Kershaw’s Brigade under the CSA General Kennedy was driven from the Salkehatchie River on February 8, and returned to Charleston on the Savannah and Charleston line. The brigade helped destroy what the army couldn’t take with them, including hundreds of barrels of whiskey. Two days later, an advanced Union regiment attacked Confederate rifle pits on James Island, across the river from Charleston. Sherman’s army was closing in.
As late as Monday, February 12, the rebel generals still were not sure which city Sherman planned to attack. But by Wednesday, Sherman took Branchville, and the South Carolina Rail Road, the second of three, was in Union hands. From here, Sherman controlled the South Carolina rail line into both cities. Only the Northeastern was left open for Confederate evacuation, and Beauregard ordered Hardee to complete the evacuation immediately, before they lost the last railroad that connected Charleston with Florence to the north. Suder would need to push his engine hard along the Northeastern line to take the soldiers north in time.
On the night of February 17, General Hardee completed the evacuation of Charleston on Beauregard’s orders. The garrison of Sullivan’s Island and Point Pleasant were quietly withdrawn, as were the troops around Moultrie and Sumter. Then the garrison on James Island and the remaining troops in the city were put on trains or marched along the Northeastern track toward Florence on the only line left to them.
Beauregard’s rebel army defending Columbia gave only token resistance before retreating to the north; the army in Charleston would give none at all. In Charleston final orders would be carried out that night to leave nothing for the Union army. Cannons were spiked, quartermaster’s stores were destroyed, and ironclads and ships were scuttled. Cotton storehouses filled with an estimated 6,000 bales waiting to be shipped were set on fire. Much of the ammunition was exploded. The bridge connecting Charleston with James Island was burned, creating a firestorm to the west. Around 3:00 am on Saturday morning an explosion was heard as a cache of ammunition was destroyed. With that, separate fires erupted across northern Charleston.
“Early Saturday morning, before the retirement of General Hardee’s troops, every building, warehouse or shed stored with cotton, was fired by a guard detailed for that purpose,” reported the Charleston Courier on February 20. “The engines were brought out, but with the small force at the disposal of the Fire Department, very little else could be done than to keep the surrounding buildings from igniting.”
The last Confederate troops moved the remaining supplies and ammunition to the Wilmington Depot on the Northeastern rail line at Chapel and Alexander Streets, and loaded as much as possible on the last train heading north. After that train left the station, the unguarded depot was still filled with commissary supplies, damaged ammunition, and 200 kegs of powder. It was probably the only large cache not yet on fire. It was a chance for hungry civilians to gather what they could before Sherman’s army arrived. William Suder’s wife, Lizzy, was among them. She had two small boys at home and William was gone, shuttling soldiers to the north. It was believed Sherman would be there any minute.
“I was in Charleston on the night before and the morning it was evacuated, and was put in charge of a detail of about 75 men to load what cars we could ahead of us,” wrote Lt. Moses Lipscomb Wood in his “War Record.” Wood was in charge of Company F of the 15th South Carolina Volunteer Infantry regiment. “We had not been out of the depot long before the women and children rushed in to get whatever they could. The depot was filled with powder and explosives and caught on fire and was blown up – causing the most pitiful sight I saw during the war. Women and children, about 250, were killed and wounded, and some were carried out by where we were in line on the streets, badly mutilated with their clothing burned off.”
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