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More on the fall of Confederate Charleston

February 5, 2015

Complementing our Seabrook’s approach on page 18, this extra historical note reminds us of the huge impact of the war on our fair city; we are still digging up ordinance. By the time Confederate troops evacuated, Charleston had become the most bombarded mainland city in the history of the United States (567 days). Practically a third of the city had burned in the fire of 1861 and so many residents had sought refuge elsewhere that the population was estimated to be about 10,000.

 

Sherman took Savannah just before Christmas 1864 and immediately began staging for the invasion of South Carolina. In late January 1865, 60,000 Union troops crossed the Savannah River and entered S.C. To split Confederate forces, Sherman’s sought to confuse Gen. Beauregard about whether he would head to Charleston or Columbia. After the second railroad was captured on February 14, only the Northeastern Railroad was still in Confederate hands.

 

To prevent Charleston’s defenders from being trapped, Beauregard ordered evacuation on February 15. Lowcountry troops were under the command of General William “Old Reliable” Hardee, a seasoned veteran who had narrowly escaped capture before Savannah surrendered. Ironically, the departing Confederate soldiers did almost as much damage in Charleston as the Union troops did in Columbia.

 

Demolition of anything that might of value to the enemy began on February 16. The bridge connecting Charleston with James Island was burned, creating a firestorm in the western part of town. Thousands of bales of cotton awaiting shipment were torched, as well as thousands of bushels of rice at Lucas’ Mill. Canons were spiked and quartermaster’s stores were destroyed. The Charleston and Chicora gunboats were blown up at their wharves. The big gun at the corner of East and South Battery exploded with such force that it tore out windows and doors and shattered the roof and piazzas of Louis DeSaussure’s residence at the opposite corner. The Palmetto State, the gunboat that the Charleston ladies raised money to build, was blown up at the Gas Company’s Wharf. It is said that the weeping women who witnessed its destruction saw smoke rising from the explosion from a palmetto tree that stood out against the sky before it broke apart. Few slept or went to bed the night of the 17th, for they knew the end had come.

 

Hardee ordered withdrawal from outlying batteries with troops in the city following. In the early morning of the 18th, troops garrisoned at Fort Sumter came over and gathered on the wharf. Some wept, some prayed, some cursed; all said “they would rather have died in the fort they had so long defended than have her ramparts desecrated by the invader’s tread.”

 

Departing troops had moved their remaining materiel to the Northeastern Railroad Depot at Chapel and Alexander Streets. They left so hurriedly that they left behind a stockpile of gunpowder and cartridges. About 8:00 a.m. a large number of men, women and children had assembled at the rail yard to scavenge and watch the abandoned cotton burn. Boys milling about soon discovered the munitions and not realizing the danger, amused themselves by throwing gunpowder and cartridges onto the cotton. As the powder trickled through their fingers, they unconsciously laid a trail from the burning mass to the depot. The trail ignited, exploding the gunpowder with such force that it shook the city from end to end. The depot was blown to bits and the carnage was indescribable. Those trapped in the rubble could be heard moaning and crying for help until the flames consumed them as onlookers helplessly watched. Then all was eerily still. The conflagration ended with upwards of 200 dead; many more were injured. Those who witnessed the sight never forgot the horror. Adding insult to injury, flames spread down nearby streets, wiping out some of the handsomest residences in the city.

 

The Yankees discovered that there were no troops defending Fort Sumter shortly after dawn. They quickly took possession and raised their flag to signal that the Confederates had departed. Union troops quickly took over outlying batteries and a small force under the command of Colonel A. G. Bennett advanced toward the city in boats and barges.

 

History records that Mayor Macbeth formally surrendered control of the city to Gen. Alexander Schimmelfennig at 9:00 a.m. on February 18. The city was burning and chaos reigned. How Charleston was saved from utter destruction is material for another article.

 

Apology to my readers:  There are several inaccuracies in the recent article about Mayor John Patrick Grace. My primary source material was The Great Cooper River Bridge by Jason Annon and Pamela Gabriel. It seems that the letter to “The Next Irish Mayor” was apocryphal. A delightful explanation was provided by Peter McGee: “The story about ‘Get the Stoneys’ first appeared in Robert Rosen’s A Short History of Charleston and is attributed to Bill Regan. I hope that you might have had the great pleasure of knowing Bill. He was a great guy and one of the most popular lawyers in town. His Irish humor was just wonderful. I faced him down about that story and we both ended up roaring with laughter. Suffice it to say, it is Regan lore not fact.”

 

Mr. McGee continued with recollections of the iconic Cooper River Bridge. “When I was a boy my parents frequently took me to Sullivan’s Island. We never owned a house but several friends did. My recollection is that the one-way fare was over a dollar and PASSENGERS WERE EXTRA, but on Wednesday afternoons and all day Saturday and Sunday it was 75 cents round trip AND NO EXTRA CHARGE FOR PASSENGERS. There was always a lot of conversation about the toll and I have a clear memory of when I was a teenager, we would sometimes get one or even two boys in the trunk of the car to avoid the fare. I well remember when the state bought the bridge in 1946 and lifted that hated toll.”

 

Also, please note that Mayor Thomas Stoney’s middle name was Porcher, not Pinckney:  Mea culpa.

 

Peg Eastman is a local author who has written six books about the Holy City. She may be reached at pegeastman@comcast.net.

 

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