John Raven Matthewes saw the men before they reached the plantation, and knew what he must do.

Since taking Port Royal Sound earlier in the month, the Union had landed thousands of soldiers on South Carolina soil. These Yankee troops were now slowly inching their way north toward Charleston.

They had found Beaufort deserted, drafted slaves into military service on Hilton Head and by Nov. 27, 1861 were beginning to infiltrate Edisto Island.

That day, they reached Matthewes' plantation on Bear Island, near Green Pond. The planter knew why they had come, what they wanted. It had been a good year for his rice and cotton crops. But he was not about to let a bunch of Lincolnites, he later said, use his land as a supply depot.

Although it broke his heart, Matthewes quickly set fire to his fields. He watched the flames spread for a minute, then turned to his house. It would have to go too; he couldn't bear for his home to provide shelter for enemy soldiers.

Just as he was about to light a match to his home, the cavalry arrived -- literally. Confederate troops stumbled onto the scene and forced the Yanks to retreat, allowing the South to hold Bear Island and Green Pond, at least for the moment.

Matthewes was so heartened that he turned his home over as a place for the Southern troops to quarter.

The scene at Bear Island was not unusual; similar incidents played out across the Lowcountry in the fall of 1861 -- the results not always so good for locals. In Charleston, The Mercury reported that Edward Baynard had burned his cotton fields and his Edisto Island home to keep them from falling into Union hands.

"Such noble sacrifices to the cause of the South deserve the highest praise," The Charleston Mercury opined.

There was very little to lift spirits in Charleston as the anniversary of secession approached. Edisto Island was in ruins. Southern privateers were being intercepted at sea, their crews tried as pirates. And now Union ships were even making advances on Rockville, creeping ever closer to the city that the North most wanted to take. All this left the entire city in a foul mood.

"On South Carolina, especially, the hate and fury of our enemies are turned," The Mercury editor, Robert Barnwell Rhett Jr., wrote on Dec. 9. "To ravage and burn down our beautiful city, and to crush our every particle of that free spirit which has given our State an honorable renown, will be their earnest effort."

Not even the arrival of Gen. Robert E. Lee, who checked into the Mills House and later toured the city's harbor defenses, could improve the local outlook.

As a cold winter wind blew across the peninsula, Charlestonians were about to learn that things could get even worse.

Night of terror, disaster

No one would ever know for sure how the fire started.

Sometime before 10 p.m. on Dec. 11, 1861, the flames seemed to appear in three places simultaneously. The Mercury said the first blaze began at Russell & Co.'s Sash and Blind factory at the foot of Hasell Street, but others believed it was burning just as early at Cameron & Co.'s Immense Machine Shops on the other side of the street.

Mysterious fires were often blamed on slaves in war-era Charleston, and no doubt some people would whisper about an arson conspiracy in later years. But if anyone blamed what came to be called the Great Fire of 1861 on any group or persons at the time, it never made the papers.

At the time, no one had a chance to assign blame -- they had bigger problems. No sooner than the fire was spotted, it was on the march.

There was never any chance to put it out. Firefighters dispatched to the scene had scant water to fight the fire; it started at dead low tide, which significantly cut down on their water supply.

The weather conspired to make things even worse. After days of calm, spring-like conditions, a nasty Nor'easter had blown in, fanning the flames south and east across the peninsula.

Witnesses would later say they were amazed at the speed of the fire. By 11 p.m., the out-buildings behind Institute Hall, nearly a half-dozen blocks south of Hasell Street, were aflame.

It seemed that all of Meeting Street would be lost. Guests at the Mills House ran out into the street, certain the hotel would soon succumb to the fire.

Fanned by the wind and fueled by an endless supply of wooden buildings, the fire quickly grew to monstrous proportions. The next day The Mercury would say it had been a "night of terror and disaster."

Confederate troops 14 miles away on Johns Island could see the flames from their camp. Many begged their commanding officers to let them rush to the city, either to check on their families or to help put out the fire.

Even Union transport ships, delivering more troops to the lower South Carolina coast, reported seeing the flames six miles out at sea. To those sailors, it looked as if there would be no city left to take.

By midnight, the Circular Church was burning. Next door, Institute Hall -- where the Democrat Party had fallen apart in the spring of 1860, and where the Ordinance of Secession had been ratified a year earlier -- had caught fire as well. It would not survive the night.

Between Market and Queen streets, every building on the east side of Meeting Street was aflame.

Workers called the city's powerful "Steam Fire Engine" into service, and companies of firefighters -- some made up entirely of slaves -- worked throughout the night. The Mercury would later say that "One of the most gratifying incidents of the fire of Wednesday night, was the zeal manifested by our slaves, in their efforts, as firemen and laborers."

So many houses and businesses were on fire that workers hardly knew where to start. One team fought to save the East Bay Street home of L.W. Spratt, and might not have succeeded if it hadn't begun to rain.

