150 years ago today, Charleston harbor found itself abuzz with activity. On April 14th 1865, four years to the day after Major Robert Anderson surrendered Fort Sumter to Confederate forces, a ceremony was held to celebrate the fort’s recapture and the coming end of the Civil War. Writing for the April 18th issue, a correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune noted how the whole morning of the 14th saw many steamers traveling to the fort. Included among these steamers was the Planter, piloted by Robert Smalls, a former slave who had commandeered the ship and escaped to the Union blockade and to freedom in 1862. The correspondent wrote that the ships were “all crowded with passengers—the Planter being black with the colored population of Charleston.” At the fort, he writes that “detachments of marines and sailors from the different vessels under command of Lieut. Commander Williams, survivors of the assault on Sumter, together with the 127th New York and 35th Massachusetts were drawn up in line on either side, and presented a fine appearance. These men had all distinguished themselves in the naval and military operations against Sumter, and were consequently assigned to a position of honor in the programme of the day.” While most of the spectators were visitors from the North, there were several hundred of the citizens of Charleston, including the black citizens who came on the Planter. After songs and prayers, Major Anderson was presented with the flag that he had hauled down four years before. After a short address, Anderson hoisted the flag to the top of the flagpole amid loud cheers. “The Star-Spangled Banner” was sung, and followed by a salute from Fort Sumter’s guns and guns from the forts around the harbor. In these moments, the ceremony announced the end of the war at the same place in which it had begun four years earlier.
After the salute, the abolitionist Rev. Henry Ward Beecher stepped forward to give an oration. In his speech he proclaimed that “on this solemn and joyful day, we again lift to the breeze our fathers’ flag, now again the banner of the United States, with the fervent prayer that God would crown it with honor, protect it from treason, and send it down to our children, with all the blessings of civilization, liberty, and religion.” He spoke at length about secession, the horrors of war, and the system of slavery which in his mind caused both of them. Nonetheless, he concluded on a more conciliatory note by invoking peace on the North, the West, and the South, and by declaring that “in the name of God, we lift up our banner, and dedicate it to Peace, Union, and Liberty, now and forevermore.” In his oration, Beecher also offered his congratulations that God had sustained President Lincoln through the burdens and sufferings of those four years. Tragically, on the very same day as the flag-raising ceremony, Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s Theater. Thus he would not live to lead the nation in the arriving period of reunion and reconstruction.