Newspapers Showed 'Eerie Calm' As Civil War Began

On the 150-year anniversary of the start of the Civil War, Melissa Block speaks with Harold Holzer, author of several books on the Civil War period, about what newspapers said back then — both in the North and the South.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

April 12, 1861, a headline in the Chicago Tribune: Old Abe's Blood Is Up. The Daily Dispatch of Richmond, Virginia, offered ticket and travel information for quote, gentlemen desirous of attending the States Rights Convention. And The New York Times trumpeted its top story: The War Imminent.

On this day, 150 years after the start of the Civil War, we wondered what the newspapers looked like on that day, both North and South.

And Harold Holzer joins me to leaf through the front pages. He's the author of many books on President Lincoln and the Civil War.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. HAROLD HOLZER (Editor, "The New York Times Complete Civil War"): Thank you. It's good to be with you.

BLOCK: Let's start with The New York Times on that day leading up to the first shots being fired on Fort Sumter. The New York Times had a brief item from Charleston, talking about intense excitement in the city. And it has a map, actually, of the forts in Charleston Harbor; lots of anticipation leading up to that day.

Mr. HOLZER: Absolutely. And a map itself was a rarity. It was a declaration by the publisher that something special was afoot, indeed, because the newspapers were very gray in those days, bereft of illustration, unless they were the picture weeklies. So the Times is heralding the kind of breathless anticipation that's gripping the whole country.

BLOCK: You know, there's this fascinating little footnote on the front page of the New York Times on this day - 1861 - that the minister to Guatemala is contemplating introducing the American cotton gin into Central America - which, when you think about the growth of slavery and what fueled that, is fascinating.

Mr. HOLZER: I mean, it's too ironic for words. The cotton gin was the invention that caused any Southern hopes or belief in ending slavery to vanish with the excitement of having the economy doubled and tripled with the introduction of the gin. So here, as the United States prepares to go to war with itself on the issue of slavery, someone is sort of innocently reporting that the cotton gin is being brought to those poor workers in another region.

BLOCK: Let's move farther south now, down to Maryland and the Baltimore Sun from April 12, 1861. A little item from Charleston, South Carolina, 8 p.m.: Thousands of people are assembled on the Battery this evening, anticipating a commencement of the fight.

And lots of stories from around the country about war departments being overwhelmed with volunteers on both sides - Union and Confederate.

Mr. HOLZER: Well, Lincoln - you know, in two days, Lincoln will call for 75,000 volunteers, and he'll get more than 90 overnight. That's his only really aggressive action, in the view of the South.

But yeah, this is a show. The Charleston ladies and gentlemen are on their rooftops, waiting for this moment. They all know that General Beauregard is on hand, ready to lower his sword and commence the firing. And by the way, with all due respect to the press, General Beauregard has given the honor of firing the symbolic first shot to a newspaper editor, Edmund Ruffin - which is sort of fitting because you can say that newspapers really helped fire up the agitation up to this moment, so why not pull the switch?

BLOCK: There's an intriguing item here in the Baltimore Sun, on the front page - a story out of Chicago, talking about 100 fugitive slaves in Chicago fleeing to Canada. And there's a description of them getting on a train, and great cheering and the waving of hats as they head north.

Mr. HOLZER: Lincoln had said only a few weeks before that he was reluctantly going to enforce the hated Fugitive Slave Act. As a final concession to get these wayward states back in the Union, he had pledged to enforce this much-hated, much-reviled act.

And I think what was being witnessed was a demonstration of relief. They wanted - as much as the fire-eaters in the South, African Americans wanted this war to commence. They knew that this man, Lincoln, had said the tug has to come, and better now than later. So they were ready.

BLOCK: Well, let's end in the South. I'm looking here at the Daily Dispatch from Richmond, Virginia; April 12, 1861. Price: one cent. Really not much at all about what's going on in Charleston - the front pages consumed with the Secession Convention in Virginia. Virginia has not yet seceded from the Union.

Mr. HOLZER: It has not. And Lincoln has real hope that Virginia and North Carolina can be persuaded to stay. That way, he'll not only stem the tide of secession but perhaps even get access, if he needs them, to some of those good Virginia, West Point-trained generals, like Robert E. Lee. And that's going to vanish when Lincoln declares a blockade and asks for volunteers.

Virginia isn't altogether certain that it's going to support secession. And I think, really, Virginia is hoping that the crisis is averted in South Carolina, and perhaps moves to the federal forts in more remote Florida.

BLOCK: And, of course, that did not happen. The shots on Fort Sumter - and it didn't take long before Virginia did, in fact, secede.

Mr. HOLZER: And then the die was cast, and the war became inevitable.

BLOCK: Well, Harold Holzer, thanks for looking through the front pages from April 12, 1861, with us. Appreciate it.

Mr. HOLZER: My pleasure. Thank you.

BLOCK: Harold Holzer is editor, most recently, of the book "The New York Times Complete Civil War."

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