When Charleston, South Carolina fell in February 1865, as a consequence of Sherman’s offensive, Washington saw it as an event worthy of special celebration. Since the war began at Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, it seemed only fitting to hold a ceremonial flag-raising there on April 14, 1865, four years to the day after the Stars and Stripes came down and the fort was surrendered.
Invitations went out and arrangements were made to transport dignitaries to Charleston. Robert Anderson, who had commanded Fort Sumter back in 1861, was called out of retirement to take part in the observance. Lee’s surrender on April 9 gave added significance to the flag-raising, which now was seen as a symbolic ending of the great conflict.
Promptly at noon on the appointed day the observances began. The harbor was filled with Federal warships. Fort Sumter was hardly recognizable any longer as a fort. The steady shelling of the Union blockading fleet and two major attempts to capture the fortress in 1863 had left it little more than a great pile of rubble. Yet only with the fall of Charleston had the Confederate flag ceased to wave defiantly over the ruins. Now a new flagpole and a platform for the ceremony had been erected. After the noted New York clergyman Henry Ward Beecher spoke, a sergeant who had risked death during the 1861 bombardment to keep the flag flying stepped forward with the original banner. The medal pictures Anderson watching as the flag was attached to the halyards. Anderson himself raised the flag, and as it traveled slowly up the flagstaff, onlookers remarked about its battered condition. Frayed and battle-torn, the banner clung to the staff until it was clear of the fort’s walls and exposed to the breeze. Then, suddenly, it straightened, flying over the heads of the assembled dignitaries, and as if on command, military personnel saluted. A great thunder rolled across the harbor as cannon on ship and shore added their salutes.
Thus the war that had opened on this spot four years earlier with the thunder of cannon came full circle to end the same way. Over 600,000 men died in those four years—one more casualty, the commander-in-chief, would be counted within hours of the flag-raising—and the destruction of property and treasure was beyond counting. The Civil War reunited but altered America forever, and released a people from bondage. To those who asked if the terrible cost was worth the consequences, Abraham Lincoln had already given an answer. “Fellow-citizens, we can not escape history,” he told Americans in 1862, in the midst of the conflict. “The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation... In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last, best hope of earth... The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just. ..”