Christmas Eve, 1863, and Charleston was quiet… relatively

On the day before Christmas, 1863, the Charleston Daily Courier lead with their customary account of fighting around the city:

Siege of Charleston

One-hundred and sixty-eight day.

There was no firing from the enemy during Tuesday night or Wednesday.  The quiet of Fort Sumter remained undisturbed.  The enemy were hard at work making some changes on Battery Gregg, the nature of which has not transpired.  Fort Moultrie directed a brisk fire at the working parties which was renewed at intervals through the day.

The firing heard so plainly in the city Wednesday morning and which some believed to be the enemy shelling the city, was from one of our gunboats practicing up Cooper river.  The fleet remained in its usual position, not firing a gun.

So nothing was stirring, not even an ironclad?  As frame of reference, this was posted in the December 24 paper, reaching the streets on a Thursday morning.  All through the day the newspaper men at the Courier and their rival, the Charleston Mercury, prepared a Christimas edition, that would go out Friday morning.  Both papers posted notices they would be closed on Friday, thus making it a long weekend.  So subscribers would not expect to see newspapers until Monday morning, December 28.

The Christmas Day edition of the Courier, arriving that Friday morning, featured an opinion piece on the importance of the holiday:

Christmas.

The Christian world celebrates to-day, the anniversary of the advent of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Savior of Man.  It is the oldest as well as the most important of all the Church festivals.  …

Well into the piece, a somber warning which might be served even in our own times:

There are many children of larger growth, woe, lost to the higher significance of this ancient feast, pervert it to fleshly delights, and derive their happiness in its avent from social reunions, good cheer, and the manful ports and games that have come down from the far distant past.  Too large a number of those who keep the day by generous fare and noisy mirth desecrate it by excessive indulgence in sensual pleasures, and forgetting the nature of the occasion and the obligations it enjoins, burden their stomachs with food, and drink deep of the Wassail Bowl.  How often is the injurious gluttony and indiscreet revelry of the half barbarous days of the Boar’s Head practice at the board in the present day, when through the blessing of Heaven is implored upon the meat and drink, the Giver is altogether forgotten and lost to all sense of gratitude, propriety and dignity, blasphemy, obscenity and drunkenness mark the wild carousal.

There you have it… a War on Christmas… in 1863.

But the piece turned from there to a frank assessment of the situation and the real war occurring right outside the city:

The Christmas of 1863 brings no gifts for the boys and girls. The sounds of battle have frightened away from our bleeding Southern land the bearer of painted toys, and candies and plums, and their parents and elders will have to be content with the wholesome food of simple quality, seeing that hams and turkeys, mince pies and plum puddings are things the contest we are engaged in compels them to do without. Many will dine on the scanty fare of every day.  Many will celebrate it afar from their homes, and the memory of the manner in which they have passed this day for a long series of years will aggravate their present ills and add grief to their sorrow.  Of those not a few have been driven from their homes by the ruthless enemy, who has burned their homesteads, took their slaves, and desolated their plantations [Emphasis mine]– How many mourn the untimely death of noble sons and husbands, and brothers, at the hands of the cruel invader, and how many thousands will hardly be aware that it is Christmas, for they will have to endure the same privations and hardships, and neither the food they eat nor the weapons they carry will remind them that the day they used to look forward to with such impatient desire, has once more dawned upon our earth.  The golden light of this morning will stream through the windows of many a home, but those generous rays will not dispel the darkness that enshrouds the hearts of the inmates. The light of those homes has been extinguished.  The beloved of their hearts, their joy and pride, lie sleeping in their gory garments on the field of carnage, where they fell with their faces to the foe. …

But, as with any stern sermon, the writer closed by encouraging the reader to be emboldened by faith:

Let us all keep this day in a penitent, thankful, truthful, reverent spirit, not forgetting the claims of the poor, and especially meeting the obligations we are under to our soldiers and their families, and praying with all fervor and faith that God would vouchsafe His blessing on our cause, and grant us speedy and honorable and enduring peace.

Below this, the Courier ran a notice that the Wayside Home would offer Christmas Dinner to all soldiers, “with or without furloughs or passes” from noon to three that afternoon, free of charge.  With the same notice, the Mercury urged donations to the Wayside Home as to replace items recently lost when a blockade runner came to grief.

