The Fall of Charleston

February 18, 1865 – City officials surrendered Charleston, South Carolina to Federal forces this morning.

With Federals closing in on both the South Carolina capital of Columbia and Wilmington, North Carolina, the prized port city of Charleston became isolated on the Atlantic coast. This isolation increased when Federals cut the railroad line connecting Charleston and Augusta, Georgia.[1]

Confederate President Jefferson Davis had repeatedly urged General William Hardee (commanding at Charleston) not to abandon the city. However, Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard (commanding in South Carolina) ordered Hardee to evacuate, and Davis finally deferred to Beauregard’s judgment. On February 17, as Federals occupied Columbia, Hardee commanded the evacuation of the city that had symbolized the Confederate cause throughout the war.[2]

Before withdrawing, Confederates burned cotton in buildings and warehouses to avoid Federal confiscation. They also destroyed quartermasters’ stores, arsenals, railroad bridges, and vessels in the shipyard. Abandoning Charleston also meant abandoning Fort Sumter, site of the engagement that had begun the war in 1861. Sumter had long symbolized Confederate defiance to Federal subjugation, having survived two years of heavy naval bombardment.[3]

At 9 a.m. on February 18, Federal Brigadier General Alexander Schimmelfennig accepted Charleston’s surrender from the mayor. A northern correspondent wrote, “Not a building for blocks here that is exempt from the marks of shot and shell… Ruin within and without, and its neighbor in no better plight. The churches, St. Michael’s and St. Philip’s, have not escaped the storm of our projectiles… From Bay-street, studded with batteries, to Calhoun-street, our shells have carried destruction and desolation, and often death with them.”[4]

The Fall of Charleston | Image Credit: Flickr.com

The Fall of Charleston | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Most white residents had already fled the city. According to a northern scribe, Charleston was a “city of ruins—silent, mournful, in deepest humiliation… The band was playing ‘Hail, Columbia,’ and the strains floated through the desolate city, awakening wild enthusiasm in the hearts of the colored people…” Most black residents welcomed the Federal occupation troops, especially the 55th Massachusetts, a black regiment.[5]

U.S. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton ordered “a national salute” fired from “every fort arsenal and army headquarters of the United States, in honor of the restoration of the flag of the Union upon Fort Sumter.” The simultaneous falls of Columbia, Charleston, and Fort Sumter devastated the South. Regarding Sumter, President Davis acknowledged, “This disappointment to me is extremely bitter.”[6]

—–

  • [1] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 639; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 61
  • [2] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 16560-16579; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 637-38; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 446-47
  • [3] Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 446-47; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 639-40; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 360
  • [4] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 640-41; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 447;
  • [5] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 640-41; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 61
  • [6] Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 696; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 360
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