On February 1, 1865, the last month for Charleston in The War Between the States, Major General William T. Sherman began the Carolinas Campaign, as his army invaded South Carolina.
Many ask if Sherman came to Charleston. He received a message from General Halleck saying, “If you can reach Charleston, Destroy that harmful place. If some salt can be sown on the site afterwards, perhaps that will prevent future crops of Nullification and Secession.”
Sherman responded saying, “As for Charleston, the truth of the matter is, The Whole of the Northern Army is Burning with insatiable desire to wreak vengeance on… Carolina, the Hellhole of Secession. I almost tremble at her fate.” The wide swath of destruction in raping, pillaging, and burning was more horrific than the memory in our collective consciousness. As Sherman aptly said, “War is Hell.” His army’s rampage was more feared than Charleston’s threat of destruction by daily bombardment of Union ships, or by guns on our sea islands surrounding Charleston. What Charlestonians endured as a city of defenseless women and children, and old and invalid men, in the city’s daily bombardment, is a drama yet to be portrayed by Hollywood, but with a heroic stand for their faith and courage, comparable to Churchill’s London and Essex of my mother’s childhood.
It was the threat of Sherman’s March to the Sea in the end that made Charlestonians evacuate, after all they had endured. Many went to small towns to family connections and to perfect strangers who would take them in. Many went to Columbia. Mary Boykin Chesnut said in her Diary from Dixie that the whole State was crowded into Columbia. It was like one, great, big party. She was reprimanded for her levity by her dour husband for having taffy pulls, reading frivolous novels in French, and going for rides in her carriage with Mrs. President Jefferson Davis, preening in her fashionable but not updated styles.
Meanwhile, Sherman’s army was burning, raping, and pillaging plantations leading to Charleston. He stopped. Within fifteen miles of Charleston, he turned. He bypassed the Peninsula of The Holy City and headed for the capital of the State, Columbia. Raven Van der Horst Lewis died that night in child birth fleeing the burning of Columbia as Sherman’s raid came in. She had fled to Columbia for refuge from Van der Horst Plantation at Kiawah near Charleston. On my private tour, we see her large, gold framed portrait inside the home of the doctor who delivered me. The child lived, from whom comes the present family, showing the value of one solitary life, la chaime!
Yes, Sherman came to Charleston. But it was before The War, when he was stationed at Ft. Moultrie, ten years earlier. He had danced with Charleston girls, one of whom was a young, pretty widow, Caroline Pettigru Carson. She had lost her husband that same year. She was dressed appropriately in black, but at a dance while in her first year of mourning? Of what character does this Caroline remind you? This Scarlet woman was the daughter of James Louis Pettigru, a highly respected lawyer, who remained a Unionist, whose opinions were shaped perhaps by Sherman, a suitor of his daughter. Her two toddler sons ten years later became soldiers. She kept up a correspondence with Sherman and asked him to be on the lookout for them to see that they came to no harm.
Could it be that Sherman had a soft spot in his hard heart for Charleston? He bypassed Charleston altogether, following the party to Columbia, burning the capital instead of Charleston. Five Points and very few buildings are all that survive there today from before The War.
He also said at the end of That Late Great Unpleasantness, “If anyone is not satisfied with war, go to Charleston.” We had had a fire in December 1861, not war related, The Great Conflagration of 1861, the largest fire in the city’s history. It was a block to a block and a half wide, but many blocks long. “By five a.m. the city was wrapped in a living wall of fire, from the Cooper to the Ashley River, without a single gap to break its dread uniformity,” wrote Emma Holmes in her journal. It left an ugly scar through the middle of Charleston that looked like a war ravaged city.
Mrs. St. Julian Ravenel at 5 East Battery, wrote of 1865, “In returning to Charleston, it was a city of weed wild gardens, of grass strewn streets, of acres of voiceless and pitiful barrenness. That is Charleston wherein Rebellion loftily reared its head but five years ago. The streets looked as if piled with diamonds, the glass lay shivered so thick on the ground.” The Holy City had been ransacked by the “liberators” from Massachusetts.
In comparison, Hitler gave his officers the order to destroy Paris when he lost France. In documentaries, when asked why they did not carry out the order, the reply was, “Paris is Paris to the world. She belongs to everyone.” Having tasted Charleston hospitality, and having experienced this City of Antiquity as it was already known before the history of The War Between the States, having had some of his fondest memories of his young manhood created here dancing with Charleston girls, might he have thought of Caroline Pettigru Carson and his ties to the Old City? Why destroy one of the Union’s most valuable assets?
Charleston’s hospitality may have saved her from Sherman’s wrath. A long period of neglect also saved Charleston from the destructive wave of “progress.” Now progress is measured in terms of Preservation Progress, the title of out newsletter from the Preservation Society of Charleston, founded in 1921, the first preservation society of a city in the nation.
The Charleston Tea Party Private Tour believes Charleston’s protection today is dependent on our maintenance of our reputation for Southern hospitality. It is up to us as individuals as well as businesses to keep this Spirit alive. Charleston is a place of restoration as many make their pilgrimage here to regain what America has lost. “If you are weary of the syncopated unrest of a crazy world, come here and set your feet to a saner tempo”, says Elizabeth O’Neill Verner in her book of prose, Mellowed by Time. “You will leave us wiser than when you came.”
My tours are from 9-1:30, Monday through Friday. I look forward to sharing my world with you. My cell is 843-708-2228. Laura Wichmann Hipp