Category Archives: Charleston SC

March 21, 1865: “Slavery is dead”, “Who owns him?”, “No one” – A “Grand Jubilee for Freedom” in Charleston

On March 20, 1865, and order went out to Lieutenant-Colonel Augustus G. Bennett, commanding the 21st USCT then garrisoning Charleston, South Carolina:

By direction of the colonel commanding the city, you will have your regiment formed in line at 2 p.m. to-morrow to join in the procession of freedom.  Your regiment will have the right, and application is made for 200 colored sailors to have the left of the line.  They will report to you at the green at about 1.30. You will reduce the guards in your district just as much as possible to-morrow, in order that you may turn out as many men as possibly can be spared.

To Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren went the request for “about 200 colored seamen in uniform, with their officers” to report to the Citadel, “for the purpose of joining the procession of freedmen of this city.”

This “procession” labeled a “Jubilee of Freedom” was announced the previous Sunday at the Zion Church, by Colonel Stewart Woodford, commanding the city of Charleston.  Woodford called for those participating to organize at the Citadel’s green, where there was plenty of space. From there the procession would parade downtown.  The procession got underway, despite heavy rains, at around 2 p.m. the afternoon of March 21st. (Ever the sesquicentennialist, I’m timing my post as close to 150 years to the moment at possible.) Leading the procession were several local leaders and military officials, including Major-General Rufus Saxton.

A brief description appeared in the Charleston Courier a few days later:


The New York Times correspondent in Charleston described the parade:

At 2 o’clock, the number of people thus assembled reached four thousand, and shortly after that hour, the colored Marshals, who had previously performed the duty assigned them of arranging the school children into companies, and the trade and other organizations into divisions, took their position in the tine, and everything was ready for the start. First in the procession came two colored Marshals on horseback, each wearing badges, and rosettes of red, white and blue. They were followed by an organization of about fifty butchers, who carried their knives at their sides, and in front of them displayed a good-sized porker. Next in order came the Twenty-first Regiment United States Colored troops, Lieut.-Col. Bennett, commanding, preceded by a band. The regiment turned out in nearly full force, and presented a very fine appearance. The music discoursed by the band was very creditable, and added much to the general effect of the whole proceedings.

Following the USCT were groups of school children carrying banners reading “We know no masters but ourselves” and “We know no cast of color.”  Tradesmen followed, dressed in their work clothes and displaying the tools of their respective trades.  Firemen from ten companies – freedmen who’d manned fire companies through the long war years at Charleston – came “dressed in red shirts, with belts around their waists.”  Then the one part of the parade I find most remarkable:

These were followed by a cart drawn by a mule, and containing an auctioneer, who was standing over two women seated on a block, with their children standing about them. A boy was also in the cart, whose office was to ring a bell with all the energy he possessed. The cart bore the announcement: “A number of negroes for sale;” and as it moved along the auctioneer would appeal to the crowd for a bid, making use of the phrases which are usually heard in a negro auction-room. For instance, the bystanders were repeatedly informed that such a one was an excellent cook, or an expert seamstress, or a valuable field-hand, and that some one of the number had run the price up to an extravagant amount — in Confederate money, of course. Attached to the cart was a long rope, tied to which was a number of men and women. Next was a hearse, bearing a coffin, and having the inscriptions: “Slavery is dead;” “Who owns him?” “No one;” “Sumter dug his grave on the 13th of April, 1861.” The hearse was followed by mourners dressed in deep black.

Clearly the irony of place an circumstance were not lost on the freedmen of Charleston.  The correspondent observed, “Whenever the American flag was passed it was honored with shouts, and the waving of handkerchiefs and caps.”

Can you imagine the emotions pouring out that day?  A southern spring like none preceding.   Emancipation had come to Charleston.  The promise of full civil rights seemed to be hovering on the next breeze.

(Citations, other than those linked above, from OR, Series 47, Part II, Serial 99, page 929.)

March 17, 1865: USS Bibb strikes torpedo – Confederate defenses of Charleston still a problem for Federals

Charleston fell to the Federals on February 18, 1865.  At that point, one might presume the war played out with relatively little activity around Charleston.   Well, I might, if I were not so preoccupied following Sherman’s march, offer a fair quantity of posts detailing the activity at Charleston and vicinity through the end of the war.  The transition from besieged to occupied alone is an interesting story line.  There were several small scale military operations through the end of March which consolidated the Federal hold on the coast while keeping what Confederates remained off balance.  There were dozens of photographs from the Charleston area taken as photographers flocked to the Cradle of Secession to ply their trade.

