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The Federal Occupation of Charleston

The Illustrated London News, vol. 46, no. 1305, p. 221-222.

March 11, 1865


The evacuation of Charleston, South Carolina, by the Confederates is one of the most startling events of a campaign which has presented a long succession of surprises. The fact, regarded from a military point of view, is not, perhaps, so important as the capture of Fort Fisher; yet we can hardly wonder that the announcement of it stirred a deeper feeling of satisfaction in the North than any that has shown itself during the progress of the war. The few observations we shall make on it will have reference rather to its moral than to its military or its political bearings. The object of the struggle at its present stage is no longer what it was at its commencement, so far, at least, as the South is concerned. When the first gun was fired against Fort Sumter, there can be no doubt that the seceding States contemplated founding an extensive and extending empire, of which

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their peculiar and, as they affirmed, necessary institution was to have been an important element. Such an object, however, it is impossible that the Confederacy can any longer entertain with hope. Slavery, as a social system, has so far suffered by the collision of the two sections of the American people that its extinction, at no very distant date, is morally certain. Such being the case, although the issue of the contest may involve principles to which our Transatlantic kinsmen, whether of the North or South, attach high importance, we, as distant spectators, seeing that the broad interests of humanity are no longer at stake, may be excused for doubting whether the cost of further strife will not far exceed the ends proposed to be gained by it, and for wishing that we may soon witness the end of bloodshed and devastation. We know not how the fall of Charleston may affect the final balance of political power on the continent of America, nor do we pretend to be competent to foresee its strategical effects; but there is one point of view from which the event may be regarded which is full of instruction and which is worth serious consideration.

Charleston may be said to have precipitated this war. It cannot, it is true, be proved that but for South Carolina, of which the city of Charleston was the heart, Mr. Lincoln's election in 1860 might not have led to the eventual secession of the Slave States; but, at least, it should be borne in mind that South Carolina set the example. She did so, not by accident, but on calculation. Her temper had inclined her in that direction for many years past. She had used her readiness to secede as a threat on former occasions whenever her selfwill had been crossed by President or Congress. By means of it she strove to overbear all legitimate opposition. We neither affirm nor deny her right as a State to take the position she did; but we note the fact that she asserted that right with inconsiderate haste. For awhile, the policy of which she may be said to have been not merely the advocate but the author was accepted by the majority of the people of the United States, and none insisted upon submission to the decisions of that majority, when they chanced to be with her, more loudly than South Carolina. Then came the memorable election of 1860, by which the political supremacy of the South was, for the time being at any rate, broken and overturned. What might have followed that popular victory had it been accepted we can only conjecture; but the election itself could hardly be regarded as an invasion of the sovereignty of the Southern States. Not a single act had yet been done, not a profession had yet been made, inimical to State rights, when South Carolina declared for secession, and was soon followed in that course by several of her sister States. Her precipitancy was looked upon in the North with wonder and, for a time, with forbearance. Ordinary patience, tact, and statesmanship on the part of Secessia might probably then have secured her ends without the exchange of a single shot: for there was not then such a show of angry temper in the North as forbade the South to believe that a peaceful separation might be practicable.

Things were in this critical but not altogether hopeless position when Charleston took into her own hands to bring to an abrupt decision the alternative of peace or war. She assailed Fort Sumter, and from that act what a long train of miseries has proceeded! What a sea of tears and blood has resulted from that first concussion! What an avalanche of destruction has been brought down upon both sections of the theretofore prosperous republic! What a huge conflagration of passion has been kindled! For all these things South Carolina made herself responsible. Thousands upon thousands of men and women on both sides, who had no participation in that act, but upon whom the terrible consequences have fallen, have since bewailed the impatience and imperious pride that needlessly and almost gaily flung back the floodgates of devouring war, which from that moment to this none have been able to close, and through which an inundation of woe has swept to cover the face of the land with wreck and death.

Remembering all this, one cannot wonder that the fall of Charleston has sent a thrill of sensation through the North, nor that the officers of the Federal Government took possession of the already ruined city with a feeling of satisfaction that poetic justice had at length overtaken her. We cannot pretend to be conscious of that feeling. We know too well how, in all such calamities, the innocent suffer with the guilty; and how, not the perpetrators of the crime alone, but also those who would have prevented it if they could, share the doom which it has entailed. But we do see in the retribution which has befallen Charleston enough to make us pause and ponder. It does present to our minds some suggestions, wholly uncoloured by party feeling, to which we think attention may be profitably given.

The old proverb says, "Curses, like chickens, come home to roost." The experience of mankind, condensed into these few words, discloses to us one of the laws which characterise the moral government of the world. Those who rely on the power of cursing--or, otherwise expressed, on words of menace, outbursts of passion, and impatient and angry self-assertion--rely upon the reed which, when it breaks, pierces the hands of such as lean upon it. South Carolina, on any question into which her passions entered, disdained reasoning. An overbearing reiteration of her will was her main argument. Her social structure had nurtured in her habits of despotic command, and she freely expressed them. It will not do. It never has done. It is as certain of bringing round its own retribution as it is that what men sow they will reap. The fate of Charleston, now desolate and in ruins, is but another historical illustration, added to many foregoing ones, that reason, law, and justice cannot be set at defiance, by however strong a will, with ultimate impunity.

It is worthy of note, moreover, that to Charleston has been denied the gratification of falling heroically. Her children were quite as brave as others; but circumstances conspired to render her fate an inglorious one. She who fired the first gun in this awful war was finally taken possession of in a manner humiliating to her pride. No one will forget her successful defence of herself at an earlier period; yet no one will associate with her end a sentiment of enthusiastic admiration. Almost before Europe has given a week's reflection to the announcement of her having been abandoned, the fact is almost lost sight of, having been obliterated by the later tidings that South Carolina is being traversed by an army of her foe, not merely unresisted, but seemingly unmenaced, by her inhabitants.

Yet, one can hardly doubt that Charleston, prostrate as she is, will rise up, and enter upon a better future. Her geographical position will ever make her the chief maritime outlet for the productions of the South. Cotton and tobacco will still be grown when slavery has ceased. She has paid the penalty of her own mistake. Her ruins will be repaired. Her grass-grown streets will once again resound with traffic. Her waters will be crowded with the ships of all nations. And her last state of prosperity will, we devoutly trust, bury her first in forgetfulness.

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