The Burning of Charleston


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Civil War Harper's Weekly, December 28, 1861

This WEB site contains online, readable versions of the Harper's Weekly newspapers published during the Civil War. These old newspapers allow you to develop a unique understanding of the important events of the Civil War. This site is created to help you in your studies and your research. Check back often, as we add new material each day.


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Civil War Refugees


Burning Charleston

Trent Affair

Trent Affair

Fort Pickens

Fort Pickens Bombardment

Fire in Charleston

The Charleston Fire

Execuation of Deserter

Execution of a Deserter

Gold Pens

Gold Pens


Fort Pickens

Bombardment of Fort Pickens


Charleston, South Carolina

Firing Squad

Execution by Firing Squad

Fort Pulaski

Fort Pulaski

Winslow Homer's Great Fair










[DECEMBER 28, 1861.



THE illustration on the preceding page—which represents Union fugitives in St. Louis—shows how cruelly the rebellion is pressing upon the loyal people of Missouri. The Herald correspondent writes from St. Louis :

For some days past the unfortunate sufferers of the southwest portion of the State, who have been driven out on account of their Union sentiments, have lined our thoroughfares, and presented many of the most painful scenes of poverty and affliction ever witnessed in this city. Only a small portion arrived in proportion to the thousands who left Springfield and vicinity in company with General Siegel's division. Their appearance—half naked, benumbed with cold, and hardly able to stand—has excited the liveliest sympathy, and it is evident that something must be done for these destitute people, or they will die outright of starvation. Yesterday General Halleck issued an order on the subject, which has struck consternation into the hearts of the secessionists, and at the same time provides an effective remedy. It is as follows :

The law of military retaliation has fixed and well-established rules. While it allows no cruel or barbarous acts on our part in retaliation for like acts of the enemy, it permits any retaliatory measures within the prescribed limits of military usage. If the enemy murders and robs Union men we are not justified in murdering and robbing other persons who are in a legal sense, enemies to our Government, but we may enforce on them the severest penalties justified by the laws of war for the crimes of their fellow-rebels. The rebel forces in the southwestern counties of this State have robbed and plundered the peaceful non-combatant inhabitants, taking from them their clothing and means of subsistence. Men, women, and children have alike been stripped and plundered. Thousands of such persons are finding their way to this city barefooted, half clad, and in a destitute and starving condition. Humanity and justice require that these sufferings should be relieved, and that the outrages committed upon them should be retaliated upon the enemy. The individuals who have directly caused these sufferings are at present beyond our reach; but there are in this city, and in other places within our lines, numerous wealthy secessionists who render aid, assistance, and encouragement to those who commit these outrages. They do not themselves rob and plunder, but they abet and countenance these acts in others. Although less bold, they are equally guilty. It is therefore ordered and directed that the Provost Marshals immediately inquire into the condition of the persons so driven from their homes, and that measures be taken to quarter them in the houses and to feed and clothe them at the expense of avowed secessionists, and of those who are found guilty of giving aid, assistance, and encouragement to the enemy.

The Tribune correspondent says:

Truly enough, for at this hour thousands of refugees are fleeing from Missouri that they may find bread, and afterward a home in our happy Free State. Scantily clad, half famished, and pinched with cold, they enter our border towns and beg, for they have no money, that they may live. Nor are these the ignorant poor—it is the better class in the Slave States who are faithful to the Union. Whole families and whole neighborhoods have come, and the roads leading to St. Louis and the city itself are filled with them. Far to the rear come the various divisions of Price's army, and when they overtake the helpless exiles they rob them of every thing. From the men they take even their pocket-knives.


THE great exertions made by the proprietors of HARPER'S WEEKLY to illustrate the WAR have been rewarded by a large increase of circulation. During the year which ends with this Number Over FIVE HUNDRED ILLUSTRATIONS OF THE WAR have been published in HARPER'S WEEKLY. It now circulates ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY THOUSAND COPIES WEEKLY; which is, we believe, the largest circulation of any Journal in this country in which Advertisements are published. Price 50 and 75 cents per line.


A HANDSOME Title-page to the FIFTH VOLUME, of which this is the concluding Number, together with a Complete Index of Contents, has been printed on a separate sheet, and may be had gratuitously of all Agents or at the Office of Publication.

Muslin Covers may also be had, by all who wish their Numbers for the year bound in a volume, at FIFTY CENTS each. Twenty-five per cent. discount allowed to the trade.




