August 15, 1863 (Saturday)
Charleston, South Carolina, though nearly besieged by Federal artillery and Naval ships, was still a surprisingly bustling place. From last count, the number of civilians remaining in the city was the highest it had been in well over a year. This troubled Governor Milledge Bonham a great deal, and he wrote to Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the city’s defenses.
While strongly suggesting that the noncombatants be required to leave their homes, Bonham was encouraging the General to hold the city at all costs. In fact, he reminded Beauregard that General Robert E. Lee himself insisted upon it.
It took two days for the letter to reach Beauregard and another for him to respond, which he did on this date. Mostly his reply was consilatory. Beauregard agreed with everything Bonham said. In doing so, however, he fully committed himself to the salvation of Charleston, even if it mean the ruin of the city. This was, afterall, what a State Convention declared on January 8th of 1862, when it resolved “that Charleston should be defended at any cost of life or property.” Going farther, they claimed that they “would prefer a repulse of the enemy with the entire city in ruins, to an evacuation or surrender on any terms whatever.” This bluster, it seems, was to be taken very literally.
Like Bonham, Beauregard called down the name of General Lee, who had “directed that Charleston should be defended to the last extremity, and if necessary the fight should be made from street to street and from house to house.”
Beauregard agreed even further with Bonham that it would only be right to follow the Convention’s and General Lee’s advice. “You are entirely right in your belief that I propose to defend the city to the last extremity,” wrote Beauregard, “in accordance with the patriotic wishes of the people of South Carolina, and the instructions of my superiors.”
He continued in his agreement, agreeing that the noncombatants should be ushered out of the city. Beauregard had tried to do that in July, but most came back or flooded his office with requests to come back. Nevertheless, he agreed to help out some more.
Meanwhile, the Federals shells were falling, but not at any alarming rate. That they were falling at all, however, was an indication that something bigger was coming. This convinced William Porcher Miles to put pen to paper, in an attempt to use his influence to convince the Confederate Secretary of War that Charleston was in a bit of trouble.
Miles had, since years before the war, been an advocate of secession. He had been the mayor of Charleston, had served in the US House of Representatives, and resigned when Lincoln was elected. For a time, he was General Beauregard’s aide-de-camp, and had urged Fort Sumter’s surrender prior to the Rebel’s firing upon it. Following the battle of First Bull Run, he quickly resigned his post to serve in the Confederate Congress, where he remained.
From his home in Charleston and his closeness to Beauregard, he had a first hand knowledge of the state of military affairs. Hoping he also had Secretary James Seddon’s ear, he pleaded the case.
Miles reminded Seddon that Beauregard had sent troops to the West, reinforcing Joe Johnston’s Army of Relief, which had done little to relieve anybody but Charleston of much needed men.
“We have every reason to believe that General Gillmore [Federal commander] will be speedily re-enforce,” wrote Miles accurately, “when he may attempt by an overwhelming force, to seize James Island. Should he succeed in this, Charleston will be in his power, for it can be battered down from James Island.”
Though the rhetoric had been to fight the Yankees street by street and block by block, clearly Miles thought it shouldn’t come to that. After asked for the brigade commanded by Michah Jenkins, which was part of James Longstreet’s Corps. Jenkins and his men were from South Carolina.
“In this,” he continued, “our greatest hour of trial, it seems hard that South Carolina cannot have some of her own veteran troops (who have been fighting so long outside of her borders) to strike a blow for their own homes upon their native soil.”
Miles understood that times were tough and things were tight, of course. “But, really,” he pleaded, “if Charleston is to be defended with anything like the energy and tenacity with which Richmond has been, it seems absolutely necessary that something of ‘an army’ should be, so far as possible, concentrated for its defense, even at the expense of great risk and hazard to other places.”
In closing, he insisted: “This is a moral element that high statesmanship will not only refuse to ignore, but will eagerly avail itself of.”
How long these high statesmen would have to act on this moral element was quickly dwindling. Had Federal General Quincy Gillmore had his way, it would already be too late. He had wanted to begin the bombardment on the 14th, but during the tests of the heavy Parrott Rifles, the artillerists found their powered to be defective. This bought the Rebels three days more to prepare.
Beauregard would use it the best he could. He realized that Fort Sumter would be the target and had been removing its best guns to Fort Moultrie, on the other side of the harbor. By this time, there were only forty pieces of artillery left inside Sumter. At Battery Wagner, scene of two successfully defended attacks on Morris Island, the morale was spiraling downward. But Beauregard could not yet withdraw them. If Wagner fell, Morris Island would fall. And if Morris fell, James Island would come next, and then Charleston. But with less than 6,000 troops, what more could he really do?1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 28, Part 2, p276, 282-283; Gate of Hell by Stephen R. Wise; Napoleon in Gray by T. Harry Williams. [↩]