Steamer Cortez reaches Portland on April 29, 1861, with news of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter.

  • By Jack and Claire Nisbet
  • Posted 8/01/2011
  • Essay 9892
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At 4 p.m. on April 28, 1861, the steamer Cortez crosses the Columbia bar, and reaches Portland at 4 a.m. the following morning. The ship brings news of the April 12 attack on Fort Sumter by Confederate forces in Charleston, South Carolina, and its surrender on April 13.

News of War

The Cortez had departed San Francisco on April 25 on her regular run north to the Columbia River and Vancouver Island, making the shortest trip on record when she docked in Portland after only 60 hours en route. She carried San Francisco newspapers reporting dramatic news from the East, transmitted from St. Louis on April 15 via Pony Express to Fort Churchill, Nevada, then by telegraph to San Francisco.

 "Sumter Surrendered

"St. Louis, April 15 -- A.M. -- After a demand by Gen. Beauregard for the surrender of Fort Sumter, on Friday, 12th April, at noon, and a refusal by Major Anderson, an attack was made by the Confederate Army ... . The firing ceased at half past one o'clock in the afternoon of the 13th. An unconditional surrender was made after the flag-staff was shot over" (Important News). 

The Portland Daily Oregonian, the only daily newspaper in the Northwest at the time, reported the next morning that "Civil War Is Upon Us," but the editor opined that "there is a vast difference between taking a nearly defenseless fortress with an unsupported half-starved garrison, and conquering the almost countless legions of the friends of the Union" (Civil War). 

The overland express quickly disseminated the news, and two days later, the weekly Puget Sound Herald, after devoting the first three columns of page two to the process of tanning hides, the possible location of the state capitol, and the latest mining news, announced to readers in Steilacoom the "startling intelligence":

Battle and Surrender of Fort Sumter! 

The next day, the Pioneer and Democrat, which appeared every Friday, alerted residents of Olympia with a series of headlines and four columns of reports gleaned from San Francisco papers:

The Fleet Unable to Cooperate in Consequence of the Low Tide!
Extra Session of Congress Called!

Another week passed before the Cortez reached Victoria and the editor of The North-West of Port Townsend received a copy of the San Francisco Alta and reported:

Civil War Commenced in the United States
Extra Session of Congress

Isaac Stevens on the Civil War

Former Governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862), who had recently returned from Washington, D. C. as the territorial delegate to Congress, had been closely involved during his last months in the nation's capital with efforts to resolve the issues dividing the northern and southern states.

He happened to be in Olympia when news of the fall of Fort Sumter arrived, and on May 4 he delivered an address at the state capitol in which he denounced the aggressive acts of the South in seizing the property of the United States. As reported by an observer, Stevens "has from the start reprobated and opposed secession. He has denied the right of secession. He does not consider the election of a Republican President as cause for a dissolution of the Union."

Stevens expressed his continuing hope for a peaceful resolution to the standoff, adding that he felt that the "only alternatives are compromise, conciliation, and peace. These were the only effective means of restoring the old harmony and the whole Union; at the same time he had always held, and still held it to be the duty of every citizen to stand by the government and maintain it secure from aggression from whatever quarter it might come" (Speech). 

During the coming weeks and months, regional newspapers continued to reprint the latest dispatches from the East, gleaned from San Francisco papers that reached the Northwest via steamship and overland express. 

Sources: "Attack on Fort Sumter," Olympia Pioneer and Democrat, May 3, 1861, p. 2, col. 2;  "Civil War Commenced," The North-West, May 9, 1861, p. 1, col. 2; "Civil War is Upon Us," Daily Oregonian, April 30, 1861, p. 2, col. 1; "Important News from the States," Daily Oregonian, April 30, 1861, p. 2, col. 2; "Speech of Gov. Stevens," Olympia Pioneer Democrat, May 10, 1861, p. 2, col. 1; "The War Commenced!" Puget Sound Herald, May 2, 1861, p. 2, col. 4.

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