On March 25, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was visiting the lines at Petersburg and the Confederates were making quite a show around Fort Stedman. But, in spite of the push made by the Army of Northern Virginia, dispatches on the Federal side seemed routine. Among the routine traffic passed from Washington to City Point that day was this message from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton:
I have invited Henry Ward Beecher to deliver an address on raising the flag upon Fort Sumter, and will give direction to General Gillmore to make all suitable military arrangements for the occasion and fire a salute of 500 guns. The flag will be raised by General Anderson. Please let me know if these arrangements have your approval. What does General Grant say about Yeatman? I congratulate you and General Grant on the operations of t0-day.
As I’ve pulled this note out of context, let me walk it backwards into context. The last line references the successful defense against the Confederate attack launched earlier in the day. But standing in stark contrast to the desperate fighting on the lines, Stanton was planning a grand ceremony for Fort Sumter.
James Yeatman was a St. Louis businessman, president of the Western Sanitary Commission, and very much active politically. Yeatman was under consideration to head the commission organizing the ceremony. But more back-and-forth over that selection would follow.
Though weeks away, Stanton already selected particular details to serve a symbolic purpose – Beecher to speak, Major-General Robert Anderson to raise the US flag, and a 500 gun salute. Not specifically mentioned in the message to Lincoln, but the plan called for the ceremony to occur on April 14, 1865 – on the anniversary of the fort’s surrender in 1861. Further details went into General Orders No. 50, issued on March 27 from the War Department:
First. That at the hour of noon on the 14th day of April, 1865, Brevet Major-General Anderson will raise and plant upon the ruins of Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor, the same U.S. flag which floated over the battlements of that fort during the rebel assault, and which was lowered and saluted by him and the small force of his command when the works were evacuated on the 14th day of April, 1861.
Second. That the flag, when raised, be saluted by 100 guns from Fort Sumter, and by a national salute from every fort and rebel battery that fired on Fort Sumter.
Third. That suitable ceremonies be held upon the occasion, under the direction of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, whose military operations compelled the rebels to evacuate Charleston, or, in his absence, under the charge of Maj. Gen. Q.A. Gillmore, commanding the department. Among the ceremonies will be the delivery of a public address by the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher.
Forth. That the naval forces at Charleston, and their commander on that station, be invited to participate in the ceremonies of the occasion.
Recall that before evacuating the fort in 1861, Anderson received permission to fire a 100 gun salute from the fort’s batteries. That 1861 salute ended with fifty shots when an accidental explosion mortally wounded two privates. Embrace the intended symbolism at many different levels in regard to that salute.
The ceremony at Fort Sumter was intended to cement in the public mind the victory – complete or pending – over the Confederacy. Reporters, sketch artists, and photographers were invited to cover the event. April 14 was the date that, regardless of what was going on at the front lines, the people of America would be told the Federal Union has won this Civil War… even as the messy details were being worked out. To tread upon a modern analogy at my own peril, this was intended to be a “Mission Accomplished” banner:
However, fate often plays tricks with the plans laid by man. Events on April 15 would leave this ceremony somewhat a footnote to history.
Closing note here. Fort Sumter National Monument has a number of events scheduled through April to observe the end of the war in Charleston. If you are, like me, trying to catch every last minute of the sesquicentennial’s last hours, these are worth adding to the calendar.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part III, Serial 100, pages 18 and 34.)