Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Bombardment of Fort Sumter and its Consequences

By: Arielle Potter

At 4:30 a.m. on April 12th, 1861 a single shell went arching across Charleston harbour and exploded over a little brick fort on a tiny island of rubble. It was the signal for other batteries surrounding the harbour to open fire on the small fortress which was held by a small force of Federals low on supplies and ammunition. This encounter, lasting 2 days, ended in the fall of the fort into Confederate hands. South Carolina had seceded from the Union on December 20th, 1860, but the United States government as yet had made no aggressive move. With the first shot fired however, patriotic feeling swept through the country. Southerners thought whipping Yankees would be easy, while Northerners weren’t going to have any secessionists firing on their forts. Immediately in the North an army was raised and plans were made for invasion of the South. And so Fort Sumter, an unfinished brick fortification in the middle of Charleston harbour, became the seat of the first battle in the bloodiest of American wars.

It was not however, the first conflict between the North and South by any means. It seemed that every time something came up in Congress that had anything to do with slavery the two factions were at each other’s throats. There was wrong on both sides, and neither side could trust the other. So, whenever a new state wanted to join the Union there must needs be a great debate over whether it would be free or slave, for whichever side it took would get more votes than the other. Compromise over the issue was difficult, for a state could not be both free and slave. It is easy to see why people North and South hoped there would be a peaceful separation: slavery and democracy were too diametrically opposed for any one nation to be founded on both.
There was another conflict: that of state sovereignty. It was this that divided the nation and left slave states like Kentucky and West Virginia on the side of the Federal government. This was really the main issue at Charleston: had a state’s government more power in that state than the American government did? South Carolina thought it had; Abraham Lincoln thought not. The two were having a showdown about it. South Carolina wasn’t new at the business; in 1832 it had refused to comply with two tariffs passed by the Federal government, a proceeding known as “nullification,” and although the state had later backed down, it still held its own rights more important than the Federal government’s laws. The people thought that their state could break away from the Union any time it chose, for to them the Union was merely collaboration between the states. And so when Abraham Lincoln (an abolitionist) was elected president, thereby threatening South Carolina’s “rights” (the right to have slaves was one which was threatened and the right to go into free states and recapture escaped slaves was another), the state announced that it had seceded from the Union. Soon other states followed.
As southern states seceded one by one the state governments began confiscating Federal property and commandeering Federal forts and arsenals. Some forts were surrendered without resistance and the commanders were rewarded with posts in the confederate army (very nearly the same thing Benedict Arnold had done in the Revolutionary War), but others were stubbornly held. Lt. Slemmer, in one instance, took a stand in Fort Pickens in Pensacola, Florida and disregarded the demands of the governor of Florida and the governor of Alabama to peaceably surrender the fort. He said, “I am here by the authority of the President of the United States, and I do not recognize the authority of any governor to demand the surrender of United States property—a governor is nobody here.” There were three Union garrisons in Florida which remained loyal. The only other in the South to do so was in South Carolina.
On Christmas night, 1860, five days after South Carolina seceded, Major Robert Anderson moved his command from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter in Charleston harbour. Although it was still unfinished, Fort Sumter was more defensible as it was three miles out in the harbour. The Confederates were furious about the major’s cheek, for they had expected all the Federal commanders to come over to their side. All across the state men were forming militias, bands were playing, Federal goods were being repossessed and affairs looked promising. There was only one thing to mar their victory: that audacious Union flag in the harbour.
Nothing happened for several months except that President Buchanan attempted to send supplies by sea to the fort, which was in sore need of them. The ship however, was fired on by confederates and sailed away again. At last on April 11th General P.G.T. Beauregard sent an ultimatum to Major Anderson demanding that he evacuate the fort. Anderson said that he would on April 15th if he did not get relief by that time. This would not do for Beauregard, for he knew that supplies were expected before the 15th. He sent a message the next morning that his guns would open fire in one hour. Maj. Anderson was much upset at this; he was himself a southerner, but his duty to his country, his military commission and his men held him firm, and he had but one answer. In an hour shells began to fall on the defenders.
The man who had the honour of firing the first shot of the war was Capt. George S. James, commander of a battery on James Island (no relation, I’m sure). It was soon followed by volleys from batteries around the harbour. Edmund Ruffin, a South Carolina fire-eater who fired one of the first shots of the war from the confederate batteries would also fire one of the last shots of the war: a pistol into his head when his beloved Confederacy fell.
Anderson was an old acquaintance of Beauregard: he had been the general’s artillery instructor at West Point. Perhaps he regretted those lessons as Beauregard’s batteries became more accurate. At first Anderson held his fire, for he had little ammunition and their cannons could do little damage to the well-protected confederate guns. The fort was surrounded by enemy artillery, besides which, it was not built to be attacked from behind and by their own men. After several hours had passed however, the major gave orders to man some of the guns in the lower, more protected part of the fort. Capt. Abner Doubleday whose distinguished career included promotion to Major General; repulsing a Confederate charge at Gettysburg; commanding for a time part of McDowell’s division, the famed “Iron Brigade” and being the official inventor of baseball; fired the first shot at the appreciative Confederates who had hoped for some opposition.
That afternoon the relief ships with provisions and ammunition appeared on the horizon. How disappointed the beleaguered Federals must have been to see them sail away again, the firing from the forts making it too dangerous to approach! In the afternoon too, the soldier’s quarters caught fire and burned furiously, choking the men in smoke until an evening rainstorm helped put the flames out. By nightfall only six Federal guns answered the rebel batteries. These were silenced at dark to save ammunition. All night the confederates kept up their fire while the defenders tried to sleep and waited for dawn.
In the morning only one gun was still fired at intervals from the fort. The officer’s quarters caught fire, threatening the powder stored nearby. Still the men fought on. The flag above the fort was shot down and three soldiers clambered up to replace it, but the Confederates, seeing it fall, thought the Federals were striking their colours. They sent out a boat to investigate and found that they had been beaten to it by a Texas hot-head, one Mr. Wigfall, who had sailed out on his own initiative to demand surrender. The Federals had pulled him into the fort so that he should not be hit by his own side’s fire. After some deliberation, Anderson agreed to surrender the fort, now in ruins. He evacuated on April 14th, after firing a salute to the flag still flying over the fort. It would be four years before that flag would again fly over Fort Sumter. Four years later to a day the Stars and Stripes were again raised above the fort—the same day President Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre.
The Confederates claimed a great victory at Sumter. They perhaps did not take into account the fact that the Federal soldiers were low on food and ammunition, were greatly out-numbered and were surrounded on all sides. That the men held out for as long as they did showed the American pluck and spirit, which, as a characteristic of both sides, was the cause of a long and hard war. Although it can scarcely be called a battle in the light of later engagements—only one man was killed outright—the firing on Fort Sumter had an immense impact on the course of later events. If the Confederate guns had never opened fire on the little garrison it is probable that the Union and Confederacy would have sat glaring at each other across the Potomac—the Union unwilling to make the first move and the Confederates not wishing too strongly for a war in which they would be out-manned and out-gunned. The little company in the insignificant fort were to begin a war of staggering dimensions.

