Charleston, South Carolina, played a central role in the state’s headlong rush toward secession in December 1860, an act that led to the outbreak of the Civil War four months later. Journalist Paul Starobin explores the "mania" for war that gripped the city in Madness Rules the Hour, a lively and informative look at the political leaders, preachers and propagandists who inflamed Charleston in 1860—with dire consequences for the Union.
A former Moscow bureau chief for Business Week, Starobin has been a contributor to The Atlantic, the New Republic, the Wall Street Journal and other publications. We asked him to tell us more about Charleston's pivotal role in the lead-up to war and the parallels between the pre-Civil War era and our current political climate of polarization.
What drew you to the subject of Charleston and the lead-up to the Civil War?
I have always been fascinated by the Civil War. When I lived in the Washington, D.C. area, I made walking tours of battlefields like Gettysburg and Antietam. So much has been written about the battles—I found myself drawn to the time before the shooting started. It started, of course, at Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor, and as I began to dig deeper, I came to realize that Charleston, the people who lived there, played a crucial role in launching the war. How did that happen? I felt driven to answer that question.
Why did Charleston have such an influential position in the South at that time?
Charleston had long played a dominant role in the slave trade and was more belligerent on the matter of protecting slavery than was any other city in the South. So radicals on secession, all over the South, were drawn to Charleston as a kind of lodestar on secession. The city personified the Old South—more so than Richmond or New Orleans, on a par with Savannah. Charleston also seemed to have a naturally immoderate personality—it tended towards extremes in its politics, in its revelries, in its opinion of itself. There seemed to be no middle ground in Charleston.
"I did find some people who feared the confrontation—but not as many as I expected. Charleston was on a bender."
Shed some light on your research process. Where did you start and what were your most rewarding sources?
I fairly quickly came to the conclusion that the best way to do the book would be in the form of a concentrated, granular narrative—so a reader could feel the pace, the urgency of the moment, as it was felt in Charleston at the time. I established a timeline for the year 1860 and by the time I was done with my research I had entries for just about every day and a file nearly 500 pages long. I needed to feel the year myself—the sights, sounds, smells, rhythms, all of it. Raw materials were crucial—I think to write history, you need also to feel your characters, to try to put yourself in their shoes, as hard as that can be for the more noxious characters. I put their portraits on my wall. Also maps, images of Charleston, pungent quotes, went on the wall. My best sources were in the archives of South Carolina's wonderful libraries—mainly in Charleston but also in Columbia, the state capital. They are a treasure trove of letters and diaries. And through the Google news archive, I was able to read on my home office desktop computer a full year's worth of The Charleston Mercury newspaper—an essential source for the book. I often began my day by reading a few days' worth of The Mercury. In my mind, at least, I was inhabiting a different time and place. Which was sometimes a welcome refuge from the present day.
What was the most surprising piece of information you unearthed while researching this book?
How joyful the secession cause was for so many ordinary citizens—the mechanics, the shopkeepers, the firemen, the ladies of all ages. It was like a party—the men marched through the streets singing martial songs and they drank innumerable toasts to the coming liberation of the South, the ladies wrote gushing poems to the bravery of their lads and stitched 'secession bonnets' and flags. White Charleston was so eager for a confrontation with the North, that when Lincoln's election was announced, in November, 1860, folks ran about the streets shouting, 'Hurra for Lincoln!' I did find some people who feared the confrontation—but not as many as I expected. Charleston was on a bender.
You catalog many forces that supported the rush to war. Is there one person or entity that deserves the most blame for leading the city of Charleston down this path?
It was a joint effort by a group of radical secessionists—really a collective more than any one person. In this group was a newspaper propagandist and his son, a gentleman merchant, a planter, and a federal judge. They are all to blame. So were the pastors who preached the gospel of secession from the pulpit. And more broadly, the white community of Charleston, which was overwhelmingly for secession—the community is also to blame. It somehow lost its capacity to think clearly.
Why were the citizens of Charleston so receptive to the calls for secession?
White Charleston experienced a crisis of fear and also what might be called a crisis of false hope. Fear in the sense that they believed, as they were told by the propaganda merchants, that their world was about to collapse with the election of Lincoln, the 'abolitionist' Republican, as President. So they had to break away from the Union. Immediately. False hope in the sense that they believed the fable that secession could be peaceful—because the cowardly Yankees would back away from a fight—and would lead to prosperity and security with the South taking its proud place as an independent nation of the world. I suppose they wanted to believe that very badly, so they did.
You write about many key figures in Charleston and in the Civil War. If you could sit down to dinner with one of the people in your book, who would it be?
I love this question! The answer is James Louis Petigru, a lawyer and town Elder—really a kind of social institution in Charleston. He was on the right side of the issue—he believed secession was utter folly, and told all of Charleston that, over and over—and he came up with with wonderfully barbed quips, like "South Carolina is too small for a Republic, but too large for an insane asylum." A man of immense charm, wit and vision. Ideal dinner companion.
What parallels do you see between our current political climate and the atmosphere in Charleston before the war?
Our current time, sadly, also is one of intense partisanship and polarization and venomous rhetoric. There is a lot of propaganda, on social media, on cable television—which was true of the highly partisan print press back then. Each side saying, thinking, the worst of each other. I don't think we are in a civil war at this point—we are obviously not in a shooting civil war. But are we on the threshold of such a moment? How would we know? I am keeping a running file called, New Civil War, to help me figure matters out.
As you describe in the final chapter of your book, Charleston was utterly devastated by the war—shelled daily by Union forces for 587 days and left in ruins. Did the people who pushed the city toward supporting secession pay a personal price for their actions?
Some of them did. The gentleman merchant, Robert Newman Gourdin, who organized a secret group to take the South out of the Union—he lost everything in the war and by life's end didn't even have the money to pay the laundress. The federal judge who tore off his robe and demanded 'secession now' after Lincoln's election—he was arrested by Union forces and thrown into jail. The editor of the pro-secession Mercury, Robert Barnwell Rhett Jr.—his newspaper collapsed. The planter-propagandist, John Ferrars Townsend—his magnificent mansion burned to the ground and at the war's end he was living in a shed.
What lessons can we take today from what happened in Charleston in 1860?
There is a popular saying that the crowd can be wise—in this case, the crowd was mad. Reason took flight and existed in only a few sturdy individuals, who were not vulnerable to the wild passion of the masses. People must learn to think for themselves—to sift and sort what the media and politicians and pastors are saying and take nothing at face value. If you are in a media bubble, listening to all the same sources, pop it and find some contrary ones. Do your own homework, don't just go with the flow. To be a responsible citizen is not to be a sheep!