On other columns that day, the Mercury lauded a seasonal serenade by the Eutaw Band, formerly the Charleston Brass Band, and now part of the 25th South Carolina Infantry.   The state of Georgia, as reported by the Mercury, was only $15 million in debt despite war situation, but had $9 million in public property to back that. Besides, it was reported the taxable property amounted to almost $800 million.  So the bills, from the war, could be met… at least those measured in dollar figures. However, the Mercury gave a less favorable estimate for the Federals that Christmas:

Expensive undertakings. – The New York Daily News, of the 16th instant, in an editorial says that powder, ball and shell alone, which have been used in the attempt to take Charleston, cost the United States Government seven millions of dollars, and the whole cost of the various expeditions fitted out against the city has amounted to upward of thirty millions of dollars.  The cost will probably be doubled, adds the News, and the undertaking will be abandoned.

It further adds, that enough has been expended in attempts to take Richmond to build half a dozen cities of the size, and almost as many lives lost as would populate the whole of them.

Thus, for those Charlestonians making the best of Christmas, there was a ray of hope, sought for in the Courier‘s message.  While Southern states might scrape up the financial reserves to see through the war, the Yankees were about to cave in…. at least that’s how it looked from the hopeful writers in Charleston.

As for the news around Charleston on Christmas Day, the Courier would lead with more reports indicating firing on Federal work parties.  Sumarizing, “… no particular movements of the enemy on Morris Island….” and “The fleet maintained the usual position.”  The number of Federal blockaders inside the Charleston bar was twenty-eight (including four monitors and the USS New Ironsides), supported by an equal number in Lighthouse Inlet and four blockaders outside the bar.

But one additional sentence, seemingly a late inclusion, placed an ominous pale on Christmas Day:

The enemy opened on the city between twelve and one o’clock.  Our batteries replied as usual, with spirit.

Confederate officers place the start of this bombardment at 12:30 AM Christmas morning.  And that shelling continued through the day until 1 PM.  All told, 134 shots reached the city that day, with another sixteen falling short.  Occurring the same morning, a large fire broke out in Charleston resulting in the loss of $150,000 in property and several injuries to firefighters.

And while Charleston was receiving the bombardment and fighting a fire, over on the Stono River Confederates staged an ambush of the USS Marblehead.  Thus neither side was interested in Christmas Day truces.  On Monday, December 28, the Mercury would begin their report of these activities, “The Christmas of 1863 will long be remembered by those who passed the day in the City of Charleston….”

[While I’ve detailed the ambush of the Marblehead in earlier posts, I’ve only given the bombardment and fire passing mention.  I shall resolve that shortcoming in a post to follow.]

(Citation from Charleston Daily Courier, Thursday, December 24, 1863, page 1, column 1 and Friday, December 25, 1863, page 1 columns 1-3; Charleston Mercury, Friday, December 25, 1863, page 2, column 1, and December 28, 1863, page 2 column 1.)

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On this day… September 7, 1863 -Charleston learns Morris Island lost

Robert Moore ran a couple of “on this day” posts earlier, looking back at reports in Shenandoah newspapers.  After spending most of the sesquicentennial with “on this day” writing, I’ve gotten out of habit for the most part.  But I retain the historical mindset when looking at the calendar. So occasionally I’ll link to an old post on Facebook or Twitter as a way of mentioning anniversary dates.

But Robert’s use of newspaper accounts reminds me of the veritable mountain of source material that I’ve accumulated over the years when studying the war at Charleston, South Carolina.  And September 7 is an important anniversary date.  On that date in 1863 Morris Island was evacuated marking the end of a long Federal campaign to secure that barrier island outside Charleston.  Readers will recall the many posts about that campaign during the sesquicentennial.  I detailed the last three days of the campaign at that time.  On September 5, under protection of a withering bombardment, the Federal sap advanced towards Battery Wagner – just fifty yards short at around midnight.  The following day, Federals prepared to make a final assault, developing footholds just 100 feet from the battery parapet by 10 PM that evening. However, that final assault would not be necessary.  Overnight, the Confederate garrison withdrew, leaving Morris Island to the Federals.

