Five days after South Carolina’s secession on December 21, 1860, U.S. Army Major Robert Anderson moved his garrison from Fort Moultrie in Charleston harbor to nearby Fort Sumter. Over the next few months and into the spring, Anderson would ignore many calls to surrender and Confederate forces would prevent any Union re-supply or reinforcement.
The stalemate was broken when the Confederates finally got their causus belli when a Union supply ship successfully ran the blockade and docked at Fort Sumter. Shortly before dawn on April 12, 1861, Confederate batteries around Charleston—ironically none of which were at the famous Battery itself—opened fire on Fort Sumter for 34 straight hours, until Anderson surrendered on April 13.
In a classic example of why you should always be careful what you wish for, the secessionists had been too clever by half in pushing for Lincoln. Far from prodding the North to sue for peace, the fall of Fort Sumter instead caused the remaining states in the Union to rally around the previously unpopular tall man from Illinois. Lincoln’s skillful management of the Fort Sumter standoff meant that from then on out, the South would bear history’s blame for initiating the conflict that would claim over half a million American lives.
After Fort Sumter, the remaining four states of the Confederacy—Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia—seceded. The Old Dominion was the real prize for the secessionists, as Virginia had the South’s only ironworks and by far the largest manufacturing base.
In November 1861, a massive Union invasion armada landed in Port Royal Sound in South Carolina, effectively taking the entire Lowcountry out of the war. Hilton Head was a massive Union encampment, and Beaufort became a major hospital center for the U.S. Army. The coast of Georgia was also blockaded, with Union forces using new rifled cannons in 1862 to quickly reduce Fort Pulaski at the mouth of the Savannah River.
Charleston, however, did host two battles in the conflict. The Battle of Secessionville came in June 1862, when a Union force attempting to take Charleston was repulsed on James Island with heavy casualties.
The next battle, an unsuccessful Union landing on Morris Island in July 1863, was immortalized by the movie Glory. The 54th Massachusetts Regiment, an African American unit with white commanders, performed so gallantly in its failed assault on the Confederate Battery Wagner that it inspired the North and was cited by abolitionists as further proof that African Americans should be given freedom and full citizenship rights.
Another invasion attempt on Charleston would not come, but it was besieged and bombarded for nearly two years (devastation made even worse by a massive fire, unrelated to the shelling, which destroyed much of the city in 1861). Otherwise, the coast grew quiet.
From Charleston to Brunswick, white Southerners evacuated the coastal cities and plantations for the hinterland, leaving behind only slaves to fend for themselves. In many coastal areas, African Americans and Union garrison troops settled into an awkward but peaceful coexistence. Many islands under Union control, such as Cockspur Island where Fort Pulaski sat, became endpoints in the Underground Railroad.
In Savannah, General William Sherman concluded his March to the Sea in Savannah in 1864, famously giving the city to Lincoln as a Christmas present. While staunch Confederates, city fathers were wise enough to know what would happen to their accumulated wealth and fine homes should they be foolhardy enough to resist Sherman’s army of war-hardened veterans, most of them farm boys from the Midwest with a pronounced distaste for the “peculiar institution” of slavery.
The only military uncertainty left was in how badly Charleston, the “cradle of secession,” would suffer for its sins. Historians and local wags have long debated why Sherman spared Charleston, the hated epicenter of the Civil War. Did he fall in love with the city during his brief posting there as a young lieutenant? Did he literally fall in love there, with one of its legendarily beautiful and delicate local belles?
We may never know for sure, but it’s likely that the Lowcountry’s marshy, mucky terrain simply made it too difficult to move large numbers of men and supplies. So Sherman turned his terrifying, battle-hardened army inland toward the state capitol of Columbia, which would not be so lucky. Most of Charleston’s once-great plantation homes, too, would be put to the torch.
For the African American population of Charleston and Savannah, however, it was not a time of sadness but the great Day of Jubilee. Soon after the Confederate surrender, black Charlestonians held one of the largest parades the city has ever seen, with one of the floats being a coffin bearing the sign, “Slavery is dead.”
As for the place where it all began, a plucky Confederate garrison remained underground at Fort Sumter throughout the war, as the walls above them were literally pounded into dust by the long Union siege. The garrison quietly left the fort under cover of night on February 17, 1865.
Major Robert Anderson, who surrendered the fort at war’s beginning, returned to Sumter in April 1865 to raise the same flag he’d lowered exactly four years earlier. Three thousand African Americans attended the ceremonies. Later that same night, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in Washington, D.C.
© Jim Morekis from Moon Charleston & Savannah, 4th Edition