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    Eyewitness Account of the Initial Attack on Fort Sumter

    George Rexford Autograph Letter Signed Twice. Twelve pages, 5" x 8", New York; May 19, 1861. A letter addressed to James B. Norris Esq., providing an eyewitness account of the initial attack on Fort Sumter. He had been aboard a mail steamship when the attacks took place. Signed on the last page, "Geo H. Rexford" and after the postscript, "G.H.R." There are a few spelling and grammatical errors throughout, but Rexford provides an outstanding and highly detailed account of the events that occurred during and following the bombardment of Fort Sumter. His letter reads in part:

    "...we received orders to make everything ready to start for Sumpter [sic] with men, and provisions when the signal should be given from the 'Pawnee'. All hands were now set at work muffling oars, hoisting provisions on deck and getting the boats in complete order. Sumpter and the Charlestonians blasing [sic] away at each other all day. At 4 P.M. Sumpter has dismounted two guns on the Iron Battery - completely demolished one Battery on 'Sullivan's Island', and greatly damaging 'Fort Moultrey'. At 4:30 P.M. our Third Mate with a boats crew of twelve men made a point for Sumpter with a flag of truce when they were fired upon by the batteries, a shell exploding but about fifteen feet from them, finding it impossible to make their port they beached the boat, where an interview with the commandant of the batteries was had, the result of which none of course knew but Capt Fox. At 12 M. the boats and provisions on deck were all ready to lower, oars muffled and the boats crew selected of which I had the honor of being 'in' - every man was up in arms and 'Eager for the fray', not one showing the 'white feather'. We watched the firing till 2 P.M. the sight was both fearful and grand to behold. Sumpter ceased her fire at 7 P.M. and the men 'turned in' to sleep leaving a sufficient number at the posts to guard against surprise. The Charleston people were at work all night, but Sumpters guns were only busy from 7 A.M., till 7 P.M. The Surgeon from Sumpter told us that the men were so exhausted when night came (although red hot shell was pouring into the fort every moment) that they slept as soundly as if they had been under their own roofs at their own homes...Sumpter commenced her defense again, and 10 A.M. the woodwork in the fort was all in flames and the men nearly exhausted, at 12 M. the firing ceased, nothing remarkable occurring during the night...On Sunday at 10:45 A.M. Capt Fox gave orders to get as near the fort as possible to receive Maj Anderson with his command and thereto sail for N.Y...Monday 15th at 10 A.M. had made great preparations for the receptions of the Sumpter troops, at 1 P.M. the Maj and his gallant little band marched out, from Sumpter with pieces loaded, the 'Stars and Stripes' flying over their heads, and the fife and drums playing 'Yankee Doodle'...the moment the company were on board the Federal ship the Sumpter flag was run up our main mast, which was the signal of immense enthusiasm, cheer after cheer, and the booming of cannon told deeply upon the gallant officer and his men. The scene was truly imposing, Major Anderson bowed his head and wept like a child..."

    Robert Anderson was the commanding officer at Fort Sumter when it was bombarded by Confederate forces led by General Beauregard, a former pupil of his at West Point. He was badly outnumbered and outgunned and finally surrendered the fort on the third day. This battle, of course, was the tipping point that started the Civil War. When the Confederate forces captured the fort after the extensive bombardment, the United States flag was lowered and given to Anderson. He later toured throughout the North with the torn 33-star flag, which instantly became a popular symbol representing the Union cause. On April 14, 1865, four years to the day after Anderson lowered the flag when surrendering Fort Sumter, he raised the flag again over the fort. From the Bret J. Formichi American Civil War Rarities Collection.

    Condition: Usual mail folds, with light toning and soiling at the edges and folds. Some small separations at the folds and edges where weakness occurred. Else very good.


