Lieutenant Colonel Augustus G. Bennett and Captain Samuel Cuskaden’s Reports on the Surrender and Occupation of Charleston, South Carolina February 1865.
Throughout the Civil War, the city of Charleston, South Carolina had both a strategic and symbolic value to the Union. The first shots of the war occurred at Fort Sumter in the city’s harbor, and in the eyes of many in the north, the capture of Charleston would strike a blow at the heart of the rebellion. It was also an important port city, and its reduction would prevent badly needed supplies of all kinds from being brought in. As with other Confederate ports, Charleston was blockaded by the Union Navy, though, as elsewhere along the coast, some blockade runners did make it through.
The city and its defenses survived naval bombardments that reduced much of Fort Sumter to rubble, but the Confederates–both in the fort and in the city–held on. The army slowly, and at great cost, took outlying coastal areas like Morris Island in 1863, and began shelling the city from captured territory. Though it was pounded by cannon fire for months, Union forces could not mount any decisive, effective attack against Charleston and the city remained defiant.
In late January 1865, General William T. Sherman’s army began marching north into South Carolina from Savannah, Georgia. Rather than moving along the coast towards Charleston, Sherman took a more northerly direction toward the South Carolina capital of Columbia, behind Charleston. This movement threatened to cut off the Charleston supply lines; and with continued pressure from the Union Army and Navy along the coast, the garrison in the city could no longer be maintained. Confederate forces abandoned Charleston on February 17th and 18th. As they withdrew, the Confederates burned or blew up everything of military value they could not take with them.
Lieutenant Colonel Augustus G. Bennett was the commander of the U.S. forces on Morris Island, as well as being the commanding officer of the 21st United States Colored Troops (USCT). After receiving information that the Confederates were withdrawing, and noticing that the Rebel defenses in sight were abandoned, Bennett and a handful of men in small boats set off for the city. They stopped at Forts Sumter and Moultrie, Castle Picnkney, and other defensive points around the harbor, hoisting the American flag and finally returning them to U.S. control for the first time in nearly four years.
Bennett’s party then arrived at Charleston’s waterfront at about 10:00 a.m., and the Colonel demanded that the mayor surrender the city. With fires burning out of control, the mayor promptly agreed and asked for help securing the city and putting out the fires. Bennett put in what few troops were immediately available to help as more were brought up. In the afternoon, Bennett’s 21st USCT marched into the city, and Charleston had finally been captured.
Bennett filed this report on the capture and occupation of Charleston:
HEADQUARTERS U.S. FORCES,
Charleston, S.C., February 24, 1865.
CAPTAIN: I have the honor to submit the following report of the evacuation and occupation of Charleston:
On the morning of February 18 1 received information that led me to believe the defenses and lines guarding the city of Charleston had been deserted by the enemy. I immediately proceeded to Cumming’s Point, from whence I sent a small boat, in the direction of Fort Moultrie, which boat, when forty yards east from Fort Sumter, was met by a boat from Sullivan’s island containing a full corps of band musicians abandoned by the enemy. These confirmed my belief of an evacuation. I had no troops that could be available under two hours, as except in a few pontoon-boats there were no means whatever of landing troops near the enemy’s works or into the city. I directed Major Hennessy to proceed to Fort Sumter and there replace our flag. The flag was replaced over the southeast angle of Fort Sumter at 9 a.m. I now pushed for the city, stopping at Fort Ripley and Castle Pinckney, from which works rebel flags were hauled down and the American flag substituted. The guns in these works were in good order. There was mounted in Fort Ripley one “quaker” gun bearing southeast. I landed at Mills’ Wharf, Charleston, at 10 a.m., where I learned that a part of the enemy’s troops yet remained in the city, while mounted patrols were out in every direction applying the torch and driving the inhabitants before them. I at once addressed to the mayor of the city the following communication:
HEADQUARTERS U.S. FORCES,
Charleston, S.C., February 18, 1865.
Mayor CHARLES MACBETH,
MAYOR: In the name of the United States Government I demand a surrender of the city of which you are the executive officer. Until further orders all citizens will remain within their houses.
I have the honor to be, mayor, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
A. G. BENNETT,
Lieutenant-Colonel, Commanding U. S. Forces, Charleston.
My whole force consisted of five officers and the armed crews of two small boats, comprising in all twenty-two men. Both officers and men volunteered to advance from the wharf into the city, but no re-enforcements being in sight I did not deem it expedient to move on.
Public buildings, stores, warehouses, private dwellings, shipping, &c., were burning and being fired by armed rebels, but with the force at my disposal is was impossible to save the cotton and other property.
