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The Seat of Rebellion

books and culture

The Seat of Rebellion

A gripping new book examines the folly of Charleston, a city enraptured with revolt, in 1860. May 5, 2017
Arts and Culture
Cities

Madness Rules the Hour: Charleston, 1860 and the Mania for War, by Paul Starobin (PublicAffairs, 296 pp., $27)

When war fever swept the American South in 1860, nowhere was it stronger than in Charleston, South Carolina. As General George B. McClellan angrily noted, “There the rebellion had its birth.” In his gripping Madness Rules the Hour, Paul Starobin presents a richly detailed and unsettling portrait of a city caught by contagion, her people hell-bent on preserving their independence—while driving headlong into self-destruction.  His vignettes, laid out in brief chapters, transpire far from the political tumult in Washington or the bloodshed in Kansas or Harpers Ferry, though they capture the impact of events that forced this most Southern of cities into a frenzy.

The notion of rebellion was not new to South Carolina.  The state had threatened secession a generation earlier, in 1832, in response to federal tariffs, which its leaders declared null within its borders. John C. Calhoun, the firebrand South Carolinian who was then vice president, dramatically resigned his office to fight against them in the Senate. A decade after his death in 1850, Calhoun still loomed large in Charleston. His image circulated on daguerreotypes, on Hiram Power’s marble statue of his likeness that graced city hall, and in his legendary speeches that were printed, framed, and prominently displayed. An organization of Charleston women busily raised funds for a towering Calhoun monument.

All this tribute must have inspired the would-be Calhouns who took up the task of protecting states’ rights and Southern sovereignty. These vivid characters—such as the father-son duo of Robert Barnwell Rhett and R.B. Rhett, Jr.—strut though the pages of Madness Rules the Hour, goading their neighbors into open rebellion. Rhett, Sr., a grand egotist and at various times the state’s attorney general, a congressman, and senator, fanatically defended slavery and longed for a breakaway Southern republic. His son shared these fire-breathing views and, as editor of the family newspaper, the Mercury, polemicized against the North and on behalf of disunion.

John Ferrars Townsend, an aristocratic politician and planter, would serve as rhetorician of the Southern rebellion. Townsend viewed himself as a Southern Edmund Burke, penning polemics from his opulent estate, Bleak Hall Plantation on Edisto Island (the Dickensian-sounding name an intentional literary reference), complete with manicured Japanese garden. Men like Townsend, who had been suspicious of breaking away from the Union during the nullification crisis long past, were drawn into the uprising by a sequence of national events that convinced Southerners that their northern counterparts intended to dismantle their way of life.

One of Starobin’s heroes is James Louis Petigru, distinguished jurist, elder statesman, and last unionist of Charleston, who looked on ruefully as his friends drifted to the secessionist cause. To the end, he saw the folly and the coming destruction, quipping that South Carolina was “too small for a Republic, but too large for an insane asylum.”

John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859 proved ample fodder for the Mercury to further the cause. “Our negroes are constantly tempted to cut our throats,” the paper editorialized, keenly aware that Charlestonians had memories of their own slave revolt—when Denmark Vesey, a free African-American, plotted an uprising in 1822.

But the new Republican Party’s nomination of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 caused the most consternation of all—and somewhat ironically. Most southerners had feared that staunchly antislavery New York senator William H. Seward, who predicted a conflict between free and slave labor, would be the party’s standard bearer. By comparison, the Kentucky-born Lincoln was a moderate. This didn’t stop the Mercury and others in Charleston from describing the nominee in the most ominous terms. Critics claimed that this “horrid looking wretch” and “sooty scoundrel” was an ally of the North’s radical abolitionists; some speculated that he was part black himself.

The specter of Lincoln’s potential election to the presidency was enough to push first South Carolina, and then the other slave states, away from the Union. A Lincoln victory was made inevitable by the splintering of the Democratic Party—an event that occurred in Charleston, when 50 southern delegates walked out in protest against a platform that was, to their minds, not sufficiently pro-slavery. All that was left was the inevitable disunion, which arrived with Lincoln’s election.

With the eye of an astute chronicler, Starobin draws on correspondence and contemporary publications to capture the fever-pitch of Southern secession. Banners emblazoned with “Let us Bury the Union’s Dead Carcass” and “Good-bye Yankee Doodle” flew in Charleston’s streets while militias, sporting blue cockades, marched. Politicians who had previously hedged their bets now eagerly embraced independence: resigning his federal judgeship, Andrew Gordon Magrath became a hero. Those suspected of disloyalty or northern sympathies, such as Catherine Bottsford, a seamstress originally from New York, were jailed, while the town’s citizens angrily eyed the federal installation at Fort Moultrie.

As Starobin makes clear, not all of Charleston welcomed war. Its free black population watched with dread as the city marched into secession with nearly religious fervor. In fact, Charleston’s clergy reassured congregants that God blessed both slavery and the Southern cause. “All men are not born equal,” thundered Reverend Thomas Smyth, rebuking the Declaration of Independence and the theoretical credo of the United States. South Carolina’s leaders, especially those in Charleston, thought that an era of liberty, peace, and prosperity would result from disunion. Their optimism, which bordered on euphoria, blinded them to the destruction that lay ahead.

Starobin dramatically concludes his narrative with the state’s decision to abandon the Union in December 1860—then flashes forward to the end of the war, with Charleston in ruins, its streets empty, its wharves rotted, and its grand homes razed, their gardens “weed-wild.” The glorious cause celebrated by the Rhetts and others had led to the desolation of all that they sought to preserve—as shown in a Matthew Brady daguerreotype that captures a landscape of shelled homes amid heaps of rubble. Starobin gives the last word to Herman Melville and his poem “Swamp Angel”—the name taken from that of a cannon that caused much of the destruction:  “Is this the proud city? The scorner,/ Which never would yield the ground?”

Photo: Hulton Archive

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