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.)