In December 1864, Jacob Schirmer wrote in his diary, “The Circumference of the Confederacy appears to be getting smaller every day — and our enemies exalting ... from all reports starvation is almost before us. The Union Army led by General William Tecumseh Sherman was in Savannah, Georgia.”
On Dec. 24, 1864, Gen. Sherman confidently wrote to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant that his strategy for South Carolina, the home of secession, was to keep the Confederates in doubt as to his real objective. Sherman reasoned that after he crossed the Savannah River, whether his object was Augusta or Charleston, the Confederates would divide their forces; he would then ignore both Charleston and Augusta and occupy Columbia. “Charleston,” he told Grant, “is now a mere desolated wreck and is hardly worth the time it would take to starve it out.”
The naval and artillery siege of Charleston had begun in 1863; it was the longest campaign of the Civil War. By December 1864, Gen. Sherman and his massive army were close by. Charleston waited in anticipation. Charlestonians were convinced that Sherman was going to march on Charleston.
“Our affairs are gloomy indeed,” Schirmer wrote in his diary on Jan. 27, 1865. “Sherman with his army has succeeded to pass thro’ Georgia with no interruption and he is now moving on thro’ So. Car.”
In February 1865, Charleston was the “mere desolate wreck” Sherman had described. Susan Middleton reported to her sister, Harriot, that the “houses in the lower part of town are constantly broke open and plundered.”
The lower half of the city was now totally uninhabited. “To one walking through,” one Charlestonian later recalled, “it seemed more like a city of the dead than anything else.”
Charleston was abandoned by the Confederate Army in February 1865, following Gen. Sherman’s capture of Atlanta and then Savannah in December 1864.
The March to the Sea was naturally expected — as late as Feb. 11, 1865 — to lead to the Cradle of Secession, but ironically, the Lowcountry’s natural geography protected her from Gen. Sherman just as it protected her from twentieth-century highways which would have destroyed her coast. Sherman bypassed Charleston for the same reason Interstate 95 bypasses Charleston today: It is out of the way if one is going north to Richmond.
Sherman bogged down marching through the Lowcountry marshes. “We must all turn amphibious,” he wrote, “for the country is half under water.”
Instead he headed inland toward Columbia. “If I am able to reach certain vital points,” he said, “Charleston will fall of itself.”
On the morning of Feb. 17, 1865, the Confederates at Fort Sumter raised a brand new flag. That evening, it was lowered for the last time. The Confederate defense of Fort Sumter, “a feat of war unsurpassed in ancient or modern times,” according to Confederate Maj. John Johnson, was at an end.
The city was occupied by Union troops on Feb. 18.
As Milby Burton succinctly put it in “The Siege of Charleston,” “The night of February 17-18 was one of horror and chaos, undoubtedly the worst ever experienced in the history of the city ... with evacuation a certainty [the cotton piled in the public squares] was set on fire ... casting an eerie glow over the entire city.” The city was at the mercy of roving mobs and looters.
Benjamin Quarles, in “The Negro in the Civil War,” describes the surrender this way: “While the proud metropolis — the Confederate Holy of Holies — still smoldered, the Union forces took possession of the harbor defenses — Fort Sumter, Ripley, and Moultrie and Castle Pinckney — which had so valiantly withstood all previous efforts.”
At 10 in the morning, Lt. Col. A. G. Bennett of the Twenty-first U.S. Colored Troops arrived in Charleston and demanded that the mayor formally surrender, which he immediately did. The African American troops helped put out fires and restore order.
The Union lawyer Charles Cowley recalled years later, “Never, while memory holds power to retain anything, shall I forget the thrilling strains of the music of the Union, as sung by our sable soldiers when marching up Meeting Street with their battle stained banners flapping in the breeze.”
Sidney Andrews, a Northern reporter for the Boston Advertiser and the Chicago Tribune, came to Charleston in September 1865. This is what he saw:
“A city of ruins, of desolation, of vacant houses, of widowed women, of rotting wharves, of deserted warehouses, of weed-wild gardens, of miles of grass grown streets, of acres of pitiful and voiceful barrenness, — that is Charleston, wherein Rebellion loftily reared its head five years ago, on whose beautiful promenade the fairest of cultured women gathered with passionate hearts to applaud the assault of ten thousand upon the little garrison of Fort Sumter.”
Some efforts were made at the reconciliation of the races. The African American restaurateur and caterer Nat Fuller invited white and black citizens to a dinner at his restaurant, The Bachelor’s Retreat. Fuller had been the successful caterer to wealthy and influential whites and many accepted his invitation and joined with prominent black families at dinner.
The Civil War ended in April 1865, and Charlestonians are organizing to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the event.
A recreation of the Nat Fuller feast, organized by Dr. David Shields of the University of South Carolina, will take place on April 19, 2015.
The Fort Sumter-Fort Moultrie Historical Trust is hosting a free lecture program at the Dock Street Theatre on April 18, “ ‘A Just and Lasting Peace Among Ourselves?’ Lessons on the 150th Anniversary of the End of the American Civil War.”
Prominent historians on the program include Annette Gordon-Reed (Harvard University), Eric Foner (Columbia University), Emory Thomas (University of Georgia), David Blight (Yale University), Thomas J. Brown (University of South Carolina), Blaine Roberts (California State University), and Ethan Kyle (California State University).
The College of Charleston is hosting a lecture on March 11 by Prof. Richard Carwardine (University of Oxford).
An interfaith memorial service mourning all dead of the Civil War will be held Sunday, April 19 at Hampton Park. There will be a concert at White Point Garden.
Robert N. Rosen is a Charleston attorney, author of “A Short History of Charleston” and “Confederate Charleston” and past president of the Fort Sumter-Fort Moultrie Historical Trust.