Category Archives: Charleston SC

February 18, 1865: “The City of Charleston and its defenses came into our possession this morning”

While Federal attention was focused on attracting Confederate attention to Bull’s Bay, on Morris Island, Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig remained alert to the possibility that the Confederates would, as many assumed, slip out of Charleston. As had been the case since 1863, the Federal signal officers on Morris Island were watching, transcribing, and deciphering messages sent to Confederate posts around Charleston.  On February 16, 1865, those messages gave indication that something was in the air with respect to an evacuation –   “Be ready to move at a moments notice. Save all the most valuable Government property. Orders and messages burnt.”

I will focus on the details of the Confederate evacuation of Charleston in a separate post (when my hurried schedule allows!).  But I will point out the Confederates practiced some good and bad operations security.  While intercepted messages and other indicators pointed to a withdrawal, the Confederates maintained the lines up to the end.  The rear guard departed Charleston during the night of February 17.

At daybreak on February 18, there was no Confederate flag flying from the staff over Fort Sumter.  The monitor USS Canonicus fired two rounds at Fort Sumter to ensure this was not a trick.  Those were the last shots fired at Fort Sumter, of so many fired during the war.

Federals on Morris Island immediately took note.  Several officers prepared boats to investigate the situation.  Lieutenant-Colonel Augustus G. Bennett, 21st USCT and commanding forces on the north end of Morris Island, directed Captain Samuel Cuskaden, one of Bennett’s staff, to secure a US flag and proceed to Fort Sumter.  At the same time Major John A. Hennessy, 52nd Pennsylvania, lead a boat out to the fort.  Captain R. M. Bannatyne, of the 52nd, later recalled the event:

The 52d Pa. at this time was doing duty as boat infantry, and had 41 or 42 boats of all kinds and descriptions, and the camp was on the west or harbor side of the island. There were no boats on our side of the island except our own.

Col. Bennett says that the regiments were under orders to be ready, but the first order we received was after we were marching to the boats.  When the men took their places we were soon going toward the harbor, with Major Hennessy ahead.  Coming out of the narrow channel into the harbor at what was then known as Paine’s dock, our course would bring us to the north point of the island, at Fort Gregg, where we were ordered to report; but part of the boats did not report there.

The last of the regiment was passing Paine’s dock not later than 9:50 a.m., and Major Hennessy was then going directly past Fort Gregg to Fort Sumter, 1440 yards distant, and his was the first boat to reach that fort and display the flag of the regiment on its parapet.

Corporal Johnson, Co. G, was the first man to land, followed by Major Hennessy and Lieut. Burr….

Thus, the 52nd Pennsylvania, veterans of the long campaign on Morris Island, were the first into Fort Sumter.


While Hennessy took possession of Fort Sumter, other boats moved toward Sullivan’s Island and other points.  While passing Fort Sumter, Bennett encountered a boat full of Confederate musicians, who’d been left behind as their armies abandoned the city.  Hennessy, who’d returned to his boat, and others joined Bennett moving into the harbor.   One by one, small detachments took control of batteries and forts.  Bennett and Hennessy proceeded to downtown Charleston, with Bannatyne indicating the latter was again the first ashore.

But not all the Confederate forces had left Charleston, as Bannatyne noted:

Just as we landed several of the Confederate ironclads in the harbor were blown up, with loud reports.  The streets were crowded with contrabands anxious to see the army.  We stayed at the citadel but a short time, and were ordered to the armory, which was reported on fire, but this proved to be a false alarm.  We saw no men in the city except Col. Bennett and staff and Major Hennessy… and detachments of the 3d R.I.

Flags went up all around Charleston.  Bennett was most concerned about security of the city and reports of Confederate rear guards:

I landed at Mills’ Wharf, Charleston, at 10 a.m., where I learned that a part of the enemy’s troops yet remained in the city, while mounted patrols were out in every direction applying the torch and driving the inhabitants before them.  I at once addressed the mayor of the city….

Bennett’s message to Mayor Charles Macbeth was to the point:

In the name of the United States Government I demand a surrender of the city of which you are the executive officer.  Until further orders all citizens will remain within their houses.

With the small force at his disposal, Bennett could not secure the city and would wait reinforcements.  While waiting, several explosions rocked the city.  At least two were from the Confederate rams being destroyed.  A magazine on Sullivan’s Island went up.  But the most disruptive was an explosion at the Northeastern Railroad depot.  There civilians were gathering food from abandoned Confederate commissary stores.  Children found quantities of gunpowder stored in nearby warehouses, and began playing with it in the smoldering cotton fires.  After a while, the children had left a perfect “train” back to the gunpowder stocks, with disastrous results.  As Bennett reported, “… not less than 200 human beings, most of whom were women and children, were blown to atoms.”  That one accident claimed more civilian lives than all the Federal bombardments of the city combined.