THE British newspapers reach us full of fury and menace against this country. Our " little fleet is to be swept from the seas ;"  "the San Jacintos" are to be "sunk or captured;" our blockade is to be broken at once ; the "Southern Confederacy" is to be "acknowledged by Great Britain and France simultaneously ;" our " Northern ports are to be blockaded ;" " twelve Royal men-of-war" are to sail up the Potomac, and compel the return of Mason and Slidell in view of the White House; the Warrior is to be anchored off Annapolis, with shotted guns ; we are to be taught the folly and danger of "insulting the British flag." All this, and much more, we are to suffer, according to those British journalists, because Captain Wilkes, instead of making the Trent a prize, and carrying her into an American port for adjudication, generously allowed her and her passengers to proceed on their voyage unmolested. The law officers of the British Crown admit that the Trent was liable to seizure, and

her passengers to detention and annoyance ; but with a refinement worthy of nisi prius pleaders, they pretend that it was unjustifiable to inflict upon her any minor indignity. In their opinion the greater does not contain the less. We must either exact the whole of our rights or none of them. If we will be forbearing we must be punished. " D'ye mean to insult me, you beggar!" asked the drunken sailor of a gentleman whom he was molesting, " that you don't strike back?"

Well, if it must be so, so mote it be. If England is bent upon seizing this our hour of trouble to force a war upon us for the destruction of the Union, we must accept the decree manfully. We are already engaged in a war of such magnitude that our outlay of money and men would not be greatly increased if we had to contend against England simultaneously with the South. Telegraphs and steam protect us against any landing of foreign troops on our soil ; vigorous exertions will soon provide us with a fleet of war vessels and privateers which will render it much more difficult than John Bull imagines either to raise our Southern blockade, or to blockade our Northern ports, or to protect British commerce on the ocean. It was the combination of all the European Powers against French democracy, at the close of the last century, which developed the strength of the French nation to such a pitch that in less than ten years it ruled the whole European continent ; a similar combination against democracy in America would rouse our people to a pitch of energy and self-sacrificing patriotism that would be much more likely to shake European thrones than American institutions.

But is it not sad to see how unwisely the energies of a great free nation like England are being directed? If there was a principle to which Englishmen of our day have clung with more tenacity than any other, it was that under the meteor flag of England slavery could not exist, and that when a slave's foot pressed British soil that instant he became a free man. This has been the boast, the worthy boast of Englishmen for more than a generation. Yet when the institution of slavery—conscious of impending ruin—reared itself in its wickedness, and struggled mightily to overthrow a nation bound to England by every tie of blood, language, religion, commerce, treaties, institutions, and a common freedom, England, instead of standing true to her traditions, her honor, and even her most palpable interest, at once bestowed her sympathies upon the institution she had denounced for forty years, and shamelessly and openly rejoiced and assisted at the prospect of our overthrow. What can be the ultimate fruit of such a policy ? What would be the position of Great Britain in the event of success—the protector of a nation "based on the corner-stone of human slavery ?" What historian will hereafter venture to vindicate England's indecent haste to place the rebels on a par with ourselves by royal proclamation; the persistent hostility of her press and many of her leading men; the vulgar falsehoods by which her leaders have deluded her people as to the nature of our contest; the reception in her ports of the pirate steamers Nashville and Sumter, laden with the spoil of our vessels; and now, lastly, the attempt to bully us in the hour of our greatest extremity ? Do not envy the task of the future Macaulay, to whose lot it shall fall to paint this page of British story, and to justify to the minds of another—and, let us hope, a better—race of Englishmen the insidious and persevering efforts of their fathers to carry out, in this country, the policy Great Britain has pursued with uniformity in China and in India, to ruin a friendly nation in order to discredit republican institutions, and to keep four million human creatures in slavery in order that "Lancashire may get cotton, and a market with eight millions of buyers may be secured for British goods."


IT matters little, in effect, whether the burning of the city of Charleston was the fruit of accident or of negro incendiarism. The rebels are sure to ascribe the disaster to the latter cause. Secret terrors are the price of despotism : in slave countries, every noise, every cry, every unusual movement of a slave, carries apprehension to the heart of his master. At the time of the John Brown affair, Governor Wise told us that Virginia matrons living miles and miles away were beside themselves with terror. We know that so terrible was the alarm created by that trumpery attempt, that down on the Gulf shore negroes whose behavior had attracted attention were imprisoned, whipped, and even shot by scores. In the language of Southern members of Congress who talked secession in those days, life was not worth having, if accompanied by the agonies which such events implanted in every Southern breast.

