CHARLESTON AT WAR: Our city falls

Houses on the Battery show the effects of Union fire.

Library of Congress

Meeting Street, looking south toward the Circular Church, the Mills House, and St. Michaelís Church, is left virtually in ruins after the 585-day siege of Charleston. Much of the rest of the city looked the same.

On the 514th day of the siege, Charleston was quiet.

No shells would be hurled at the city that day -- Monday, Dec. 5, 1864 -- as Confederate and Union troops had called a temporary truce to exchange prisoners. It was a bureaucratic ordeal that The Mercury predicted would take two weeks to complete. And because it was announced in advance, weary residents expected that it would allow them a few days to relax.

But someone at Fort Sumter did not get word in time. That day, a sharpshooter at Sumter spotted a Union soldier at Battery Gregg who was making no effort to hide. The sharpshooter steadied his gun, took aim and fired.

The Yankee fell immediately -- wounded or killed, the newspaper did not know -- and the cease-fire was over.

Battery Gregg opened its guns on Sumter at once, the shots echoing through the city for several minutes before Union officers spotted a white flag going up at Sumter. Southern officers sent a note of apology to the battery, and the uneasy truce resumed.

Everybody in Charleston was understandably jumpy as December descended on the Lowcountry. Each day brought new reports of Sherman's march to the sea. The despised Union general was making his way southeast to Savannah, and there was little doubt he would soon capture the Georgia port. It seemed no one could stop the man who had taken Atlanta.

On Dec. 12, The Mercury reported that the Savannah Railroad's tracks had been "menaced" by Yankee shelling, cutting off Charleston's rail access to the south.

"For the present, the trains will cease to run through between the two cities."

A week later, on Dec. 20, Sherman's troops crossed the Savannah River. Two days after that, word reached Charleston that Confederate troops had abandoned the Georgia city. The next morning, Savannah's mayor rode out to greet Sherman. Hoping to avoid the fate of Atlanta, he offered to surrender in exchange for the general's promise to protect the city's property and residents.

Savannah was under Yankee rule by the day's end.

Sherman offered the city to President Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas present, but most Charleston residents feared the gift that Lincoln wanted most lay 100 miles farther up the coast.

By Christmas 1864, however, Charleston was not much of a prize. The city lay in ruins, more a result of all the fires than the shells that pounded the peninsula every week. The mail service was spotty and many residents had fled months before. Those who remained were subjected to the ever- increasing crime that infested the city.

On New Year's Eve, The Mercury recounted the numerous "outrages" that had plagued the city during the final week of 1864. Someone had fired five or six shots into a house on Bull Street; a man was mugged on Coming Street, beaten and robbed of $1,200; a free black man was knocked down on Cannon Street, stripped of his coat and $100. And then, the younger brother of the local provost marshal was assaulted by three soldiers who demanded money and "something to drink."

Perhaps the most disturbing crime occurred on Thursday, Dec. 29, when a group of soldiers attacked a Smith Street home. Around 9 p.m., five or six men in uniform tried to force their way in to the "respectable home." A lady across the street saw what was happening and called out to a servant in the house, asking if "the colonel" was home to protect them.

The slave said the "master was absent on duty" and that there was no one in the house except servants and several young women. Ultimately, the soldiers -- upset that they could not break into the house -- fired a shot through one window. The ball hit a wall and rebounded, falling at the feet of one of the young ladies.

War or no, Charleston had become a very dangerous place.

Ironclad down

On Jan. 4, The Mercury reported that Sherman had crossed into South Carolina and was near Hardeeville -- barely 80 miles south of the city.

"All the beef cattle, hogs and sheep have been driven from the Hardeeville and Grahamville sections, and are now pastured in a safe locality," the paper noted.

Sherman's men were making fine progress on their own; no one in the state wanted to help their advance by providing them with dinner.

Charleston spent January 1865 not only worried about the possibility of a pending invasion, but also the escalating crime rate. It seemed criminals were menacing the city as much as the Yankees. After a house at the corner of Coming and Wentworth streets was robbed of more than $3,000 in supplies, locals began to speculate that a group of men masquerading as Confederate soldiers were behind the rash of robbings, muggings and thefts.

"The fact that a few prowling stragglers in the garb of soldiers have been unwarrantably assuming the functions of a provost guard, stopping and robbing negroes, and in some cases, white men, has thrown discredit upon many of patrols of the bona fide provost guard," the newspaper reported. "In order therefore to prevent mistakes, we would mention that there is a genuine provost guard, relief parties from which perform the onerous duty of patrolling the streets at all hours, night and day, and the best plan for citizens and others, when challenged, will be to show their papers without delay."

As if that weren't enough, Battery Gregg resumed the shelling of Fort Sumter at 3 a.m. on Sunday, Jan. 8.

Disheartening as the city's predicament had become, the fight had not gone out of Charleston completely. That week, Robert Barnwell Rhett Jr. launched a vicious assault on Confederate officials in Richmond, who were rumored to be considering a peace accord with the North -- a treaty that might include limitations on the expansion of slavery.