    More Information:

    The full transcript of the letter is as follows:

     

    "Dear Sir,

     

    Agreeable to promise (though not exactly up to time I must acknowledge) I will now attempt to give you a brief account of our trip to Charleston S.C. We sailed in the U.S. Mail Steam Ship 'Baltic' chartered by the government for the purpose of transporting men and provisions to Southern ports. We left the Pier at the foot of Canal St, on Monday the 8th of April at 5.30 P.M. with about 200 troops from Governors Island together with ammunition, and provisions sufficient for (our then present company) at least a year. As we sailed under sealed orders, of course our destination was entirely unknown but we were directed to steer South. We arrived at the 'horse shoe' Sandy Hook at 8 P.M. and cast anchor to waite for tide, then not being sufficient depth to take us over the bar, the ship drawing 22 feet. There was much excitement in N.Y. when we left, and a deal of speculation as to where we were bound. Some thought to Fort Sumpter while others believed we were to supply Fort Pickens. Of course all thoughts were surmizes upon the subject as non but the Government knew the particulars. The docks were lined with people, and as we pushed into the stream, cheer rose upon cheer both from ship, and land, to which was added two salutes from our good ship the Baltic. There were several friends on board, bound upon the same mission as myself, which made it much more pleasant for me than if I had been among entire strangers only. I 'turned in to bunk' quite early that night being much fatigued with the days work, and excitement, had a splendid night's rest, awoke next norming at 6 and found the ship under way, weather very cold with heavy fog. Most of the soldiers were sick through the day. At 11 A.M. we broke 'seal' and found that we were found for Charleston S.C. or as near as possible, then to send a small boat with a flag of truce to Governor Pickens and to inform him that we had supplies for 'Sumpter' and to ask his permission to land them.

     

    When the soldiers heard of their destination they became very enthusiastic, cheering, throwing up their hats &c &c and having a good time generally, and passed the time with sleeping, smoking, card playing ect. ect. Friday the 12th 4 A.M. we arrived off Charleston after a very rough passage. At 4.15 we heard and saw the firing from 'Fort Moultrey' and the Batteries on the beach. And at 7 precisely Sumpter returned fire. There was great excitement on board as we could see everything from the deck. At 7.45 spoke the gun boats 'Harriet Cane' and 'Pawnee', and at 8 A.M. Capt Fox (Commander of the fleet) was sent on board of 'Pawnee'. Shortly after his departure we received orders to make everything ready to start for Sumpter [sic] with men, and provisions when the signal should be given from the 'Pawnee'. All hands were now set at work muffling oars, hoisting provisions on deck and getting the boats in complete order. Sumpter and the Charlestonians blasing [sic] away at each other all day. At 4 P.M. Sumpter has dismounted two guns on the Iron Battery - completely demolished one Battery on 'Sullivan's Island', and greatly damaging 'Fort Moultrey'. At 4:30 P.M. our Third Mate with a boats crew of twelve men made a point for Sumpter with a flag of truce when they were fired upon by the batteries, a shell exploding but about fifteen feet from them. Finding it impossible to make their port they beached the boat, where an interview with the commanders of the batteries was had, the result of which none of course knew but Capt Fox. At 12 M. the boats and provisions on deck were all ready to lower, oars muffled and the boats crew selected of which I had the honor of being 'in' - every man was up in arms and 'Eager for the fray', not one showing the 'white feather'. We watched the firing till 2 P.M. the sight was both fearful and grand to behold. Sumpter ceased her fire at 7 P.M. and the men 'turned in' to sleep leaving a sufficient number at the posts to guard against surprise. The Charleston people were at work all night, but Sumpters guns were only busy from 7 A.M., till 7 P.M. The Surgeon from Sumpter told us that the men were so exhausted when night came (although red hot shell was pouring into the fort every moment) that they slept as soundly as if they had been under their own roofs at their own homes.

