1865 February 25: The “Cradle of Treason” (Charleston) Has Fallen
As Union General William T. Sherman marched through South Carolina, the situation for Charleston became ever more precarious. On February 15, 1865, Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard ordered the evacuation of remaining Confederate forces. Then on February 18, the mayor surrendered the city to General Alexander Schimmelfennig¹ and Union troops finally moved in.
The Polk County Press will not have an article about Charleston until next week; meanwhile they did published in their February 25, 1865, issue a large headline, with flag, about the fall of “Babylon” (Charleston). The article following this is from The Prescott Journal of February 25, 1865.
From The Polk County Press:
The rebels set fire to the cotton and in its destruction consumed two-thirds of the city. The explosion of ammunition in the fire killed many of its citizens, and destroyed millions of property. One hundred guns fell into our hands. We are unable to give the particulars in this issue—will give a full account next week.
From The Prescott Journal:
ALL THE FORTS IN OUR POSSESSION !
General Anderson’s Flag Again Raised over Fort Sumter !
Rebels Left Fortifications Uninjured and 200 Guns !
The City on Fire and Two-Thirds Destroyed !
[This same article appeared in The Polk County Press on March 4, 1865.]
NEW YORK, Feb. 21.—The steamship Fulton, from Port Royal 17th, Charleston 18th, arrived this morning. Charleston was evacuated by the enemy on the night of the 17th, leaving the several fortifications uninjured besides 200 guns, which they spiked. The evacuation was first discovered at Fort Moultrie in the morning at 10 o’clock. Part of the troops stationed at James Island crossed over in boats, and took possession of the city without opposition. Upper part of the city on fire.
Previous to the enemy evacuating they fired the upper part of the city by which 6,000 bales of cotton were burned, and it is supposed that before the fire could be subdued two-thirds of the city will be destroyed.
A fearful explosion occurred in the Wilmington depot, cause unknown, by which several hundred citizens lost their lives.
The building was used for commissary purposes, and situated in the upper part of the city.
Admiral Dahlgren was the first to run up the city, where he arrived at about 3 o’clock. Gen. Gilmore [sic] followed soon after and had an interview with General Schemelfenning [sic], he being the first general officer in the city, and for this at present is in command.
The remains of two iron-clads were found, which the enemy destroyed by blowing them up.
Previous to the evacuation the blockade runner Cyrena had just arrived at Nassau, and fell into our hands, and two others were expected to run in on the night of the 18th. The first flag over Sumter was raised by Capt. Henry M. Bragg, A. D. C. on General Gilmore’s [sic] staff.
The houses in the lower part were completely riddled by our shot and shell. The wealthy part of the population have deserted the city, and now all that remain are of the poorer class, who are suffering from want of food.
A movement had been made by a force under Gen. Hatch [John P. Hatch], which resulted in the capture of six pieces of artillery.
The Tribune’s correspondent, who arrived by the Fulton, gives the following account :
CHARLESTON HARBOR, Feb. 18.—Early last evening Brig. Gen. Schemelfenning [sic], commanding the northern district of the department of South Carolina, discovered some indications which led him to believe the rebels were about to evacuate Charleston and its defences.
He accordingly ordered his pickets and picket boats to keep a bright look-out and report immediately any movement on the part of the enemy. About half past 3 A. M. this morning a terrific explosion took place in Charleston, which shook every ship in the harbor and off the bar.
Almost simultaneous with the explosion flames broke out and could be distinctly seen in different parts of the city.
It appears the first explosion occurred at the Wilmington depot, the fire from which rapidly communicated with adjacent buildings, causing a general conflagration of all the dwelling houses in the vicinity.
It was while the unfortunate inhabitants were trying to extinguish the fire that the second explosion took place, which resulted so disastrously, causing terrible loss of life amongst the women and children, who are represented as having been horribly mutilated.
This morning Gen. Schemelfenning [sic] landed his forces and occupied the city and its defences. The formidable earthworks on James Island are found abandoned, and the guns spiked.
At ten o’clock this morning a detachment was sent to take possession of Fort Sumter, and raise the flag which General Anderson [Robert Anderson] hauled down nearly four years ago.
At 4 o’clock the flag was raised amidst cheers. As fast as forces could be thrown into the city they were set to work to put out the fire, which, up to the time of leaving, was raging fiercely in different parts of the city.
Old man, women and children are rushing frantically to and fro in agonized despair at the loss of their homes and the killing and mutilating of their friends. It is impossible to estimate the amount of cotton destroyed by the rebels.
Several thousand bales were collected in different parts of the city, and set on fire almost simultaneously with the principal depot.
It was the opinion of Gen. Gilmore’s [sic] staff that in all probability two thirds of the city would be destroyed before the fire could be extinguished with the imperfect means for subduing it at hand.
The last rearguard of the rebels left Charleston at 4 A. M. this morning.
1. Alexander Shimmelfenning (1824-1865) was a Prussian soldier and political revolutionary who emigrated to the U.S. in 1854. He worked in the U.S. War Department, where he associated with the Forty-Eighters (German military officers in the failed revolution of 1848 who fled to the United States), many of whom, like him, ended up serving in the Union Army. When the Civil War started, he raised a regiment of Germans from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh called the 1st German Regiment (of Pennsylvania), later designated the 74th Pennsylvania Infantry. Shimmelfenning fought at the battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. He commanded the District of Charleston during Sherman’s March to the Sea, and he had the honor of accepting Charleston’s surrender on February 18, 1865. During his time of service in the swamps about Charleston, Schimmelfennig contracted a virulent form of tuberculosis, which ultimately led to his death on September 5, 1865, in Wernersville, Pennsylvania, where he visited a mineral springs sanatorium in an effort to find a cure.