February 18, 1865 was the end of one era and the beginning of a new one for Charleston. For those of you “from off” who know that the Civil War–that is, the War Between the States–is a big deal in the South but you aren’t really sure why that is after all this time, let me tell you a little story.
At that date Charleston had been under Federal Bombardment since August 8, 1863, a total of 587 days. Fort Sumter had been shelled even longer, since April. General Quincy Gilmore with his Federal Troops, using African-American soldiers, had worked his way up the coast and had finally seized Battery Wagener and Morris Island . From there he commenced to bombard Fort Sumter at close range and the city at a distance using new technology, cannon with a rifled shaft. The rifling allowed cannonballs to be hurled as far as six miles, twice the previous range. These guns were aimed at the city and its civilian population. They were nicknamed “The Swamp Angels”.
The civilian population in the lower city were ordered to evacuate as far north as Calhoun Street. People scattered to the countryside . The bombardment continued but the city refused to surrender. General Gilmore had taken a lot of heat for bombarding civilians in the Northern Press and in Congress, utilizing the same “Total War” approach that prompted Sherman to burn Atlanta. In May of 1864, he was transferred to the Army of the James and was replaced by Alexander Schimelpfennig, a Prussian with no reservations about the siege campaign.
The stalemate continued until the very end, and Charleston surrendered not because of Federal advances here but rather General Sherman’s burning of Columbia two days earlier (February 16) which destroyed the last transmission lines between Charleston and the outside world.
Confederate General Hardee’s orders were that in such a contingency he was to evacuate his men. And so, Hardee ordered his men onto boxcars at the Northwest Rail Depot at the corner of East Bay and Chapel Streets. Sherman had destroyed the rail lines west at Branchville, and north to Wilmington was the only option.
General Hardee was leaving nothing behind for the Yankees. Perhaps the city had resisted so long because of General Beauregard’s “Ring of Fire” , eight batteries strategically arranged around the harbor that provided withering resistance to Yankee attempts to raid the Harbor from the ocean. Those guns had to go! They were spiked and deafening explosions were heard throughout the city even as word spread of the ongoing evacuation.
The departing army did, however, save the docks on the Cooper River. Cotton there was gathered and piled into pyres at Citadel Green, and there it was lit afire, a symbolic burnt offering to a way of life careening to a close. The eerie glow from the fire and the black pall of the smoke added to the sense of panic as people fled to the streets, rumors spreading that the Yankees were already burning the city as they had Columbia. Although that fire was a controlled one, docks and warehouses on the west side were set ablaze indiscriminately. On Lucas Street was a long shed filled with 1200 bales of cotton. That, along with Lucas’ Mill containing some thirty thousand bushels of rice and R.T. Wilkin’s warehouse at the foot of Broad Street were set ablaze and destroyed. The bridge west over the Ashley River was ordered blown up, and fire from that explosion set ablaze inhabited neighborhoods uptown. Confederates burned cotton warehouses, arsenals, quartermaster stores, railroad bridges and two ironclads. It is ironic that as rumors spread of Yankees burning the city, it was General Hardee’s orders that made the burning a reality.
And so the bitter cold, rainy night commenced with a spree of looting and vandalism. Rumors spread that the evacuating troops had left food on the platform at the train station. They had also left bad gunpowder. As a desperate populace stormed the Depot looking for food, children played with the gunpowder, carrying handfuls across the street to watch it flare in a makeshift fire. They created a powder trail that led back to the Depot and that flaming trail ignited an explosion that killed approximately 160 people instantly. Two hundred others were wounded. What irony that over 587 days of siege, only 53 persons had died as a direct result of the Federal shelling. Three times as many died on evacuation night. The Charleston Courier gives this description:
“The explosion was terrible, and shook the whole city…..The cries of the wounded, the inability of the spectators to render assistance to those rolling and perishing in the fire, all rendered it a scene of indescribable terror.”Charleston Courier 11/20/1865“
The fire could not be contained and consumed most buildings from Chapel Street to Calhoun Street and from Alexander Street to Washington Street with few exceptions.
Early the morning of the 18th, Lieutenant Colonel A.G. Bennett, of the 21st U.S. Colored Troops, received City Aldermen Gilliland and George Williams as emissaries from Mayor Macbeth, with a letter of invitation from the Mayor requesting that he take possession of the city and establish order. I can see the post script to the letter (BTW, General Hardee took the last train out last night) Although General Schimellfennig was still here, ill with malaria, Gilmore had arrived back in Beaufort on February 10, ostensibly to accept a pending surrender, a “save face/restore honor” move. Imagine Gilmore’s rage and disappointment to receive a letter of invitation from the Mayor! With no formal surrender and no sword to be handed over, Gilmore must have been a bitter man.
Nonetheless, Federal Troops moved in and took possession of the Arsenal just minutes before it was to be blown. The U.S. flag was hoisted over the Citadel, the Arsenal and the Customs House within two hours.Federal troops were put to work putting out the flames.The navy took possession of Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie within 24 hours. They were cautious because the Confederates had left dummies, or “automatons” standing guard to give the impression that the forts were still occupied.
That afternoon the the Federal Troops entering the city were led by the Fifty Fifth Massachusetts Regiment, black soldiers recruited from the ranks of liberated slaves. Marching through the city they sang “John Brown’s Body.” Their standard was not the Stars and Stripes, but rather a flag which read “Liberty” was waived to and fro, much to the horror of the remaining white citizens. White Charleston was miserable and in desperate straits, the wealthy having long since removed themselves from the city. With the exception of a few businessmen who stayed to protect their interests, only the poor remained. and they were confused and astounded by the jubilation of the blacks at Yankee occupation. Some 200 Confederate deserters surrender themselves, declaring that they were tired of fighting. Jacob Schirmer, a local white businessman, writes in his diary, “We have writ our own destruction, and now we must live with it”.
The New York Tribune reports that the city was surrendered at 9 AM on Saturday morning , February 18. The departing confederates had left behind two hundred guns and a fine supply of ammunition.
Charleston Old Walled City Tours offers public and private walking tours and driving tours of historic Charleston SC and the surrounding countryside. For information go to www.walledcitytours.com