While awaiting the arrival of my troops at Mills’ Wharf a number of explosions took place. The rebel commissary depot was blown up, and with it, it is estimated, that not less than 200 human beings, most of whom were women and children, were blown to atoms. These people were engaged in procuring food for themselves and families, by permission from the rebel military authorities. The rebel ram Charleston was blown up while lying at her anchorage opposite Mount Pleasant ferry wharf, in the Cooper River. Observing a small boat sailing toward the bay under a flag of truce, I put off to it, and received from a member of the common council a letter addressed to the general commanding U. S. forces at Morris Island, or to the officer in command of the fleet. The following is a copy of the letter:
CHARLESTON, S.C., February 18, 1865.
The GENERAL COMMANDING THE ARMY OF THE UNITED STATES AT MORRIS ISLAND:
SIR: 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.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
The deputation sent to convey the above letter represented to me that the city was in the hands of either the rebel soldiery or the mob. They entreated of me, in the name of humanity, to interpose my military authority and save the city from utter destruction. To this letter I replied in the following terms:
HEADQUARTERS U.S. FORCES,
Charleston Harbor, near Atlantic Wharf, February 18, 1865.
Mayor CHARLES MACBETH:
I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your communication of this date. I have in reply thereto to state that the troops under my command will render every possible assistance to your well-disposed citizens in extinguishing the fires now burning.
I have the honor to be, mayor, very respectfully, your obedient servant
A. G. BENNETT,
Lieutenant-Colonel, Commanding U. S. Forces, Charleston.
Two companies of the Fifty-second Regiment and about thirty men of the Third Rhode Island Volunteer Heavy Artillery having landed, I proceeded with them to the Citadel. I here established my headquarters, and sent small parties in all directions with instructions to impress negroes wherever found and to make them work the fire apparatus until all fires were extinguished. I also sent a strong guard to the U.S. Arsenal, which was saved. As the troops arrived they were sent out to points in the city where were located railroad depots or any large buildings containing property, such as cotton, tobacco, rice, &c. It being apparent to me that I could not effectually save all that remained, I concentrated my guards wherever was stored the largest quantities.
I cannot at this time submit any account of or estimate any value to the property that has fallen into our possession. The most valuable items consist of cotton and rice. The cotton has not yet been secured. The rice is being given to the poor of the city to supply their immediate necessities.
Every officer and soldier exerted himself to a most willing performance of every allotted duty, yet I do not deem it invidious for me to make a special mention of Lieut. John Hackett, Company M, Third Rhode Island Artillery, who volunteered to go alone to Fort Moultrie and there raise the flag; as also to speak of Maj. John A. Hennessy, Capt. Samuel Cuskaden, and Lieut. P. M. Burr, all of the Fifty-second Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, and Lieut. James F. Haviland, acting assistant inspector-general, of my staff, who accompanied me to the city, all of whose services were most highly valuable to me.
Capt. H. H. Jenks, Fifty-second Pennsylvania Volunteers, acting assistant adjutant-general, also rendered important services. Although he remained at Morris Island he was very efficient in facilitating the embarkation of my troops from there.
The flags from Fort Moultrie, Castle Pinckney, and Fort Ripley, and seventeen signal pennants found in the city, were secured by the troops under my command.
I have the honor to be, captain, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
A. G. BENNETT,
Lieutenant-Colonel Twenty-first U.S. Colored Troops.
Capt. J. W. DICKINSON,
Acting Assistant Adjutant-General.
As he mentioned Captain Samuel Cuskaden of the 52nd Pennsylvania Infantry was also part of Bennett’s team. He filed this report:
OFFICE SUPERINTENDENT RECRUITING,
Charleston, S.C., March 6, 1865.
