Special Reports

From the archives: 150 years ago: The siege of Charleston

The Union blockage of Charleston began six weeks after the surrender of Fort Sumter to South Carolina and Confederate forces. That effort was bolstered, six months later, when Union forces seized Port Royal Sound and the surrounding area in South Carolina’s Lowcountry. For most of the war, the front lines for South Carolina were in Charleston as Union ships attempted, and failed, to storm into the city’s harbor, and small Union and Confederate armies moved and counter moved and fought on the islands at the city’s front doorstep. The Union siege of Charleston lasted 567 days, and, during that time, Charleston became the most bombarded mainland city in the history of the United States. Union efforts to take the city that birthed the Civil War did not end until the Confederacy abandoned the city as Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s army laid waste to the heart of South Carolina.

May 28, 1861 - Federal ships blockade Charleston.

November 1861 to July 1863 - Thirty-six ships make 125 blockade-running trips out of Charleston. The fall of Morris Island in 1863 sends blockade runners along Sullivan’s Island from late 1864 until February 1865. The traffic makes Charleston the Confederacy’s No. 2 blockade-running port, behind Wilmington, N.C.

June 16, 1862 - Outnumbered Confederates turn back a Union advance toward Charleston at the Battle of Secessionville on James Island.

Oct. 22, 1862 - Confederate forces turn back Union soldiers at the Battle of Pocotaligo, the largest action during a failed three-day Union expedition intended to disrupt the Charleston and Savannah Railroad and to isolate Charleston.

April 7, 1863 - Union ironclad assault on Charleston is turned back. One of the ironclads is commanded by Percival Drayton, a Charleston native, who fought for the Union. (Drayton’s brother, a Confederate general, had commanded the Southern forces that were defeated at the Battle of Port Royal by a Union fleet and soldiers that included Percival Drayton.)

July 6, 1863 - Rear Adm. Samuel Du Pont, the commander of the Union’s South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, is relieved of duty because of his inability to make headway against Charleston’s fortifications. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles appoints John Dahlgren to succeed Du Pont.

July 10, 1863 - Federal forces land on Morris Island, near the entrance to Charleston Harbor. They fortify their positions over the next three weeks.

July 18, 1863 - The Union’s 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, made up of African-American soldiers commanded by white officers, charges Battery Wagner on Morris Island. The charge fails. Of the 600 men in the regiment, 272 are killed, wounded or missing. However, one of the charge’s heroes, Sgt. William Carney, becomes the first African-American awarded the Medal of Honor. (The film “Glory” tells the story of the 54th, 136 years later.)

Aug. 1, 1863 - Union forces begin prolonged bombardment of Confederate forts and batteries around Charleston Harbor.

Aug. 11, 1863 - Confederate forces pound Union entrenchments on Morris Island. Shortly thereafter, however, the rebels withdraw from the island.

Aug. 12, 1863 - Federal batteries on Morris Island open up a “ranging” barrage - measuring the distance to various Confederate targets - that lasts four days.

Aug. 17- Sept. 2, 1863 - Sustained Union bombardment of Fort Sumter. During Charleston’s 567-day siege, 7 million pounds of artillery projectiles are fired at the fort, transforming it from an imposing multi-story installation to a shattered hulk. But the shelling only makes the fort stronger, as the rubble, reinforced with seawater-soaked cotton bales, piles up.

Aug. 22-23, 1863 - The “Swamp Angel,” a Federal rifled Parrott gun, fires on downtown Charleston from Morris Island for two days before its barrel explodes,

Sept. 9, 1863 - Union attempt to take Sumter, by landing soldiers from small boats, fails.

Oct. 5, 1863 - The Confederate torpedo boat David, one of the war’s innovations, attacks but fails to sink the USS New Ironsides off Charleston.

July 3, 1864 - Union amphibious assault on Confederate Fort Johnson is repulsed.

Feb. 17, 1864 - The Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley sinks the USS Housatonic, then itself sinks. It is the first time in history that a submarine has sunk another vessel. (The Hunley is recovered in 2000.) Nov. 30, 1864 - In the first of a series of Union attacks on the Charleston and Savannah Railroad in November and December, 6,000 Union troops from Port Royal are repulsed by about 2,000 Confederates at the Battle of Honey Hill, in Jasper County. Feb. 17, 1865 - As Gen. William T. Sherman marches through the Midlands, Charleston is abandoned, ending the Union’s 567-day siege of the Holy City, the most bombarded city on the U.S. mainland ever.

- Jeff Wilkinson

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