By Seabrook Wilkinson

Retreat and surrender are not actions generally associated with heroism, but there are times when further resistance to the overwhelming force of an enemy is suicidal and it sometimes takes a mind of heroic cast to recognize this hard fact. In April 1861 South Carolina was at the center of action to establish a new nation. In February 1865 the state was again the focus of attention, as the young nation staggered towards the final surrender of extinction. Gen. Lafayette McLaws and Mayor Charles Macbeth, by retreating at the Battle of Rivers’ Bridge on February 3 and then by surrendering the city of Charleston on February 18, prevented much destruction and further useless loss of life.

In the final months of the War, Lafayette McLaws was under a cloud. I sometimes think that if the Confederacy’s military leaders had expended on fighting Yankees half the energy they squandered on fighting amongst themselves, we would have been a recognized republic long before 1865. Following the failure of the Knoxville Campaign in the latter months of 1863, in which McLaws’ division had for a time fought alongside that of Edisto’s own Micah Jenkins, James Longstreet, as was his unfortunate wont, set about blaming subordinates for his lack of success. McLaws was relieved of his command for “neglect of duty” and demanded a court-martial. Proceedings dragged on for four months. The charges against McLaws were eventually dismissed on a technicality, but he remained bitter about his treatment by Longstreet, who had been his West Point classmate.

Denied permission to return to Virginia by Gen. Lee, McLaws went to Savannah, where he was part of the unsuccessful effort to hold that city against Sherman’s fearsome army. When Sherman crossed over into S.C., General McLaws was given the impossible task of opposing him — it was slingshot against Panzer. He was positioned at the crossing of the Salkehatchie River with about 1,200 men, many of them the proverbial “old men and boys” of the final phase of Confederate arms. Union forces reached the Salkehatchie on February 2 and began to build bridges away from McLaws’ troops that would enable them to advance towards Columbia without interruption. On February 3, federal Maj. Gen. Francis Preston Blair, Jr. (whose father’s chilling image dominated last month’s column) sent his troops wading through the swamp and outflanked the Confederates with two infantry divisions of about 5,000 men. This was, among a number of other names, known as the Battle of Rivers’ Bridge, in which McLaws briefly opposed the Yankees, but realizing that the situation was hopeless withdrew towards Branchville, having taken 97 casualties to delay Sherman’s advance by a single day.

On February 17, Sherman reached Columbia and took it without resistance from Confederate forces in process of evacuating, but not without some difficulty, as Benjamin Huger Rutledge had burned all of the bridges before joining the retreat. On the same day Maj. Gen. William Hardee, acting on orders from Gen. Beauregard, evacuated Charleston, marching his troops towards Wilmington. When the city fell to the British in 1780, there was no gap between evacuation and occupation, but in 1865 Charleston was left without any military presence, as the besieging Yankees were not immediately aware that the Confederate defenders had withdrawn.

A civilian, Mayor Charles Macbeth, first elected in 1857 and now in his fourth term, was in charge, but he had no troops to execute his orders, no police to keep order. Saturday, February 18 was perhaps the most perilous day in the city’s long history. Gen. Hardee had begun his evacuation on Friday afternoon and it was complete by early next morning. About seven, as though to signal trouble ahead, a tremendous explosion rocked the entire peninsula. The depot of the Northeastern Railroad on upper East Bay disintegrated as powder stored there was accidentally ignited. Four city blocks were flattened and an estimated 200 people were killed, more than in any single artillery barrage of the long siege.

Mayor Macbeth could do nothing about accidents — it was the fires being set deliberately that concerned him and his right-hand alderman George W. Williams. They managed to find and set guards to protect some of the most sensitive sites. There were embittered Confederates in Charleston who would rather see it share the fate of Columbia, even then burning, than have it be polluted by falling into Yankee hands. Confederate destruction of Confederate property, not always for direct military purposes, had been increasing in the final year of the War. All those who waited in fear on the peninsula would have recalled the fate of Legaréville, less than 20 miles away on John’s Island, burned by Confederate troops on August 20, 1864. Maj. John Jenkins of the 3rd S.C. Cavalry reported in shocked sorrow on the following day: “I … regret that my last official act on the island should have been, under an imperative sense of duty, to recommend the destruction of the property of our own people (most of them my relatives and friends) and assisting with my own hands in applying the torch to their dwellings.” During this chaotic week of February, all of the great plantation houses on the south side of the Ashley, with the exception of Drayton Hall, were burned by Yankee raiding parties. Legend has it that at Middleton Place its owner Williams Middleton applied the torch himself to his ancestral seat.

The situation in Charleston was desperate and becoming more so by the minute. The Glasgow Herald of March 18, copied from the New York Herald of February 26, reported: “Meanwhile the fires were spreading with great rapidity and threatened to sweep over the city.” Charleston needed troops to put out the fires and restore order, even if they were black soldiers from Morris Island. Mayor Macbeth wrote to Lt. Col. A. G. Bennett of the 21st U. S. Colored Troops: “Sir — The military authorities of the Confederate States have evacuated this city. I have remained to enforce law and preserve order until you take such steps as you may think best.” Bennett also moved swiftly, landing at Atlantic Wharf with an advance party and sending to Morris Island for troops to fight the fires. By nightfall the situation was under control — Charleston would not share the fate of Atlanta and Columbia. Later in the day Mayor Macbeth made formal surrender to the highest ranking Union officer in the city, Gen. Alexander Schimmelfennig, who had crossed the Ashley and repossessed the United States Arsenal.

Charles Macbeth had saved the city that had elected him mayor four times. He was not trained for firefighting but for the law. Born in Charleston in 1805, of pure Scots lineage on both sides, he attended local schools and then read for the bar, becoming one of the most prominent attorneys in the city, practicing as a partner in Yeadon and Macbeth until 1857, when his firm became Macbeth and Buist. His 1835 marriage to Henrietta Gourdin Ravenel produced many children and much happiness. All of his dwellings — the town house at 9 Legaré Street, the plantation house at Wampee and the summer house at Pinopolis, where he died in 1881 — survived the terrible conflict. Those who delight in the preserved splendors of Charleston’s architecture would do well to pause at his tomb in the kirkyard of First Scots. “Courage has a lasting quality,” wrote Ellen Glasgow. Indeed it has and sometimes courage is expressed in surrender, not victory. The enduring beauty of Charleston is in large measure attributable to the courage and quick thinking exhibited by Charles Macbeth during the worst day of his life.        

Seabrook Wilkinson is the author of many scholarly articles and papers as well as being a published poet and retired college professor living in Key West, Fla. His most recent book is a collection of poems called “A Resident Alien: Key West Poems”; to order a copy or learn more about this 2013 publication by Wilkinson, e-mail Seabrook at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or write to him at 508 Simonton Street, No. 4, Key West, FL 33040-6995 with address to which copy should be sent and inscription desired, if any. Cost including postage is $20.

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