By boat, the historical importance of Charleston and Hilton Head come alive
Written by Capt. Jeff Warner
For all the bluster and saber rattling by the secessionists in South Carolina in the run-up to the Civil War, it is surprising that so few battles took place in the Palmetto State. The battles that were fought, however, were concentrated around Charleston and Hilton Head Island, which now happen to be favorite areas for boaters cruising the Intracoastal Waterway and the South Carolina coast. Using the unique perspective of your boat, you can visualize the strategies of the opposing forces as you cruise through history in Charleston Harbor or Port Royal Sound.
Antebellum Charleston was a city of affluence and refinement built on the underpinnings of slavery. After the Revolutionary War, this seaport had the highest per-capita wealth among whites and the largest number of enslaved blacks in the United States. When South Carolina passed a nullification ordinance in 1832, allowing its state rights to trump federal law, the slide into the abyss of war began. After Abraham Lincoln was elected president, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union, and that action was pivotal in starting the secession movement. Just six weeks after South Carolina seceded and one month before Lincoln was even inaugurated, the Confederate States of America was born.
At 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter, which guarded the entrance to Charleston Harbor, began—and with it the Civil War. The next four years would be spent by the Union trying to wrest control of Charleston from the rebels while simultaneously maintaining a blockade of the port city from the sea.
In order to improve the resupply and refueling of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron off Charleston, the U.S. Navy chose to establish a base at Port Royal Sound, 50 miles down the coast, to be taken by an amphibious invasion force.The U.S. fleet departed from Hampton Roads, at the south end of Chesapeake Bay, on Oct. 29, 1861. While off Cape Hatteras a few days later, gale force winds scattered the fleet. Some ships were sunk, others washed ashore, and a few returned home for repairs, but the remaining ships in the fleet managed to straggle to the rendezvous point off Port Royal Sound, and the battle was finally engaged on Nov. 7. Within six hours, the Confederate army abandoned its forts. After their victory, the Union forces occupied Hilton Head and offered shelter to 1,000 slaves seeking refuge from the 20 plantations on the island. A year later, Mitchelville was built as the first freedmen’s village on Hilton Head.
The 1989 Academy Award winning film Glory depicted the exploits of the 54th Massachussets Volunteer Infantry, the first all-African-American regiment in the U.S. Army. Their white leader, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, was offered command of the new unit after recovering from wounds he received at the Battle of Antietam in 1862. In the summer of 1863, the all-black regiment was sent south from Boston as part of the force trying to put an end to Confederate control of Fort Wagner, on Morris Island, which guarded the southern approaches to Charleston Harbor. On the night of July 18, under the battle cry “Forward, Fifty-Fourth Forward!,” Colonel Shaw led the regimental charge on the fort. As Shaw mounted the fort’s parapet, he was shot through the heart and died instantly. The 54th continued the assault. Sergeant William Carney seized the Union flag from a downed color bearer and planted it atop the parapet, but after an hour of enduring an intense barrage of grenades, canister shot and small-arms fire, the 54th was forced to retreat. Carney, despite being wounded by bullets, brought the Stars and Stripes back to the Union lines.
Of the 600 black men who began the charge, more than 250 became casualties of war. Although the Confederate forces carried the day, the 54th’s valor helped assure their place in history by dismissing any lingering skepticism that free black men would not make good soldiers. Sergeant Carney received the Medal of Honor for his heroism that night.
Attention then turned back toward the city of Charleston, considered a legitimate target under the rules of war at the time. Siege artillery began the bombardment of Charleston during August of 1863, continuing on and off for more than a year, leaving much of the city in ruins.
By 1864, between the Union bombardments and the shipping blockade, Charleston was in desperate straits. In an attempt to finally break the blockade, the Confederate Navy launched its secret weapon on the night of Feb. 17. Powered with a handcranked propeller manned by its crew of eight, the 40-foot long submarine H.L. Hunley skimmed silently below the surface of Charleston Harbor and out into the Atlantic. The submarine’s target was the USS Housatonic, a 205-foot-long sloop of war powered by both sail and steam. The Housatonic was on station about five miles out to sea. Two minutes before the attack, the officer of the deck noticed an object approaching the ship with “the appearance of a plank moving in the water.” Then the Hunley rammed her spar torpedo into the hull of the Housatonic, and the submarine backed away. The torpedo was detonated, and the Housatonic sank within five minutes.
The world had just witnessed the first sinking of an enemy warship by a submarine in combat. While this changed the future of naval warfare, it did little to break the blockade. The Confederate submarine failed to return to port and would never be able to harry the Union blockade again. In the 1970s the wreck of the Hunley was discovered, and she was finally raised back to the surface in 2000. Although there was no conclusive evidence found to determine the cause of then sinking of the Hunley, it remains one of the most important American underwater archaeological finds of the 20th century.
After General Sherman captured Savannah on Dec. 21, 1864, at the end of his March to the Sea, he turned his attention north and marched through South Carolina.The Confederacy abandoned Charleston on Feb. 15, 1865, when General Beauregard ordered the evacuation of the remaining troops. Three days later, the mayor of Charleston surrendered to the Union.
Eventually the scars healed, the ruins were rebuilt, and the animosities put to rest. Today, Charleston has become a showcase for historic preservation and an important Civil War touchstone, and Hilton Head has become a southern vacation playground. And the best way to begin your journey into the history of South Carolina is with your boat.
Capt. Jeff Werner, a licensed USCG Master, has sailed professionally throughout the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Great Lakes, Gulf ofMexico and Eastern Seaboard and has two transatlantic crossings under his keel. He is also the Diesel Doctor, helping to keep your boat’s fuel clean and bright. For more information, call 239-246-6810 or visit MyDieselDoctor.com. All Marinalife members receive a 10% discount on purchases of equipment, products and supplies from the Diesel Doctor. ml