It all started in Charleston, South Carolina, the soul of the Confederacy. Crush the soul and you weaken the spirit of all rebels. At least that is what the leaders of the Confederacy assumed was on the mind of Union General William T. Sherman in January of 1865. He had just completed his March to the Sea in Savannah, Georgia, and received Grant’s approval to turn east into South Carolina.
There were two possible immediate objectives: Charleston and Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, further away to the northeast. The rebel politicians in Richmond knew Sherman would attack Charleston first, because he needed a base. Their generals knew better.
Sherman wrote one of his generals that he felt it was too hazardous to storm the city, but that is what a small advance force did. In fact, he proposed to General Ulysses S. Grant that he march on Columbia, and fool the rebels into thinking he might take Charleston to tie up soldiers that might confront him.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who was about to become the south’s commander-in-chief, placed Lieutenant General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard in charge of South Carolina’s meager army to defend both cities. All he could do was wait until Sherman’s plans were known and then concentrate the army in front of him. But Sherman sent advance forces toward both cities to keep the Confederates guessing.
At the beginning of the war between the confederacy of slave states and the United States, the thriving port city boasted 40,000 residents. Now, four years later, fewer than 10,000 called it home. The wealthy businessmen and their wives, who once stood on Battery rooftops and cheered as Fort Sumter was attacked, moved inland toward Columbia long ago. For the most part, only the bureaucrats, shipping clerks, railroad workers, poorer classes and free blacks remained in the safe sections of Charleston.
Even the inmates of Charleston’s orphanage were sent to live in an old arsenal building at Columbia to keep them out of harm’s way. The southern end of the peninsula was uninhabitable due to constant shelling, and the mayor moved his office and most of the city’s records to the Orphan House, out of the reach of most shells. The city withstood a two year long bombardment from the sea. North of that, a portion of the city had burned in 1861 and was never rebuilt. But the northern half of Charleston – the mostly blue collar wards – was almost unharmed.
Here the Citadel, the college, U.S. Arsenal and the orphanage made up the area’s major institutions surrounded by homes. And of course the train depots were here: the South Carolina Rail Road operated a passenger and a freight depot in the center of the peninsula, and the Northeastern Rail Road’s Wilmington Depot was to the east, along the Cooper River. The Savannah and Charleston Rail Road ended on James Island, just on the other side of the Ashley River to the west.
Between the two depots in Charleston, around Hanover and America Streets, most of the railroad workers and train engineers still lived with their families. On Hanover, William Henry and Elizabeth Suder lived with their two young sons as William engineered for the South Carolina Rail Road. North of these wards, the rebel army erected batteries to protect the city from a land attack.
Sherman was fighting a “hard war” – forcing his army to live off the land. They took what they needed and destroyed whatever could be used to support the rebel cause. It was devastating, and it was coming to Charleston - they thought. The city was defended by 14,000 rebel troops from different regiments, led by Lt. General William J. Hardee. This would be a fight to the death, the southern papers exclaimed.
By February 2, Sherman’s entire 60,000 man army was across the Savannah River into South Carolina. It was decided the Confederate military would evacuate Charleston, leaving it defenseless. Even if Sherman bypassed the city, the rebel soldiers would be cut off and unable to “evacuate” to join forces later if they stayed.
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