Library of Congress

The third major bombardment of Fort Sumter began on July 7, 1864, and would become the second-largest assault on the fort. Over the course of two months, 81 Confederate soldiers would die as 14,600 rounds were fired at the fort.

The Confederate flag was falling -- a slow-motion, seemingly endless cascade into the smoking rubble below.

On that day, June 20, 1864, it appeared the flag would be just another casualty in the continued bombardment of Fort Sumter, another fallen soldier.

The shell was only the second shot of the day, fired at 1:30 p.m., a lazy day's work by Union standards. But it hit the fort's flagstaff squarely, sending Sumter's stripes falling toward the ground.

Lt. C.H. Claiborne would not let the colors touch the ground, would not give the Yankees the satisfaction of realizing how good their aim actually was on that day. Somehow he managed to grab the flag in mid-air, then he rushed to the fort's parapet, dodging shrapnel and inhaling smoke all the way.

By the time the haze cleared, he was holding the flag high above his head.

Soon, two other soldiers, N.F. Devareaux and B. Brannon of the engineer department, rushed to Claiborne's aid and worked to re-mount the flagstaff while he held it aloft. They were quickly spotted by the Yankees, who opened fire on the men, "too cowardly to appreciate, and too mean to honor a gallant act in a foe," The Charleston Mercury would later note.

The three soldiers ignored the assault and finished their work, re-hoisting the flag high over the battered fort. And before they ducked back into the relative safety of Sumter's crumbling walls, Claiborne, Devereaux and Brannon "saluted the enemy with a cheer and a wave of their hats" -- a patriotic show of defiance.

The Mercury would call it "one of the most heroic acts of bravery connected with the history of the bombardment of Fort Sumter."

By the summer of 1864, Charleston was desperate for uplifting news. It had been a demoralizing spring, for the most part.

Through March, the Hunley's successful attack on the USS Housatonic filled the newspaper's pages. Most of the stories actually were reprinted from Northern newspapers, which in the wake of the attack openly fretted about the possibility that the South had six or eight of these infernal stealth boats.

The Mercury did little to dissuade such speculation. Although Editor Robert Barnwell Rhett Jr. never named the ship responsible for the attack, the editor assisted the Confederacy by spreading disinformation.

"We are glad to be able to assure our readers that the boat and crew are now safe," Rhett reported.

Of course, the Hunley was lost and no one in Charleston knew its fate. To maintain the charade, and keep the Yankees guessing, Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard dispatched the David on two attacks that spring.

In early March, the torpedo boat engaged the USS Memphis in the North Edisto River. In April, the David tried to sink a blockade ship, the USS Wabash. Neither battle accomplished much.

In the weeks between those two attacks, Charleston suffered another setback. On March 19, a fire broke out at the Confederate States Arsenal.

One simple spark set off 20 pounds of powder in the arsenal's "pyrotechnic room," a wooden building on the site.

Several soldiers were injured, and one man, Emanuel Hogan, succumbed to smoke inhalation during the blaze. He was unable to escape in time because of a prior injury: Hogan had lost a leg a year earlier at the Battle of Battery Wagner.

The Mercury noted that the accident, while horrible, could have been worse. It was as much optimism as Rhett could muster.

The Confederacy was quickly coming to grips with the possibility of defeat. Every week brought another editorial concerned with the uncertain future facing the South, "What Remains of the War" followed by "The Vindications of History."

From Richmond, Confederate President Jefferson Davis declared April 8 a day of fasting and prayer, which only served as another excuse for Rhett to contemplate the South's fate.

"We are on the eve of events big with the destiny of ourselves and our posterity," Rhett wrote. "A future the most awful that the imagination can contemplate awaits us if we fail; a future glorious and happy if we succeed."

The next week, Beauregard and his officers tried to raise morale with a ceremony similar to those that Charleston hosted almost every week in the early days of the war. On April 13, the Confederates marked the anniversary of the surrender of Fort Sumter with a 13-gun salute.

As they went through the motions, the city was hit with 20 shells from Union guns on Morris Island.

