By D. Michael Thomas
Each state within the Confederacy had its own unique wartime experiences. South Carolina’s involvement was unquestionably critical throughout the war. Though it saw none of the “great battles” on the scale of Gettysburg, Shiloh, or Chickamauga, its ability to hold against Union assaults for over three years caused great frustration for Northern military commanders while uplifting defiant spirits of Southern citizenry.
South Carolina provided about 75,000 men to the Confederate army. Almost 19,000 died of wounds or disease during the war. Among the state’s 46 generals, three were Lieutenant-Generals [Wade Hampton, Stephen Dill Lee and Richard H. Anderson] and six were Major-Generals. Her soldiers fought in North Carolina, Georgia, Maryland, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Pennsylvania as well as in their home state.
Men from the Palmetto State served honorably and bravely for Southern independence from the firing on Fort Sumter to the final surrenders at Appomattox and Durham Station four years later. In between, they provided many acts of heroism that still resonate today. Sergeant Richard Kirkland of the 2nd SC Infantry gained eternal fame as the “Angel of Marye’s Heights“by administering water and aid to dozens of wounded Union soldiers following their failed assaults at Fredericksburg. Captain Joseph Banks Lyle of the 5th SC Infantry captured nearly 600 Yankees virtually single-handedly in the Battle of Williamsburg Road outside Richmond in 1864. Countless other acts of heroism are etched in the annals reflecting high courage, strength of character, strong leadership and Christian principles ofSouth Carolina’s soldiers.
The first shots of the war were fired in Charleston April 12, 1861 and the last shotsfired by organized forces east of the Mississippi occurred near Williamston May 1, 1865. In between those dates, South Carolina saw over 150battles & skirmisheswithin her borders. It should be noted that South Carolina was the only state within the Confederacy not providing a white regiment to the Union army.
After the capture of Fort Sumter in Charleston’s harbor in April 1861, the focus of events transferred to Virginia. Freshly raised commands were rushed there to stop invasion by Union forces. Both the North and South thought the war would be ended in a single decisive battle but the long-awaited engagement at First Manassas, a Confederate victory, simply brought the realization that the conflict would be an extended one.
War came slowly to South Carolina. The Union navy began a loose blockade of Charleston May 28, 1861 and Port Royal Sound shortly afterward. The following October, Port Royal Sound and adjacent islands, including Beaufort and Hilton head, were captured by northern forces. This devastating loss allowed the Union fleet to build a facility for repair, maintenance & supply facility their ships blockading the South Atlantic ports. By December 1861, Georgetown was effectively blockaded thus completing the closure of South Carolina’s ports. Ground operations were not begun until 1862 and, until 1865, these were restricted to the coastal corridor from Port Royal Sound northward to Charleston.
The Union capture of Port Royal also posed a threat to the vital Charleston & Savannah Railroad running close to the coast.The first of several attempts to sever the railroad and isolate Charleston was stopped near Pocotaligo on May 29, 1862. There, about 1,000 Union soldiers were defeated by 75 Confederate cavalrymen, fighting on foot and armed only with shotguns and revolvers, in an intense 4-hour action. Two days later a major Union force landed on James Island leading to a major battleat Secessionvilleon June 16thwhere Confederate forces decisively beat back a determined Union assault. Another concerted effort to break the railroad near Beaufort was made in October when a 2-pronged Union force of 4,500 men was stopped at Pocotaligo and Cooswhatchie by less than 700 men in gray.
The Beaufort area remained a center of activityin 1862 with Confederate raidersharassing Union outposts. A raid on Pinckney Island resulted in nearly all the 57 Union troops there being killed or captured. In another instance, a Union gunboat[George Washington] was sunk. Charleston, meanwhile, was building its defensive network in anticipation of attack by land or sea. Confederate defenses along the coast were established and troops were made kept available to move by rail to any point between Charleston and Savannah threatened by Union forces. Charleston became the second-ranked port for blockade-runners in the South trailing only Wilmington.
From April 1862 through the war’s end, Union transports laden with troops and escorted by gunboats sailed into the bays and rivers all along the coast. From Port Royal to the North Carolina border, these expeditions landed at plantations to loot what they could carry off and then destroy crops, buildings, and everything else before retiring. Nearly all of the state’s island communities were abandoned by their citizens and occupied by Union forces. Plantations along the Santee River, Winyah Bay and all around the Beaufort area were hard hit by these raids and much farm land in these areas remained fallow until war’s end. Still, the Yankees were contained to the coast and the inland areas remained safe.
On January 31, 1863 the C.S. Navy sent two ironclad gunboats, Chicora &Palmetto State, from Charleston’s harbor in early-morning darkness to attack Union blockaders. They successfully damaged several warships and drove the remainder away temporarily. This was the only high-seas clash during the war involving Confederate ironclads.
