Charleston Mercury, Union is Dissolved

The Charleston Mercury announces South Carolina’s vote to secede.

Civil War


Even before the state seceded, South Carolina had already begun making preparations for a war that most of her citizens believed either would never actually occur or would be of short duration. Militia companies, some of them with lineages dating back to the Revolutionary War, were joined by new units raised in cities, towns, and communities all over the state to accommodate the flood of enthusiastic volunteers.

(1861–1865). In early 1865, as General William Tecumseh Sherman’s armies crossed the Savannah River from Georgia into the Palmetto State, one Federal soldier shouted, “Boys, this is old South Carolina, let’s give her hell!” South Carolina had long been a symbol of disunion, secession, and defiance of authority; had been the first southern state to secede; and had been the site of the first shots of the war at Fort Sumter. Her reputation ensured that Union troops would hasten, and northern civilians celebrate, her downfall. Most white South Carolinians had long believed that their economic prosperity, political interests, and social stability were inextricably tied to the concept of states’ rights, the institution of slavery, and the plantation system as it had evolved since the colonial era. For more than thirty years, the fire-eaters among them had defended their society against enemies both real and imagined, convinced that Yankee abolitionists wanted to take their slaves from them and were willing to trample their self-respect, freedom, and liberty in doing so. Their agitation made South Carolina foremost in a movement that advocated secession from the Union and the creation of a separate southern nation. In 1860, with the election of Abraham Lincoln (a “Black Republican”) as president, the radicals finally found the justification they had sought for so many years.

South Carolinians soon elected delegates to a secession convention, which first convened in Columbia in mid-December but met for only one day before adjourning amid a smallpox scare and reconvening in Charleston. On December 20, 1860, the delegates voted unanimously to secede, declaring that Lincoln’s “opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery” and announcing that South Carolina had “resumed her position among the nations of the world.” The convention, hoping to influence like-minded southerners, invited other states to send commissioners to a meeting in Montgomery to discuss the creation of a new nation. It also authorized Governor Francis W. Pickens to appoint an Executive Council to assist him in handling the diplomatic and military affairs of a newly independent republic.

Even before the state seceded, South Carolina had already begun making preparations for a war that most of her citizens believed either would never actually occur or would be of short duration. Militia companies, some of them with lineages dating back to the Revolutionary War, were joined by new units raised in cities, towns, and communities all over the state to accommodate the flood of enthusiastic volunteers.

Pickens and other state authorities viewed the presence of four United States military installations in and around Charleston–Fort Moultrie, Fort Sumter, Castle Pinckney, and the U.S. Arsenal– an insult to South Carolina’s sovereignty and a threat to her safety. Major Robert Anderson, commanding a small garrison of Federal troops at Fort Moultrie, viewed his position on the mainland as untenable and moved his men out to Fort Sumter under the cover of night the week after the state seceded. Tensions escalated as state troops seized the other three installations and waited impatiently for the Federals’ next move.

In January 1861, when Federal authorities sent the ship Star of the West to resupply Anderson’s garrison, batteries on Morris Island, including one manned by cadets from the Citadel, fired on the ship. As she neared Fort Sumter cannon fire from Fort Moultrie forced her to withdraw. Though the episode was technically an act of war, an uneasy peace lasted for the next two months. Pickens and his Executive Council continued preparing for war, but as the Confederate government became well established and its authorities started assuming the responsibility for military and diplomatic affairs, the council had outlived its purpose and was abolished in April.

By that time the fighting had already begun. At the end of March, Abraham Lincoln, who inherited the secession crisis from President James Buchanan, decided to send additional supplies to Fort Sumter in spite of warnings from his advisers that it might mean war. While the supplies were on their way, General P. G. T. Beauregard, the Confederate commander in Charleston, demanded that Anderson surrender the fort. When Anderson refused, Beauregard ordered the batteries surrounding the harbor to open fire. The first shells fell early on the morning of April 12, 1861, and though the outmanned and outgunned Federals responded, the outcome was never in doubt. By the next afternoon Anderson surrendered, completing the first Confederate victory of the war.

As Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion, and as the states of the upper South responded by calling their own secession conventions, South Carolinians continued to flock to the colors. More than 60,000 of them saw Confederate service during the war. Reserve and home guard units had little real impact but were nonetheless a presence in their own communities. Several regular Confederate units were commanded by officers with at least some military experience or education, but many more of them were raised and commanded by men better known for their political careers or family connections than anything else. Many units were first sent to defend Charleston or other points in the lowcountry and remained there for most of the war. Others responded to calls for assistance once it became obvious that Virginia would be the major battlefield in the East, and they began arriving there that spring and summer. Still others organized later in 1861 or early in 1862 spent a few months in their home state before serving for most of the war in other states, primarily in Mississippi, Tennessee, and Georgia. Several men born or raised in South Carolina became general officers, among them Stephen Elliott, Jr., and Johnson Hagood, who served for most of the war in their home state; Richard H. Anderson, Matthew C. Butler, Wade Hampton, Micah Jenkins, Joseph B. Kershaw, and James Longstreet, who served in the Army of Northern Virginia; and Ellison Capers, States Rights Gist, and Arthur M. Manigault, who served in the Army of Tennessee.

The Palmetto State was not a major battleground during the war, though it did see a few major campaigns and several minor engagements. The first significant action in the state occurred in the fall of 1861 when the United States Navy, seeking a port that might serve as a base for its blockade of the southern coast, sent an expedition toward Port Royal and Beaufort. On November 7, 1861, Commander Samuel F. Du Pont’s fleet shelled the Confederate defenses guarding Port Royal Sound and quickly forced their garrisons to withdraw. Over the next few weeks Federal troops occupied Beaufort, Port Royal, Hilton Head, and the neighboring Sea Islands. Planters and other whites in the area fled their homes, leaving behind thousands of blacks whose status was somewhere between enslaved and free.

The Port Royal disaster, for which Pickens and his administration were widely criticized by politicians, newspaper editors, and refugees forced to flee their homes, resulted in the creation of a new Executive Council in early 1862. This council assumed much more power than the first one had. It declared martial law in portions of the lowcountry, established quotas for the enlistment of additional troops into Confederate service, required slaveowners to loan their slaves out for long or short-term tasks considered critical to the war effort, and took food and other supplies to distribute among units defending the state. It operated in spite of widespread grumbling from those who believed that it was infringing on the powers of the legislature and the judiciary and on the civil liberties of individuals. Amid almost constant criticism and controversy, the General Assembly abolished the Executive Council in December 1862.

Hilton Head and Port Royal Sound would serve as a headquarters for Federal land and naval forces for the rest of the war, a staging point from which they would launch numerous combined operations against Charleston and the rest of the coast. Officials of the U.S. Department of the Treasury soon began a project known as the “Port Royal Experiment,” by which civil and military authorities took charge of abandoned Sea Island cotton plantations and offered wages for freedmen and freedwomen to work the fields. Northern teachers and missionaries came south to help educate those who were still technically considered “contraband of war.” General David Hunter recruited freedmen on the Sea Islands to organize one of the first black regiments in the United States Army, despite having no real authority to do so before the Emancipation Proclamation took effect in the portions of South Carolina under Union occupation on January 1, 1863.

It soon became obvious that the Federals would focus most of their attention on Charleston, which they described as “that viper’s nest and breeding place of rebellion.” As a result troops were concentrated in and around Charleston and to a lesser extent along the strategically vital Charleston and Savannah Railroad. In the late spring of 1862, the Federals launched an expedition against James Island, the main line of Confederate defenses south of the city. On June 16, 1862, General Henry Benham ordered an ill-advised assault against a well-placed earthwork at Secessionville and was repulsed with heavy losses. The battle stopped the Union advance and buoyed Confederate morale after the losses of Nashville and New Orleans earlier that year.