Endless summer

By the spring of 1864, Charleston bore little resemblance to its grand, antebellum self. Its central business district gutted by fire, the homes of the lower peninsula deserted, the city had become little more than an outpost for soldiers.

Past glories were all but forgotten, and most days there was little to report save for the number of shells fired on the city or its defenses in a given day.

On a good day, no shells were hurled at Charleston. On a bad one, lives were lost. In April, one shot hit Mr. Duncan's blacksmith shop on Hasell Street. The shell crashed through the roof and landed on an anvil where a young slave boy named Aaron was working.

Doctors later reported that the boy's left arm would have to be amputated, but he would likely survive. Weeks later, another shell would "shatter" a child's arm. He too would live.

As a result of this onslaught of artillery and bad news, the entire city's nerves were frayed. The Mercury was forced to devote an increasing amount of its columns to crime news. On Friday, March 18, officer McSweeney of the Charleston Police Department arrested a Private Young of the 1st S.C. Infantry for some unrecorded offense.

Young, however, drew his pistol and shot McSweeney, "the ball entering his abdomen, and coming out at the back." Young was eventually jailed. McSweeney, the newspaper reported, was doing well and "it is hoped he will recover."

On Saturday, May 7, police found a runaway slave named Christopher lying at the corner of Beaufain and Rutledge streets, a gunshot wound to his abdomen. The 18-year-old -- owned by Hugh E. Vincent, the paper noted -- had been missing for a year and a half, and claimed that he had been robbed and shot by soldiers.

The newspaper was not averse to reporting crimes allegedly committed by soldiers, but Rhett raised questions about the accuracy of Christopher's story, which he carried to his death bed.

The residence of J.C.E. Richardson on Rutledge Street, not far from the corner where the young slave was found, had been robbed. Richard was out of town, like so many Charleston residents, but had left his home booby-trapped.

There was really only one window in the house suitable for thieves, and Richardson had set up his rifle with a double-shot of ball and buckshot pointed at the window. If the shutter was opened, the gun would go off.

The Mercury reported that the gun had been fired, and surmised that Christopher had been shot while trying to rob Richardson's house. Whether that was what happened, it sounded better than the alternative, that the South's own soldiers were killing people in the streets of Charleston.

In the early days of the war, The Mercury had printed primarily positive news items about events around town. As the summer of 1864 approached, however, stories of women delivering clothes to the crew of the CSS Indian Chief were the exception.

More likely, the paper had to devote space to denouncing rumors, such as the one circulating in town on May 18 that said Richmond had fallen. Someone claimed that blockade ships had fired guns that day in salute to Union troops taking the Confederate capital.

The fact that the rumor was false provided little comfort to a city under siege.

On Sunday, May 22, the North began another concerted push to take James Island. Union ships sailed into the Stono River and began to bombard Secessionville. At the same time, between 800 and 1,000 Yankees attempted to come ashore at Legare's Farm.

They were repelled by local troops, but soon they would once again have a foothold in the island. It was the beginning of the summer's escalation.

By July 2, an estimated 1,500 Northern troops descended on James Island, where they fell into a brutal fight with Confederate forces. It seemed that this exercise, largely unsuccessful, was meant to distract the South from a much larger assault on Fort Johnson.

The next day, a Sunday, 48 barges filled with Yankee troops approached the James Island fort. Lt. Col. Joseph A. Yates trained all his guns on the barges, which sent the enemy scurrying for cover.

Only 11 of the barges were noticed returning to Battery Gregg on Morris Island. Yates confirmed that at least five barges were captured in the attack, netting Fort Johnson 140 prisoners.

For the rest of the month, the two sides would engage in various minor skirmishes across James and Johns islands. Most were stalemates. The Union held its ground at the edge of the islands, but could not advance.

This was a victory for the Confederates, but they found little reason to celebrate. On July 7, the third major assault on Fort Sumter began, and it would be the most punishing offensive in more than a year.

Most days, more than 100 shells hit Sumter, and on some as many as 350 shots rained down on the decimated fort. The average was more than 200 shots per day, and the shelling was doing its share of damage.

