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  • Jake Wynn

"Pennsylvania in the Crisis" - A Harrisburg journalist's response to Fort Sumter

Telegraph wires flashed the news to Harrisburg on April 13, 1861, that Southern military forces had opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, the previous morning. The Civil War had begun.

The bombardment of Fort Sumter, April 12-13, 1861

In response to looming national crisis that faced the decisively United States of America, the editor of the Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph in the state capital penned an editorial laying out how he believed the Keystone State would respond.

"In the present," George Bergner wrote, "the attitude of the people of Pennsylvania is not intended to be aggressive or over-awing." The German-born editor of Harrisburg's Republican newspaper somewhat tempered his outrage at the actions of Southern states and acknowledged that Pennsylvanians sought to restore the Union peaceably. But if forced to, Bergner asserted, Pennsylvanians would "make no compromises that would endanger the dignity of either law or order."

His editorial is an excellent primary source, documenting the response of a Republican opinion-maker in the moments after he learned of the attack upon Fort Sumter.

Headlines from the Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph - April 13, 1861

From the Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph, April 13, 1861:

Pennsylvania in the Crisis

The friends of the Union and free institutions will be willing and proud hereafter to acknowledge that Pennsylvania is deserving of their regard and their respect. Slow to move when grave questions are involved, and deliberate in their actions when important issues are made in the domestic or national policy of the Government, the people of Pennsylvania never falter when the hour of danger is full upon them, nor do they shrink any responsibility connected with the enforcement of the law or the vindication of public justice.

In the present crisis, the attitude of the people of Pennsylvania is not intended to be aggressive or over-awing. She seeks only the right amid the glooms which surround her sister Commonwealths and herself, and in the pursuit of that right she will neither be deterred by opposition in her own midst, or the threatening belligerence of her revolting neighbors.

She proposes to do this without interfering with the domestic institutions of any State. She proposes to assist in enforcing the law, not against South Carolina, or any of the seceded States, but against those in the midst who have arrogated to themselves powers not vouchsafed to them in either the Declaration of Independence, the Federal Constitution, or the consent and judgment of the masses whom they seek to degrade. A State placing itself in such a position, surely cannot be misjudged, except it be by the malice and prejudices of those who abet the outrages by sympathizing with the treason of the South.

We anticipate for Pennsylvania the credit, eventually, of being instrumental in mainly assisting to settle the difficulties which now disturb the country. Her commercial and mechanical connections with the South will have their share of influence in this settlement, while the fact that from her midst she has contributed much of the spirit of enterprise which is silently waging even a mightier revolution than that which is made “terrible by the banners and swords” or treason.

The emigrants from our own rural districts are fast changing the barren lands along the Potomac, while more than a thousand Pennsylvanians are astonishing the primitive notions of progress among the people of North Carolina and Georgia, by the introduction of improved machinery in the clearing of forests, the cultivation of the soil, and the navigation of their streams.

The machine and locomotive shops of Pennsylvania are producing more startling effects in the South, than the presence of Garrison or Greely would produce in the council chambers of treason in Montgomery – and are in reality the abolition influences which honest men use to free the land.

They are the influences which neither revolution or legislation can change and it will not be many years before the people of the whole South are willing to acknowledge that the grandest benefits they derived from revolution were those confirmed by the influences which sought the encouragement of industry by elevating labor.

Let the true policy of Pennsylvania be both firm and friendly. With traitors she should make no compromises that would endanger the dignity of either law or order. With the people who have been seduced into this revolution by the machinations and false reports of their leaders, we can afford to be conciliatory and mild, at least in an effort to convince them that in their present position there is no prospect of a satisfactory adjustment of their difficulties.

"Our Heaven Born Banner," 1861 (Library of Congress)



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