During the early years of the Civil War, many whites of both the North and South believed, or pretended to believe, the conflict was about reunion only and had nothing to do with slavery, abolition or equal rights.
The slaves themselves - including two at Fort Sumter - knew better at the very start of the war.
Sumter was a federal fort on an island in the harbor of Charleston, S.C. After South Carolina seceded from the Union on Dec. 20, 1860, Maj. Robert Anderson took his U.S. forces out of the vulnerable mainland forts nearby and moved out to Fort Sumter, which was more defensible.
The South Carolina regime placed the fort under siege. On April 12, the regime bombarded the place for 1 1/2 days until it surrendered. The Civil War had just seen its first battle.
A month earlier, however, two unnamed black men, unknown to each other, showed the country what the struggle really was all about.
On Tuesday, March 12, 1861, the captain of engineers, Joseph Foster, wrote a letter to authorities back in Washington: “No unusual movements are observed, except the firing of one gun in the city at about 11 1/2 o’clock last night. A negro, escaping from the city, came down last night about 11 o’clock in a canoe to this fort. He was sent back.”
That was all. Yet this brief entry tells a story. The slave had paddled out quietly in a canoe in the dark of night, a time when most people would be asleep, hoping to evade the notice of any Confederate sentries.
At least he was allowed to leave quietly and try his luck getting back to his master’s home without getting caught - and punished.
The slave was taking a horrible chance. He was out very late, and if caught at 11 p.m., it wasn’t likely he could produce any paper from the master saying he was out on an errand.
Did he make it back safely - or was he the recipient of the 11:30 p.m. gunfire also mentioned in Foster’s report? The 1848 South Carolina slave code, or Negro Law, was still valid in 1861. Chapter 3, Section 35 read: “If a slave be out of the house or plantation, where such slave resides, or without some white person in company, and should refuse to submit to, or undergo the examination of any white person to pursue, apprehend, and moderately correct any such slave, and if such slave shall assault and strike such white person, such slave may be lawfully killed.”
The slave’s fate remains unknown.
The other slave definitely was caught by Charleston authorities.
He first appears in the Fort Sumter records on the next full day, March 13, 1861. Anderson wrote a letter of complaint to South Carolina Gov. Francis Wilkinson Pickens. This time, the black man was a servant to the officers at Fort Sumter.
Anderson was upset that “*ome of the officers of this command have been put to considerable inconvenience and discomfort by the detention in the city of their hired servant, who left the post with a permit from the honorable Secretary of War.”
South Carolina Secretary of War D.F. Jamison wrote back on March 15, explaining that the servant actually was a slave, though Anderson had thought he was a freeman. The master had a right to claim his slave, Jamison said.
Jamison gave another reason. He claimed that the servant had been corresponding with a slave woman in Charleston. They weren’t love letters: “Information was given by the woman to the boy of operations in this city, which were not proper to be communicated to any one in your garrison.” Also, their messages spoke of fleeing to Fort Sumter if war broke out and suggesting other black people might try it as well.
Finally, the “boy” had grown uppity after spending time in Fort Sumter with all those Yankees: “The reply of the boy clearly showed that his temper and principles had not been improved by a residence in Fort Sumter.”
Anderson, who was not an abolitionist, caved in at once in a March 17 letter: “His excellency mentions in his letter to me, received yesterday, that the boy is a slave, and, of course, that ends the matter.”
John Lockwood is a Washington writer.