Using that story (detailed in the links above), let’s step back and think of another perspective.  How did the citizens of Charleston, the Confederate “home front” so close to the fighting front, receive this news?

Granted, many could simply look across the harbor at Morris Island and Fort Sumter.  And the sound of cannons likely echoed into the streets at times (not to mention shells fired at Charleston itself, as way of showing the war was not very distant).  And of course there were always rumors and gossip spreading news. But for the “factual” news, Charleston had two primary newspapers – the Charleston Mercury and the Charleston Daily Courier.  I have reason to believe the Courier was a morning paper, while the Mercury was afternoon or evening. Perhaps confirming that cycle, the Mercury was able to break the news of Morris Island’s evacuation on September 7, 1863 (on the second page):

Evacuation of Morris Island

To sum up the events through which we have just passed, Battery Wagner has been subjected during the last three days and nights to the most terrific fire that any earthwork has undergone in all the annals of warfare.  The immense descending force of the enormous Parrott and mortar shells of the enemy had nearly laid the wood work of the bombproofs entirely bare, and had displaced the sand to so great a degree that the sally-ports are almost entirely blocked up. The parallels of the enemy yesterday afternoon had been pushed up to the very mouth of Battery Wagner, and it was no longer possible to distinguish our fire from that of the enemy.  During the entire afternoon the enemy shelled the sand hills in the rear of Battery Wagner (where our wounded lay) very vigorously.

Under these circumstances, and in view of the difficulties of communication with Cumming’s Point, the impossibility of longer holding Morris Island became apparent, and it was determined that strenuous efforts should be made at once to release the brave garrison of the Island, who seemed to be almost within the enemy’s grasp.  This desirable result was accomplished with the most commendable promptitude and success.

At about six o’clock, yesterday afternoon, the orders for the evacuation were delivered to Col. Keitt, commanding our forces on the island. Everything was at once made ready for the abandonment of Batteries Wagner and Gregg.  The dead were buried, and, at nightfall, the wounded were carefully removed in barges to Fort Johnson.  The guns, which, for so many weeks had held the foe at bay, were double-shotted, fired and spiked; the heavier pieces were dismounted, and the carriages rendered worthless. The preliminary preparations being thus completed, the work of embarkation was noiselessly begun, and the brave men of the garrison, in forty barges, were soon gliding from the beach they had held so stoutly and so long.  The evacuation was conducted by Col. Keitt, assisted by Major Bryan A.A.G.; and the success with which what has always been considered one of the most difficult feats of warfare has been performed is worthy of the highest praise.  Batteries Gregg and Wagner had both been carefully mined, with a view to blowing them up.  It was about one o’clock this morning when the last three boats – containing Col. Keitt and a number of his officers – left the island. The slow match was lighted by Captain Huguenin at Wagner, and by Captain Lesesne at Gregg; but, owing to some defect in the fuses, no explosion took place at either fort.

During the evacuation the enemy was not idle. A constant fire of shell was kept up against Wagner, and his howitzer barges were busily plying about this side of Morris Island, to prevent the retreat of our men. But fortunately the night was murky, and all our barges,with the exception of one, containing twelve or fifteen men, passed in safely.

Such is how the residents of Charleston learned of the loss of Morris Island on the evening of September 7, 1863.  Notice the narrative put some, not so unexpected, spin on the events.  In some ways to save face, to be sure.  At the same time to let readers know the Confederate soldiers had fought well and endured much.  A retreat could be justified with honor.

When we look back at this, knowing more so the 360° panorama of history, might offer more details to the story.  Certainly it is significant that US Colored Troops were at the fore of those efforts to take Battery Wagner.  Did the reporters for the Mercury know that? And did the residents of Charleston (white and black) know that?  I have a feeling the deeds of the USCT were indeed known, if not reported.  And we might imply some spin from just that alone.

Regardless, on this day in 1863 the residents of Charleston witnessed a grim turn in the war occurring at the mouth of their harbor.  Not surprisingly, on the second column of the first page ran a story, what we’d call today an op-ed piece, titled, “The Fate of Charleston if Captured.”

(Citation from Charleston Mercury, Monday, September 7, 1863, page 2, column 2.)

 

December 1864 – “The employment of slaves in the army should be guarded with the greatest caution”: Arming slaves in South Carolina?

