Wall Street Despairs at Approach of Civil War
At 4:30 in the morning of April 12, 1861, a mortar round was lobbed toward Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor—the shot that triggered the Civil War. One of the South’s leading newspapers, the Daily Picayune (New Orleans), had a correspondent posted on New York’s Wall Street in April of 1861. He makes it clear in his report of April 9 that the financial district knew war was looming. The paper printed his letter in its April 17, 1861, issue—just three days after Fort Sumter was occupied by Confederate troops:
Letter from Antelope
[Special Correspondence of the Picayune.]
New York, April 9, 1861
Wall street is as blue as blazes today; confidence seems clear gone, for no one can tell what an hour may bring forth. The street itself has not one quarter the bustle usually observable during business hours, and at one time it appears more like a holiday than a moment for dollars and exchange, cotton and real estate. Indeed, I cannot call to mind a day when there was such an utter feeling of despondency and want of confidence as is perceptible at this hour. One of the Republican papers last evening asserted that the waking up of the Government to an energetic endorsement of the laws, had sent a thrill of joy in every direction, but as the paper is one that now and then has a fondness for joking, I presume this was thought a good one, though to my mind rather a serious one. “Thrill of joy!” If not a joke, what an infamous deception! As commerce and finance are the great levers that move the world, and as every household in the land is watered by the springs of that same commerce, how do such random assertions meet the gloom of our business haunts today! Are there any “thrills of joy” in them? Not one! Does the merchant go home tonight and meet his wife and darlings with a smile of satisfaction at the result of his day’s pursuits? No! Does the seedy clerk retire to his chamber with “thrills of joy” bursting through his very frame? No! Does the discharged working girl throw herself upon her straw couch tonight with a light heart and ruddy cheek? No! Does a blockade and dead commerce look joyful? No! Do rusty and musty dollars glitter in the sunlight? No! But why pursue such an unblushing mockery? “Thrills of joy” there are none, but in place of them freezing blood, shattered energies, and bewildered brains!
But it was not in Wall street alone, among the money kings, that matters were blue. Around in William street and Exchange Place, where the bourse is held, bedlam was literally let loose. Such a panic is seldom witnessed as that of today; and to use an expression of a member of the board, “one might suppose that the cannon balls were rattling about the windows!” There was a general and a mad rush to sell, and the whole list, from Government down to Milwaukee and Mississippi, was slaughtered without mercy.
I have already telegraphed you the figures of the leading stocks, and it is not necessary, therefore, to repeat them here. Sufficient it is to say that the decline was both fearful and rapid—tossing the “bears” sky high, and knocking the “bulls” into a cocked hat. When the “bottom” will be reached, will depend upon the movements and action of the fleets and armies that are now leaving our shores. At present, they excite a perfect terror in the minds of business men, while over the circle of home they hang like a banner bespattered and dripping with blood.
And has it come to this? America, the glorious and free, apparently on the verge of a sacrilegious and desolating war—such a war as shall wipe out forever all the brotherly feelings between the North and the South—perhaps crush out the nationality of the latter and force her to a union with some foreign power! What a spectacle! But I yet hope and pray it may not come to this. Blind fanaticism, after a crusade of nearly forty years, has finally culminated, and upon the patient, the generous, the warm-hearted, the gallant South, the dart is aimed to strike. “Crush her out!” say the vampyres. “Down with the rebels!” shout a million voices. “Enforce the laws!” say the excited and maddened populace, and it would seem as if from his long silence and cunning the Northern President had at last awoke to the clamors of the mob.
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