From Duty, Honor, Country, a Novel of West Point & the Civil War
King was taken aback by his first glimpse of the general whom President Jeff Davis had sent to take command of the South Carolina forces. Another West Pointer, ‘Little Napoleon’, as King had heard him called in whispers, was newly arrived. Previous to that, he’d been forced out of the position as Superintendent of West Point when Louisiana seceded. The rumor circulating the city was that Beauregard had had the audacity to file a mileage reimbursement to the United States government for travel from West Point back to his home in New Orleans, before being ordered by Davis to South Carolina.
It had not been paid.
Beauregard did not look like Robert E. Lee, that was for certain. His skin was olive and smooth. His eyes had a droopy, sleepy appearance, as if he were either preparing to arise before dawn or retire after a late evening. His hair was an un-natural black, and if King had been better schooled in the ways of narcissism, he might have realized that Beauregard dyed his hair to match his goatee and thick mustache. Even here, on the eve of battle there were several ladies of Charleston in attendance on his every word and gesture.
“General?” Chesnut called out.
“Yes, Colonel?” Beauregard turned, uncrossing his arms and placing his left hand on the hilt of his sheathed saber as he slipped his right inside his dress coat, where a button was conveniently unfastened. King saw the circle of newspapermen writing down every movement the general made and every word he uttered as if it were coming down from the mountain.
“Major Anderson gave me a list of conditions for surrender,” Chesnut said.
“’Conditions’?” Beauregard shook his head. “The major is being unreasonable. He is in no position to give conditions.”
King stepped forward. “Sir, Major Anderson is delaying. I believe the Yankee navy is preparing a sortie. This very night. My reconnaissance cutter spotted a Federal ship making way to the fort.”
Beauregard frowned. “Captain . . .?”
“King, sir. The Yankees are preparing to relieve the fort. They drew off when my cutter discovered them, but I fear they will come again in force this very night. We must act swiftly.”
Beauregard twisted one end of his mustache. “There is much zeal and energy here, but little professional expertise and knowledge in the art of war. It is not such an easy matter to take a fortified position.”
Memories of Captain McKenzie and the debacle on the Somers whispered like shadows in King’s brain. “General, we can take Sumter now, easily, or face a pitched battle once the United States Navy moves in. I taught at the Naval Academy at Annapolis. With all due respect, sir, while you are certainly a master of land warfare, I know battle on the sea.”
Beauregard looked out at the southern belles, the reporters, the militia, and puffed out his chest to make an announcement. “Negotiations have failed. I must take action. I will give Major Anderson notification via the mouth of a cannon.”
Exuberant, wild cheers rose from the crowd. Women threw their arms around the nearest man. Militia and cadets hurried to prepare their cannon.
King didn’t note the few people who stood forlorn, some with tears in their eyes as the implications struck them differently, including his mother, in the shadow of the house overlooking the Battery that used to be her home. Without realizing it, King took up a vantage point underneath the tree from which his father had hung himself.
4:30 am. Dawn was not far off.
A single mortar shell from Fort Johnson arced overhead and exploded directly above Fort Sumter. There was an eerie pause, as if the ocean was waiting for what came next.
Forty-three cannon and batteries of mortars from Fort Moultrie, Fort Johnson, the Battery, and Cummings Point let loose in a barrage worthy of the start of a war.
As the first shells smashed into the brick walls of Fort Sumter, the faint sound of cheering floated across the water from the surrounding land as an undertone to the sharper crack of cannon firing.
King stood underneath the magnificent oak tree and watched the opening of the inevitable war.