Visitors to Princeton, New Jersey, may find there the grave of a former New York state judge who died in 1919 at the advanced age of 90. Judge Roger Pryor was not from New Jersey, however, nor was he a native of New York. A Virginian by birth, as a young man Pryor had been one of the Old Dominion’s foremost secessionist “fire-eaters.” Impatient with Virginia’s reluctance to secede from the Union, Pryor traveled to South Carolina in April 1861 and gave a speech urging the newborn Confederacy to resist Abraham Lincoln’s attempt to reinforce the U.S. Army contingent holding the fort that commanded Charleston harbor.
“Strike a blow!” Pryor cried, assuring his “immense and enthusiastic audience” that if the crisis led to war, Virginia would secede immediately — “within an hour by Shrewsbury clock,” he said.
That was on Wednesday, April 10, and the crisis was by then already far gone. A U.S. Navy fleet, sent to reinforce the fort, was approaching Charleston. The Confederates demanded immediate surrender, before the fleet could come to the garrison’s relief. In the wee hours of Friday, April 12, Pryor was one member of a delegation sent to deliver the ultimatum to the U.S. commander, Major Robert Anderson. He refused to capitulate and was told that Confederate batteries commanded by General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard would open fire on the fort within an hour. When the delegation returned to the shore, a Confederate artillery officer offered Pryor the honor of pulling the lanyard to fire the first shot. Pryor declined: “I could not fire the first shot of the war.” That honor instead went to another Virginia fire-eater, 67-year-old Edmund Ruffin.
The first Confederate cannon boomed at 4:30 a.m. on April 12 — 150 years ago today — and what became known as the Battle of Fort Sumter was under way. Really, it wasn’t much of a battle. More than 3,000 Confederate shells were fired during the bombardment, pounding Sumter’s masonry walls to rubble, but without killing a single U.S. soldier. By the afternoon of April 13, Anderson offered a truce, and surrendered the next day. The only casualty of the entire battle was one of Anderson’s men, killed in an accident after the bombardment had ended.
A minor affair from a military perspective, Fort Sumter was however a decisive turning point in history, inaugurating a war that eventually claimed the lives of about 600,000 soldiers North and South. The farther Fort Sumter recedes in memory, the less its meaning is understood, as America gradually succumbs to a condition of historical amnesia. Fifty years ago, the centennial of the Civil War was a grand occasion for remembrance in a nation fully conscious of its traditions, and unabashedly proud of its place as the world’s foremost military power. Our martial prowess had twice proved decisive in world wars and, in 1961, America stood constantly on guard to battle the communist menace in what the nation’s young president — a decorated veteran of World War II — called in his inaugural speech “a long twilight struggle.” John F. Kennedy spoke of “those nations who would make themselves our adversary” and vowed: “We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.”
So it was that the 100th anniversary of the Civil War was celebrated as a tribute to American courage by descendants of Yankees and Confederates alike, equally proud of the role played by their ancestors in the nation’s most sanguinary war. The causes of the war, the divisions of North and South, were very much in the forefront of political debate in 1961, with the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision just seven years past and the resultant struggle over the fate of Jim Crow segregation pushing relentlessly toward its conclusion. Yet the centennial observance of the bloody conflict that began at Fort Sumter was not a politicized affair. The teaching of history had not yet been monopolized by left-wing revisionists rummaging through the past in search of material for politically correct sermons about America’s sins of war and racism. For a boy growing up in Douglas County, Georgia — where the ruins of the New Manchester Mill on Sweetwater Creek still stand as a silent monument to General Sherman’s destructive method of warfare — the historical reality of that war was hard to avoid, and its hyperpolitical 21st-century interpretation not even yet imagined. We were instead taught to think of the War Between the States, as most Southerners then called it, as the result of a tragic misunderstanding. The patriotic legacy of Fort Sumter our teachers imparted to us, as young inheritors of the Confederate past, was that our ancestor had been unafraid to fight, and had fought with remarkable courage long after all hope of victory was gone.
