So Remorselessly Kindled – Charleston Burns and Falls

February 18, 1865 (Saturday)

What was left of Fort Sumter.
What was left of Fort Sumter.

From the official report of Lt. Col. Augustus G. Bennett, Twenty-First U. S. Colored Troops:

On the morning of February 18 I received information that led me to believe the defenses and lines guarding the city of Charleston had been deserted by the enemy. I immediately proceeded to Cumming’s Point, from whence I sent a small boat, in the direction of Fort Moultrie, which boat, when forty yards cast from Fort Sumter, was met by a boat from Sullivan’s Island containing a full corps of band musicians abandoned by the enemy. These confirmed my belief of an evacuation.

The Mills House, with adjacent ruins.
The Mills House, with adjacent ruins.

I had no troops that could be available under two hours, as except in a few pontoon-boats there were no means whatever of landing troops near the enemy’s works or into the city. I directed Major Hennessy to proceed to Fort Sumter and there replace our flag. The flag was replaced over the southeast angle of Fort Sumter at 9 am. I now pushed for the city, stopping at Fort Ripley and Castle Pinckney, from which works rebel flags were hauled down and the American flag substituted. The guns in these works were in good order. There was mounted in Fort Ripley one “quaker” gun bearing southeast.

Houses on the Battery damaged by shell-fire.
Houses on the Battery damaged by shell-fire.

I landed at Mills’ Wharf, Charleston, at 10 a. m., where I learned that a part of the enemy’s troops yet remained in the city, while mounted patrols were out in every direction applying the torch and driving the inhabitants before them. I at once addressed to the mayor of the city the following communication:


Mayor Charles MacBeth,
Charleston:

Mayor: In the name of the United States Government I demand a surrender of the city of which you are the executive officer. Until further orders all citizens will remain within their houses.

I have the honor to be, mayor, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

A. G. BENNETT, Lieutenant-Colonel, Commanding V. S. Forces, Charleston.

My whole force consisted of five officers and the armed crews of two small boats, comprising in all twenty-two men. Both officers and men volunteered to advance from the wharf into the city, but no re-enforcements being in sight I did not deem it expedient to move on.

Ruins of Catholic Cathedral.
Ruins of Catholic Cathedral.

Public buildings, stores, warehouses, private dwellings, shipping, &c, were burning and being fired by armed rebels, but with the force at my disposal it was impossible to save the cotton and other property.

While awaiting the arrival of my troops at Mills’ Wharf a number of explosions took place. The rebel commissary depot was blown up, and with it, it is estimated, that not less than 200 human beings, most of whom were women and children, were blown to atoms. These people were engaged in procuring food for themselves and families, by permission from the rebel military authorities. The rebel ram Charleston was blown up while lying at her anchorage opposite Mount Pleasant ferry wharf, in the Cooper River.

55th Massachusetts marching into Charleston singing "John Brown's Body".
55th Massachusetts marching into Charleston singing “John Brown’s Body”.

Charles Carlton Coffin, a reporter who had traveled with various armies since the start of the war, wrote a year following the fall of Charleston of the destruction:

The torch was applied [by the fleeing Rebels] early on the morning of the 18th. The citizens sprang to the fire-engines and succeeded in extinguishing the flames in several places; but in other parts of the city the fire had its own way, burning till there was nothing more to devour. On the wharf of the Savannah Railroad depot were several hundred bales of cotton and several thousand bushels of rice. On Lucas Street, in a shed, were twelve hundred bales of cotton. There were numerous other sheds all filled. Near by was the Lucas mill, containing thirty thousand bushels of rice, and Walker’s warehouse, with a large amount of commissary stores, all of which were licked up by the fire so remorselessly kindled.

Ruins of the North Eastern Railroad depot.
Ruins of the North Eastern Railroad depot.

At the Northeastern Railroad depot there was an immense amount of cotton which was fired. The depot was full of commissary supplies and ammunition, powder in kegs, shells, and cartridges. The people rushed in to obtain the supplies. Several hundred men, women, and children were in the building when the flames reached the ammunition and the fearful explosion took place, lifting up the roof and bursting out the walls, and scattering bricks, timbers, tiles, beams, through the air; shells crashed through the panic-stricken crowd, followed by the shrieks and groans of the mangled victims lying helpless in the flames, burning to cinders in the all-devouring element. Nor was this all. At the wharves were the ironclads, burning, torn, rent, scattered over the water and land, — their shells and solid shot, iron braces, red-hot iron plates, falling in an infernal shower, firing the wharves, the buildings, and all that could burn.

The 21st United States Colored Troops, commanded by Col. Bennett, was made up of many former slaves from Charleston. According to Coffin, “it was their high privilege to be first in the city.”1

 Fort Moultrie
Fort Moultrie


  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 47, Part 1, p1018-1019; Four Years of Fighting by Charles Carleton Coffin. []

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One thought on “So Remorselessly Kindled – Charleston Burns and Falls

  1. Once again, impressive research. The tragedy of the Charleston depot is not mentioned in most of the Civil War histories — and yet it was likely the single greatest loss of civilian life in the war.

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