On July 20, Capt. John Mitchel, the commander at Fort Sumter, was killed in the bombing. A week later, an engineer named John Johnson was hit by a mortar round and died instantly.

Fort Sumter would bring in a new commander, Capt. Thomas Huguenin of the 1st S.C. Regular Infantry, and other soldiers would rise up to fill the positions of their fallen comrades. It was a never-ending cycle as the summer of 1864 dragged on.

The Union shelling of Sumter would not ease up until the end of the summer.

Between July 7 and Sept. 4, Union guns would hurl 14,600 shells at Sumter, killing 81 Confederates. After a day's respite, the guns re-opened on the fort for another 12 days. In that time, nearly 600 more shells would be fired at the fort, killing another half-dozen men.

But by then, it was almost over.

News from Georgia

In September, Atlanta fell.

The battle had consumed much of the summer, stretching north from the city all the way to Chattanooga, Tenn.. Ultimately, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman managed to get the best of the Southern troops.

When Sherman cut off the Confederate's supply line, Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood had little recourse but to evacuate the city on Sept. 1, burning supply depots and ammunition to keep them from falling into enemy hands.

The next day, Atlanta's mayor presented his city to Sherman.

Charleston residents were devastated by the news. The Mercury followed Hood's retreat, but Rhett refrained from speculating on what this meant for the Holy City. He didn't need to say anything; most residents realized the South was in trouble.

Soon the city would have its own problems, a disaster that distracted Charlestonians from the plight of Atlanta.

On Saturday, Sept. 17, a two-story building on Clifford Street caught fire in the middle of the day. Four small buildings on the street, along with the lecture room at the German Lutheran Church, were destroyed. Sparks from the flames ignited a house on Berresford Street, and the fire began to spread.

Ten buildings on Archdale Street burned, including the hall of the German Friendly Society, a tenement building and the home of a free black woman. Before firemen extinguished the blaze, it had spread from Beaufain Street to Tradd and Meeting streets.

"The city has been visited by a conflagration more extensive and serious in its character than any that has occurred since the memorable disaster of '61," The Mercury reported.

Between this latest fire and the continued shelling, locals could hardly help but notice that Charleston was looking more like Atlanta every day.

The next week, the city was demoralized by the news that Beauregard, who had been gone since April, would not return to defend the city. The Mercury reported various rumors about the general's new orders -- one day the paper said he had been given command of the army in Georgia, where he would join Hood and prepare to fight Sherman, the next it reported that Beauregard would take over the army in Tennessee.

His ultimate destination mattered little; many Charleston residents were crestfallen that the general would no longer stand between them and the Yankees. Beauregard was largely credited with Charleston's impressive resistance throughout the war.

When the general and his staff arrived on Sept. 25 for a brief layover en route to his new assignment, it was a bittersweet visit for locals.

The city bore the brunt of the Yankees' ire throughout October. A few days of firing would be followed by a day or two of eerie quiet. The weekend of Oct. 15 was particularly violent as Union guns lobbed 134 shells at the city.

For those souls who remained in Charleston, the bombardment was becoming a normal occurrence, as close to normal as was possible for a city that had been under siege for more than a year.

The casualties were mounting, and The Mercury could do little but tally the war dead and report on the ever-increasing instances of crime committed on the peninsula.

On Nov. 10, the 490th day of the siege, The Mercury grudgingly reported that the quick succession of firing heard from Morris Island the prior Tuesday marked the end of a party, in which the Yankees celebrated casting their "intelligent votes in favor of the permanence of the Lincoln dynasty."

"About dark the shouting and cheering of the enemy could be distinctly heard over the quiet waters of the harbor," Rhett wrote. "In point of facts the mongrel Morris Islanders are believed to have been all gloriously drunk."

As the fall of 1864 settled in, the Yankees were the only ones in Charleston with cause to celebrate. Most residents of the city spent the rest of the year concerned by the rumors starting to come out of Georgia.

Sherman, it appeared, was marching to the sea.

Next: The fall of Charleston