From the archives: Civil War brewing

Letter from Augustus Harris to Johnathan Sawyer dated April 15, 1861, just after the news spread about the attack on Fort Sumter.

Letter from Augustus Harris to Johnathan Sawyer dated April 15, 1861, just after the news spread about the attack on Fort Sumter. Courtesy photograph

By ASHLEY MILLER

For the Monitor

Published: 04-13-2024 7:00 AM

Although no Civil War battle was fought in New Hampshire, the stage was set here.

Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, New Hampshire politicians were split over the issue of slavery. Disagreements between Franklin Pierce and John P. Hale, the first abolitionist senator in the U.S., further splintered the state’s political landscape and extended into national politics.

President Pierce of Hillsborough was elected in 1852. While morally opposed, Pierce alienated anti-slavery groups by enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act and signing the Kansas-Nebraska Act, whose passage led to violent conflict in the region over slavery, into law.

Hostilities continued to grow for the next several years. Abraham Lincoln was elected president on Nov. 6, 1860. On Dec. 20, South Carolina adopted an ordinance of secession.

News spread quickly, even in the upper reaches of the Granite State, and by Jan. 3, 1861, Augustus Harris of Colebrook wrote to his friend, Johnathan Sawyer, “Confidence is destroyed and if the incoming administration does not take a different stand from the present, a revolution in the country must ensue — I think quiet will be restored about the fourth of March.”

By Feb. 1, 1861, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas all followed suit, declaring their separation from the United States over the issue of slavery.

Lincoln took office on March 4, 1861, as Harris alluded to, but tensions reached a boiling point just over a month later when Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, starting the Civil War. Named for the Revolutionary War hero, Thomas Sumter, the fort was constructed in 1829 just off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina as part of a system of fortifications built to defend the southern coastline from foreign attack.

Harris again wrote to Sawyer on April 15 stating, “The report from the South is exciting in the extreme. Sumter is being bombarded the 12th. Which will set the North in a rage and when the stopping point will make its appearance, time must determine.”

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The Granite State quickly mobilized. Throughout the four-year war, Hale’s home state formed eighteen infantry regiments, as well as troops for the Navy, Marines, and specialized Army units. More than ten percent of the state’s population served in the war. Its industry produced war goods, women served as nurses and local communities threw their support behind the war effort, which would eventually lead to the defeat of the Confederacy and the abolishment of slavery.

From the Archives is a monthly column highlighting the history and collection of the New Hampshire State Archives, written by Ashley Miller, New Hampshire State Archivist. Miller studied history as an undergraduate at Penn State University and has a master’s degree in history and a master’s degree in archival management from Simmons College.