     

    We kept on deck until 3 A.M. and as we had received no signal to take to the boats, we concluded to try our bunks and get what sleep we could, but we had hardly fell into a dose when we were quite ceremoniously thrown from our bunks amongst our baggage. Just now we were summoned on deck as soon as possible, that we were aground and the officers feared that the ship would go to pieces. Believe me we needed no second invitation but took ourselves above in quick time. There we found the utmost confusion soldiers running in all directions, fore and aft, there being a heavy swell at the time caused the ship to strike very hard on her bottom. You would hear every timber crack and strain again. We hoisted a flag of distress signaling the Gun boats to our relief but as they had let their steam go down they could be of no assistance to us. We finally send all the men 'aft' as far as possible, in order to lighten the ships bows then backed their engine and in about 30 minutes we rode safely again. One of the soldiers was heard to say (notwithstanding the excitement) 'he wanted to live long enough to kill three or four of them white niggers in Charleston before he was drowned.' On Saturday at 7 A.M. Sumpter commenced her defence again, and 10 A.M. the wood work in the fort was all in flames and the men nearly exhausted. At 12 M. the firing ceased, nothing remarkable occurring during the night. The weather weather [sic] very fine though rather warm for comfort. On Sunday at 10.45 A.M. Capt Fox gave orders to get as near the fort as possible to receive Maj. Anderson with his command and then to sail for N.Y. Let go anchor at 12.15, passed a quiet day nothing important occurring until 8 P.M. when the Gunboat 'Pawnee' ran across our bows, carrying away our cutwater and damaging her starboard quarter considerably causing no little excitement on board. At 10 P.M. Charleston was brilliantly illuminated rockets were sent up from all parts of the city. Monday 15th at 10 A.M. had made great preparations for the receptions of the Sumpter troops, at 1 P.M. the Maj and his gallant little band marched out, from Sumpter with pieces loaded, the 'Stars and Stripes' flying over their heads, and the fife and drums playing 'Yankee Doodle.' The Steamer 'Isabel' of Charleston brot [sic] them off and all was on board the Baltic by 4.30 P.M. the Maj. and his trips were received in silence while they were temporarily under the 'Palmetto' flag, but the moment the company were on board the Federal ship the Sumpter flag was run up our main mast, which was the signal of immense enthusiasm, cheer after cheer, and the booming of cannon told deeply upon the gallant officer and his men. The scene was truly imposing, Major Anderson bowed his head and wept like a child.

     

    At 5 P.M. we weighed anchor and stood out to sea the 'Harried Lane' 'Pawnee' and 'Pocahontas' saluting us as we past. At 7 P.M. clouded up and 7.15 blew a perfect hurricane from the west, with thunder lightning and rain, with hard short seas continuing until 12.20 P.M. Tuesday 16th rain all day with heavy swell, the Sumpter men quite sick. We could but sympathise with them. They looked sad indeed, having had nothing to eat excepting a cracker and a half each, and a cup of coffee to a man from Friday until Noonday P.M. when they came on board the ship. We think there must have been a great many killed in the batteries, more probably than we can know of at present. We think however that there were some fifty killed in 'Moultrey' and only one injured in Sumpter during the engagement, but melancholy to relate there were two killed outright and three seriously wounded while saluting their flag as they evacuated the fort. The accident was caused by an explosion of one of the guns. On Wednesday 17th we had westerly gales with seas breaking over the ship all day. Thursday the 18th at 6 A.M. off 'Sandy Hook' at 10 A.M. passed Fort Hamilton and saluted also saluted 'Governors Island' and came to anchor in the stream at 3 P.M. Sent Maj. Anderson to the city on board steamer chartered for the purpose. At 6 P.M. have anchor and made fast to dock at 10.30 P.M. here and our desultory sketch of our excursion to Fort Sumpter, which trip I would not have missed for a mint. Made up as it was with so many pleasant though sad, yet useful recollections. Hoping that this frail account of our first adventure will prove as interesting as you anticipated, and that you pardon my long delay. I am pleased to subscribe myself yours with many regards for yourself and family, trusting to hear from you soon, will close here.

     

    P.S. Mother and Annie 'sailed' for Tenanada on Tuesday the 8th Father sends regards."



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