Charleston's worst Christmas: 1863 in S.C. brought Civil War shells, despair, and hope
Up on the Charleston roof tops there was rattle in the wee hours of Christmas morning 1863, but it was louder than click, click, click. The call of duty that December 150 years ago wasn't a video game theme sealed with a bow. Life and death struggles played out in broad daylight, and on Broad Street. Fighting wasn't confined to marshy retreats and bloody thickets just outside of town; the old city was shelled for most of Christmas Day. Houses were destroyed by fire. Civilians trying to keep warm died of battle wounds.
It was Charleston's worst Christmas. The 1861-1865 Civil War had turned in the Union's favor at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July, and ended during a meager holiday season that found townsfolk and Confederate defenders often scrambling for cover in a blockaded city almost under siege.
Slaves in South Carolina must have sensed hope; Abraham Lincoln on the first day of 1863 issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Union soldiers camping on or near Folly Beach, including African-American troops, enjoyed a Christmas meal.
But within Charleston it was mostly despair, and an admirable charitable response featuring a Christmas dinner at the Soldiers' Wayside Home.
"The Christmas of 1863 brings no gifts for the boys and girls," read a Charleston Courier editorial. "The sounds of battle have frightened away from our bleeding Southern land the bearer of painted toys, the candies and plums, and their parents and elders will have to be content with wholesome food of simple quality, seeing that hams and turkeys, mince pies and plum puddings are things the contest we are engaged in compels them to do without."
Life went on. A Christmas raffle was held every night in December at Charleston's Tivoli Gardens. The prize: "poultry."
The Soldier's Relief Association at its "regular weekly meeting" was busy collecting gloves and scarves for a picket boat at Green Pond. A Dr. Bachman was thanked in the Courier for donating bushels of rice, rice flour, corn meal, lard and a ham.
"I won't say it was a palpable sense of doom, but it was a city with the enemy closing in," said Kyle Sinisi, a Citadel history professor. "It's a city that's been evacuated south of Broad, with evacuation heading up toward Calhoun. There's a daily threat of bombardment."
As rarely in American history, urban residents were in sustained military danger. W. Chris Phelps in his 1999 book "The Bombardment of Charleston, 1863-1865" wrote that Union batteries, upon spotting a fire in town, "would train their guns on it so as to spread more fires."
The "Christmas surprise" shelling included an early morning onslaught from or aside Morris Island aimed, as usual, at the St. Michael's steeple. A shell started a fire on Broad Street near Church Street, engulfing Burke's stationary store.
There were casualties. William Knighton, 83, "was sitting by the fire on his hearth" when he "had his right leg shot off below the knee" while his sister-in-law, Mrs. Plane, "had her right foot severely crushed by a fragment of shell," the Courier reported. Both died of their injuries within a week.
A total of 150 shells were launched at Charleston from midnight to 1 p.m., Phelps reported, with 16 falling short. Six buildings and a cotton press on Church Street were destroyed.
The empty chair
"The Christmas of 1863 will long be remembered by those who passed the day in the city of Charleston," the Charleston Mercury reported. "For hours before the eastern sky was streaked with the first grey tints of morning, the cold night air was rent by other sounds than the joyous peals from the belfry and the exploding crackers of exhilarated boys."
The empty chair
The Courier monitored the "Siege of Charleston" with a daily count. "One Hundred and Sixty-Seventh Day," read the Dec. 23 report.
But Charleston, contrary to a few book titles, was not technically under siege. Rivers and a railroad remained open, Sinisi said.
Blockade runners brought valuable goods, "but not necessarily material that stayed in the Charleston area," Sinisi said.
Charlestonians tried to make the best of it that Christmas week. "Just received" rum was for sale at a market on St. Philip Street. A store and dwelling at 157 Cannon St. (now a parking garage) sold for $5,000.
All Confederate soldiers "with or without furloughs" were invited to dinner "free of charge" at the Wayside Home from noon to 3 p.m. on Dec. 25. The dining hall was dressed with evergreens, and more than 400 soldiers attended. A simple shortage of utensils forced many to wait in line.
Christmas concepts such as small decorated trees, feasting and caroling were spreading in popularity throughout the U.S. in 1863. Thomas Nast's Christmas illustrations during the Civil War, including a somewhat modern-looking Santa Claus, are widely credited with cementing American holiday traditions.
But Lowcountry yuletide joy was in limited supply.
"They had the tradition of the empty chair," said University of South Carolina history professor Don H. Doyle. "For those who had died or for those who were away in battle, it was a way of recognizing the men in service. There must have been a lot of empty chairs around the dining tables of South Carolina that Christmas."
The Charleston Courier's Dec. 25 editorial went on: "Many will dine on the scanty fare of every day. Many will celebrate it afar from their homes, and the memory of the manner in which they have passed this day for a long series of years will aggravate their present ills and add grief to their sorrow."
Hope for emancipation
Confederate Capt. A.B. Mulligan, a Charleston grocery operator, had it a bit better. His letter sent from a North Carolina camp late in 1863 is included in a "My Dear Mother & Sisters" collection published in 1992: "All is quiet now. On Christmas night we attended a tableau at Richlands and I enjoyed it finely. There were a great many handsome and interesting young ladies in the neighborhood."
Hope for emancipation
The record of slave thoughts about the pressing Union troops is "beyond thin," Sinisi said. But word of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation spread quickly.
"Doubtless many slaves knew about the well-publicized Union progress and could see prospects for emancipation brightening by Christmas 1863, though every extra day spent in slavery was an ordeal," said University of South Carolina history professor Thomas J. Brown.
Doyle points out that the Civil War by late 1863 had "become an abolition war."
"That meant that wherever the Union troops were going, many of the slaves would abandon their masters and fall in behind the Union lines," Doyle said. "Of course, it was a proclamation and not a fact that they were free, and depended on Union troops actually providing protection for slaves to come over across the lines. But that idea must have been very much alive in the minds of slaves."
Roast beef, plum pudding
Things were more upbeat for Union soldiers who had been gradually closing in on Charleston. Christmas Day of 1863 in the Lowcountry included "pleasant & agreeable weather," according to a letter from Robert L. Coe to his "beloved parents." Coe was stationed with New York's 112th New York Volunteer Infantry at Folly Beach.
Roast beef, plum pudding
Lt. Colonel Charles B. Fox was with the 55th Massachusetts Infantry, the African-American sister regiment to the 54th Massachusetts unit featured in the 1989 film "Glory." In a letter to his wife, Fox said he was within sight of "the shapeless ruins of Fort Sumter" at Christmastime. Though suffering from "insufficient food, bad water and diarrhea," the 55th had beefsteak and mutton chops for Christmas dinner.
Charles Macreading Vincent, a Union soldier from Martha's Vineyard writing home to Massachusetts, said his Christmas meal in South Carolina was "the best I have seen since I entered the service of Uncle Sam." Menu: Roast beef, turnips, potatoes, tomatoes, horse radish and pepper sauce. "Then come on a great plum pudding and mince pies, and a dessert of apples, raisins and nuts."
Some Union soldiers received 1863 Christmas gifts - mostly books or basic clothing - "from Tad Lincoln." The president's 10-year-old son was struck by the needs of military personnel upon a camp visit with his father and started up a collection.
Charlestonians on the worst Christmas in Charleston history got a less merry sentiment from the staff of the Courier:
"We wish to send for all readers a happy enjoyment of Christmas - as happy as can be desired or expected under the shadow of the war-cloud which overhangs our land and drops down blood."
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