On the home front civilians adjusted to the changes forced on them by the war. Shortages in food–whether subsistence items or more nonessential ones–depended largely on the locale, with citizens in rural communities generally managing better than those in cities such as Charleston and Columbia, which saw increasingly higher prices in inflationary times. Prices demanded for clothing, household items, and other goods rose steadily as well, affected both by the Union blockade of Charleston and by deficiencies in manufacturing and transportation throughout the South. Some South Carolinians saved or hoarded what they could, while others took advantage of the times to speculate and charge exorbitant prices for poor quality goods. If relatively few South Carolinians were in real distress until the war’s final months, all of them felt the pinch of wartime. Families with husbands and fathers in the Confederate armies were hit particularly hard, and soldiers’ relief societies and churches tried to help as best they could.

Conscription, in which all men between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five (later forty-five) were drafted for Confederate service, was unpopular at best and unmanageable at worst. State authorities drafted those they could get between the ages of sixteen and sixty-five for the home guard and reserves. By 1863 some men either evaded the draft or deserted once they were enlisted, with individuals and groups hiding out in the mountain districts in the northwestern corner of the state, often called “the Dark Corner.”

Charleston and Columbia were the most significant centers of political, economic, military, and social activity throughout the war. Charleston was the headquarters of the Confederate Department of South Carolina and Georgia (later the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida). Other Confederate offices there included the former U.S. Arsenal, the Charleston Naval Station, a collector of customs, and a district office of the Quartermaster General’s Department. Columbia, as the state capital and the geographic center of the state, had its population swelled by a tremendous influx of refugees. Confederate offices there included the Columbia Arsenal, a branch of the Naval Powder Works, a Bureau of Conscription, and a district headquarters of the Nitre and Mining Bureau. By 1862 most Confederate currency was engraved and printed in Charleston or Columbia, then sent to Richmond for distribution. When the Treasury Note Bureau was established in 1864 in Columbia, it took over the entire operation from engraving to distribution, employing young women to sign and cut sheets of currency and bonds.

State and local governments made necessary adjustments as well, implementing policies intended to support the war effort. Milledge L. Bonham succeeded Pickens as governor in December 1862, serving until December 1864. As the war progressed, some politicians expressed opposition not only to Confederate measures such as conscription and impressments, or to the course of the war, but also to Jefferson Davis as president. Newspaper editors such as Robert Barnwell Rhett, Jr., of the Charleston Mercury heaped scorn on Davis and his administration at every turn. Andrew G. Magrath succeeded Bonham as governor in December 1864, serving only a few months before the war’s end.

Slaves and free blacks alike found that the upheaval of the war and its uncertainties loosened restrictions not only on their daily lives but also on their relationships and interactions with whites at all levels of society. Whites living in the midst of blacks who outnumbered them had long feared slave rebellions. During the war, however, the absence of many slaveowners and their sons in military service meant that overseers and owners’ wives ran their plantations and farms and that reports or rumors of dissatisfaction among slaves were commonplace. When state and Confederate authorities impressed slaves from reluctant owners, it became more difficult than ever to keep growing crops and raising livestock at prewar levels.

South Carolina units played significant roles defending the lowcountry for two and a half years after Secessionville, most notably near Charleston, where they repulsed an attack by a Union ironclad squadron in April 7, 1863. On July 10, 1863, General Quincy Gillmore opened a campaign against Charleston by landing forces on Morris Island in an attempt to gain a foothold from which to operate against Charleston. On July 18 the Federals launched an attack on Battery Wagner, the major Confederate earthwork on Morris Island. The assault, notable as one of the first in which the United States Army employed black troops, was a complete failure and resulted in heavy casualties. Though unsuccessful in capturing Charleston, Gillmore’s activities initiated a siege that lasted until February 1865. During this period the Federals carried out two major bombardments from batteries on Morris Island against Fort Sumter and began firing shells into Charleston, which accomplished little other than the destruction of property and the intimidation of civilians. A third and final major bombardment of Fort Sumter occurred the next summer, and a Federal movement from Port Royal against the railroad junction at Gopher Hill (Ridgeland) in conjunction with Sherman’s march from Atlanta in late November 1864 resulted in an inconclusive engagement at Honey Hill.