And, for those of us interested in maps, the Federals took the time to conduct detailed surveys of Charleston harbor and the surrounding area.  Part of that detail went to the men and crew of the Coast Survey steamer USS Bibb.

The Bibb was a common visitor to the waters around Charleston, having spent much time operating with the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.  During the war, one of the Bibb‘s important duties included surveys of the South Carolina waterways to allow the blockaders safe navigation.  And the Coastal Survey men on the Bibb continued that work after Charleston’s fall.  Fleet hydrographer Charles O. Boutelle, commanding the Bibb, was returning to Charleston after surveying the bar in the afternoon of March 17, 1865.  As the ship up the main channel around Sullivan’s Island, there was a sudden explosion, as Boutelle reported:

… we struck a sunken torpedo, which exploded under our port bow about midway between the port guard and the fore channels.

The shock was very severe, the sensation being that of striking a rock, being lifted by it, and passing over it into deep water beyond. The column of water thrown up by it nearly filled the second cutter and unhooked it from the forward davit.  Sixty fathoms of studded mooring chains, 1 ½-inch diameter, coiled upon the port side of the vessel forward, were thrown across the deck.  The knees upon the port side are started out, and the joiner work shows signs of the blow received. The surface blow pipes are broken on both sides.

In spite of that damage, Boutelle felt the Bibb could be returned to service within three days.  Though he did want to ground the vessel to conduct a more thorough damage survey.

When encountering a mine… er … torpedo, one wants to ascertain if there are more in the vicinity, or if this was just one stray that eluded earlier detection efforts.  Toward that end, Boutelle offered a very good position of the torpedo:

Angles taken half a minute before the explosion fix our position at the time. The new light east of Fort Moultrie, on Sullivan’s Island, bore north 85º east, distant 1,530 yards, and the flagstaff at Battery Bee bore N. 27º east, distant 744 yards. The depth of water was 25 feet at mean low water. The explosion occurred at 5:25 p.m., when the tide had not risen over 6 inches. As our position was directly in the track over which many vessels have passed, I infer that the torpedoes must have been placed low in the water where vessels of ordinary draft would pass over it at high tide.  The Bibb draws 10 feet at the point where she struck the torpedo.

And, we can see that exact plot on the survey map of Charleston harbor completed by Boutelle later in the spring (though he put an incorrect date in the notation):


Boutelle went on to suggest that vessels entering Charleston stick close to Sullivan’s Island “until the channel has been cleared of all hidden dangers.”

Two days later, the USS Massachusetts was heading out of Charleston when it struck a torpedo.  “Fortunately it did not explode.  The keel must have torn it from its moorings, for it struck the ship heavily under the starboard quarter and came up to the surface from under the propeller cut in two,” reported Lieutenant-Commander W. H. West.


West continued to say, as you can see from the map, he was very close to the buoy placed on the wreck of the USS Patapsco.  West attempted to recover the torpedo but the device sank before a launch could get to it.

This activity prompted Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren to report, on March 21, to Washington on the torpedo issues at Charleston.  From the days after Charleston’s capture, Dahlgren had ships and details working to clear the devices.  Aside from the Bibb and Massachusetts, the tug USS Jonquil had a frame torpedo explode while in the process of recovery, though causing no damage.  Regarding Bibb‘s torpedo, Dahlgren wrote:

There is no doubt that this is one of the sixteen put down at this place, and which every exertion has been made to raise for several days, but without success, as they slip from the sweeps.

The men who put them down say that General Hardee gave the orders a few nights before the disaster to the Patapsco, and that they finished that very night, which is further confirmation of the statement that these devices were reserved until a move by us was expected.

Dahlgren went on to note that torpedoes were alleged to be prepared for the CSS Charleston for use when that vessel was operative, to drop against any pursuers. The Federals also found a large number being prepared in Charleston when the city fell.

The divers are now here and will endeavor to raise the boiler torpedoes.

I am inclined to the belief that many of the floating torpedoes have been carried to the bottom in cutting away the rope obstructions.

It is reported that other torpedoes will be found at other places, but it requires time to find them by sweeping in such deep water.

Dahlgren continued efforts to clear the channel and render the port safe to enter.  Confederate torpedoes had achieved a strategic importance well beyond the meager effort expended.