It was one of the only blessings that night. But the rain would not be enough, it seemed at the time, to save the Charleston Hotel or Charleston Theatre.

The city streets were filled with thousands of people on their way to becoming homeless. They could do little but watch helplessly as nature did what the Yankees only dreamed of doing.

The Mercury reported that "masters and slaves could be seen working together in removing the household goods and valuables. We noticed one instance particularly, where a white-haired old body servant was giving way to his feelings -- sobbing bitterly -- at the loss of the family mansion."

It was, this slave noted, where he had live his entire life.

Many people were able to save some of their belongings, but few could stop the fires from taking their homes. Many who tried, including firefighters, were injured that night. And at least one slave woman burned to death when she ran into her master's residence "to save some articles belonging to her mistress."

Perhaps the most amazing thing was that more people weren't killed.

At 3 a.m., the Circular Church's steeple fell, taking out another city landmark. By then the wind had shifted, and it appeared that the Charleston Hotel and the Lutheran and Unitarian churches would be safe.

But St. Andrew's Hall found itself in the path of the blaze. Locals would bust into the burning hall and retrieve the full-length portrait of Queen Victoria, which had been hanging inside St. Andrew's. But no one could save the building.

A year to the month following the state's secession, the two buildings that figured most prominently in the event were destroyed. The Mercury would later lament, "Those who, but a short year ago, were witnesses of those soul-stirring scenes which ended in Secession, will deeply regret the demolition of the Institute."

At half-past 5 on the morning of Dec. 12, the "majestic spire" of the new Cathedral of St. Finbar fell. It marked the end of the fire, or at least the end of the worst part of it. The flames jumped Broad Street and cut a swath all the way to the river, but by then it had run out of things to burn.

In its wake, much of Charleston had been destroyed.

'All in ruins'

It took a week to tally the city's losses.

That Thursday, business was "universally suspended" as the community tried to dig itself out of the ashes. Every day The Mercury kept a running tab of the losses: "Horlbeck's Alley (from Meeting) to King Street is in ruins," "Church Street, from the corner of Market to Cumberland, is also burned."

And later, "The residences on Tradd Street, from Logan to Savage, on either side, with Greenhill, Limehouse and Council streets are, with one or two exceptions, all in ruins."

The Mercury devoted one column to offer architectural obituaries of some of the colonial mansions lost in the blaze.

One of those honored the Pinckney mansion on East Bay Street, where folks had often drank to the memory of George Washington at parties hosted by the famous Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, the legendary politician and South Carolina delegate to the 1787 constitutional convention.

By the weekend, "soup houses" were open to feed those left homeless by the fire. A Relief Committee was set up to raise money for the victims, and The Mercury reported the names of donors, and the amounts they gave, for weeks. Soon, a report came in that the Georgia Legislature had voted to send $100,000 in aid to Charleston.

It was some help, but there was little to be done. The fire had burned 145 acres of the peninsula, a swath that was one mile long and one-seventh of a mile in width. Locals estimated the fire's damage at up to $8 million -- nearly half of that in real estate alone.

Charleston would spend the rest of the year, and much of the next, cleaning the streets of debris. But it would take much longer to repair the city's faèade. For the remainder of the war, Charleston would lay in ruins, looking as if the city had already lost the war.

Lighthouse gone

The year got no better for Charleston in its final weeks.

A week after fire destroyed the city, Union ships once again tried to take Rockville. Firing from the ships was so heavy that Col. J.L. Branch of the First Regiment Rifles ordered his men to retreat. The Mercury struggled to salvage good news from the incident.

"Fortunately for us, there is a good stretch of solid ground between us," Rhett opined, "and before they go much farther they will have to leave their gunboats behind them, and stand where we can get at them with the bayonet."

But the Union fleet was not merely sneaking up on Charleston from behind. Yankee ships were beginning to congregate outside the harbor in greater numbers. The Union's blockade plan was beginning to take shape.

The Confederates could do nothing to stop this and were, in fact, forced to inflict more damage on themselves. On Dec. 20, The Mercury ran the headline, "Charleston Lighthouse Blown Up and Destroyed."

The lighthouse, "situated on Morris Island, and which for many years has guided the mariner into our harbor, was blown up on Wednesday night, by order of the military authorities. Nothing save a heap of ruins now marks the spot where it stood."

Charleston would end its first full year of independence from the U.S. government much less optimistic than it had been in the heady days following secession.

The city in shambles, the enemy closing in by land and by sea, there was little reason to heed The Mercury's Christmas wish to "not give way too far to these depressing influences."

And then, on New Year's Eve, another fire scared the city. It was merely a pile of boards that had gone up -- nothing the firemen couldn't handle.

The small blaze was attacked fiercely by locals, a scene more heartening that any calls for patriotism from The Mercury.

Charleston was down, but the fight had not gone out of her.