Military history

Chapter 26

THOMAS SULLY’S PORTRAIT OF A beautiful eighteen-year-old Queen Victoria was simply extraordinary. Her crown was resplendent with diamonds, her earrings fraught with pearls, her ermine draped over her back in such a way that promised, if she were to turn, a vision of ample décolletage. But Victoria only half turned, gazing back over her bare shoulder at those beneath her as she walked lightly up a step toward her throne, almost as if toward her bed, at once beckoning and disdaining those who might follow her. Sully, who had grown up in Charleston, gave his personal copy of the full-length portrait to the Saint Andrew’s Society in 1844, and his young Victoria had watched over countless balls and cotillions in St. Andrew’s Hall ever since. But on December 20, 1860, it was the would-be revolutionaries of South Carolina at their momentous Secession Convention who settled into the velvet seats of the chaperone chairs and went on with their speechifying under the monarch’s unsettling eyes.

The scholar-planter David Flavel Jamison, a tall, lanky figure who looked older and more distinguished than his forty-one years, brought the proceedings to order. The 169 Carolina grandees in front of him made up a venerable, dignified assembly. As class was measured in the South, they had a great deal of it: 90 percent of them owned slaves, and almost half of them owned more than fifty. But they’d had a hard time settling down to their work. First they’d met in Columbia in the city’s First Baptist Church, but an outbreak of smallpox was spreading through the capital. (Rumor had it that Northern abolitionists had contaminated a box of rags to spread the disease.) So the delegates decamped to Charleston. The trip was long and dreary in midwinter. The trains rolled through pine forests and vast cotton fields, barren now except for black desiccated stalks and a few tattered bolls, before descending gently to the Low Country marshes and the Charleston peninsula. On the afternoon of the second day, December 18, the delegates assembled in the same Institute Hall on Meeting Street where the Democratic convention had come apart at the seams in the heat of early summer. But that hall would not do, finally. It was too big and cavernous. The delegates were not welcoming the public or the press, especially not the Northern press. (Rhett’s son, Robert Barnwell Rhett Jr., the editor of theCharleston Mercury, warned John Bigelow, the editor of the pro-Republican New-York Evening Post, that he’d better not think about sending a reporter. “No agent or representative of the Evening Post would be safe in coming here,” Rhett told Bigelow. “He would come with his life in his hand and would probably be hung.”) So, with no crowds to cheer them on and no reporters to race to the telegraph office with news of their deliberations, the secession delegates decided to hold their closed-door sessions in St. Andrew’s Hall on Broad Street.

The city was in a state of febrile celebration, and Bunch watched with cold contempt. “I think I can manage them unless they go quite mad,” he wrote to Lyons. “Their great aim is to be recognized by Great Britain. They try to bluster about England wanting cotton and being obliged to get it from them (that is, from a Southern Confederacy, for no one, I suppose, is ass enough to think that South Carolina will form an independent empire for any great length of time). But they are not quite as confident as they profess to be, and I always tell them not to reckon too much upon their monopoly, as the English are a determined and not a particularly stupid people, and if they are put to it, will certainly grow plenty of cotton in India or elsewhere and leave them out.”

It wasn’t clear what remnants of the Federal government would continue to function after secession. Would the post office remain open? Alfred Huger couldn’t be sure. Customs clearance in the port was going to be a real mess. And the flags of vessels sailing from Charleston—the windblown insignias essential to distinguish friend from foe, naval vessel from buccaneer, merchantman from slaver—were liable to be completely improvised and of dubious legality. British authorities should expect vessels registered in South Carolina to appear in British waters “decorated with palmettos, rattlesnakes, stars, or other ornaments not yet recognized by Great Britain except as growing, living, and being in the woods or the heavens,” Bunch reported.

Bunch also wondered about his own future after secession. Where would Britain’s representative in Charleston, accredited by the Federal government, fit into this farce? Maybe if the separation from the Union succeeded, he could become an ambassador to the Confederacy, for better or worse. Ever the careerist, Bunch did give that some thought. Or he might lose his position altogether. If South Carolina were allowed to secede quietly, as Trescot said might be the case, then Bunch would no longer have legal standing there. But if the Federal government refused to recognize secession, then Bunch’s official accreditation, his exequatur, would remain in force: the United States would still claim authority even if it couldn’t exercise it, and if the local powers he’d cultivated would tolerate his presence—perhaps even think it was useful—he could continue to report to his superiors in Washington and London.

Lyons told Bunch that in Washington many men hoped the departure of South Carolina from the Union could be carried out with dignity and discretion. Bunch said he had no expectation of either quality in that “incandescent body,” the Secession Convention. Then Bunch reported on the state’s newly elected governor, Francis Wilkinson Pickens, who was one of those thin-lipped, potbellied South Carolina politicians Bunch wrote about with utter and intemperate disdain. Bunch told Lyons that Pickens was “a noisy, vulgar beast,” no matter that Pickens was a close friend of President Buchanan, who had appointed him minister to Saint Petersburg. His notorious wig, his blustery oratory, and his “absurd pomposity of manner” made him the object of ridicule. “There has not been time yet to get the secret history of his election,” Bunch wrote to Lyons after the ballot in November, “but I suppose he has sold himself to the extremists.”