While a localized event, the explosion of the torpedo against the Bibb draws back to the logistical issues facing Major-General William T. Sherman.  He’d captured Savannah in December, but the main port was not open sufficiently to allow deep water vessels to supply the army in January.  Likewise, with Charleston and Wilmington in Federal hands in March, the ports were still not cleared in sufficient time to aid Sherman’s movements through the Carolinas … at least to the capacity required.  Instead, Sherman would draw upon supplies sent to Morehead City, up the railroad to New Bern and Kinston.  It was not so much that Federal quartermasters lacked the supplies, the problem was moving those supplies to the point needed.  And the Federal transportation system for that leg of the supply chain depended upon a single rail line… which, recall, had but five engines.

(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 1 pages 295-6 and 296-7.)

Sherman’s March, March 6, 1865: “Virtually living upon the country” as the Federals advance

Well, seeing as the majority of votes from Wednesday called for continued marching with Major-General William T. Sherman, let us proceed along his line.

For March 6, 1865, the columns made limited progress as Sherman held the right wing to allow the Left Wing to negotiate the PeeDee River.


The Seventeenth Corps moved to Bennettsville, to the southeast, to ease congestion near Cheraw and also to allow for foraging of fresher areas of the sparse countryside. The Fifteenth Corps moved just a few miles further out from the east side of the PeeDee.  And, as Major-General John Logan added, made use of the area’s grist mills:

During the campaign every opportunity was seized to work all grist and flour mills met with in the country, and on encamping for the night the mills in the neighborhood were regularly assigned to the different divisions.  Virtually living upon the country, it was necessary to husband our supplies and put under contribution all the resources of the country.

Colonel Reuben Williams’ expedition returned to Cheraw on the 6th.  This allowed the Fifteenth Corps to complete crossing the river.

The Left Wing continued to experience delays associated with the bridging operations.  Not until late in the afternoon was a pontoon bridge ready to receive traffic.  And even then, it used several wagons, covered with canvas, as ersatz pontoons.  Brigadier-General George Buell, who supervised the bridging in lieu of the incapacitated Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Moore, crossed his brigade first to cover the distant shore.  But at that time, the right of way passed to Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry.  Their crossing would take most of the night.  The Fourteenth Corps would wait for their turn the next day…and then assume the lead in Sherman’s movement in echelon to Fayetteville.

In order to speed the crossing, the Twentieth Corps started movement at 8 a.m. that morning to Cheraw.  After waiting for the last of Fifteenth Corps to cross, the Twentieth took to the pontoon bridge at 4 p.m.  Most of the corps crossed during the night.  Thus by morning of March 7th, most of Sherman’s forces had bounced over the PeeDee.  But, as seemed to be the case throughout the march, the Fourteenth Corps, which had been designated to lead the next advance, was behind.

A lot of other parts were in motion outside of Sherman’s direct control at this point.  The Confederates under Lieutenant-General William Hardee continued their withdrawal north.  Some confusion existed in Confederate command with respect to where Hardee should move next.  By the end of the day his objective was confirmed as Fayetteville. The cavalry was crossing the PeeDee at a point upstream of the Federals, to keep pace with Sherman’s movements.  And to the east, off my map, General Braxton Bragg reported an advance towards Kinston in force.  This was a column under command of Major-General Jacob Cox with about 12,000 men.  Bragg could oppose that move with some 8,500 men from various detachments and commands. But for a few days delay on either sector, the Confederates could consolidate forces and be in front of Sherman.  On March 6, opportunities were opening up for Confederate action.

Meanwhile, far to the south of all this movement, the city of Charleston was adjusting to life under occupation.  The previous day, Brigadier-General John Hatch reported:

I would suggest that two or three additional points be designated where the people can register their names and subscribe to the oath. I hear that the crowd is so large and the delay so great that many persons are obliged to spend time that they can hardly spare. I have also heard that it is proposed to get up a demonstration on Thursday next by the colored people. If it meet your approval it is very well, but the city being under martial law no assemblage should be allowed without your previous sanction. One thing more; I would suggest that an order prohibiting enlisted men being in the streets (except on duty) after retreat would at the present time assist in preventing the numerous robberies and irregularities. This need be only temporary.

Such was life in the “Cradle of Secession” under the Federal flag.  Yet, March 7th, the Charleston Courier, still in print, would proclaim, “The Yankees may hold Charleston for a time, as the British did in the Revolution, but the end of the war will restore it to the Confederate flag, and it will enter a new career of prosperity and importance.”

Well we might say at least the second half of the prediction was fulfilled.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 321; Part II, Serial 99, page 698.)