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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

Charleston

Charleston

I'm giving over my blog today to Peggy Noonan's comments in the Wall Street Journal. She echoes what I felt as I read about plans to ring all church bells on Sunday to honor the victims of Wednesday's shootings.

A Bow to Charleston

A Northerner bows, deeply, to the South: I have never seen anything like what I saw on television this afternoon. Did you hear the statements made at the bond hearing of the alleged Charleston, S.C., shooter? Nine beautiful people slaughtered Wednesday night during Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and their relatives were invited to make a statement today in court.

Did you hear what they said? They spoke of mercy. They offered forgiveness. They invited the suspect, who was linked in by video from jail, to please look for God. There was no rage, no accusation—just broken hearts undefended and presented for the world to see. They sobbed as they spoke.

“I just wanted everybody to know, to you, I forgive you,” said the daughter of Ethel Lance, killed in the shooting. “You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you.” She asked that God have mercy on the shooter’s soul. “You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. May God forgive you. And I forgive you.”

A family member of Anthony Thompson said he forgave the shooter. “I forgive you and my family forgives you, but we would like you to take this opportunity to repent . . . confess, give your life to the one who matters the most, Christ, so that He can change it—can change your ways no matter what happens to you, and you will be OK. Do that and you will be better.”

The mother of Tywanza Sanders, also killed, told the shooter: “We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms,” she said. “Every fiber in my body hurts, and I will never be the same. . . . Tywanza was my hero. But as we said in Bible study, we enjoyed you, but may God have mercy on you.”

The granddaughter of Daniel Simmons Sr., also killed Wednesday, said, “Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof—everyone’s plea for your soul is proof that they lived in love and their legacies will live in love. So, hate won’t win. . . . I just want to thank the courts for making sure that hate doesn’t win.”

As I watched I felt I was witnessing something miraculous. I think I did. It was people looking into the eyes of evil, into the eyes of the sick and ignorant shooter who’d blasted a hole in their families, and explaining to him with the utmost forbearance that there is a better way. What a country that makes such people. Do you ever despair about America? If they are America we are going to be just fine.

Afterward, outside the courtroom, people gathered and sang gospel hymns. * * * I just have to say what a people the people of Charleston are. They are doing something right, something beautiful, to be who they’ve been the past few days. From the beginning they handled the tragedy with such heart and love. They handled it like a community, a real, alive one that people live within connected to each other.

From Thursday morning when news first spread everyone I saw on TV, from the mayor, Joseph Riley, to those who spoke for the church, to the police spokesmen, to the governor, Nikki Haley—they were all so dignified and genuinely grieving, and not the pseudo-grief we always see when something bad happens and the leader says our prayers are with the victims. Haley had to stop speaking for a few moments, so moved was she when she made her first statement.

Riley said today, of the shooter, “This hateful person came to this community with this crazy idea that he would be able to divide us, but all he did was make us more united and love each other even more.” I read that quote Friday afternoon in the Journal, in Valerie Bauerlein’s story, and I thought: Riley isn’t just talking, he is telling the truth.

Charleston deserves something, a bow. So too do the beautiful people who go to Wednesday night Bible study in America in 2015. They are the people who are saving America every day, completely unheralded, and we can hardly afford to lose them. There’s only one thing Charleston doesn’t deserve. People apart from the trauma, far away, have already begun to bring their political agenda items to the tragedy and make sure they are debated. Because this is the right time for a political debate, right?

Here’s an idea: Why don’t you leave the grieving alone right now? Why don’t you not impose your agenda items on them? Why don’t you not force them to debate while they have tears in their throats? Don’t politicize their pain. Don’t turn this into a debate on a flag or guns. Don’t use it to make your points and wave your finger from your high horse. These people are doing it right without you. They are loving each other and helping each other. Let them grieve in peace. And respect them as what they are, heroic.


The Fall of Fort Sumter, 152 Years Ago Today

Today, April 12, is the anniversary of the first shot of the Civil War, according to most accounts.  This was the day when South Carolinians fired on the federal garrison  defending Fort Sumter in the middle of Charleston Harbor.  The garrison itself was a pathetically small group – 65 enlisted men, commanded by Major Robert Anderson, who had originally been assigned to Fort Moultrie.
 
