."

This day broke upon our country in gloom; for the sounds of war came up to us from the South, — war between brethren; civil war; well may "all faces gather blackness." And yet the gloom we feel ought to be the result of sorrow for the erring, for the violators of national unity, for those who are in black rebellion against truth, freedom, and peace. The rebels have struck the first blow, and what ruin they are pulling down on their heads may be guessed, though not yet fully foretold; but it is plain to see that a dark prospect is before them, since they have no high principle at the heart of their cause.

It will be no pleasure to any American to remember that he lived in this revolution, when brother lifted his hand against brother; and the fear is, that we shall forget that we are brethren still, though some are so unreasonable and wander so far from the true principles of national prosperity. Though the clouds of this morning have cleared away into brightness, it seems as if we could feel the thunder of those deadly echoes passing to and from Fort Sumter. But there is a right, and God always defends it. War is not according to His wish; though it seems one of the permitted evils yet. He will scatter those who delight in it, and it is not too much to hope and expect that He will uphold the government which has so long been trying to avert bloodshed.

Three days after the attack, President Abraham Lincoln asked for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the rebellion. Massachusetts troops were soon on their way to Washington to protect the capital. The next week, on April 21, Larcom described the scene in Boston as the city mobilized for war:

The conflict is deepening; but thanks to God, there is no wavering, no division, now, at the North! All are united, as one man; and from a peaceful, unwarlike people, we are transformed into an army, ready for the battle at a moment's warning.

The few days I have passed in Boston this week are the only days in which I ever carried my heart into a crowd, or hung around a company of soldiers with anything like pleasure. But I felt a soldier-spirit rising within me, when I saw the men of my native town armed and going to risk their lives for their country's sake; and the dear old flag of our Union is a thousand times more dear than ever before. The streets of Boston were almost canopied with the stars and stripes, and the merchants festooned their shops with the richest goods of the national colors.

And now there are rumors of mobs attacking our troops, of bridges burnt, and arsenals exploded, and many lives lost. The floodgates of war are opened, and when the tide of blood will cease none can tell.

"Civil War Commenced": the front page of the Worcester Transcript from April 19, 1861, reported on the killing of Massachusetts soldiers in Baltimore. The soldiers were traveling through Maryland on their way to Washington to protect the capital in the days after the attack on Fort Sumter. Courtesy Library of Congress.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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