In September 1864 a military prison was established at Florence. As many as twelve thousand Union prisoners, most of them transferred from the prison at Andersonville, Georgia, were held there during the war’s final winter. Almost three thousand of them died before Sherman’s advance through the state closed the prison in February 1865.

In January 1865 Sherman began shifting his army’s right wing through Beaufort to Pocotaligo. Then on February 1 the soldiers at Pocotaligo moved inland while Sherman’s left wing crossed the Savannah River and marched through Robertsville and Lawtonville. The only engagement of any consequence before he approached Columbia occurred on February 2 and 3 at Rivers Bridge on the Salkehatchie River. Some eight thousand Federals attempting to cross there were delayed briefly by nine hundred Confederates, who were quickly outflanked and forced to withdraw, clearing the way for Sherman’s advance through the state. Though Sherman feinted as if he were headed for Charleston, his force reached the outskirts of Columbia by February 16. Charleston was quietly evacuated the next day, at the same time that the major Confederate force defending the two Carolinas evacuated Columbia.

In the capital city, Sherman’s soldiers ransacked both the existing State House and the new unfinished one, and many of them roamed the streets drinking, frightening citizens, and looting at will. High winds throughout the night of February 17–18 helped spread multiple fires, and about a third of the city burned, although numerous Union officers and men tried to reestablish order and help Columbians save their homes and churches. Sherman continued toward North Carolina, occasionally skirmishing along the way and burning or ransacking portions of Winnsboro, Camden, Chester, and Cheraw during the next two weeks. A limited Federal raid by troops under General Edward E. Potter in April made its way through Georgetown, Manning, Sumter, and Camden and was the last significant military operation in the state during the war.

One of the more painful costs of Confederate defeat was that 18,000 to 21,000 men, or one of every fourteen white South Carolinians, had been killed or mortally wounded or had died from disease. The most significant consequence of Union victory was the emancipation of 400,000 slaves and their subsequent attempt to adjust to their new place in South Carolina society. Whether bitter amid defeat, devastation, and memories of the past or optimistic amid victory, freedom, and expectations for the future, South Carolinians would struggle with the results–and the legacy–of the war for generations to come.

Barrett, John G. Sherman’s March through the Carolinas. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1956.

Brennan, Patrick. Secessionville: Assault on Charleston. Campbell, Calif.: Savas, 1996.

Burton, E. Milby. The Siege of Charleston, 1861–1865. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1970.

Cauthen, Charles E. South Carolina Goes to War, 1860–1865. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1950.

Davis, William C. The Cause Lost: Myths and Realities of the Confederacy. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996.

Glatthaar, Joseph T. The March to the Sea and Beyond: Sherman’s Troops in the Savannah and Carolinas Campaigns. New York: New York University Press, 1985.

Hudson, Leonne M. “A Confederate Victory at Grahamville: Fighting at Honey Hill.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 94 ( January 1993): 19–33.

Lucas, Marion Brunson. Sherman and the Burning of Columbia. 1976. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000.

Moore, John Hammond. Southern Homefront, 1861–1865. Columbia, S.C.: Summerhouse, 1998.

Power, J. Tracy. “‘This Indescribably Ugly Salkehatchie’: The Battle of Rivers Bridge, 2–3 February 1865.” In Rivers Bridge State Park Visitors Guide, by Daniel J. Bell and J. Tracy Power. Columbia: South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism, 1992.

Rose, Willie Lee. Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment. 1964. Reprint, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999.

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.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Civil War
  • Coverage 1861–1865
  • Author
  • Keywords separate southern nation, Abraham Lincoln, Fort Moultrie, Confederate, South Carolina, Sherman’s march, General David Hunter, Jefferson Davis,
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date July 22, 2024
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update July 20, 2022
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