Mayor Macbeth readily surrendered the city and only expressed concern about maintaining law and order.  By afternoon, reinforcements from Morris Island arrived and Bennett’s focus was assisting the city’s fire companies attempting to keep the flames from spreading.  Fortunately, there was no repeat of Columbia in Charleston that evening.

That afternoon, Major-General Quincy Gillmore sent a dispatch north to Major-General Henry Halleck:

The city of Charleston and its defenses came into our possession this morning, with over 200 pieces of good artillery and a supply of fine ammunition.  The enemy commenced evacuating all the works last night, and Mayor Macbeth surrendered the city to the troops of General Schimmelfennig at 9 o’clock [sic] this morning, at which time it was occupied by our forces….

The last major port city of the Confederacy was in Federal hands.  And the place where the crisis which lead to the war had started was now firmly in Federal hands. Three years, ten months, and five days after it had been taken down, the United States flag flew over Fort Sumter at nightfall, February 18, 1865.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, page 1019; Part II, Serial 99, pages 469 and 483; The Campaigns of the Fifty-second Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, compiled by Smith B. Mott, Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1911, pages 170-2.)

February 12-17, 1865: Federal attempts at Bull’s Bay…. foiled by shallow water and storms

Often in the study of amphibious operations, we read about the difficulties gaining the last thousand yards or so where the ocean transitions to the land.  Natural obstacles often pose more problems than anything man can devise.  And thus much of the complication to simply landing a military force on a hostile shore.  In February 1865, there were no “how to land on a barrier island” texts to study.  The Federals, both the Army and the Navy, had gotten along with experiences – good and bad – through the war.  What would happen at Bull’s Bay from February 12 to 18, 1865 would fit into the latter.  At Bull’s Bay, those last thousand yards would prove rather difficult to gain, even with little to no opposition.

Bull’s Bay came up in several schemes to reach Charleston during the war.  None of which acted out.  The problem was the distance of approach to Charleston and the shallow draft of the bay.  But despite that the Confederates were sensitive to the sector.  Thus it made a good place to stage a diversion in February 1865.  A little orientation:


Bull’s Bay is approximately twenty miles northeast of Fort Moultrie.  The bay is a wide, but shallow, inlet between Bull’s Island, Cape Roman, and the mainland.  The map above only shows the western half of the bay, which happens to be the part we are concerned with in regard to the operations in question here.  A lighthouse stood on Bull’s Island to guide passing ships, but that was extinguished during the war.  At the top of the bay, over quite a distance of flats, was Owendaw Creek.   To the eastern side of the bay were several creeks running through the marshes.  The largest of these were Van Ross, Sewee, and Bull Creeks.  All lead into a “back bay” by the name Sewee Bay.  At Sewee Bay, Vanderhorst’s Wharf, known as Andersonville in Confederate and US Navy dispatches, had a road leading into Christ Church Parrish and the mainland.

For much of the war, Confederates maintained only picket posts around Bull’s Bay.  The main line of defense was across Christ Church, behind Sullivan’s Island.  The positions at Bulls Bay included a picket post on Bull’s Island and a position for artillery at Andersonville.  In that regard, Bull’s Bay made an inviting target for Federal operations.

After deciding to close the James Island demonstrations on February 10, Major-General Quincy Gillmore put Brigadier-General Edward Potter in charge of an expedition to Bull’s Bay.  Potter’s force was Colonel Alfred S. Hartwell’s Brigade, consisting of the 144th New York, 32nd USCT, and 55th Massachusetts – all units just engaged on James Island.  The intent was to put a force ashore at Owendaw Creek, and from there outflank any defenses.  The aim, again, was a demonstration, and there appears to have been no serious thought as to reinforcing this brigade.   There simply were no spare forces in theater to add to the meager force. The troops were transported on a set of Army transports.  Potter referred to these as “tin-clads” indicating some additional bracing and hardening short of armor.  These transports drew four feet of water.

The Navy added nine gunboats and four armed tugs. Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren hoped the light-draft gunboats could operate in the shallows of Bull’s Bay.  However, of the ships assigned, only the USS Pawnee, USS Sonoma, USS Ottawa, USS Winona, USS Potomska, USS J.S. Chambers, and USS Wando, and three tugs were able to move into Bull’s Bay.  Commander Fabus Stanly commanded the force.