On the front page of The Mercury, the editor called this "lunacy" and predicted that South Carolina would fight to the bitter end.

"It was on account of encroachments upon the institution of slavery by the sectional majority of the old Union, that South Carolina seceded from that Union," Rhett wrote. "It is not at this late day, after the loss of thirty thousand of her best and bravest men in battle, that she will suffer it to be bartered away; or ground between the upper and nether mill stones, by the madness of Congress, or the counsels of shallow men elsewhere. … We want no Confederate government without our institutions. And we will have none."

South Carolina, Rhett declared, would not abandon its principles, "Sink or swim, live or die" -- with or without Virginia and the Confederate congress.

It increasingly looked as if those were the state's only two choices.

Charleston got a glimpse of what such a future might look like when The Mercury published a report out of Savannah on Jan. 14. Every man, woman and child in the Georgia city had been commanded to take an oath, the newspaper said, "not simply of neutrality, not a parol not to fight against the United States, but an oath of allegiance, not alone to the Constitution of the United States, but to the unconstitutional laws which have been passed by an abolition Congress."

Rhett's defiant words could not lift spirits in Charleston; even the destruction of a hated blockade ship didn't warrant much excitement in this winter of discontent.

On Sunday night, Jan. 15, the men at Fort Sumter watched a Union ironclad drift into and out of sight in a heavy fog. It was, by the best estimates, about 600 yards off and the troops were waiting for the boat to get a little closer before they opened fire.

Aboard the USS Patapsco, the crew was providing cover for two Union picket boats that were dragging the harbor entrance for mines. The Confederates could not see the small picket boats, only the ironclad's rounded turret.

The fog left the Patapsco as blind as the sentries at Sumter, and some of the crew were on deck taking constant soundings to make sure the boat didn't run aground. And then, about 8 p.m., the Patapsco ran into one of the submerged Confederate mines.

The explosion was muffled by the water enough that the men at Sumter did not hear it. In fact, even the crew of the Patapsco did not realize how seriously they had been damaged. But within a minute, the heavy, cumbersome boat sank into the channel. Some crew members managed to get away, but more than 60 Union sailors went down with the ship.

The sentries at Sumter would later report that they suddenly heard "a confused mingling of shouts ... and cries for mercy" that quickly died away.

It was a hollow victory for the South. Their mines had protected the harbor, but most everyone in Charleston had to wonder: for how long?

A 'reliable gentleman'?

By the end of January, Sherman was rumored to be on the move.

The Mercury reported that the general's troops had advanced to Branchville "with a considerable force of infantry." The Yankees had not made more progress, Rhett speculated, because of poor road conditions. Other reports said Union troops were in fact planning an attack on the railroad.

At the same time, Rhett granted front-page space to the rantings of a man who had recently arrived in town to tell Charlestonians about the coming "peace."

"This 'reliable gentleman,' " as The Mercury derisively called him, "has now taken up lodgings in Charleston, and can be seen any day upon the street with his mouth wide open, and his tongue going like the clapper of a town bell. Yesterday his oracles were a little more cheerful than the day before. To amuse our readers, we will give his last on the 'Peace Commission.' "

According to Rhett, the man claimed Lincoln had offered reunion, with slavery preserved on the same basis as before the war -- so long as fugitive slaves did not have to be returned, and that there would be no expansion of slavery to the territories. But Confederate President Jefferson Davis had rejected these terms, and all of Lincoln's other overtures.

Despite The Mercury's prominent reporting on the "reliable gentleman" and his claims, Rhett called it crazy talk.

"The situation is simple, and our destiny is plain -- the Yankees must be driven from the soil of the Confederation, or the people of the Confederate States must be driven from their own soil -- white slavery and expatriotism or independence and black slavery," Rhett wrote. "Let all men hush with the foolish talk of peace, and let there be but one watchword, from one end of the land to the other -- Fight!"

Charleston was still getting conflicting, contradictory messages from The Mercury as the second week of February 1865 began. Rumors from other parts of the country suggested the war would soon end, and no doubt many had already heard talk of the Confederate military's plans to abandon the city. And yet The Mercury, which had promoted secession and the war so fiercely, seemed unwilling to face such prospects. Rhett did not want to give up.

All of that would change within a few days.

On Friday morning, Feb. 10, between 3,000 and 4,000 Union troops landed at "Grimball's place" on James Island. The force pushed Confederate pickets back to their nearest defenses, but beyond that the fight was a stalemate. Maj. Manigault was reportedly killed in the skirmish, "but some doubt is expressed as to the correctness of this report."

The war had not only taken a toll on the city, but the newspaper, as well. That same day, when The Mercury reported that Sherman had crossed the Edisto but was allegedly headed for Augusta, Rhett announced that the paper would cease publication. At least temporarily.

