Slavery the pivotal issue for Charleston's Mercury 

A Newspaper Goes to War

At the dawn of the Civil War, the editors at the Charleston Mercury were incensed.

The notorious Confederate rag had more than enough scorn for those Northern aggressors, but the editors were even more worried about the shaping of the new Southern Constitution. In particular, they were upset about a provision allowing Northern states to enter the Confederacy. The Constitution already raised the bar, requiring support from two-thirds of the Congress, as opposed to a simple majority in the U.S. Constitution. But the paper wanted all opportunities blocked.

On March 26, 1861, the paper claimed the North "threatened us with degradation and ultimate ruin." Going on to say, "for years, the Southern peoples have ... endured the unceasing assaults of Northern interests, Northern ambition, and Northern fanaticism placed in direct antagonism to their just rights and vital institutions."

As for which institutions in particular, the paper crystallized its point with the first line of the March 27 editorial: "The South is fully aware that the peoples of the Northern states are fundamentally unsound on the question of slavery."

The paper continued, "Anti-slavery has been taken in with their mothers' milk, grown with their growth and strengthened with their strength, until so thoroughly assimilated into their constitutions as to become a part of their political principles, their ethics, and their religious faith."

Would it be sensible, the paper asks, for the slave-holding states "to admit again under a common government those who are so diverse, so inimical, and whose hostility by that instrumentality has already proved both troublesome and dangerous to the South?"

Ironically, the paper notes anyone who believes the North will leave slavery in place in the South needs to look to history. "He either does not appreciate the depth and breadth in which the anti-slavery fanaticism is rooted at the North, or he knows little of human nature and the difficulty of correcting its ignorance and errors."

By April 5, the paper's critique of the Confederate Constitution had cooled. "As a whole, it is generally regarded as an admirable Constitution and one which will make as a prosperous and happy people for generations to come," the editorial read. But, there was an important caveat: "If we have but the wisdom to keep our Confederation one of pro-slave republics exclusively, and not to mix it of states having different domestic institutions and antagonistic views. No more of 'the irrepressible conflict,' and hands off with the North, is clearly our policy."

Charlestonians were on edge in the days leading up to the firing on Fort Sumter. The adrenaline was evident in the pages of the Mercury. On April 2, the paper led with a biting editorial about access to military batteries. The paper noted it had "acquiesced" to the military in avoiding reports on batteries and officers. "But we had a right to expect, and did expect, that care would be taken to exclude the reporters of other papers, and particularly of Northern papers," the editorial reads. The New York Times, referred to as a "virulent abolition sheet," had published an in-depth feature on the Confederate artillery building along the Charleston harbor. "If this is a result of our compliance, we'll make an end [of] that for the future," the paper wrote.

But the combative tone shifted to a patriotic fervor as the firing drew closer. On April 9, the paper announced "War Declared." It jumped the gun by only a small margin. President Lincoln had sent orders to supply Fort Sumter, ensuring a challenge from Confederate leaders who were anxiously awaiting a Union retreat from the harbor.

"We have partially submitted to the insolent military domination of a handful of men in our bay for over three months after the declaration of our independence of the United States.

"Now the issue of battle is to be forced upon us. The gage is thrown down, and we accept the challenge ... We hope such a blow will be struck in behalf of the South, that Sumter and Charleston Harbor will be remembered at the North as long as they exist as people."

The paper went on to note the mood in the city as local soldiers were called to duty in the middle of the night by seven shots fired in the air on the Citadel Green, now Marion Square. "In a few minutes the wet, misty streets were all commotion; volunteers could be seen hurrying to and fro to join their respective commands and the neighborhood of the City Hall was speedily thronged by the citizen soldiers."

On April 11, The Mercury laid out a final argument for war, calling the looming battle "the culmination of years of steadily increasing encroachment of the North upon the South — of compromising, sentimental generosity, and weak acquiescence on the part of the South." The North was overestimating its own strength and would face defeat, the paper argued. "Fundamental differences exist. No political conjunction can ever repress them ... The North needs proof of the earnestness of our intentions and our manhood. Experience shall be their teacher. Let them learn."

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