It is by the light of these memories that we must read the tale of the burning of Charleston. The burning of 600 houses, including every public building in the city, and property valued at $7,000,000, is an astounding event. Whatever the politicians and the papers may say, the Southern people from Norfolk to Galveston are sure to conclude that the negroes did

the dread deed, and each man and woman is now quaking in terror lest his or her house should be the next to go. Nor is this opinion likely to be confined to the whites. The slaves, too, will hear of the fire, and will hear simultaneously—for we know that news does spread among the slaves, hard as their masters try to keep them in ignorance—that between eight and ten thousand slaves, till lately the overworked laborers on Carolina cotton plantations, are now free men, getting eight and ten dollars a month. It will not exceed the negro's power of combination to connect the two events together. When he does, beware the result.

We are gradually spreading the net which is to encircle the rebellion. The occupation of Ship Island, Mississippi, by the advance-guard of General Butler's expedition, under General Phelps, is of course the first step toward a movement upon Mobile and New Orleans. The terrors which have compelled General Lee to imprison men at Savannah and Charleston to prevent their flying to the mountains, will now be transferred to the Gulf cities, and if we hear of more fires no one must be surprised. The assassin's dagger and the incendiary torch are the natural weapons of the slave. We should not use them, but we did not make the present situation.

In a few days, probably before the next number of this journal is printed, a fresh blow at the rebellion will be struck by General Burnside at the head of some fifteen thousand men, and very possibly General Halleck may have commenced operations on the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers. The burning of Charleston will prove a more potent ally to these generals than an additional fleet or army. It may have been, as we said, a mere accident, assisted by a high wind. But wherever our troops advance, fathers and mothers will bethink themselves with a shudder that within a month after the landing of our forces on the soil of South Carolina the chief city of that State was mysteriously burned, and thousands of people rendered houseless on a December night. The offspring of these thoughts will be surrender.



THE calmness, clearness, and ability of Mr. Seward's instructions to our foreign Ministers show how well he understands the emergency. The skillful difference in tone and representation of the same general subject to different. Powers, shows his diplomatic genius accomplishment. In his instructions to Mr. Adams, in England, he says, "You will not consent to draw into debate before the British Government any opposing moral principles which may be supposed to be at the foundation of the controversy between those States and the Federal Union." To Mr. Clay, in Russia, he says, "Its object [the rebellion] is to create a nation built upon the principle that African slavery is necessary, just, wise, and beneficent, and that it may and must be expanded over the central portion of the American continent and islands, without check or resistance, at whatever cost and sacrifice to the welfare and happiness of the human race." To Mr. Schurz, in Spain, he states, with cold sarcasm, the essential absurdity and impracticability of the political system of the Confederate States, which Mr. Lincoln truly and roughly characterized, in one of his speeches on his way to Washington, as free love in politics ; and he impresses upon Spain that the faction which is now insurgent is the same faction that has until recently controlled the Government of the country—including, of course, its foreign relations and the Ostend filibustering policy, of which the late President was one of the fathers.

These questions are handled with such gravity and comprehension that the question inevitably arises, Why has the Secretary of State forfeited so much public confidence at home since the rebellion commenced? That he has done so is beyond question. That his warm friends have been disappointed is undeniable. And if the reason be sought closely, is it not that he has failed to show that deep and earnest conviction of the threatening scope of the conspiracy which he so plainly discovers in his correspondence with our Ministers?

The particular indications of this want are not very easy to specify. It is probably felt in the light tone in which the Secretary has spoken in public of the rebellion as a whim, a gust, a hallucination. " Sire, it is a revolution," has been the instinctive response of those who have heard or read his words.

Then the more eager and impetuous of his friends have thought the President too slow, too much without a policy ; and have held the Secretary of State responsible. Moreover, in the early days, when the necessity and the ability of action were so sadly disproportioned, the Secretary's optimism was held to be the drag upon the wheels of Government. That this opinion was just there is no sufficient proof. But it was very general among ardent men.

The correspondence now published will vindicate Mr. Seward's clear comprehension of the character of the rebellion. The key-note of his policy is doubtless to be found in his profound conviction of the necessity of the Union and the adequacy of the Government, under the Constitution, to secure all reforms. And the question between him and his more vehement associates can probably be expressed in the President's words, that " we should not be in haste to determine that radical and extreme measures, which may reach the loyal as well as the disloyal, are indispensable."


