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Sixty Years With Plymouth Church by Stephen M. Griswold


When it became evident that the North had won the victory and that the defeat of the Confederacy was at hand, President Lincoln decided to celebrate the event by replacing the same old flag that had waved over Fort Sumter before the war had commenced, and had been lowered on the 14th of April, 1861, after a brave struggle by Major Anderson, only when compelled to do so by the guns of General Beauregard. By the President's order, the Secretary of War directed that on |April 14th, 1865, at twelve o'clock noon, Major General Anderson will raise and plant upon the ruins of Fort Sumter, in Charleston harbour, the same United States flag which floated over the battlements of that fort during the Rebel assault four years previous.| At the request of Mr. Lincoln, Mr. Beecher was invited to deliver the oration upon that occasion. As soon as it became known that he had accepted, a large number of his friends wished to go with him, but how to get there was the problem. The Arago, the government steamer, was full, and all the other steamers available had been chartered by the government for service in the war. After a diligent search it was found that the Neptune Steamship Company would take one of their propellers, running between New York and Providence, off the route, and charter it for a party.

A committee was formed consisting of Mr. Edward Cary, editor of the Brooklyn Union, Mr. Edwin A. Studwell and myself as chairman. The steamship company agreed to carry one hundred and eighty passengers for the sum of eighteen thousand dollars, which I paid them, the trip to be made in nine days.

As soon as all the arrangements were completed, Mr. Beecher announced the program from the pulpit and through the press. Nearly all the prominent clergymen and citizens of Brooklyn applied for tickets. It became necessary to refuse a large number, as the steamer could not accommodate more than one hundred and eighty people. On the 10th of April, 1865, we left the foot of Wall Street in, one of the Fulton Ferry boats, which had been kindly offered to take the party to the Oceanus, lying at the foot of Robinson Street, New York. A more patriotic party never left the city of Brooklyn. All the way to Charleston, those who were not seasick (for the steamer rolled fearfully) were engaged in holding meetings and singing patriotic songs. Speeches were made by the clergymen, including Messrs. Cuyler, Putman, Gallagher, Chadwick, Corning, French and others; also by prominent citizens of Brooklyn, including Messrs. Low, Bowen, Smith, Lambert, Frothingham and others. The singing was led by Mr. Bradbury, while among the songs were |We are out on the ocean sailing,| |John Brown's Soul is Marching on,| |We'll Hang Jeff Davis to a Sour Apple Tree.| Arriving at Charleston Bar on the afternoon of the 13th of April we passed into the harbour, and as we went by Fort Sumter the entire company assembled upon the upper deck and sang |Old Hundred.|

Just before the Oceanus left the dock in New York we received a despatch from the Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, that Lee with his entire army had surrendered to Grant. Our steamer was the first one to carry the news of Lee's surrender to the people of the South. As the Oceanus slowly neared the dock at Charleston, we could see the shores were lined with people, and as we came within hailing distance, Captain Young shouted through his trumpet, |Lee has surrendered!| At once there went up a mighty shout from that black mass -- it was like the roar of Niagara. |God bless Massa Lincoln!| could be heard above the din, then came |My country, 'tis of thee,| |Hail Columbia,| sung as only coloured people can sing. The band on the Blackstone, which was anchored near, played |The Star-Spangled Banner,| and in the evening all the men-of-war in the harbour were illuminated to celebrate the news of the victory.

The next morning all was bustle and activity, getting ready to go down to the fort, and every available sailing craft was brought into service to carry the people of Charleston to the ceremonies of the day. At eleven o'clock we were assembled inside the walls of Sumter, as distinguished a gathering as ever assembled since the signing of The Declaration of Independence. High officers of the Army and Navy, United States Senators, members of Congress, officers of the Government, clergymen and distinguished citizens from all over the United States, and a number from England.

At the hour of noon Major Anderson, who had been a long time in feeble health, came upon the platform. Sergeant Hart took from a mail-pouch the old flag and fastened it to the halyards. Major Anderson, taking hold of the rope, said, |I thank God that I have lived to see this day and perform probably the last act of duty of my life for my country.| (He died soon after.) As he slowly raised the flag over the ruined walls of the fort, from Forts Moultrie, Ripley, Pickney, Putnam and Johnson, Cummings Point and Battery B, and from every United States gunboat in the harbour there broke forth a mighty salute. The thunder of the cannon fairly shook the earth and the clouds of smoke enveloped the fort in almost midnight darkness. When they rolled away Old Glory waved peacefully as though it had never been fired upon by rebel cannon. The audience sang |Victory at last.|

Mr. Beecher came forward to the front of the platform to deliver the oration. There was a cold wind blowing in from the sea, the wind playing havoc with the leaves of his manuscript. As he commenced he took off his hat, but immediately arose the cry, |Put on your hat, Mr. Beecher.| He obeyed and went on with his address, holding the close attention of everyone for over an hour. It has taken its place in the history of memorable addresses delivered on great occasions. The history of the country will place it second to none among the most patriotic and able orations.

The next two or three days were spent in and about Charleston, visiting the scenes of desolation caused by the war. The only carriages to be had were donkey carts. It was a usual sight to see George Thompson of England and Charles Sumner jogging along, or William Lloyd Garrison and Senator Wilson together, Henry Ward Beecher and Fred Douglass in a donkey cart driven by a former slave. Mass meetings were held in the abandoned churches and public buildings of the city, mostly attended by the coloured people.

On the third day the Oceanus passed out of Charleston harbour, saluted by all the ships and forts. The flag on Sumter was dipped as we passed by; all went well until we rounded Cape Hatteras and were bearing into Fortress Monroe. Passing a pilot boat, the captain shouted, |What's the news?| The reply came back over the water, |The President is dead.| We could not and did not believe it. Soon after, passing another pilot boat, to a similar question the answer came, |Mr. Lincoln has been assassinated.| Then we realised the truth. With saddened hearts we sailed up to Fortress Monroe, which was already draped in black. Here our party separated, some coming direct to New York, the rest going to Washington to take part in the ceremonies attending the funeral of Mr. Lincoln.

I have spoken more fully of the Sumter excursion because it was an important national event, and because it was so closely identified with Plymouth Church and Brooklyn. If it had not been for Mr. Beecher there would have been no Oceanus voyage.


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