As the last days of 1864 passed, the situation in South Carolina turned ever more desperate.  The “invader” had always been along the coast, as blockaders or the Federal garrisons on the islands.  But with the fall of Savannah, a large army was in position to cross into the state. If even a hope of defense was to be mounted, South Carolina needed troops.  Yesterday I mentioned correspondence between Governor Andrew MacGrath and Richmond, in which the governor stated he was reorganizing the militia.  Running in the Charleston Courier on December 31, 1864 were special orders from MacGrath relating legislation passed in this regard:

The Legislature of South Carolina has declared that all free white men between the ages of sixteen and sixty years, not already in Confederate service, shall be liable to militia service.

The city of Charleston requires for its defense all within its limits who are between these ages. This service is for the defense of our state.  It cannot be declined except by those who are unwilling to defend that State whose forces protect them….

For this service there are no exemptions: none will be allowed except under special circumstances.  Certificates of disability, or other causes, consequence of which exemptions have been hitherto granted, will not be regarded…. If there are company not true to our State, they have no proper place among those who now prepare for its defense.

But the state needed more than just able and willing free whites.  Earlier in the month the State Legislature passed an act revising the system to requisition slave labor for work on the defenses.  This had been a long running issue between the state and military authorities (and as I’ve written before, there were never enough slaves employed for the work required).  The act allowed for impressment of up to one-tenth of the state’s male slaves from the ages of 18 to 50 years.  The term of impressment would last up to twelve months.  While thus employed, the slaves would receive rations, clothes, shoes, and a hat.  The owners would be paid $11 per month.  To comply with this regulation, owners were instructed to transport their slaves to centralized collection points.  The Commissioner of Roads, state agents, and local sheriffs were empowered to enforce this law.  As with previous laws governing the impressment of labor, the state, and not the Confederate authorities, were enforcing the rules.

But there was one measure that South Carolinians remained reluctant to adopt.  Governorn MacGrath had referenced proposals made in Richmond with respect to arming slaves. The Legislature’s Committee on Confederate Relations took up discussion of the matter.  On December 27, their report appeared in the Charleston papers.

Charleston_Mercury_Dec27_64_page1_c2

The committee reported:

That, in their opinion, the employment of slaves in the army should be guarded with the greatest caution. That this practice has become a regular one in the armies of our enemy, is scarcely an argument for its introduction among us; for it is clear that every slave captured and so employed in the military services of the United States is to them a positive gain, adding to their strength in one department and detracting nothing from their resources in any other, while with us the labor thus secured to one branch of the service is a positive withdrawal of the same amount of labor from the equally important field of supply and production.  And your Committee are further of opinion that it is a matter of very doubtful expediency to intrust the wagon-trains of an army entirely to negro teamsters. …

The committee approved continuing the practice of employing slaves for military projects. But only within the established constructs – impressment with compensation.  Beyond that, the Committee said:

But in thus consenting to the use of negro labor to the extent and for the purpose indicated it is with the distinct understanding that such slaves shall be employed in duties other than those which are the province of the soldier, and that in all such employment their service status shall be clearly and steadily preserved; for your Committee cannot but express their decided disapproval of the plan recommended by the President in his recent message, by which the Confederate Government is to become the purchaser of forty thousand negros, who are to be declared free at the expiration of their term of service.

Emphasis above is mine.  The Committee justified this stance:

Your Committee can find nowhere in the Constitution the slightest shadow of power, either express or implied, to make such purchase or declare such emancipation, and they are satisfied it is in direct violation of its spirit, which wisely and explicitly commits all the social and domestic relations and institutions of the Southern people to the care and charge of the individual States.

The report went on to observe that emancipation under the system proposed by the Confederate government rested “on no principle, and to offer no practical advantages.”  Among the objections raised was the status of freedmen after the war.  “If emancipated as freedmen, they would either have to be employed in the dock-yards, arsenals and other industrial establishments of the Government, or they would have to be remanded to the States whence they were taken.”  So, regardless of what was being said in Richmond, at the state level, emancipation was not an acceptable measure… even with the world crashing all around.

