James Ancrum Winslow to John B. Minor
May 21, 1861

In this letter to Professor Minor, James A. Winslow describes conditions and attitudes in the North immediately after the firing on Fort Sumter. 

                                                                                                           Roxbury, May 21st, 1861. 

Prof. Minor

            Dear Sir,

                        I arrived here safely on Saturday the 11th present, having passed about ten days in Washington at Mr Robinson’s house. My family had not received any letters – not even those I wrote from Washington – or news from me for nearly a month, & had been made so anxious by exaggerated newspaper statements, that my mother went so far as to write Dr Maupin, & her friends in Virginia, to know if I was still there. She has received Dr Maupin’s reply since my return. I have not yet fixed on any plan for the future.

            You will wish to hear something of the state of feeling here. I confess I was not prepared to find such unanimity. Everything is the counterpart of what you see at the South, on the otherside. I know what our people are when roused, but it takes a long time to rouse them, & I did not suppose the point had been reached. I have talked with people from Philadelphia, New York, & those about here of all classes, & there seems to be but one sentiment among all – that the Union is to be preserved & “rebellion” crushed out at any hazard. Many people here, as they have told me, believed all along that the secession of the cotton states was only the ‘old Southern game’ of boasting; they supposed even that the batteries erected around Fort Sumter were for braggadocio, & the firing upon Major Anderson was the first thing that opened their eyes. They could not believe that the South would do “so wicked a thing” as destroy the government, merely because for the first time she had not the control of it. The democrats are enraged at their early desertion by their comrades of South Carolina, &c, when a conservative majority in both houses of Congress would have enabled them to overthrow all Republican measures which might be proposed, & all conservative men consider the South inexcusable for not accepting the plan of a convention of the states, which was proposed by Lincoln himself, & would have enabled them to alter the constitution so as to separate peaceably if possible. I was often asked in Virginia what the North was fighting for. People here say it is to maintain the integrity of the Union as it existed last October, if it cost every drop of blood & every dollar in the country, & even those who were the conservatives say that no compromise of any sort can be given till every southern state returns unconditionally to its allegiance to the Union. “Only one republic can be tolerated from Canada to Mexico,” they say, “we’ll have the Union & the Constitution as our fathers left them, or all go to destruction together.” The Stars & Stripes are waving from every conspicuous place. I suppose you can see several thousand flags from single points in Broadway, New York. I notice large warehouses there, which have from sixty to a hundred windows in front, & a flag waving from every window. Many people wear tricolored cockades & badges, & the dandies here have tricolored cravats. I have given up all hope of a peaceful settlement of the difficulties. A few, who are peacefully disposed here hope that the South will retract before it is too late. I have seen too much to expect that, & feel certain now that the North will not. If Lincoln were to draw back an inch, I think he might be forcibly driven from his seat. The first excitement has cooled down, but the deepest determination remains. People generally, led on by the clergy are thanking God that it is a war of defence, that the issue was not made by us, but forced on us against our will, that it is but defence of our country. “The first shot” said one man “aimed at Sumter struck me, it was aimed at my home & fireside.” “How can the Southerners” said another to me “fight like us, - they are making an aggressive war on the government; we are fighting for our country & our homes. Our cause is just; it must prevail.” “We are compelled to fight” is the tone of sermons & speeches “against men for whom we have no malice & no hatred. How can the Southerners be so insane as to drive us to it.” I do not think, Sir, that what I have written is at all exaggerated. The newspapers on both sides are full of error, & falsehood. I have seen two or three people who admitted that they sympathized with the South, but they asserted that it was the duty of every man to go wherever the government might send him, if his services were needed. Secessionists are generally regarded here as actually criminal, & anything said in palliation or defence of their course, is received, as if in excuse of deliberate murder or theft, but this feeling is not universal. One would suppose (from Southern journals) that the army was composed wholly of “hirelings” or “roughs,” but this is by no means the case. Not only the officers, but in some cases the rank & file of regiments are composed of men whose social position is equal to that of any that the South will bring against them. The undergraduates of Harvard University have formed a battalion with officers chosen from the Faculty for drill-exercise. Daniel Webster’s son Fletcher is Colonel of a newly formed regiment. Thousands are ready to go, whose services cannot be employed at present.

            It is generally believed here that numbers of South Carolinians were killed by the guns of Sumter, & the newspapers for about a week have been discussing the question whether Beauregard is dead or alive. The notions of exciting negro insurrections, which the Southern newspapers assert are generally entertained at the North, are scouted by the great body of the people here, & the plan of raising free negro regiments is considered illegal & unconstitutional. In fact there is no end to the mis-statements on both sides. Most people here believe that there is still Union feeling in the South, which will show itself, as soon as the secessionists are overawed by price of arms. They think Virginia may be placed in the same position as Maryland is now. Her vote on Thursday is anxiously awaited. But I forbear to trespass on your patience longer. I wish you would be kind enough to ask Miss Mary to tell any of my most intimate friends among the students whom she may see, that I would have written them, but having heard that many students had left the University since my departure, I had no means of knowing who still remained. Desiring to be kindly remembered to her, & Mrs Minor, I am, dear Sir, yrs with great respect & regard

J. Ancrum Winslow


James Ancrum Winslow to John B. Minor, May 21, 1861, Minor and Wilson Family Papers, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia.