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.

JohnAHennessy

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.)

July 3, 1864: An assault on Fort Johnson handily repulsed

Even with the failures and setbacks of July 2, 1864, Major-General John Foster still had a good opportunity to crack the Confederate lines.  His stated primary objective -the rail lines between Charleston and Savannah – was out of reach.  But the Confederate lines directly in front of Charleston were seriously weakened state.  The fifth portion of Foster’s plan called for a force to assault the area around Fort Johnson by boat on the night of July 2, reasoning the Confederates would have to weaken that portion of the line when threatened elsewhere.  His reasoning was correct.  But the execution of the assault left much to be desired.

Under this leg of Foster’s plan, Colonel William Gurney of the 127th New York would command the force moving across the backwaters between Morris Island and James Island to assault Fort Johnson and Battery Simkins.  Gurney’s force included a portion of his regiment under Major Edward Little; the 52nd Pennsylvania, under Colonel Henry Hoyt; and an 80 man detachment from the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery.  This was a sizable force for a simple raiding party.  Hoyt reported taking into the action some 500 men in twenty boats.  Gurney would remain at Paine’s Dock with Hoyt in tactical command of the attacking force.

July1864Hoyt1

At Fort Johnson, Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph A. Yates, 1st South Carolina Artillery, had but 100 men.  He had an additional thirty men guarding Battery Simkins.  The remainder of his command, and nearby garrisons, were pulled towards the west end of James Island to block the Federal forces there.  Most of the guns in the fort were heavy weapons mounted to fire on the harbor. But a pair of 30-pdr Parrotts and field howitzers were in place on the parapets.  Even with that, the attacking force held a significant advantage in numbers, and the cover of night.

Initially the boats were to take a route well into the harbor channel to avoid low water.  But shortly before launching, a decision was made, to reduce the possibility of detection, to use a course closer to the marsh.  A new pilot, a sergeant from the 127th New York, was said to know a channel deep enough to allow boats to pass.  Apparently, the pilot failed to take into account the tides, which were falling when the expedition left Paine’s Dock around 2 a.m.  For several hours the flotilla bumbled through the flats.  Boats grounded and ran afoul of each other.  Multiple times the boat line stopped to re-align.

Finally, just before daybreak, Hoyt took control of the piloting himself.  Roughly 1000 yards from Fort Johnson, he pressed on despite the growing light and found channels to shore:

From this point there was no obstacle to encounter except the enemy.  It was becoming daylight and the designated point of landing was in view.  The first gun was fired as the leading boat rounded a small sandspit running out from Simkins toward the Brooke gun battery, and about 100 yards from it.

Perhaps because the boats were so close to shore, Hoyt reported most of the cannon fire passed over the heads of the men.  Pressing on:

A landing was immediately and successfully effected by the leading boats at the Brooke gun battery, which was readily carried, and no halt whatever occurred at it.  Five boats were now ashore … being a total of 6 officers and 135 men, all of the Fifty-second Pennsylvania Volunteers.  It was now apparent that not only were no other boats landing but that the entire expedition were retreating in the boats, not only without orders, but in disobedience to the most explicit orders to the contrary.  Neither then nor since have I been able to arrive at any satisfactory knowledge of the causes and facts connected with their failure to land.

Major Thomas Jayne, with the third division of boats, later claimed he wanted to land but could not sort out the confusion with the boats preceding his.  Little, with the 127th New York’s boats, likewise fell back with Jayne.  But Hoyt was ashore and had little other choice but to press the matter:

So much of the expedition as disembarked pushed with all the vigor possible upon Fort Johnson and its connected line of high earthen parapets.  The parapet was entered near the main fort with a brisk movement of about 30 in the advance, who exchanged shots within the work, but were compelled to retire.  The whole of our force was then conducted along the entire line from the rebel left to the right, with repeated efforts to enter it, until at the extreme right another assault was attempted. It was only partially successful and resulted in the capture of most of the troops who joined the attempt.

At this time my forces were very largely outnumbered; the controversy was prolonged some little time, but in a feeble and desultory manner, and the undertaking was abandoned.  The entire party was taken prisoners.

Hoyt reported seven killed in his command.  About 140 were captured, including Hoyt.  The fifth part of Foster’s offensive had failed but within arms reach of its goal.

In a formal inquiry into this failure, filed the following October, Major John Gray, Judge-Advocate, rebuked Gurney for not commanding from a forward position.  Gray also cited several officers “most wanting in decision and power of command.”  But he was quick to laud the bravery of those who prosecuted the attack.  Concluding, Gray wrote:

The expedition was well planned, and notwithstanding hinderances and delays would have succeeded had it not been for the absence of the commanding officer and the want of spirit and energy on the part of many of his subordinates.

With respect to Gray’s conclusions, one still must ask what could the Federals have done even with Fort Johnson in their hands that morning?  There were no reinforcements prepared for crossing to Hoyt’s aid.  The closest forces would be those on the west end of James Island, confronting entrenched Confederates.

But Foster had not shot his wad.  Not hardly.  He was still in possession of parts of John’s and James Islands.  And he still had all those heavy guns on Morris Island.  His ultimate orders from Washington had been to harass the Confederates and pin down as many around Charleston as possible.  If he could not crack the defenses or sever the railroad, at least he would force the Confederates to commit resources.  For the next two months, Foster would make noise around Charleston.

(Sources:  OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, pages 16-17, 39-41, 86-103, and 166; John Johnson, The Defense of Charleston Harbor: Including Fort Sumter and the Adjacent Islands, 1863-1865, Walker, Evans & Cogswell Company, 1890, pages 216-8; Frederic Denison, Shot and Shell: The Third Rhode Island Heavy Artillery Regiment in the Rebellion, 1861-1865, Providence, R.I.: Third Rhode Island Artillery Veterans Association, 1879, pages 256-9.)