LIEUTENANT: In compliance with the request of Major Hennessy, Fifty-second Pennsylvania Volunteers, I have the honor to forward to you an account of the taking of Charleston and the batteries and forts around it:
On the morning of the 18th ultimo I rode up to Fort Strong, Morris Island, to meet Lieutenant Colonel Bennett, being assistant provost-marshal on his staff. On meeting him he ordered me to make a reconnaissance of Fort Sumter. I started immediately for Cummings Point and found my boat manned by men of the Third Rhode Island Artillery, under the command of a second lieutenant. He informed me he had orders to proceed to Fort Moultrie to raise the flag there. I sent an orderly after a storm flag, which I had at my quarters, and ordered the men to pull for Fort Sumter. When within 100 yards of there we saw a boat load of deserters approaching. We signaled for them to come on, and pulled to meet them. They informed us that the city was evacuated excepting a few cavalry left to destroy the city. Ordering the Third Rhode Island men to proceed to Fort Moultrie, I got in the boat with the deserters and tried to induce them to pull for Fort Sumter, but neither threats nor promises would make them do so. They assured me the place was thoroughly mined and that they would not risk it. I then pulled for Cummings Point to inform Lieutenant-Colonel Bennett of the statements of the deserters. He was waiting on the beach. Taking in a new crew of the Twenty-first U.S. Colored Troops, and receiving Lieutenant Colonel Bennett and Lieutenant Haviland, One hundred and twenty-seventh New York, acting assistant inspector-general, into my boat, we pulled out into the harbor. We met Major Hennessy, Fifty-second Pennsylvania Volunteers, in the Ripley boat and told him of the situation at Fort Sumter. He (Major H[ennessy]) started immediately for the fort, and at 9.04 a.m. by Lieutenant Haviland’s watch the major with a few men, scaled the parapet and waved the regimental flag of the Fifty-second Pennsylvania Volunteers over the torn and battered walls of Fort Sumter. Lieutenant-Colonel Bennett then ordered the boat on to Fort Ripley.
While on our way there Major Hennessy overtook us, and Lieutenant Colonel Bennett and Lieutenant Haviland went into his boat. Both boats then pushed for Fort Ripley, but seeing that the Ripley boat, commanded by Major Hennessy, would outstrip me I ordered my boat to pull for Castle Pinckney. We laid on our oars while Major H[ennessy] raised the flag on the fort. Then came a race for Castle Pinckney. My boat struck first and three men of the Third Rhode Island Artillery sprang on the bank and tore down the Confederate flag. By that time Major Hennessy’s men reached the flag pole, when a struggle ensued between the two parties as to which flag should be raised. The major’s flag being smaller and easily handled his men succeeded in carrying their point. We then had a race for the city. Major Hennessy’s boat led mine about fifty yards. Lieutenant-Colonel Bennett, Major Hennessy, and part of the crew, composed of the Fifty-second Pennsylvania Volunteers, landed immediately. Upon landing I threw out a guard of three men at the first street, two men of the Fifty-second Pennsylvania Volunteers and one of the Third Rhode Island Artillery, with instructions to make prisoners of every man they saw. In a few moments, from the stories of the prisoners and by permission of the lieutenant-colonel commanding, I advanced my guard another square. Horses were seized for the staff, in which business Private Haskell, Third Rhode Island Artillery, showed much activity and usefulness. In a short time Company A, Fifty-second Pennsylvania Volunteers, Lieutenant Gilchrist commanding, reported to me with the regimental flag. I ordered him to raise it on the old post-office. Orderly Sergeant Kilian, Company A, unfolded to the breeze the banner of the regiment, the first that had floated over the city for four years. This flag remained here for two days, until required to advance into the country. Just at this time and place, too, a white flag was seen approaching. It proved to be in the hands of Mr. George Williams, who by order of the mayor of the city was on his way to meet the U.S. authorities and tender the surrender of Charleston, and to ask for assistance and protection against the disorder and destruction that threatened the city. The companies of the Fifty-second Pennsylvania Volunteers marched to the arsenal and posts assigned them by the lieutenant-colonel commanding. As soon as they landed I ordered my guards to go around the city and make the firemen and all other citizens work to put out the fires. I got in a buggy and rode around to the various fires, some twenty in number, and forced everybody to work. On getting to the upper parts of the city I found four men chopping and destroying some ambulances, but was unable to secure them, having no guard with me. The flag brought with me from Morris Island was raised on the Citadel, and is there yet. The Twenty-first U.S. Colored Troops arrived in the city about 5 p.m. and were assigned to various posts as provost guard. I assisted Lieutenant-Colonel Bennett as acting assistant provost marshal until relieved by Brigadier-General Schimmelfennig, when I commenced recruiting U.S. colored troops per Special Orders, No. 32. headquarters Department of the South. The above is correct to the best of my knowledge. In the hurry and excitement possibly some details may have been overlooked.I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Fifty-second Pennsylvania Vols., and Supt. Recruiting.
Lieut. H. A. MOTT,
Adjutant Fifty-second Pennsylvania Volunteers.
The Campaigns of the Fifty-Second Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry by Smith B. Mott
Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War 1862-1865by Noah Andre Trudeau
Never Call Retreat by Bruce Catton
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion Series I, Vol. XLVII Part 1; also Series I, Vol. LIII