The Fall of Charleston

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

Charleston was the Confederacy’s prized port city, having defied a Federal naval siege for nearly two years. But the fall of Columbia, the destruction of the South Carolina Railroad, and the Federal threat to Wilmington had left Charleston isolated, so Lieutenant General William Hardee reluctantly ordered his Confederate troops to abandon the city that had symbolized their cause throughout the war.

Federal troops from Major General John G. Foster’s Department of the South began landing at Bull’s Bay on the 17th to divert Confederate attention from Major General William T. Sherman’s advance through central South Carolina. That night, the Confederates began moving north toward Florence and Cheraw to join forces with General P.G.T. Beauregard’s troops opposing Sherman’s march.

Before withdrawing, Commodore John R. Tucker directed his men to scuttle the ironclads in Charleston Harbor and nearby shipyards. The Confederates burned cotton in buildings and warehouses to avoid Federal confiscation. They also destroyed quartermasters’ stores, arsenals, and railroad bridges. Forts Moultrie, Johnson, Beauregard, and Castle Pinckney were evacuated. Confederates finally abandoned Fort Sumter, site of the engagement that had begun the war. Sumter had long symbolized Confederate defiance to Federal subjugation, having survived two years of heavy naval bombardment.

At 9 a.m. on the 18th (the fourth anniversary of Jefferson Davis’s presidential inauguration), Federal Brigadier General Alexander Schimmelfennig accepted Charleston’s surrender from the mayor. The 21st U.S. Colored Troops, made up mostly of former slaves from the Charleston area, proudly entered the city first. Lieutenant Colonel Augustus G. Bennett of the 21st reported:

“On the morning of February 18 I received information that led me to believe the defenses and lines guarding the city of Charleston had been deserted by the enemy. I immediately proceeded to Cumming’s Point, from whence I sent a small boat, in the direction of Fort Moultrie, which boat, when forty yards cast from Fort Sumter, was met by a boat from Sullivan’s Island containing a full corps of band musicians abandoned by the enemy. These confirmed my belief of an evacuation.”

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…” Reporter Charles C. Coffin later wrote that fleeing Confederates had set numerous fires as they hurried out of town that morning:

“The citizens sprang to the fire-engines and succeeded in extinguishing the flames in several places; but in other parts of the city the fire had its own way, burning till there was nothing more to devour… At the Northeastern Railroad depot there was an immense amount of cotton which was fired. The depot was full of commissary supplies and ammunition, powder in kegs, shells, and cartridges. The people rushed in to obtain the supplies. Several hundred men, women, and children were in the building when the flames reached the ammunition and the fearful explosion took place, lifting up the roof and bursting out the walls, and scattering bricks, timbers, tiles, beams, through the air; shells crashed through the panic-stricken crowd, followed by the shrieks and groans of the mangled victims lying helpless in the flames, burning to cinders in the all-devouring element.”

Colonel Bennett reported:

“While awaiting the arrival of my troops at Mills’ Wharf a number of explosions took place. The rebel commissary depot was blown up, and with it, it is estimated, that not less than 200 human beings, most of whom were women and children, were blown to atoms. These people were engaged in procuring food for themselves and families, by permission from the rebel military authorities. The rebel ram Charleston was blown up while lying at her anchorage opposite Mount Pleasant ferry wharf, in the Cooper River.”

According to a northern correspondent:

“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 storms of our projectiles. Their roofs are perforated, their walls wounded, their pillars demolished, and with the pews filled with plastering. From Bay-street, studded with batteries, to Calhoun-street, our shells have carried destruction and desolation, and often death with them.”

The Fall of Charleston | Image Credit:

Since the Federals belonged to the Department of the South, they went to work extinguishing fires and restoring order more diligently than Sherman’s bummers may have done had they captured Charleston. The Federals seized 250 guns and salvaged the ironclad C.S.S. Columbia, which had been run aground but not destroyed. The Federals also captured several “David”-type semi-submersibles that had been used to attack Federal vessels in the harbor.

Federal naval crews left the signal lights burning in the harbor to lure in Confederate blockade-runners, and two were captured. Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, wrote, “You see by the date of this (the 18th) that the Navy’s occupation has given this pride of rebeldom to the Union flag, and thus the rebellion is shut out from the ocean and foreign sympathy.”

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.” Northerners especially rejoiced at the fall of this hated city. Most black residents welcomed the Federal occupation troops, especially the 55th Massachusetts, a black regiment.

The simultaneous falls of Columbia, Charleston, and Fort Sumter devastated the South. Lieutenant John Wilkinson, commanding the blockade runner C.S.S. Chameleon (formerly the Tallahassee), learned about the fall of Charleston while in the Bahamas and lamented, “This sad intelligence put an end to all our hopes…” President Davis acknowledged, “This disappointment to me is extremely bitter.”



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