Monday, February 2, 2009

An Evaluation of Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener

By Arielle Potter, 11/21/07

This short story is about an ordinary lawyer who employs two secretaries, or scriveners, both eccentric, but nothing compared to the newest scrivener, Bartleby. His oddities first manifest themselves by his unexplained refusal to perform certain tasks. He merely says that he “would prefer not to.” It is further discovered that Bartleby lives in the office—and refuses to leave it. After a time Bartleby quits work altogether and will only stand and stare at the window. All efforts at dismissing him are ineffectual. Finally his employer in desperation removes his firm to another office, leaving Bartleby behind. Bartleby continues to haunt the premises until forcibly removed and sent to prison. There he dies in a short time.
Melville’s portrayal of every character is believable: everyone acts in a natural way. Even their eccentricities seem natural—all except Bartleby’s. The reader can sympathise with the lawyer from whose point of view the story is told. We can feel frustration with Bartleby one minute and pity him the next. He is so stubborn and at the same time so melancholy. He acts as though his actions were perfectly normal and logical although we cannot understand them and he exerts a mental influence over everyone in the office. Melville also employs a light, comical tone although the story ends so tragically.
Bartleby’s behaviour seems unexplainable, until we learn that he was formerly a clerk in the dead letter office in Washington. To understand Bartleby’s problem then, we must put ourselves in his position. We can begin to understand Bartleby’s melancholy and see that we might act in the same way were we exposed to the same circumstances.
The story continually describes Bartleby as “cadaverous,” foretelling that by the end he would literally be a corpse. It also refers to blank walls and empty spaces, showing how empty life is for Bartleby. Bartleby seems to be almost a madman, until the end of the story where he shows that he is, indeed, human. The main problem of the story starts out “will the world cope with Bartleby?” but changes to “will Bartleby cope with the world?” The end of the story resolves this problem but not in a way that satisfies the reader. Bartleby’s real problem is that he has grown weary of an empty world and a hopeless existence. He is sent to jail too, not for doing something, but for not doing something, and as Bartleby does not see the fairness of this he blames the world at large.
The story closes, “Ah Bartleby! Ah Humanity!” revealing Melville’s purpose in writing the story. Melville sees the same emptiness that Bartleby does and bemoans mankind on its dismal fate. He fails to see that life is not just a passage to the grave; he is blind to the fact that "God governs the affairs of men" and that He has a purpose for each individual. Unfortunately, many people believe the same way as Bartleby.