In late February the Union navy took another hit when Confederate batteries ambushed and captured a Union gunboat, Isaac P. Smith, in the Stono River near Charleston. The vessel was repaired and placed into Confederate service before conversion to a blockade runner. In October 1863, another attempt to break the Charleston blockade was carried out by a small torpedo boat called “David”. It was successful in damaging the north’s most powerful warship, the USS New Ironsides,so badly that she was put of service the rest of the war.
In 1863 Union attention was firmly focused on Charleston. A major attempt to silence Forts Sumter and Moultrie with a fleet of ironclads in April was soundly defeated. A revised plan calling for the capture of Morris Island and destruction Fort Sumter by heavy artillery was initiated in July. However, it took 59 days to take Morris Island because of the strength of Battery Wagner and the fortitude of those defending it. In August heavy Union guns began firing indiscriminately into the city of Charleston and continued to do so until the city was taken in February 1865. Sumter was pounded by nearly 27,000 shells from August through December including a 41-day bombardment [October 26-December 6] of over 18,000 shells, and was reduced to an infantry outpost. Still, Union forces failed to capture the fort or drive her garrison away, and the Confederate flag continued to wave defiantly in the sea breezes. On New Year’s Eve 1863, Union General Quincy Gilmore, commanding all army troops along the coast, showed his respect & admiration for Fort Sumter’s commanding officer, Lt. Colonel Stephen Elliott, by dipping his Morris Island garrison flag in formal salute as Sumter’s evening colors gun was fired. This unprecedented honor is without parallel in U.S. military history.
The year 1864 was a year of high tension in both the North & South. Many “Great Battles” had been fought in Virginia and elsewhere resulting in massive casualties on both sides. Destruction across the South by Union raids and occupation led to horrible depredations against Southern civilians, black and white. Still, the issues were in doubt and Abraham Lincoln’s re-election was in great jeopardy. It was an accepted fact that Southern independence hung on the northern ballot.
In February, the South launched a new weapon from Charleston. The submarine H.L Hunley made the first successful attack on an enemy ship, the Housatonic, while it was blockading Charleston. Fort Sumter and other Charleston fortifications continued to receive periodic bombardments but little else took place until July when the Union army began a series of assaults all around Charleston. Troops were landed on James Island and Johns Island but met such resistance they feared they would be overrun by Confederate forces & withdrew in a hurried manner. Other attacks elsewhere failed including the loss of the entire landing party at Fort Johnson. Fort Sumter was subjected to a 60-day bombardment [July 7- September 4] in which another 14,000 heavy shells were fired at it. When these efforts ended, the Yankees had gained nothing except heavy casualties and embarrassment.The only success they could claim was the burning of Legareville, a small undefended village of two dozen houses and 2 churches, on Johns Island. This was the last major effort to capture Charleston and South Carolina remained secure.
September 1864 saw the implementation of perhaps the cruelest and most despicable act by the U.S. Army when about 600 captured Confederate officers were used as a human shield on Morris Island. These men, the “Immortal 600”, suffered terribly at the hands of their captors until finally removed in October but not one was hit by Confederate gunfire aimed at Morris Island.
With Lincoln’s re-election in November 1864, it was obvious the war would continue and Sherman left Atlanta on his infamous “March to the sea” campaign. Two substantial efforts to break the Charleston & Savannah railroad in hopes of trapping Confederate forces in Savannah were foiled. At the Battle of Honey Hill on November 30, the Union advance was decisively stopped by an out-numbered rag-tag Confederate force which inflicted about 800 casualties while incurring less than 50 of their own. A week later another Union force received an embarrassing defeat in the Battle of TuliffinyCreek despite having a 5:1 advantage in numbers. Though Savannah fell to Sherman in December, 1864 ended with South Carolina’s interior unsullied and Union forces still restricted to the coastal areas. Little had changed in the previous three years.
The year 1865 began ominously with Sherman’s troops hurling vile threats about what they intended to do in South Carolina. The end of January marked the beginning of what is known as the “Carolinas Campaign” with Sherman’s army leaving Savannah and Union troops from Beaufort advancing into the interior regions previously denied them. Their first actions were to loot and burn farms and settlements.
Grahamville, Robertsville, Lawtonville& McPhersonville were destroyed. A small Confederate force fought a delaying action at Rivers Bridge February 3rd, the onlysubstantial attempt made in the state against Sherman’s march. The last major action took place in Aiken [February 11] when Confederates secured victory in a cavalry action. From that point on there was no organized resistance to the Union advance. Further inland Barnwell, Blackville & Orangeburg were set afire after pillaging by the Yankee juggernaut. On February 17th, Confederate forces evacuated Charleston. That same day Columbia was captured by Sherman’s troops and that night was pillaged and burned. Sherman & his senior commanders did little to prevent atrocities and depredations of every kind as the army continued its march toward North Carolina. Winnsboro was looted and burned. Civilians, black and white alike, in towns or remote farms,were subjected to every form of abuse including murder by Sherman’s “bummers” and main bodies of troops. Cheraw, Chesterfield, Florence, Society Hill, Darlington and other areassuffered horribly before the Yankee hordes crossed over into North Carolina in early March.