Closing the report, the Committee offered several resolutions, of which three are worth mention here:

Resolved, That if, in the opinion of those authorized and competent to decide the employment of slaves in the army as laborers, servants, hospital attendants, teamsters, or cooks will contribute to the military efficiency of the Confederate forces, the State will cheerfully and promptly furnish the quota which may be required; Provided, That in the discharge of such service, the servile status of the negro be maintained.

Resolved, That this State cannot consent to the proposition by which slaves so employed shall be purchased and declared free by the Confederate Government upon expiration of their term of service, because the creation of such as class would involve the most delicate and dangerous questions as to the rights of the General Government on subjects belonging to the exclusive control of the individual States.

Resolved, That the plan recommended by the President, even if otherwise unobjectionable, confers its privileges unequally and unjustly and would compel, on the part of the State, in departure from the spirit and tenor of its steady and consistent domestic legislation for near half a century.

There you have the Doctrine of States Rights in play.  Be it this Committee in 1864 or the Secession Convention in 1860, the expression is clear – the State’s powers were above those of the central government, Federal or Confederate… and also above any individual, inalienable, rights. There are many conclusions to draw from the Committee’s report. Not the least of which is that Confederate Emancipation was not at any point, in conception or execution, equivalent to that offered by the United States starting on January 1, 1863.

(Citations from Charleston Mercury, December 27, 1864, page 1, columns 2-3; Charleston Courier, December 31, 1864, page 1, column 1.)

October 27, 1864: “Thursday morning the bombardment of the city was renewed.” Charleston remained under siege

Reporting on Thursday, October 27, 1864, the Charleston Mercury ran this account of operations around the city:

Siege of Charleston.

Four Hundred and Seventy-sixth Day.

Forty shots were fired at the city Tuesday night.  The firing on the city ceased about daylight Wednesday morning. The firing on Wednesday was confined to a few scattering shots at the wreck of the Flora and at James Island. The enemy were engaged Wednesday mounting a new gun at Battery Wagner.

Wednesday morning a fatal explosion of a two hundred pounder Parrott shell took place, resulting in the melancholy death of Lieut. L.P. Mays, Lieut. John Dardon and Private Smannon, of Company E, 32d Georgia Regiment, and severely wounding Lieut. David E. Willis, of the same company and regiment.  Captain Moblay had a very narrow escape, being in the same room but remaining untouched.

Their remains were forwarded Wednesday to their friends in Georgia.

There was no change of importance in the fleet.

The paper also carried news from other fronts.  With respect to operations nearer Atlanta, “The army movements in Georgia are puzzling many readers…” owing to a lack of information.  And the puzzle would remain for a few weeks.  From Richmond came news that President Jefferson Davis called for November 16 as a day of prayer for “deliverance and peace.”  And form elsewhere in Virginia, General Jubal Early provided an assessment of the recent defeat at Cedar Creek, “attributing their recent defeat to a disgraceful propensity to plunder and panic….”

The paper also mentioned the sale act auction, by Mr. James L. Gantt, of some 10 slaves.  “A woman – cook and washer, 22 years old, with a child 4 years old, $8000…. Man, 19 years old, field hand, $6000….”  In the wartime economy, the price of slaves had increased considerably – something on the order of a ten-fold increase.  And slavery continued to thrive in spite of that inflation.

For the next day, the Charleston Mercury related the actions which took place 150 years ago today (October 27, 1864):

 Siege of Charleston

Four Hundred and Seventy-seventh Day.

There was no firing Wednesday night, the enemy batteries remaining silent. Thursday morning the bombardment of the city was renewed, and towards evening became quite brisk, the enemy firing from three guns in rapid succession. Up to six o’clock P.M., thirty-nine shots had been fired.

The enemy were again busily employed hauling ammunition during the day to Battery Gregg and the Middle Battery.

A monitor was towed from inside the bar Thursday forenoon and went South.

There was no other change of importance.

The monitor seen going south was likely the USS Nantucket, headed for Hilton Head for repairs.  Such details, which match well with operational records, indicate how closely the newspaper, and thus the civilian population, followed the military situation at Charleston.  And, as the headline read, the people of Charleston felt themselves under the guns for over a year by that time.  Count back 477 days from October 28, 1864 and the product is July 10, 1863, when the Federals assaulted Morris Island. By the fall of 1864, canons were background noise in many places throughout the South.  No more so than Charleston.