History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
In June of 1842, an army lieutenant named William Tecumseh Sherman was sent to Charleston, SC, where he would carry out garrison duty while stationed at Fort Moultrie. Sherman spent several years in area, though mixed with travels elsewhere, and found time for other activities including hunting and socializing with the local elite. His memoir went into detail describing the city as it was when he left in 1846. Charleston, he later wrote, was “a proud, aristocratic city” whose “leadership in the public opinion of the South” was disproportionate to its “population, wealth, or commerce.” Charleston had been the nexus of the Atlantic slave trade and a hotbed of secessionist sentiment while exerting tremendous political, economic and cultural influence in the early republic. Charleston Harbor, the same waters that ushered in multitudes of enslaved Africans to their destiny in North America, fittingly saw the first shots of the Civil War.
Nearly twenty years after the young lieutenant departed Charleston, General Sherman returned to Charleston in May of 1865 to walk “the old familiar streets” of a city he knew well. Sherman’s Carolinas Campaign in the early months of 1865 had spared Charleston, but that was likely due to the fact that the Civil War itself had not. Sherman encountered a place of “desolation and ruin” and discovered that many of his old friends “were dead or gone.” He concluded:
I doubt whether any city was ever more terribly punished than Charleston, but as her people had been agitating for war and discord, and had finally inaugurated the civil war by an attack on the small and devoted garrison of Major Anderson, sent there by the General Government to defend them, the judgment of the world will be, that Charleston deserved the fate that befell her.
Sherman’s assessment reminds us that the fall of Fort Sumter was never far from the mind of the nation during and after the Civil War. Its importance was both strategic and symbolic, which is why the Union effort to retake the fort was so intensive throughout the conflict despite stubborn Confederate resistance. Several weeks prior to Sherman’s return to Charleston, a remarkable celebration occurred at Fort Sumter in the immediate aftermath of the war’s conclusion. The story of this often-overlooked ceremony provides occasion to ponder how these seemingly fleeting moments when “hope and history rhyme” speak to our larger eschatological longings for restoration, when justice and peace are not proximate but permanent.
On April 14, 1865, the American flag was raised once again over the fort where four years earlier to the day, Major Robert Anderson was forced to surrender to Confederate forces in the culmination of events that began the Civil War. Anderson, now a general, was invited to return to Fort Sumter to raise the American flag in a remarkable ceremony drenched in symbolism. Approximately 3,000 people spent the morning congregating at the devastated fort. Many political and military dignitaries were in attendance, as were those who were walking symbols of the personal and national redemption at hand.
This illustrious gathering included Martin R. Delany–the first and highest ranking African-American officer in the Union army during the war. Also in attendance was William Lloyd Garrison, “the great abolitionist who wept uncontrollably when he heard a small black children’s choir sing John Brown’s Body.” Robert Vesey, the son of alleged slave revolt conspirator Denmark Vesey, was also present. He would later return to Charleston to rebuild his father’s church, which had been burned down due to fears of insurrection. Robert Smalls, the former slave who remarkably and courageously commandeered the CSS Planter during a daring dart through Charleston Harbor in 1862, was there. Smalls secured freedom for his loved ones and himself with that voyage, before offering military service to the Union for the remainder of the war. He returned this day, with the very ship that sailed him to freedom, to transport former slaves to Fort Sumter.
The ceremony began with a prayer from the Rev. Matthias Harris, the same chaplain of the United States army who had first offered a prayer when Major Anderson originally raised the flag at Fort Sumter after relocating from Fort Moultrie in 1860. A scripture reading followed led by the Congregationalist minister Richard Salter Storrs of New York. Psalms 126, 47, 98, and part of 20 were chosen and read in the King James Version. These passages were pregnant with meaning for an audience that included former slaves and those who joined in abolitionist efforts.
Psalm 126 evoked images of captivity coming to an end, of laughter and song being restored to mouths. “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.” Psalm 47 encouraged its hearers to consider the triumphant reign of God in the world amidst the recent turbulence and upheaval that had torn apart the nation: “O clap your hands, all ye people; shout unto God with the voice of triumph. For the Lord most high is terrible; he is a great King over all the earth.” Psalm 98 also included images of restoration and righteous judgment, of a new song inspired by the acts and promises of God: “Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein. Let the floods clap their hands: let the hills be joyful together. Before the Lord; for he cometh to judge the earth: with righteousness shall he judge the world, and the people with equity.” Finally, an excerpt from Psalm 20 reminded the attendees that it was not military or material means that had led them to this moment: “Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the Lord our God.” The final reference to Psalm 20 included the following passage: “We will rejoice in thy salvation, and in the name of our God we will set up our banners.” Lest anyone miss the connection to the particular occasion of raising the flag, the phrase “we will set up our banners” was capitalized in the printed program.
