Though a continuous enemy presence off Charleston was maintained by the Federals from May 28, 1861, when the Union navy established its blockade, Charleston did not find itself under constant attack until July 1863. Previously the city had survived the sinking of a “Stone Fleet” (old whaling vessels sunk in the shipping channel as an obstruction in late 1861 and early 1862), a land attack directed against Secessionville in June 1862, and a naval assault against the harbor defenses by nine ironclads on April 7, 1863. The defeat of the separate army and navy attacks resulted in the formation of a combined naval and land assault led by General Quincy A. Gillmore and Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren. On July 10, 1863, the date that Charleston newspapers declared as the start of the siege, Union troops stormed ashore and captured most of Morris Island, but they were stopped on July 11 and 18 from taking Battery Wagner. Gillmore undertook siege operations, forcing the evacuation of Wagner and Morris Island on September 7, 1863.
During this time bombardments of Fort Sumter and Charleston commenced, and they continued throughout the war. A small boat attack on Fort Sumter, an attempt to capture it by surprise, failed on September 9, 1863. Charleston remained under intermittent bombardment from August 1863 until it was evacuated in February 1865. Though only five individuals would be killed by the cannonade, Charlestonians moved north of Calhoun Street and along the Ashley River. The downtown area became known as the “Shell District.” The historic churches, houses, and graveyards were dam- aged and some destroyed by Union shells. When Jefferson Davis visited Charleston in November 1863, he declared that it was better to leave the city “a heap of ruins” than to surrender.
Throughout the war resourceful and energetic officers such as P. G. T. Beauregard, Roswell Ripley, Robert E. Lee, John C. Pemberton, Samuel Jones, and William Hardee commanded Charleston. They employed every conceivable method of defense including the use of floating mines, ironclad rams, torpedo boats, and a submarine. In October 1863 the Confederate torpedo boat David rammed the Union ironclad frigate New Ironsides. Early the following year the H. L. Hunley carried out the world’s first successful submarine attack, sinking the USS Housatonic on February 17, 1864.
In February 1864 a Union advance on Johns Island under General Alexander Schimmelfennig failed. Early in July 1864 the city’s defenders turned back attacks under General J. P. Hatch against James and Johns Islands. Active operations other than the bombardment of Sumter and Charleston slowed until early 1865 when General William T. Sherman began his march into South Carolina. Once the Confederates realized that Sherman’s objective was Columbia, Beauregard, the department commander, ordered the Charleston garrison to the state capital, but contradictory orders from Jefferson Davis delayed the movement. Even so, Charleston could not hold. As the Charlestonian Jacob Schirmer wrote in his diary, “total ruin is staring us in our faces.” With its interior connections severed, Federal troops landing at Bulls Bay north of the city, and enemy troops advancing overland from the south, Charleston was finally evacuated on February 17, 1865, ending its 567-day siege. See plate 21.
Burton, E. Milby. The Siege of Charleston, 1861–1865. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1970.
Gillmore, Quincy Adams. Engineer and Artillery Operations against the Defences of Charleston Harbor in 1863. New York: Nostrand, 1865.
Johnson, John. The Defense of Charleston Harbor, Including Fort Sumter and the Adjacent Islands, 1863–1865. 1890. Reprint, Germantown, Tenn.: Guild Bindery Press, 1994.
Rosen, Robert N. Confederate Charleston: An Illustrated History of the City and the People during the Civil War. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994.
Wise, Stephen R. Gate of Hell: Campaign for Charleston Harbor, 1863. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994.