Posted on February 18, 2015
150 years ago this morning, a Union officer and a small troop of soldiers arrived at the South Atlantic Wharf after noticing a commotion in the city of Charleston. The soldiers soon learned that the night of February 17th the city’s defenders and many of its inhabitants had evacuated the city. The officer, Colonel Bennett, soon received the city’s surrender from Mayor Macbeth, which read “The military authorities of the Confederate States have evacuated the city. I have remained to enforce law and preserve order until you take such steps as you may think best.” Thus in the morning of February 18th, 1865, the siege of Charleston by Union forces finally came to an end after roughly twenty months.
The city had been bombarded on and off throughout the long siege, with the result that the city had suffered heavy damage. Charles Coffin, a reporter for the Boston Daily Journal who wrote by the name “Carleton,” wrote in his war memoir about the damage to the city he witnessed when he arrived. “Churches, hotels, stores, dwellings, public buildings, and stables, all were shattered. There were great holes in the ground, where cart-loads of earth had been evacuated in a twinkling.” There is a great article in the Post and Courier about Charleston’s situation following the Confederate evacuation and the city’s capture:
“A City of Ashes: When the Confederacy Abandoned Charleston”
Yet the city’s surrender was a joyous moment for the formerly enslaved inhabitants of the city, who celebrated with such events as a mock funeral for the figure of “Slavery.” When the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Regiments, along with other United States Colored Troops, marched through the city later in the day on the 18th, they were greeted by cheering crowds. Colonel Charles Fox of the 55th Massachusetts remembered the scene of “cheers, blessings, prayers, and songs…On through the streets of the rebel city passed the column, on through the chief seat of that slave power, tottering to fall. Its walls rung to the chorus of manly voices singing “John Brown” “Babylon is Falling” and the “Battle-Cry of freedom”…The glory and the triumph of this hour may be imagined, but it can never be described.”
So it was with scenes like this that Charleston, the city in which secession was inaugurated and a place that had played a major role in American slavery, passed into the hands of the Union. But the capture of Charleston was only the beginning for the arriving Union army and the remaining inhabitants. Now began the slow process and tough work of repairing and reconstructing the shattered city.