Coal Region responses to the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter – April 1861

On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces opened fire on the United States Army garrison inside Fort Sumter, near the mouth of Charleston Harbor in South Carolina.

“The ball has opened,” screamed an Associated Press dispatch from the scene of the action. More than 650 miles away from the opening action of the Civil War, the people of the Coal Region largely jumped into action.

On the evening of April 12, as news arrived from South Carolina, the National Light Infantry of Pottsville voted to offer their services to the Union government. Within days, they were bound for Washington in defense of the capital.

Pottsville Bannan House
Scene in Pottsville in the 1860s. (Getty Museum)

Outraged residents of the Coal Region came out in droves to sign up for volunteer companies that were destined to head south in the spring and summer of 1861. Feeding this rush were the newspapers of local towns. These editors fired up young recruits with talk of war, oppression, and the loss of freedom. These editors help guide us in regards to the thoughts of those who donned uniforms in defense of the Union in April 1861.

From the Miners’ Journal of Pottsville, Schuylkill County (edited by Benajmin Bannan)

Ben B.
Benjamin Bannan, editor of the Miners’ Journal

Duty of the People

If unhappily, the pending difficulties between the Federal Government and the rebellious States, should become further complicated by a war, the lines between those who will support the Government, and those who will be either lukewarm or antagonistic, will be even more marked, than they were between the patriots and tories of the Revolution.

The causes which led to the American Revolution were well founded. Oppression and tyranny upon a people without representation in the Parliament which made laws for them, became intolerable, and our fathers took up arms for rights which they could obtain in no other way. The tories of the Revolution, the mass of whom resided in the State now prominent in rebellion against a Government in which it has a right co-equal in every respect, with its sisters of the North were more excusable in their position, to which was attached a willingness to bear wrongs, than men would be at this time, who living under a just and liberal government, plot the downfall of that which never injured them. The position of the tory we consider creditable, to that of such men, especially if they live in the North. The distinction will be strongly drawn, if a conflict must come.

Providing then, for such a melancholy contingency, the imperative duty of every citizen is to place himself fairly and squarely on the side of that power which is endeavoring to preserve the peace, and save the Union. To do otherwise is to daily with treason of the most ungrateful and wicked character. Especially should our adopted citizens feel themselves bound to support the Government with ardor and zeal. In becoming citizens they took upon themselves a solemn obligation to support the Constitution, and to serve no foreign power against the country to which they have sworn allegiance. It is a binding oath before God and man, to break which lays upon their souls the crime of perjury.

We make allowance for those in the seceding States, who have been forced by circumstances, into a hostile position to this Government, and if they are Catholics they may suppose that priestly absolution may release them from responsibility in this respect. It is, however, a fatal error. Neither God nor their country, will so view the matter.

No good citizen, North or South, will be found, in the last, bitter alternative, elsewhere than in the ranks of those who love their country better than they love friends and possessions. The latter may pass away, and we can replace them; but where can we find another Republic like this, if the fiat for its destruction goes forth? Let every man therefore, be he native or adopted citizen, see clearly his duty, and resolve to discharge it, firmly, uninfluenced by the unpatriotic appeals of partisans, and with an eye single to the welfare of a country, whose flag can never sink in dishonor, or be trailed in the dust, while there are millions of stout hearts and strong arms to rally in its defense. Pennsylvanians, see to it that you do your duty.

From the Pittston Gazette of Pittston, Luzerne County on April 18, 1861 (edited by G.M. Richart and A.C. Thompson)

Pittston Gazette - April 1861
From The Pittston Gazette, April 18, 1861

The War.

On Saturday afternoon last, dispatches reached this place announcing an attack on Fort Sumter, by the South Carolina Rebels, and the daily papers since received are full of the details of the fight.

The war has thus been begun by the Secessionists, and on them rests the responsibility.

As will be seen by the dispatches, no material damages has been done by either party as yet. The first gun that was fired by the insurgents from Morris or Sullivan’s Island, rang the death knell of either freedom or slavery in the Union, and the spectacle thus presented by a body of men, claiming to be imbued by a love of liberty, struggling to maintain the institution of slavery, is the most disgraceful and humiliating that could possibly be conceived. History presents no parallel to the scene in Charleston Harbor, and history hereafter will point to it as the height of desperation, insanity, and treason.

The Government has now only a plain and imperative duty to perform, and in the performance of that duty it has a right to expect and demand the cooperation and assistance of every good citizen. Hostilities that have been thus hastily commenced by the Secessionists, must now be prosecuted to a stern and definite conclusion. The hour of compromise and concession has therefore passed, and stern justice must take the place of forbearance and conciliation. Freedom and the Union is now the battle cry against slavery and disunion!

Not all public opinion in the Coal Region was expressly in favor of the war, however. The Luzerne Gazette refused to fly an American flag outside its office in Wilkes-Barre and by April 17, an angry mob had gathered outside the office.

“The ‘Luzerne Union’ Office is mobbed,” wrote a telegraphic dispatch from the Luzerne County seat.  “About one hundred men before it now. A great many of our soldiers are among them. – They are carrying the Stars and Stripes now to make the editor raise them.” Dispatches from Wilkes-Barre made clear that the mob had intent of clearing out the offices because the editors of the Luzerne Union did not espouse support for the Government.

Luzerne Leader
Masthead of The Luzerne Union, April 1861

The editors of the Union took umbrage at this reporting however. In the following week’s edition of the Pittston Gazette, the editors wrote this story:

Our neighbor of the “Luzerne Union,” complains that the Gazette, among other papers, published last week a dispatch from Wilkes-Barre announcing that the office of that paper was in danger of being mobbed. We merely made the announcement as it came by telegraph, but did not as he charges, state that said mob was headed by respectable citizens of the town. We are glad to hear that the mob did the office no violence, and we are furthermore glad to observe that the editor of the “Union,” present a sheet this week, more becoming a man professing loyalty to the Stars and Stripes than his issue of last week. His may be classed among the cases of sudden conversion, but these have of late become so common, that they have ceased to surprise us.
Press on brother.

The anti-war opinions of the Luzerne Union editor later reemerged as the Civil War escalated and the death toll rose sharply. As did the anti-war sentiments of many citizens of the Coal Region, especially in Irish enclaves and patch towns scattered across the valleys of Northeastern Pennsylvania.

But in April 1861, the patriotism on display across the North and unified sentiment in favor of crushing out the Confederacy held firm and led thousands of Pennsylvanians to join and fight for the Union.


Featured Image: The bombardment of Fort Sumter, April 1861 (Library of Congress) 

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