These Scripture readings were carefully selected and highly significant for those in attendance that day. One contemporary account noted the “profound impression” that the public reading of these passages had on its listeners. The service evoked the belief that God’s work in the world, even through the terrible events of war, had brought a measure of the justice and jubilation that would be fully realized in a future eschatological restoration. At this point in the ceremony, with these passages still fresh in the minds of the crowd, it was time revisit how far they had already come. Major Anderson’s initial April 18, 1861 dispatch about the fall of Fort Sumter was read aloud. Following the reading, (now General) Anderson rose to deliver brief remarks before raising the flag. Anderson’s comments drew upon Luke 2:14, which conveyed the commentary of the angels on the cosmic implications of the Incarnation:
“I thank God I have lived to see this day to be here to perform this perhaps the last act of duty to my country in this life. My heart is filled with gratitude to Almighty God for the signal blessings which he has given us–blessings beyond number. May all the world proclaim glory to God in the highest, on earth peace and good will toward men.”
Anderson’s evocation of a divinely established peace was followed by a dramatic expression of proximate restoration: the raising of the flag itself. A band played and The Star Spangled Banner was sung “with an effect that was thrilling.” Henry Ward Beecher, perhaps America’s most famous preacher and a supporter of abolition, issued remarks less brief than Anderson. He did not hold back, as evinced in these comments paying tribute to Anderson:
“To-day you are returned again; we devoutly join with you in thanksgiving to Almighty God that he has spared your honored life, and vouchsafed you the honors of this day. The heavens over you are the same; these are the same shores. Morning comes and evening as they did. All else how changed! What grim batteries crowd the burdened shores! What scenes have filled this air and disturbed these waters! These shattered heaps of shapeless stones are all that is left of Fort Sumter. Desolation broods in yonder sad city. Solemn retribution hath avenged our dishonored banner. You have come back with honor who departed hence four years ago, leaving the air sultry with fanaticism. The surging crowds that rolled up their frenzied shouts as the flag came down are dead, or scattered, or silent, and their habitations are desolate. Ruin sits in the cradle of treason, rebellion has perished, but there flies the same flag that was insulted.”
Beecher’s lengthy and unsparing reflection on the causes and consequences of the Civil War, however, concluded with an olive branch:
But chiefly to Thee, God of our fathers! we render thanksgiving and praise for that wondrous providence that has brought forth from such a harvest of war the seed of so much liberty and peace. We invoke peace upon the North; peace be to the West; peace be upon the South. In the name of God, we lift up our banner and dedicate it to Peace, Union and Liberty, now and forever more. Amen!”
Beecher’s invocation of peace, union and liberty was in keeping with the tenor of celebrations continuing that evening in Charleston. It was not an occasion devoid of irony. Festivities occurred amidst the ruins and devastation of a city that General Sherman would visit just weeks later. It would include, as historians Blain Roberts and Ethan J. Kytle remind us, the remarkable presence of William Lloyd Garrison at a banquet at the Charleston Hotel, a place where he took a moment to publicly toast President Abraham Lincoln and where weeks earlier he would have feared for his life. Unbeknownst to Garrison and other celebrants, a more tragic irony was unfolding that very evening at Ford’s Theatre in the nation’s capital.
The assassination of Lincoln, the incomplete nature of Reconstruction, and the brutal resurgence of racial oppression in the Jim Crow South offer sobering reminders that in the here and now, hope and history often don’t appear in sync. The events of April 14, 1865 remind us, however, that these bitter disappointments are in tension with other components of history and historical memory. The historian David Blight once observed that acts of remembrance could serve as “a prelude to future reckonings.” Historical thinking from a Christian perspective forces us to reckon with the searing shortcomings of a fallen world without refuge in trite assurances and without escape into the temptations of disenchantment or disengagement. The flag-raising ceremony at Fort Sumter reminds us to look for glimmers of a world set right even amidst its literal and metaphorical ruins, to pursue moments when hope and history do indeed rhyme—as they can…and as they will.