The American Civil War Erupts: The Attack on Fort Sumter
Teaser Image

Charleston, South Carolina: American Civil War

Title: Charleston, South Carolina, 1861
Button: Click to display an enlarged version of the image.
One of the Confederacy's most important cities located on the central coast of South Carolina, about 100 limes north of Savannah, Georgia, Charleston, with an 1860 population of 40,522 people, was a major port city and was considered the most culturally significant city in the South. It was also a hotbed of secessionist sentiment and where the Civil War's first shots were fired. Shortly after the creation of the Confederate States of America in February 1861, more than 7,000 soldiers garrisoned the city and manned cannon on the islands guarding the harbor's ship channel. Brigadier General Pierre G. T. Beauregard assumed command of Charleston's forces in March 1861 and presided over the bombardment of Fort Sumter during April 12–14, 1861, in the first engagement of the war.

The Confederates strengthened the fortifications at Charleston throughout the summer while ships of the Union's Atlantic Blockading Squadron instituted a blockade. Although the vast majority of ships that tried to run the blockade succeeded, by the end of the first year of the war fewer ships slipped through because the Union had more and faster ships on station.

Charleston was symbolically important as the birthplace of secessionism and was economically valuable as a port city and the home to various industrial companies. Consequently, Union leaders were determined to capture the city. The first attempt came in June 1862 when 6,000 men landed on nearby James Island. Many citizens panicked and fled from the city as 500 Confederates successfully defended a line anchored by cannon while inflicting 700 casualties on the Federals.

Beauregard returned to Charleston as commander of the Department of South Carolina and Georgia in 1862. Utilizing slave labor, he improved the city defenses. These measures included increasing the number of guns guarding the city, digging trenches to discourage an attack by land, and mining the harbor. Frame mines, consisting of large artillery shells held in a wooden frame submerged in shallow water, were particularly effective and a deterrent to a Union naval assault. The Confederates also occasionally sortied against the Union blockaders offshore. The David, a 50-foot steam-powered torpedo boat that carried an explosive warhead on the end of a 10-foot spar, successfully attacked but did not badly damage the Union ironclad New Ironsides on October 5, 1863. The H. L. Hunley was the first submarine to sink a ship when it attacked the screw sloop Housatonic in Charleston Harbor on February 17, 1864.

In April 1863, the U.S. Navy mounted a major attack under Rear Admiral Samuel Du Pont when it tried to reduce the city's defenses by bombarding Fort Sumter with nine ironclads. The defenders damaged five of the warships, one of which subsequently sank, and forced the flotilla to retreat.

Later that year, the Union conceived of a joint operation to capture the city that called for Major General Quincy A. Gillmore to attack Fort Sumter and Morris Island's Fort Wagner while Union warships, now under Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren, slipped into the harbor. Gillmore's 6,000 men attacked Fort Wagner but suffered heavy casualties. Unable to capture the stronghold, his men dug trenches and brought up large artillery pieces that could hit Charleston, some four miles away. Gillmore gave Beauregard an ultimatum to surrender both Morris Island and Fort Sumter. The Confederates refused, and the Union began firing on Fort Sumter but also on Charleston on August 22, 1864.

Charleston remained unconquered but beleaguered. The effective naval blockade and wartime economy created shortages and drove up prices. Many stores closed. Destruction resulting from a large fire that had incinerated hundreds of buildings during the previous winter further hampered daily life. City officials instituted martial law for a time, in part because of the disorderly conduct of soldiers. Morale deteriorated, and desertions among the 10,000 soldiers defending the city became common. The municipal government alleviated hardship by subsidizing purchases of staples, but thousands of the poor relied on private charitable efforts for survival, and the population generally suffered. The city was shelled, sometimes heavily, from August 1863 until the war's end in April 1865.

The threat of an assault on the city increased dramatically after U.S. major general William T. Sherman's Union troops captured Savannah, Georgia, in December 1864. Beauregard realized that Sherman's subsequent march toward Columbia would isolate Charleston and make its defenders' position untenable. On February 18, 1865, 10,000 Confederate soldiers withdrew from Charleston as elements of the U.S. Army's 52nd Pennsylvania Volunteers and 3rd Rhode Island Artillery under Lieutenant Colonel Augustus G. Bennett moved unopposed into the city to accept its surrender.

Matthew J. Krogman

Further Reading
Detzer, David. Allegiance: Fort Sumter, Charleston, and the Beginning of the Civil War. New York: Harcourt, 2001; Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: A Narrative, Red River to Appomattox, Vol. 3. New York: Random House, 1974; Fraser, Walter J., Jr. Charleston! Charleston! The History of a Southern City. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989; Grimsley, Mark, and Brooks D. Simpson, eds. The Collapse of the Confederacy. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001.

©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

ABC-cLIO Footer