That much was true. Pickens was new to his office and a newcomer to the cause of secession too, but his first public message as governor, delivered to the state legislature on the first day of the Secession Convention, left no room for compromise. He rehearsed all the old arguments about the North ignoring the Constitution and inciting a “servile insurrection,” then drove home the point that Carolinians—white Carolinians, at any rate—expected their government to “become strongly military in character.” The meaning was clear to Bunch: “Slavery can only be maintained at the point of the sword.”

“Revolutions are the order of the day,” Bunch told Lyons. The papers were full of long reports about Garibaldi’s triumphant march north from Sicily to Naples to join up with King Victor Emmanuel II, and many an American noted that while the Union was coming apart, Italy was coming together. But this revolution in South Carolina was different from those in Europe in an even more fundamental respect. “Other nations, especially those enlightened and more old-fashioned in their notions, rebel, fight, and die for Liberty,” wrote Bunch, while South Carolina “is prepared to do the same for slavery.”

AT TWO O’CLOCK in the morning on December 21, Bunch was still writing. He had fired off three dispatches, he had telegraphed Lyons immediately after the Ordinance of Secession was passed at 1:15 the afternoon of the twentieth, and he had sent London a copy of the Charleston Mercury Extra with the enormous headline “The Union Is Dissolved!”

“My city is wild with excitement—bells ringing, guns firing, and scarcely one man in a thousand regrets the dissolution,” he told Lyons in one of the letters he wrote that afternoon. The delegates had marched down Meeting Street to Institute Hall once more. They’d opened the doors to the public so everyone could witness the signing ceremony, and Bunch slipped in, standing to one side in the shadow of a pillar. The detestable Judge Magrath, who had decided importing slaves from Africa was no crime if they had been slaves in Africa, and who had done everything he could from the Federal bench to destroy Federal authority, was the first speaker at the signing ceremony. He entered stage right and walked slowly, deliberately, to the other side, where the document waited. “Fellow citizens,” he said, “the time for deliberation has passed.” He pulled his handkerchief out of his pocket, and he ran it through his hand as if he were about to perform a feat of magic or, perhaps, dry the sweat from his palm. Then, as he arrived at the document, stage left, he proclaimed, “The time for action has come!” The crowd exulted as if he’d divined the Second Coming.

For two hours the ceremony went on until, finally, when the last signature was scrawled on the document by former governor Manning, whom Bunch had once thought a reasonable man, the president of the convention waved the “cabalistic parchment” over his head shouting, “The Ordinance of Secession has been signed and ratified, and I now declare South Carolina to be a sovereign and independent commonwealth.” Cheers erupted once more, hats were thrown into the air, handkerchiefs waved, and at 2:00 a.m., as Bunch tried to sum up his feelings at the end of that long day, the cannons were still blasting, and the firecrackers continued to explode.

At first almost unnoticed in the midst of the celebrations, the captured slave ship Bonita had arrived in Charleston Harbor. More than two months had passed since she was overtaken and boarded off the Congo by the U.S. Navy steamerSan Jacinto, the most aggressive warship in the Africa Squadron. Her original crew and the slaves had been taken off. Only her ostensible captain and the U.S. Navy crew were on board. After many weeks at sea and in the middle of a ferocious winter storm, with her sails ripped, she was in danger of sinking as she finally pulled into Charleston in the new nation of South Carolina. “Owing to the late political events, there is no court of the United States here,” Bunch informed Lord Russell. “There exist no means either for trying the captain (who is still here) or of condemning the vessel. The lieutenant in charge of the prize has written to Washington for instructions on the subject.”

THE SECESSION CONVENTION’S final and authoritative statement, which it fashioned with many references to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, was published on Christmas Eve, 1860. It concerned itself entirely and exclusively with slavery. Secession, then, was not about tariffs, as some claimed before and long after the Civil War, and the issue of states’ rights came down to the very specific right of white people in some states of the former United States to own slaves, to get them back if they ran away, and, by implication, to import them from Africa as they had been imported in the early years of the Republic. The Constitution had put a time limit of twenty years on that trade, but the Constitution, as the secessionists saw it, was a contract broken by the abolitionists that no longer applied to South Carolina or any other state that followed its lead.

Although Bunch had been predicting for many years the broad outline of the events that now surrounded him, to his own surprise he regretted the demise of the Union, and he said so in one letter after another. The United States had made itself “a great fact in the history of the world,” he wrote, and had done credit to the Englishmen who founded the country. In Charleston, “Everybody wears a pleased expression, as if he or others had done something very clever without knowing exactly what it was,” Bunch scrawled in those dark, early-morning hours on December 21. “But I much fear it will be ‘he who laughs on Friday will cry on Sunday.’ I am somehow sorry for the old Union, although he was a noisy old braggart. We have yet to see whether he will find any friends at the North to avenge his death.”

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