Though it is rather hard to believe, given the intensity of operations around Charleston during the war, but up to February 12 there had been no detailed surveys of Bull’s Bay.  Arriving that morning, Potter found “that nothing was known about the landing places or the best spots for disembarkation.”  As luck turned, the tug with the topographical engineer was delayed due to a grounding. Potter made a reconnaissance by boat and quickly determined Owendaw Creek was not the prefect location for a landing.  He considered passing up Sewee’s Creek to the Bay and thence onto Andersonville.  But he had to wait until Stanly set buoys in the channels.

On the afternoon of the 12th, the Federal’s luck continued to trend bad.  A storm blew up and made the surf too choppy for any landings on the 13th.  The storm grew in intensity on the 14th.  But Potter managed to land many of his troops on Bull’s Island to avoid keeping them on crowded transports another day (the Confederate pickets had cleared on the approach of the gunboats).  The storm subsided on the 15th, and Potter once again tried the channel to Sewee Bay.  “This attempt will be attended with considerable risk, and if the weather becomes bad or the boats get aground,” Potter cautioned, “it will be an unfortunate business.”  He further added, “The great trouble has been the entire want of information with regard to this bay, its creeks and shores.”

But the force managed to gain entry into Sewee Bay.  Stanly, who’d managed to get the Ottawa and Wando through the creeks, attempted to get in position to shell the Confederate batteries.  “Finding it impossible to approach Andersonville in front, I left a strong force there, and half the army to keep up appearances, and dashed off with General Potter to the northwest shore of this (Bull’s) bay….”  Stanly and Potter determined that from Sewee’s Bay the light draft transports and even the boats would have trouble passing over the oyster beds and flats to reach Andersonville.  They looked again to Owendaw Creek.

So on February 17, they once gain made their way into Bull’s Bay to seek landing.  As Potter recorded:

The spot selected for a landing was a sandy strip lying between Owendaw Creek and its branch on the left, which is known as Graham’s Creek. The enemy’s works and men could be seen at Buck Hall. The launches, six in number, went ahead, opening fire as they neared the beach, and the boats with troops followed. The boats were headed for Buck Hall and the direction afterward changed. The One hundred and forty-fourth New York, Colonel Lewis, landed on the beach without opposition, and marched across the marsh toward Graham’s Creek, while the launches went up the same stream.

At last ashore, Potter kept pressing forward.  The advance ran into a line of earthworks and a battery position just past the mouth of the creek.  The New Yorkers chased off a small Confederate force from the works and, after occupying, reformed the facings.  By noon, Potter had the remainder of the infantry and a battery of boat howitzers in the perimeter.  The Federals managed to destroy a salt-work and a bridge over the Owendaw as they felt out the position.

Potter’s plan for February 18 was to continue his advance and gain Andersonville.  From there he could further threaten the Christ Church line.  But events occurring in Charleston that day would change the nature of that proposed advance.  The pickets driven off at Owendaw Creek were the rear guard of a withdrawal.  By morning, Charleston was an open city.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 1021-24; ORN, Series I, Volume 16, page 240.)


Operations against Charleston, February 9-13, 1865, Part 2: The Last Battles about Charleston

While Major-General William T. Sherman’s forces in the interior of South Carolina were working across the South Fork of the Edisto River on February 10, 1865, outside Charleston, a small Federal force was mounting one of the many demonstrations directed to keep Confederate forces pinned to the coast.  The demonstration was, to say the least, uninspired.

Almost like a thread that keeps being pulled, the operation called for a Federal force to work its way across Sol Legare against Confederate pickets on the southwestern end of James Island.  This approach was used before the battle of Grimball’s Landing in July 1863, then again during the operations of July 1864, and also for several minor operations conducted during the second half of the war.

The approach put Federal troops in front of a well designed belt of defensive works, which could be held by a small Confederate force.  Out in front of the line of works was a picket line, with its own earthworks, covering Grimball’s and Rivers’ Causeways leading off Sol Legare.  Since the Federals had often used those causeways to threaten James Island, the Confederates had fully developed the positions to allow a small force to defend against a much larger force.  And that, in a nutshell, is the story of the Battle of Grimball’s Causeway.

On the night of February 9, Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig had a small brigade, roughly 1,200 men, move onto Sol Legare, by way of landing on Front Cole’s Island.  The force consisted of the 54th and 144th New York Infantry, 32nd and 33rd USCT, and the 55th Massachusetts.  Supporting this movement, the Navy provided two gunboats, a tug, and two mortar schooners to support the demonstration.  On the Stono River, Lieutenant-Commander A.W. Johnson lead the USS Wissahickon and mortar schooner USS C.P. Williams.  On the Folly River, the USS Commodore McDonough and mortar schooner USS Dan Smith, under Lieutenant-Commander A.F. Crosman, covered the right flank of the Federal advance. At the Army’s request, two monitors came over the bar into the Stono.  Only the USS Lehigh moved up the river to engage, however.  Lieutenant-Commander Alexander A. Semmes, on the Lehigh, was in overall command of the naval forces.