Anderson had given up on any attempt to strengthen Fort Moultrie, which lay across the channel from Fort Sumter on Sullivan’s Island.  Moultrie was practically defenseless. Sand had piled up against its meager walls, and cows now climbed easily to the tops of the walls to graze.  In other places, the walls had collapsed entirely, and there was simply no way to defend the fort from a land attack.
 
On December 26, less than a week after South Carolina voted to secede from the Union, Major Anderson planned a surprise move to Fort Sumter, from which he could at least mount a credible defense if Charleston decided to attack.  He slipped out of Moultrie under cover of darkness and successfully seized Fort Sumter.  He had failed to anticipate, however, the continuing need to supply the island. 
 
As early as January 9, 1861, a passenger steamer without any armament had been diverted from its usual routes to bring supplies to Fort Sumter.  Anderson was unaware of the steamer’s mission, but a small group of Citadel cadets assigned to Morris Island were taking no chances. Their commander gave the order to fire to a young cadet, who shot a cannon ball across the bow of the Star of the West.  The steamer turned and fled, and there were no further attempts to send supplies. There are those who claim that was the first shot of the war.
 
However, according to  the history books, that honor goes to the Confederate guns that bombarded Fort Sumter starting at 4:40 AM on April 12. The garrison survived in the cold, with short rations until April, but Anderson had already notified Washington that he could not hold out any longer. The guns that now encircled Fort Sumter fired throughout the day and resumed on the 13, while the women and civilians of Charleston watched the entertainment from their rooftops.  With much of his fort consumed by fire, Anderson began negotiations to surrender shortly after noon, and the final ceasefire came at 7:30 pm on the 13.  Over 3000 shells had been fired, but not a single man was killed on either side.  And thus began America’s Civil War

5 (or 6 or 7) Reasons I'm in Charleston This Week

I saw a definition of "Home" on Facebook this morning.  It said that home is the place you want to return to again and again, the place you always miss when you are not there.  I had to stop and think about that for a few minutes.  As a military family, we loved every place we were stationed, and then moved on eagerly to the next assignment.  During all those years, home was wherever our family happened to be.  And once we moved on, there was no nostalgia dragging us back.  What about my childhood home? Well, I have no family there anymore, and almost none of my friends have stayed there, so it doesn't fit the definition, either.

But South Carolina, where I have never lived? Oh yes, this is where I always want to return.  Yesterday when we crossed the border between Georgia and South Carolina, my first comment was "It smells better here." Then I realized that there were grass mowers just ahead.  I was just luxuriating in the smell of new-mown grass, but it was still symbolic for me.  South Carolina is somehow my emotional home.  Is it because all my books have been set here? Maybe.  Or maybe my books are set here because I love the area.  I haven't decided.

We're here this week for several specific reasons:

1. My new book, "The Road to Frogmore ," is just out, and this is the natural place to kick it off -- particularly this week! On Nov. 7, 1861, a Union fleet sailed into the harbor near Hilton Head and took control of the area between Charleston and Savannah for the duration of the Civil War. Historians take note.

2. Out at Boone Hall, re-enactors will be assembling later this week to celebrate the Battle of Secessionville, the battle in which my great-uncle, Sgt. James McCaskey, was killed.  See my "A Scratch with the Rebels" for that story.

3. The College of Charleston is kicking off their Jubilee Project--a year-long celebration of Emancipation and its effect on education--on Wednesday evening (Nov. 7), and I've been invited to attend.

4. Down on St. Helena Island, near Beaufort (the setting of "Beyond All Price"), the Penn Center will recognize their founder, Laura M. Towne, as they open their 4-day Heritage Days celebration of Gullah culture.  Since Laura Towne is the subject of my new book, that event is important to me.

5. While in Beaufort, I have some preliminary research to do for my next book, which will center on the Leverett family, the people who owned the House used as the regimental headquarters of the Roundhead Regiment during the war, and the setting for episodes in all four of my Civil War books, even "Left by the Side of the Road."

6. And Saturday, Nov. 10, Middleton Place, outside of Charleston, will be holding their yearly "Plantation Days" event, complete with demonstrations and performances, on one of the most beautifully reconstructed plantations in South Carolina.  I will be signing books there in the Museum Shop from 2 to 4.

But most important, I love this city. I'm here for all of the above reasons, but also because the weather is sunny and soft, the air is fragrant with sea brine and pluff mud, the people are friendly, the food is astonishingly good, and life moves at a pace that allows time to relish the present, even while remembering the past.