- Historic Sites
Escape From Charleston
Trapped by the outbreak of the Civil War, a young schoolteacher fled the rebel city—and ran into hair-raising adventures
April 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 3
It was a time of nostalgia for twenty-one-year-old William Merrick Bristoll as he approached Charleston, South Carolina, aboard a steamer in late February of 1861. The sights were so familiar—the sand islands, the harbor forts, Castle Pinckney, and then the city itself, its wharves bristling with masts, the Battery promenade and park, and behind all the houses and churches he knew so well. By birth and inclination Bristoll was a Northerner, but his father’s shoe business was centered in Charleston; and three months after Bristoll was born in “good old Connecticut,” he was taken to Charleston and lived there for the next twelve years. The subsequent nine years he spent coming and going between North and South, graduating from Yale in 1860 and then taking a teaching position in Delaware. At his father’s urging he quit the school post to return to Charleston. It was, indeed, as Bristoll wrote more than a quarter of a century later, “that memorable year 1861.” South Carolina had seceded and joined the fledgling Confederate States of America. To his great annoyance Bristoll found that upon disembarking he had to pass through customs because Charleston was now a foreign port. The Palmetto flag flew everywhere—except at Fort Sumter, out in the harbor, which had become the focus of secessionist attention. Despite rumors of war Bristoll obtained a job in the Charleston school system and in walks about the city sometimes encountered Federal officers from Fort Sumter or General P. G. T. Beauregard and his staff. But “to do much work was simply impossible. The very air was full of feverish excitement.” And then, nearly two months after his return, in the “gray dawn” of April 12, Bristoll awakened to the sound of distant cannon. The bombardment meant not only the start of the Civil War but also, to Bristoll, the beginning of an anxious five months in Charleston and then a harrowing series of adventures as he sought to escape imprisonment. We are indebted to a distant relative, Mrs. Myrtle M. Hauenstein of Groveland, Massachusetts, for permission to print Bnstoll’s account of those exciting incidents, never before published. His story picks up on that fate/id morning of April 12, 1861.
But it was not fearful, anxious faces I saw as I hurried down to the Battery for an outlook seaward. It was a pellmell rush; running until out of breath, slackening speed for a second, then on again, catching hold of carts or wagons going in that direction, until panting and hardly yet knowing why it is we are here, we look out across the harbor. Boom, boom go the cannon. Now the puff of white smoke comes from Fort Johnson. There goes one from Castle Pinckney. The Floating Battery, too, has taken position, while Steven’s Battery, the first to speak on that momentous morning, still continues to send forth its iron messengers. Fort Moultrie also joins the fray and thus from all sides shot and shell pour down upon that one sole representative of the detested northern oppressor. All the pent up hatred of the past months and years is voiced in the thunder of these cannon, and the people seem almost beside themselves in the exultation of a freedom they deem already won.
But Fort Sumter is silent; no answering puff of smoke rises from those dark walls. Surely it is not to be a one-sided contest; though they are few, those men are brave, I think as I anxiously wait. Not until seven does [Major Robert] Anderson and his loyal band turn the guns, which were expected to be needed only against a foreign foe, towards his defiant, rebellious brothers. The great Civil War is begun! But these men, women and children, who surge through the streets, smile and rejoice as they greet each other; to them the beginning is the end, and victory is within their grasp.
All day the cannonade continues. The city gives itself a gala-day. A few stores are opened in the early morning but their proprietors soon follow their neighbors into the streets. Every available place of looking toward Sumter is thronged; there is a ceaseless tread of feet up and down the stairways of all the church spires. At the bulletin board, men struggle for a chance to read its reports. They were wrought up to such a pitch of exaltation that when toward noon the news, false as it proved, spread through the city, that there was great loss of life in Fort Moultrie, that it was, indeed, “a slaughter pen,” grief was almost swallowed up in “the glory of a death in defense of home and country.” At dusk Sumter no longer replied to its assailants, but the flag still waved triumphantly over its devoted defenders. All through the night the heavens were aglow with the grandest pyrotechnic display I have ever witnessed, and with the return of daylight there was no cessation in the roar of artillery. Sumter again entered the lists, but with less vigor than the day before. …
Crowds move restlessly to and fro waiting for the “latest from the front.” After dinner of this day I wandered up into the spire of Circular Church and stood looking, with a glass, at Sumter. A dense column of smoke rose from it, the burning of the barracks we had heard. As I watched, suddenly the flag tottered and fell. With bated breath I gazed. Had those brave fellows at last yielded to the inevitable and taken it down in token of surrender? Thank God, no, there it is again! I could have shouted in my joy had I dared. …
But the end was not far distant. Before night hostilities ceased, terms of evacuation having been agreed upon between the two commanders, terms whereby not a shadow of dishonor could rest either on the national ensign or the noble men who fought for it.