Patriotism and courage have gone long since gone out of fashion. America’s intellectual elite — “The Ruling Class,” as Professor Codevilla calls them — are nowadays the diligent disciples of draft-dodgers who once marched beneath Vietcong flags in anti-war demonstrations. In the “long twilight struggle” against communism, they were on the other side. Their philosophy requires them to inculcate in our youth an unpatriotic attitude that views American military power as a force for oppression. Today’s progressive curriculum teaches children to embrace our nation’s foreign enemies as victims of capitalist imperialism. Before Bill Ayers became mentor to a young Barack Obama, he co-authored a 1974 Weather Underground manifesto that cited communist Che Guevara as a role model and was dedicated to such “political prisoners” as Sirhan Sirhan, assassin of Robert F. Kennedy. In their “Prairie Fire” manifesto, Ayers and his terrorist comrades declared themselves a “guerrilla organization,” devoted to “the final defeat of imperialism and building of socialism [through] revolutionary war.” They utterly lacked the courage to fight, however, and so Ayers’ cowardly “war” was waged by stealthily planting bombs and hiding out until he surrendered to authorities in December 1980. “Prairie Fire” was also dedicated to John Brown, the antebellum terrorist whose murderous violence against civilians did much to bring on the crisis that led to war 150 years ago. But whereas Brown was not ashamed to hang for his crimes, Ayers never even served a day in prison.
The triumph of 1960s radicalism in academia accounts largely for the historical amnesia that has enveloped successive generations in a fog of ignorance about the American past. (With a doctorate degree from Columbia University, Ayers is typical of those radicals who, applying the theories of Marxist intellectual Antonio Gramsci, achieved cultural hegemony by a “long march through the institutions.”) History interests the radical elite only as it can be used to foment anti-capitalist passions, and they cherry-pick history to fit their own leftist interpretations, so that the past means exactly what they say it means and nothing else.
Thus, the sesquicentennial of the Civil War excites little interest among the young. Schools today teach history mainly as a relentless harangue about how oppressively evil America has always been. Such tendentious sermonizing is boring, and young people respond by learning only enough history to ace their dumbed-down coursework. The young know nothing of Fort Sumter and the U.S. Army officer entrusted with its defense. Major Anderson was a slave owner from Kentucky whose command during the Blackhawk War of 1832 had included a young Illinois militiaman named Abraham Lincoln. As an instructor at West Point, Anderson later taught gunnery to a young cadet from Louisiana: Beauregard’s two-day bombardment of Fort Sumter showed how well he had learned those lessons. Anderson’s gallant defense of the fort made him a hero to the North. He was promoted to brigadier general and appointed to lead the Union effort in Kentucky. The officers in Anderson’s Kentucky command included both U.S. Grant and W.T. Sherman, the latter of whom had once served under him as a young lieutenant and whom Anderson therefore affectionately called “one of my boys.”
As for the Confederates involved in the Sumter battle, Beauregard’s subsequent military career did little to enhance his initial reputation as the South’s hero. He co-commanded the Southern army at the first battle of Manassas, and also at the 1862 battle of Shiloh, but fell into disfavor with Confederate President Jefferson Davis and was relegated to semi-obscurity. Edmund Ruffin, the secessionist fire-eater credited with firing the first shot at Sumter (a subject of some historical dispute), played no future role of importance in the war, but was so despondent about the South’s defeat that he shot himself to death in June 1865, leaving a suicide note declaring his “unmitigated hatred” of “the perfidious, malignant and vile Yankee race.”
And what became of Roger Pryor, the Virginian who had urged the Confederates to “strike a blow” at Fort Sumter? He was appointed colonel of the 3rd Virginia Infantry and was subsequently promoted to brigadier general, commanding troops in battle during the Seven Days, Second Manassas, and Sharpsburg. Like Beauregard, Pryor made the mistake of getting on the bad side of Jefferson Davis. He resigned his general’s commission, but then enlisted as a private in Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry where he served until being captured in 1864. After the war, Pryor moved to New York, established a successful law practice, and eventually became a justice of the New York state supreme court.
Although he refused to fire the first shot of the war 150 years ago, Pryor proved himself worthy of a proud American tradition shared by North and South alike: He was not afraid to fight.