In a note "To our Readers," Rhett wrote that "the interruption of railroad communication between Charleston and the interior produces a state of affairs that compels us, temporarily, to transfer the publication office of the Mercury elsewhere; and today's paper will be our last issue, for the present, in the city of Charleston."

He said the newspaper would shut down only for a few days, but in fact The Mercury would not publish again for 21 months. And by then, Charleston had changed irrevocably.

Night of horror, chaos

A few days after The Mercury halted publication, the batteries on Morris Island increased their rate of fire on the city. The Union's newest guns had a greater range than the old ones; some shells were reportedly hitting the peninsula north of Calhoun Street. Local residents had nowhere to hide, no newspaper to tell them that these attacks would pass. Charleston was quickly becoming a lost cause.

The orders, when they came, were dispatched from Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard on Feb. 14: the Confederate military was to abandon Charleston.

It took a few days to make all the preparations, and in that time Union signalmen figured out what was going on. The Confederates were reducing their rations stock, moving hospitals farther inland and inspecting wagon trains for brigades that had not moved once during the war. Yankee spotters deciphered one message sent to Sullivan's Island that read "Burn all papers before you leave."

The Confederate troops put on a show until the end. On the morning of Feb. 17, they raised a new Confederate flag over Fort Sumter. When they lowered the banner that night, the soldiers followed it out, abandoning Sumter in the dead of night.

It was, historian Milby Burton would later write, a night of "horror and chaos, undoubtedly the worst ever experienced in the history of the city." Fire, which had caused so much distress to the city during the war, would usher out the Confederacy.

In public squares, soldiers burned piles of cotton and rice to keep the supplies from Union soldiers. They also burned the bridge over the Ashley River, and blew up a huge Blakely gun on The Battery. An attempt to ignite the Arsenal -- depriving the Yankees of Southern ammunition -- failed, but troops used 20 tons of powder on the gunboats Charleston and Chicora.

Finally, the soldiers turned to the Ladies' Gunboat. The Palmetto State was burned to the waterline, a symbolic sacrifice that said, as much as anything, that Charleston was resigned to its fate. Later, some people would claim that, in the smoke rising out of the sinking gunboat, they saw the image of a palmetto tree.

Most of the fires were allowed to burn through the night. Many of the city's firefighters had fled, leaving only a couple of companies comprised of free blacks to fight the blazes. Bands of looters ran through the streets, and the people who didn't evacuate the city barricaded themselves in their homes. The horrors of war had come to their front doors.

It was the 585th day of the Siege of Charleston and by morning it would be over.

At daybreak, Union troops noted that the Confederate flag did not rise over Sumter and, upon investigation realized the fort was empty. After more than 43,000 rounds fired at the fort, the Yankees were able to retake Sumter only because the Confederates ceded it. But by then, Fort Sumter bore little resemblance to the outpost it had once been. Entire walls had been reduced to rubble, the remains of which were scattered across the man-made island.

Once the word spread, blockade ships steamed into Charleston Harbor. They found the city smoking and eerily quiet. Looters had busted out windows across the city, stealing what few valuables had remained in storefronts. When Union officers finally reached City Hall, Mayor Charles Macbeth met them outside.

Macbeth surrendered the city, and asked if the Yankees might arrest the looters and extinguish the fires.

There was no one else left in Charleston to do it.

The end

Sherman reached Columbia on the same day Confederate troops were making their final preparations to leave Charleston. The fires that destroyed the city that day would remain controversial for more than a century: Did retreating Confederates set the fires, were they accidental or did Sherman burn the city?

In April, Richmond fell, but it was merely a formality at that point. The Southern cause was lost. On April 9, a few day's shy of the war's fourth anniversary, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. Although some fighting would continue for weeks before word finally spread, the war was officially over. About 620,000 Americans had died.

Less than a week after Lee's surrender, Lincoln was assassinated in Washington by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth.

Union forces would occupy Charleston for more than a decade during Reconstruction, and the city would slowly come back to life. The Charleston Mercury resumed publication on Monday, Nov. 19, 1866, with Robert Barnwell Rhett Jr. at the helm. In its first editorial, the newspaper recounted the end of the war and tried to strike a tone that was alternately conciliatory and defiant in its epilogue to "40 years of effort."

"In referring to the Past, we have no desire to extenuate, to paliate, or to excuse the part that the Mercury has played in the politics of the country. We do not believe much in death-bed repentances and spasmodic reforms. We shall neither spread a lie, upon our past conduct, by avouching repentance that we do not feel, nor live a lie now by protestations that would be false. What we have done, we have done -- what we have written, we have written.

"We have failed in our cause, and we sit surrounded with the ruins of our former estate."

The Mercury would publish for two more years before shutting down in November 1868. Rhett moved on to New Orleans, where he continued in the newspaper business.

Charleston would eventually rises from the ashes, but it would take years. These old times would not be forgotten after 150 years, and probably never will.

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