Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

“The volunteers were panting for strife”

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on January 25, 2012

Other bloggers have praised the special Civil War issue of The Atlantic, which appeared on newsstands some weeks ago, and is still available for order. It’s really a remarkable collection of essays, published at the time in that magazine, that capture a lot of the detail and color of the period. Although the cover inevitably touts contributions by the great names in American literature and history — Douglass, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Twain — to me, some of the most revealing pieces are those composed by writers much less known today, whose work seems as fresh and new as when it was first published. Much of it was what we now view as reported journalism — not just observations or analyses of current events, but writers to traveled to the center of events, talked to the people there, and reported back what they discovered.

One example of such an essay is one by John William de Forest (right, 1826-1906) who, 151 years ago, disembarked from a steamer in Charleston to spend ten days in the city, trying to gauge the sentiment of the state that, just a month before, had taken the precipitous step of seceding from the Union. Lincoln would not take the oath of office as president for another six weeks, but de Forest quickly discovered that concerns about the president-elect and his party were the things that werre driving secession, and the standoff over Fort Sumter, out in the harbor:

“Why do you venture on this doubtful future?” I asked of one gentleman. . . . “Your great grievance is the election of Lincoln?”


“Is Lincoln considered here to be a bad or dangerous man?”

“Not personally. I understand that he is a man of excellent private character, and I have nothing to say against him as a ruler, inasmuch as he has never been tried. Mr. lincoln is simply a sign to us that we are in danger, and must provide for our own safety.”

“You secede, then, solely because you think his election proves that the mass ofthe Northern people is adverse to you and your interests?”


“So Mr. [U.S. Senator Louis T.] Wigfall of Texas hit the nail on the head, when he said substantially that the South cannot be at peace with the North until the latter concedes that slavery is right?”

“Well, — I admit it; that is precisely it.”

I desire the reader to note the loyal frankness, the unshrinking honesty of these avowals, so characteristic of the South Carolina morale. . . . All those Charlestonians whom I talked with I found open-heartened in their secession, and patient of my open-hardheartedness as an advocate of the Union. . . .

“But have you looked at the platform of the Republicans?” I proceeded. “It is not adverse to slavery in the States; it only objects to its entrance into the Territories; it is not an Abolition platform.”

“We don’t trust in the platform; we believe that it is an incomplete expression of the party creed,-that it suppresses more than it utters. The spirit which keeps the Republicans together is enmity to slavery, and that spirit will never be satisfied until the system is extinct”. . . .

When I asked one gentleman what the South expected to gain by going out, he replied, “First, safety. Our slaves have heard of Lincoln, — that he is u black man, or black Republican, or black something, — that he is to become ruler of this country the fourth of March, — that he is a friend of theirs, and will free them. We must establish our independence in order to make them believe that they are beyond his help.”

My impression is, that a prevalent, though not a universal fear, existed lest the negroes [sic.] should rise in partial insurrections on or about the fourth of March. A Northern man, who had lived for several years in the back-country of South Carolina, had married there, and had lately traveled through a considerable portion of the South, informed me that many of the villages were lately forming Home Guards, as a measure of defence against the slave population. . . .

De Forest noted a certain fatalism about the coming conflict, with even those who opposed secession convinced that the agitation for war was so strong there, that it would eventually prevail over calmer minds. “The volunteers were panting for strife,” de Forest’s anti-secessionist acquaintances explained, and “Governor [Francis] Pickens was excessively unpopular because of his peaceful inclinations.” Armed hostilities were seen as a foregone conclusion; the only question was, when. Anticipation of the opening bombardment, even in January, already had people on edge:

During the ten days of my sojourn, Charleston was full of surprising reports and painful expectations. If a door slammed, we stopped talking, and looked at each other; and if the sound was repeated. we went to the window and listened for Fort Sumter. Every strange noise was metamorphosed by the watchful ear into the roar of cannon or the rush of soldiery. Women trembled at the salutes which were fired in honor of the secession of other States, fearing lest the struggle had commenced and the dearly-loved son or brother in volunteer uniform was already under the storm of the columbiads.

De Forest returned to New York, and when hostilities began, organized a company of the 12th Connecticut Volunteers. He mustered out in late 1864, and subsequently served with the Veteran’s Reserve Corps. After the war he returned to South Carolina as Assistant Commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau at Greenville. De forest wrote extensively about the war, but his graphic descriptions of the conflict were badly out of step with the romantic and idealistic depictions of his day.

6 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Jeffry Burden said, on January 26, 2012 at 7:52 pm

    I’m confused. I’ve been told that the slaves of the South had a wonderful, mutually beneficial relationship with their white masters, who cared for and loved them as their own. Whence the fear of insurrection? Why in the world would they rise up? 🙂

  2. Dan Weinfeld said, on January 27, 2012 at 4:12 pm

    “He mustered out in early 1865 as a Brevet Major, and after the war returned to South Carolina as Assistant Commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau at Greenville.”

    To be precise, De Forest mustered out of the Connecticut Volunteers in Dec. 1864 and then in early 1865, he obtained a commission in the Veteran Reserves Corp (formerly the Invalid Corps). Like many VRC officers, he was transferred over to the Freedmen’s Bureau and was probably mustered out with the rest of the VRC/Bureau staff on Jan. 1, 1868. De Forest wrote about the his time in the Bureau for Harper’s. These articles were later complied as “A Union Officer in the Reconstruction.” LSU Press reprinted it recently. It’s a fascinating read, both for his telling of his experiences in the rural district he administers and for his detached, even cynical, observations about the social conditions he encounters. It’s the best (and maybe the only) published eyewitness account of the Bureau’s field level activities from a Bureau official.

    • Andy Hall said, on January 27, 2012 at 4:28 pm

      Dan, thanks. I realize that in my hurry I got de Forest’s chronology wrong. I am looking forward to getting that book.

      • Jeffry Burden said, on January 27, 2012 at 10:19 pm

        I bought it last month, and it’s in my to-read stack. This has whetted my appetite.

    • Nora Carrington said, on January 29, 2012 at 10:33 pm

      I was popping in to ask Andy if he knew of any reports by De Forest about his time in Greenville, as I had the misfortune to spend 4 years there 130 years later. Lovely to find such a detailed recommendation. Thanks, Dan.

  3. Matt McKeon said, on January 28, 2012 at 6:52 am

    I read “Miss Ravenal’s Conversion,” his novel about the Civil War. The Ambrose Bierce flavor cynicism is in the novel as well. It’s a great read, and begs to be made into a movie. For some reason, he calls Connecticutt “Batavia” and New Haven “New Boston.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: