The sound of hoarse thunder disrupted the "glorious autumn morn," sending hundreds of Charleston residents running from their shops and homes toward The Battery.
It was a sound not unlike the report of guns that announced the bombardment of Fort Sumter nearly seven months earlier, and many locals worried that the city was under attack.
But on the waterfront they saw nothing but calm forts, and the crowds soon dispersed. A few of the more anxious and curious retreated to the Broad Street office of The Mercury to await the news coming in from telegraph that Thursday morning, Nov. 7, 1861.
The gunfire was "no hoax, but grim reality," the paper reported the next day. Although "plainly audible" in downtown Charleston, it had actually carried up the coast nearly 50 miles.
Port Royal was under attack by the United States Navy.
After months without significant incident, the war was suddenly once again in Charleston's backyard. For most residents, it was a rude reminder of the realities of a war that, for some, had become an abstraction.
The Mercury kept Charlestonians informed of the daily happenings in the war between the states, but all of it was occurring elsewhere.
Every day, the paper printed dispatches from "the war in Missouri" or "the war in Kentucky," where Confederate troops were trying to keep Union forces out of Tennessee.
Charleston's only direct role for much of the fall was holding 100 prisoners of war from Manassas, Yankee soldiers who had been shipped in by train and jailed at Castle Pinckney.
There had been few other events that made the local papers -- several Dahlgren guns were shipped in for the city's defense, and the German artillery was feted in a grand ceremony before leaving for the front in Virginia. But locally, other concerns dominated the early fall of 1861.
Local authorities had detained several slaves for illegally selling produce on the docks; four servants of a local woman had been arrested for attempting to poison their mistress; and a young slave boy, 12, had shocked the community when he apparently committed suicide, by lying on railroad tracks until a train came through.
And then there was the case of the mysterious man who called himself Rothschild, a name that conjured suggestions of high finance and banking empires. The man had checked into the Charleston Hotel in mid-September and immediately caught the eye of locals, many of whom thought he acted suspiciously.
When this Rothschild suddenly changed his travel plans and left the city in a hurry, he was tracked to Savannah. There, he had immediately caught another train back to Charleston, where he was eventually detained for questioning.
The Mercury reported that Rothschild was carrying a valise "filled with gold, and his trunk, which is at the Lower Guard House, is rather too heavy for clothing."
It turned out the man was a merchant from Charlotte. He had shipped many of his goods to Charleston and converted the stock to gold -- about $8,000 worth. He was ultimately released, but still eyed warily.
Despite all that melodrama, the fall of 1861 was mostly quiet until the Union began bombing the South Carolina coast.
The vulnerable spot
The attack on Port Royal should not have been a surprise.
Throughout the summer and into the fall, the city had watched as hostile ships sailed over the horizon and half-heartedly tried to blockade Charleston Harbor. Some of them would linger for days, prevent a few ships from leaving port, then sail away.
Many of those ships carried native Southerners who had been forced to choose between their home and their profession.
In Charleston, the Middleton family suddenly had to confront the notion that they might have to take up arms against their own blood. Edward Middleton, younger brother of Ordinance of Secession signers Williams and John Middleton, was a captain in the U.S. Navy.
As Tracey Todd, a historian at Middleton Place, would later note, Edward Middleton in 1861 wrote that, "I hold that in times of revolution an officer bound by his oath is not at liberty to throw off his allegiance and serve against his late government, even if he should be so disposed."
The Middleton brothers would expend much effort trying to convince Edward that his place was with his family, not at sea. But Edward, like many naval officers, was not inclined to leave his post.
"These views of mine may be regarded in some quarters now as unsound," he wrote to his sister, Eliza, "but the time may come when they will be admitted to be consistent with (the) principles (of) ... all honorable men."
It only made matters worse for the Middleton family that it was Edward's own Navy that was bearing down on Charleston. At the time, Gen. Winfield Scott's "Anaconda Plan" was still under development, but the ships were coming. The Union had discovered that, on the water, it held a decided advantage.
In late August, seven Union Navy ships attacked two Confederate forts on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The Yankee ships bombarded Fort Hatteras and Fort Clark for two days before the Southern troops, outgunned and out-powered, surrendered.
The Mercury spent the early part of September fretting over "the fall of Fort Hatteras," and for good reason -- it was the first real Union victory of the war. Taking those Outer Banks forts gave the Union a little confidence after its failure at Bull Run, and some political cover to continue fighting.
And it led the Union to develop a new plan of attack.
After the battle at Hatteras Inlet, South Carolina should have realized that it would be next. Union forces were eager to strike a blow in the state where the war began, and there were three tempting targets on the water -- the port of Georgetown, Charleston Harbor and Port Royal Sound.
Brig. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard recognized that Port Royal was the coast's most vulnerable spot. But when he told South Carolina officials that the mouth of the sound was too wide to defend simply with forts on either side of its entrance, he was ignored.
The Confederates began to build defenses on Hilton Head Island, on the southern side of the sound, and on St. Phillips Island to the north. St. Phillips sat just behind Fripp Island, three miles or so north of Hilton head. As of November 1861, neither fort was entirely finished.
Despite Beauregard's warning, South Carolinians were not overly alarmed when, on Nov. 2, a correspondent for The Mercury reported that "a Great Yankee Armada" was allegedly sailing down the coast.
It was thought, the newspaper assured Charleston, that these Union ships were headed for "Savannah or Brunswick, Georgia."
Shoot while moving
While Charleston was experiencing "dreary" weather in the first days of November, a fleet of more than a dozen warships and several other assorted vessels trudged through similar conditions as they made their way down the East Coast.
Flag Officer Samuel Francis du Pont, the 58-year-old leader of the convoy, meant to repeat the victorious strategy used at Hatteras Inlet on the South Carolina sound, but weather delays slowed what some observers called the largest fleet ever assembled.
The storms forced some ships to leave the convoy, and a few even sank. Conditions were so bad that du Pont's options for attack were cut down.
He had been extremely cautious about revealing his target. He gave most captains their orders -- and even their destination -- in sealed envelopes that they could open only after they were at sea.
Still, northern newspapers got word of du Pont's target and reported on the attack before it actually occurred. Those stories, which listed South Carolina as the fleet's destination, ran in the Charleston papers on Nov. 3. But it would be three days later before The Mercury reported the attack on Hilton Head.
By the time that story made the paper, it was all over.
"The enemy's fleet engaged our batteries for forty-five minutes at ebb tide to-day, and they have gone out of range," the paper announced. "One steamer was hit with a ball, and towed off. Another large steamer is aground since yesterday. Thirty-three vessels are now in sight."
The Confederates thought du Pont intended to land his troops on Hilton Head and storm the defenses on foot. But that, Capt. F. Peck of the steamer Cecile told The Mercury, was entirely dependent on calm seas.
And du Pont did not have that luxury.
On the morning of Nov. 7, du Pont began his run at the mouth of Port Royal Sound. He sent 10 boats with orders to shoot while moving, which made it harder for the forts to return fire. It was the same strategy used at Hatteras.
The fire fight continued for hours. Many of the shells from Fort Walker (on Hilton Head) and Fort Beauregard (on St. Phillips) missed the moving targets, enough that du Pont's men were able to advance.
The next day, Charleston learned details of the engagement from refugees who had fled Hilton Head during the shooting.
"The steamer Savannah arrived here at 6 p.m., having been struck three times, but sustaining no serious injury," the paper reported. "She reports that 15 vessels had passed the batteries at Port Royal up to 12 o'clock. Walker's battery is doing good work. Several of the Yankee fleet have been crippled."
That good work would not be enough to repel the Yankee horde for long. By early afternoon on the 7th, the Confederates were running out of ammunition in their unfinished forts.
The Confederates at Fort Walker had little chance.
The new fort had been designed to hold seven 10-inch columbiad cannons on its sea face, but soldiers there discovered they had only one big gun. The rest were light guns that were of little use against a fleet of warships.
Someone had delivered the ammunition of the wrong size for the guns, and the one big columbiad the Southern troops had was damaged after firing less than a half-dozen shots.
After a morning of heavy shelling, Brig. Gen. Thomas F. Drayton realized his gunners were so fatigued that he left the fort and returned with men from another battery to replace them. But by early afternoon, they were low on ammunition, and only three of the guns on the seaward wall were still firing. It was time to retreat.
Just after 2 p.m., Union sailors spied several Confederates leaving Fort Walker. Believing the men were retreating, a Yankee boat went ashore to negotiate terms of surrender.
The sailors found the fort abandoned.
When Union troops raised the American flag over the Hilton Head fort, the Confederates on St. Phillips abandoned their position before land-based Yankee troops could trap them on the island. Soon, the Union took that fort too.
In little more than half a day, the Union military had claimed a strategic piece of South Carolina.
On Friday, Nov. 8, The Mercury, unaware of this outcome, opined that the battle was destined to occur. "South Carolina began the war; and it is, perhaps, fitting, in the nature of things, that she should end it. The rage and hate of her enemies have precipitated them on her coast. They come to punish her, for daring to assert her liberties and independence."
But that front-page editorial also carried a dire warning for the city.
"If they can take Charleston, with twenty-five thousand men, let them have it," the paper said. "We are unworthy to possess it; and it will be a fitting memorial -- laid in ashes -- of our imbecility and degeneracy. But if, on the contrary, we shall give to every one of our invaders, who shall remain on our soil, a prison above it or a grave beneath it -- will it not end the contest?"
Those were hopeful words from a defiant city, a city that carried the ironic attitude that "It is better for South Carolina to be the cemetery of freemen, than the home of slaves."
By the time those words were distributed through the streets of Charleston, Union forces were well on their way to taking St. Helena Island, Beaufort and much of the land to the north. Soon, the Yankees truly would be in Charleston's back yard, bringing the war back to the city where it had all started.
The days of reading about the war from afar were over.
Next: The great fire of 1861
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