In early April, a Union force from recently occupied Georgetown set forth to raid the state’s already damaged interior. This movement, called “Potter’s raid” andtasked with destroying state’s food supplies, roamed at will. Farms, crops, mills and railway equipment were efficiently destroyed all along its path extending to Sumter before it ended. A few militia units tried to protect their localities without success. At Dingle’s Mill, near Sumter, about 160 men held 2,700 Yankees at bay for several hours before being pushed aside.
The armies of Genera’s Robert E. Lee and Joseph Johnston each surrendered in April 1865. Yet, there was one more raid into South Carolina. Stoneman’s Raid, consisting of unscrupulous scoundrels and fiends in U.S. cavalry commands, wassent forth in late March from Knoxville under orders to “destroy, not fight” and to “dismantle the country”. They terrorized the citizens in the mountains of Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia with their sheer brutality. In early May, after wreaking havoc in other states by burning, pillaging, murdering and causing destruction everywhere they went, Stoneman’s men entered the upcountry of South Carolina. There, they continued their villainy at Spartanburg, Greenville and Anderson before finally returning to Knoxville.
The wanton devastation by Union forces across South Carolina in just four months of 1865 left a lasting mark on the state for decades. All this was soon followed up by Union occupation across the state. With the collapse of the Confederacy, South Carolina’s citizens found themselves rulednot by law, but by the bayonet of the Union occupiers. In early 1867 this was not enough for the Radicals on Washington, D.C. and, in March that year, an even tighter grip was set in place with the advent of Reconstruction, anordeal filled with grief, torment and anguish lasting until 1877. The state did not fully recover from the horrors of war, occupation, and Reconstruction period until the mid-20th century.
Not everyone in South Carolina “went off to war” but those remaining home certainly became involved in it. When the man of a family marched away, his wife and children had to step up and perform the tasks he normally filled. Boys were soon doing the plowing, wives began handling the planning and financial matters and girls took charge of other household responsibilities. Most plantations and farms planted sustenance crops in lieu of cash crops such as cotton.
The war effort in support of the troops was immense and showed solidarity in every way. Women and girls of every age across the state coordinated their efforts in gathering material for weaving and manufacturing shirts, socks & other items of apparel for the troops. When shortages of medicines hit, they planted medicinal gardens and searched the woods for medicinal plants. Fairs were conducted to raise money for what was needed to support the men in gray. The Ladies Association in Charleston raised so much money to support the building of the gunboat Charleston that it was nicknamed the “Ladies Gunboat”. Support from the Ladies Associations across the state was vitally important. From large cities like Charleston and Columbia to small towns like Eutawville and Fairfield, they provided much of what the Confederate government could not.
Wayside hospitals, located at railroad depots, were critically acclaimed. Nearly all were formed by Ladies groups to provide basic needs for soldiers in transit including meals and basic medical care for sick or wounded. Larger depots often had overnight accommodations and medical staffs. These wayside hospitals benefitted greatly from the donations of food, clothing, bandages, medicine and nursing assistance from the Ladies. The Columbia Wayside Hospital was the largest in the state and served an estimated 75,000 men during the war. It made no difference which state the soldier came from, the Ladies were there for him. Sarah Rowe of Orangeburg made the care of soldiers her personal mission during the war and earned the nickname “The Soldier’s Friend”. Mary Snowden of Charleston was just as dedicated and earned similar respect, but there were literally thousands of others who gave freely and worked tirelesslyin support of these projects.
Some men did not join the military. Some were too old, others too young. A small number, like iron workers, educators, physicians, railroad workers and others in specified professions, were exempt from service. Still, they usually formed the local militia or home guard and, late in the war, some found themselves in action against Union troops.
Civilian life in South Carolina’s interior became more spartan as the war progressed and hardships arose. Relief societies, some state-run and others run by the Ladies, tried to provide for families in dire need or otherwise destitute. Still, life across most of the state went on as usual. County courts, state & local governments and public affairs such as elections carried on without interruption until early 1865 when Union troops finally reached the state’s interior bringing havoc and ruin with them.
Areas affected by the wanton destruction from Sherman’s march and the follow-up Union raids suffered greatly. Homes, mills, factories and farms were burned, livestock was taken or slaughtered, storehouses of food were stolen or destroyed, and the citizens affected were left with only the clothing they wore as the Yankees departed. Untold thousands of civilians, black and white, homeless with no provisions and mostly in the midst of winter,endured horrendous hardships and uncertain futures. Their woes were just beginning as shortly afterward came Union occupation and Reconstruction, both of which brought more gloom and despair.