The landings went off well on the morning of the 10th.  At around 9 a.m. the mortar schooners commenced firing on the Confederate picket line.  The gunboats and monitor joined in with direct fire.  This had the desired effect of getting the attention of the Confederate pickets.  Meanwhile Hartwell had the two New York regiments maneuver and counter-march on Sol Legare to directly threaten the pickets.

On the Confederate lines, Major Edward Manigault, commanding the right end of the Confederate line on James Island, came up to the picket line in response to reports of activity.  On the line were, according to Manigault’s recollections, 100 men of the 2nd South Carolina Heavy Artillery and 20 cavalrymen.  Reinforcements came in the form of a three companies from the Palmetto Guards and a detachment of dismounted cavalry, amounting to 188 men.  Distributing this force, Manigault had 160 men at Grimball’s Causeway and 48 at River’s Causeway.  The remainder were held in reserve or on the picket line between those two points.

The demonstration remained distant gunboat fire and show until around 5 p.m.  Hartwell pressed the two New York regiments against Grimball’s Causeway with rush.  This pushed in the Confederate skirmishers and might have dislodged the position if continued.  Having gained the outer rifle pits, however, the Federals were content to hold what they had.

Among the casualties on the Confederate side was Manigault himself.  Struck near the spine with a wound considered mortal, he lay in the line of rifle pits overtaken by the Federals along with a soldier from the Palmetto Guard who stayed, tending to the officer.  Manigault later recalled:

Immediately after, 6 men of the 54th N.Y. (with unmistakable brogue) came up and took [the soldier] prisoner, and then took me.  I was in a moment despoiled of my watch, sword, pistol, and field glass and, shortly after, taken on a blanket to Grimball’s Causeway where Capt. [Gustav] Blau, 54th New York, was in command of our men’s rifle pits, or earthwork, which we had just abandoned.

Manigault survived the wound and the war.  Writing in 1902, he recalled the South Carolinians lost seven or eight killed or wounded, with 17 captured.  Other sources put the number at 20 killed and 70 wounded.  The Federals suffered a like number of casualties.

For the Navy, the only tense moment came in regard to the gunboat McDonough, which suffered boiler trouble.  While never under fire, the vessel had to wait until a tow could be arranged to get to safety downriver.

With darkness, both sides settled in.  The Navy continued firing through the night at fifteen minute intervals.  Batteries on Morris Island resumed bombarding Charleston.  The Federals retained their lodgement until the night of February 11.  Major-General Quincy Gillmore had decided to switch the focus of demonstrations to Bull’s Bay.  So the forces on Sol Legare were needed elsewhere.

To keep up the “show” and maintain pressure on James Island, Schimmelfennig mounted a feint against Battery Simkins and Fort Sumter on the night of February 11.  Major John A. Hennessy, 52nd Pennsylvania, lead a boat demonstration out into Charleston Harbor.  “The enemy opened a lively artillery fire from Simkins and Sullivan’s Island and a musketry fire from Simkins and Sumter,” reported Schimmelfennig. The actions of February 10-11 did force the Confederates to reallocate troops from Sullivan’s Island to James Island.  Otherwise, the demonstrations had little effect on events to follow.

One more operation was mounted in front of James Island before Charleston fell.  Sensing from intercepted dispatches that the Confederates were shifting troops back to Sullivan’s Island, and wishing to keep those troops distracted from the landings at Bull’s Bay, Schimmelfennig moved a force under Colonel Eugene Kozlay, 54th New York, onto Sol Legare (again!) on February 13-14.  Covering the maneuvers, the Navy’s gunboats fired a few more shots into the Confederate lines… perhaps the last such fired at James Island during the war.  The Federal force retired on the night of February 14.

Designed to keep the Confederates distracted and focused on James Island, these operations were more like a soft punch landed against a recoiling opponent.  Even as Schimmelfennig made his last demonstration, the Confederates had orders cut for the evacuation of Charleston.   Gillmore, content to make a demonstration at Bull’s Bay, which he hoped might catch the Confederates off guard.  But before I move to the discussion of Bull’s Bay and pesky issues like tides and the draft of ships, allow me to review the particulars of the Confederate withdrawal from Charleston.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, page 1017; Manigault’s, and much of the information accounting for the battle of Grimball’s Landing, from Edward Manigault, Siege Train: The Journal of a Confederate Artilleryman in the Defense of Charleston, edited by Warren Ripley, Charleston: University of South Carolina Press, 1986, pages 243-7.)