By Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist
William Logan Rodman of New Bedford, Mass. began keeping a diary just days before the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. This diary would become an invaluable document containing an up-close and personal account of some of the most momentous events in United States history. In Parts I and II of this series, I’ve described Rodman’s thoughts and experiences during the turbulent aftermath of that election.
So far we’ve seen that Rodman was a staunch Republican who supported Lincoln and opposed slavery. He had also been raised in the Quaker tradition of nonviolence and didn’t relish the prospect of war. But the secession of South Carolina and other Southern states outraged him, and he vented his anger on the pages of his diary, lambasting the “Traitors” and “Devils of SC” and their “mad schemes.”
Even before Lincoln’s inauguration, Northern newspapers reported rumors of a possible attack on federal forces at Fort Sumter, S.C. Rodman dismissed the rumors on 12 February 1861 (incidentally Lincoln’s 52nd birthday), but there was a part of him that dared the rebels to try it.
This is the day consecrated, so says lasts nights Telegram (or as Prentice calls it tel-a-whopper) to the capture of Fort Sumter by the South Carolina Royalists. I dont anticipate any thing of the kind but […] I almost hope the experiment may be tried. I have a fancy to learn what effect the 10 inch Columbiad will have upon the feelings of the rascally rebels.
In fact, as the National Park Service explains in its publication Five Flags Over Fort Sumter, there was a minor incident that night that presaged coming events.
On the night of February 12 a harbor steamer approached a little closer to the fort than the sentinel liked, and he leveled his musket; when the boat came closer still, the private fired into it and drove it away.
Lincoln was inaugurated on 4 March 1861, and Rodman was fulsome in his praise of the new president’s inaugural address, gushing over the “modesty & humility but a determined self reliance” that was evident in both the speech and the man.
Looking back at that address is instructive. In it, Lincoln stated unequivocally that “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” He refused to march federal troops into Southern states to re-order their “domestic institutions” (even when legally permitted to do so) and declared his support of the Fugitive Slave Clause of the Constitution “with no mental reservations.”
Rodman’s wholehearted agreement with the speech tells us that he, too, while professing to oppose slavery and white supremacy, was willing to look the other way to preserve the Union. Rodman believed that “no government exists without the Union is maintained.” He was not, based on the evidence in this diary, an abolitionist.
In spite of his growing anxiety over tensions between North and South, Rodman was shocked when the Confederacy attacked Sumter on 12 April, two months to the day after he’d dismissed it as an improbability. On 13 April, telegraphs from Charleston reported the news, but it wasn’t until two days later that Rodman was sure.
Tis too true Sumpter has fallen and War has commenced. We know the fact now and altho we cannot comprehend the extraordinary details which reach us […] we accept the fact with mortification and anger. There is no mistaking now the feeling of this section and a severe reckoning must follow.
It’s hard to imagine in this age of instant communication what it must have been like to wait, unknowing, for word to arrive via telegraph, letter, or printed page. But once the news was confirmed, reaction was swift, and Northern troops were on the move. In fact, some men had been called up months before. William Cushing Paine, for example, had been sent from New Bedford to Fort Schuyler, N.Y. back in January, “perhaps in anticipation of a further destination,” as Rodman had put it.
Now that civil war was upon them, Rodman described the excitement: “We think of nothing talk of nothing but the War. Each day sees [us] devouring newspapers. Reading & Rereading the same bit of intelligence.” And as troops shipped out of New Bedford and other Northern towns, “Tears rolled down many a rough face. […] We may all have to follow.”