150 years ago, Charleston had reached a low point — or turning point

Most all of the destruction seen here along Charleston’s Meeting Street was caused not by the war but by an 1861 fire. While scaffolding went up around the Circular Congregational Church, center, it later was razed and a new sanctuary built.

One hundred and fifty years ago, what had begun with nervous excitement as shots were fired upon Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor ended here with a quiet retreat of Confederate forces, a fresh disaster and a city in ashes.

As Charleston changed hands, it still suffered greatly from a late 1861 fire that left a mile-long scar, more than a year of Union shelling downtown and four years of war that left many of its citizens broke, injured or dead.

Before the Civil War began, the city already had endured several wars, hurricanes and major fires, but Feb. 17, 1865 — when Confederate forces fled the city — marked its lowest point by many measures. Unless you were a slave or, more precisely, a former slave.

At the same time federal forces arrived and reclaimed the city as part of the United States, she would suffer a series of explosions that served as exclamation points, including one blast that would be by far the most fatal of the war.

While Charleston didn’t burn as spectacularly in the end as Atlanta, Richmond or Columbia — which was engulfed in flames around the same time that Charleston was abandoned — those who remained faced hunger, illness and an urban landscape every bit as desolate.

Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman visited a few months later and proclaimed:

“Anyone who is not satisfied with war should go and see Charleston, and he will pray louder and deeper than ever that the country may in the long future be spared any more war.”

The Confederacy successfully defended Charleston over the course of the war until it decided its remaining troops in the city were needed elsewhere, as Sherman’s army of 60,000 troops marched inland, from Savannah to Columbia and farther north.

By this time, Charleston’s strategic importance in the war had largely eroded, first with a federal blockade that effectively shut down its harbor, the fall of Savannah and the federal army taking territory to the west.

The city’s greatest and most visible damage was the destruction from a December 1861 fire that reduced Circular Congregational Church and the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist to brick shells.

“The fire actually did more damage to Charleston than the war did,” said historian Stephen Wise, who wrote, “Gate of Hell, Campaign for Charleston 1863.”

The war didn’t cause the fire, but it played a role, limiting the number of available men in the city to fight the blaze, which began about where the Harris Teeter supermarket stands today and burned southwest toward Broad and Legare streets.

The fire also claimed the two buildings where secession was hatched — the St. Andrew’s Hall on Broad Street and the S.C. Institute Hall on Meeting Street. Unlike the churches, neither was rebuilt.

While the city gradually cleared away the fire’s rubble, there was no rebuilding because everything was focused on the city’s defense and larger war effort, said Rick Hatcher, retired historian with the Fort Sumter National Monument.

And beginning in the summer of 1863, Union forces on Morris Island began lobbing shells into the city, ripping through the roofs of many buildings south of Broad Street, but occasionally, when the wind was right, reaching as far as Calhoun Street and beyond.

“In the year 1864, the city of Charleston was shelled for a total of 207 days, with over 12,000 rounds,” Hatcher said. “The evidence of that is still with us. Every year, they seem to find one, two or three of these shells that were fired from Morris Island. Just a couple of months ago, they found one.”

For those left behind in Charleston, the war’s end here raised religious questions along with more practical concerns.

“It raised some questions about how a loving, benevolent God could have allowed that to happen,” said Bernard Powers, a College of Charleston historian. “Some people reached the conclusions that they should have reformed the institution of slavery and the failure to do so was an explanation for the loss of the war and emancipation.”

Others saw the war’s end as a divine blessing.

“The outcome of the war bringing emancipation was seen as a divine blessing for the slaves who for such a long period of time had seen themselves walking in the steps of the Jewish people who had been held as slaves by Egypt,” Powers said. “This was their grand day of jubilee when the blessing of God bestowed freedom on them. This is what they had been praying for for so many generations.”

Former slaves gathered at Zion Presbyterian, which had stood near Marion Square, and other churches to rejoice, Powers said. They soon held a mock funeral, pulling a hearse through the city’s streets.

Daniel Alexander Payne, a free black Charlestonian who was forced out of the city three decades before, soon returned. “He walks up and down the streets of the city and sees people he knew,” Powers said. “It was a grand union for him.”

Under his authority as bishop, Payne re-established the AME church in Charleston, a church that had been outlawed following the Denmark Vesey slave conspiracy in 1822.

But Powers said the festive mood would have been offset somewhat by the realities of scarce food, illness and uncertainty.

“There would have been a mixture of relief, hope, excitement, anxiety — all of those things,” he said.

Among the first federal troops to arrive in downtown Charleston after its surrender were the 55th Massachusetts, an all-black regiment.

“They were received by a rousing crowd,” Powers said. “These guys coming into the city were singing the John Brown song, and we know how John Brown was viewed.”

Many of the city’s wealthiest residents evacuated inland, to the safety of friends’ and relatives’ plantations or summer homes,

“The people who could not afford to get out of the impact areas just had to live with it and deal with it the best they can,” Hatcher said.

The city had about 40,000 residents when the war began, about as many people as live on the peninsula today. That number probably stayed somewhat stable as refugees poured into town as wealthier people moved out, Wise said. Marion Square, which was beyond the normal shelling range, was a refugee camp.

Despite the vast destruction of the urban landscape, few perished from the 1861 fire. During the year-and-a-half siege, Hatcher said he knows of only five deaths from all of the thousands of shells.

At the end, however, the city’s death toll would spike dramatically.

On the morning of Feb. 18, a crowd of poor whites and blacks had gathered at the Northeastern Railroad Depot at Chapel and East Bay streets in hopes of getting food. Some boys found a pile of gunpowder there and began grabbing handfuls and taking them over and tossing them into a cotton fire, where it cackled and gave off smoke.

But the boys inadvertently created a trail of powder between the pile and the fire, and the two soon connected.

A few hundred people were killed, burned or maimed in the resulting explosion and a number of nearby homes were destroyed. While no exact death toll survived, historians consider the blast the most lethal event in the city during the war.

Earlier on the 18th, federal troops noticed the lack of activity and began rowing toward forts Sumter and Moultrie.

They intercepted members of a Confederate band that didn’t retreat with the rest, and the 52nd Pennsylvania troops eventually reached the city and were greeted by Alderman George Williams.

Williams gave them a letter from Mayor Charles MacBeth confirming the Confederates had left and MacBeth had remained to enforce law and order until the federals took over. He later sought their help after learning Confederate loyalists planned to set fires across the city.

Several small fires burned in mid-February, but none approached the size of the 1861 blaze, and MacBeth later was credited for protecting his fellow Charlestonians against their enemies and “even against themselves.”

The coming days would see looting and rejoicing, particularly among the former slaves.

The city would never be the same.

“It was a tremendous mess,” Wise said, “and no one knew quite what was going to happen.”

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.