PEOPLE, it is said, are getting impatient. There ought to be a forward movement. Something ought to be done. Secretary Cameron says that we have six hundred thousand men in the field. What are they doing ? Forward! Forward!

Yes; we have heard that before. Nothing is more natural than impatience. Let us go right in and win. But let us also—in conducting a great war, in which we had every preparation to make—let us have common-sense. There is one man who knows when we ought to move upon the Potomac. That is General McClellan. If he be an able soldier, he will know when that time arrives. If he be loyal, he will move when the time comes. And we can meanwhile wait in confidence, or we can fret over the delay.

Every thing depends upon our faith in our leader. Congress certainly can not tell whether there should be a movement. Newspapers in New York and elsewhere have no better opportunities for knowing than the General. And newspaper correspondents in Washington have had their military day. War can be conducted only upon the principles of war. There is an army of probably it hundred and fifty thousand desperate men, ably officered, strongly intrenched, beyond the Potomac. Properly to engage them requires a knowledge of circumstances, of our own forces and their capacity, and of military science, which most of us who quietly write about the matter do not possess. If General McClellan is equally ignorant, we are in a very bad way.

If any body doubts our leader's loyalty, let him say so. If any body doubts his ability, let him say that. But if, as no one has yet dreamed of denying, General McClellan is loyal, and if he be the soldier that every body believes, it is not fair to him, to the cause, or to our friends in the field, to aid in creating a public sentiment that may cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war to their sure destruction.

That General McClellan has done any of the foolish things that are reported of him there seems to be no reason to believe ; and if in any way he differs from any officer of the Government upon the policy of conducting the war, we may be very sure that he differs as an honest man should, fairly and frankly. The slaughter at Bull Run was the first offering to an impatient and unjust public opinion; the disgrace of General Fremont was the second; does it mean to require the sacrifice of General M'Clellan as the third?


THE Union Defense Committee—a body of the wealthiest and most intelligent citizens of all parties, who have been conspicuously active in the good work of arming and forwarding soldiers to flight the battles of the country against anarchy—have recently passed some resolutions approving the timely and excellent words of the President in his Message, and another resolution, "that we deprecate the discussion of projects which tend to distract and alienate the Union sentiment of our people."

Does this mean projects of unworthy peace, projects of infamous compromise, projects of patching which would end he a more fatal rent? or what does it mean ? Can it mean the discussion of projects which provide that the rebels shall pay the expenses of their own rebellion ? Do they deprecate discussing whether rebels shall be allowed the free use and enjoyment of their property, whether in real estate or in the service of slaves ? Do they suppose that loyal citizens can all have the same view of the true policy of the war, or that, differing, they ought not by discussion to try to convince and agree ?

For instance, Mr. Pendleton argues, ably but hopelessly, against the right of the President to suspend the habeas corpus. Certainly such an argument tends to distract and alienate the harmony of public sentiment. Shall he therefore forbear the discussion? Is it not a thousand-fold better that he should make his argument, and have a vote of 108 to 26 recorded against his proposition?

Mr. Chase, the Secretary of the Treasury, proposes to use the labor of the slaves for the Government, instead of allowing them to help the rebels. Is that alienating and distracting?

Mr. Bingham proposes to release the slaves of rebels, and Mr. Gurley to colonize them in Florida. Are those suggestions to be deprecated ?

Mr. Sumner presents petitions for universal emancipation, with compensation to loyal owners. Is that to be reproved ?

Another gentleman repeats the familiar truism that the war is for the supremacy of the Government, and that when its object is attained the war ought to cease. Is that a distracting suggestion?

The gentlemen of the Union Defense Committee are intelligent and sagacious. They know that the four millions of slaves in the rebel section can not be disregarded; they know that something must be done, because, whether any policy is adopted for their disposition or not, we have thousands of them to care for. Is it not worth while to consider what shall be done with them ? Is it not equally worth while to consider whether there may not be some policy devised in regard to slaves which may shorten the war and save thousands of lives and millions of dollars to the nation? Do they not know that the one project which would distract and alienate loyal men irretrievably would be a proposition that all discussion should cease upon the origin and intention of the rebellion, because without such discussion you can not possibly cope with it successfully?

The object of the war is, we all agree, to restore the supremacy of the Government by suppressing insurrection. The question is, how can it best be done? And if the resolutions mean any thing, they mean that that is the very question which must not be discussed. Of course if it is only meant that the debate should be candid and generous, we shall all cry Amen.



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