Hello, friends! It’s that time again: the announcement of the articles I will write covering the history behind the story for my next book. This is always a fun announcement because it gives you, the reader, a little sneak peak into the historical framework of the book before the book is released.
This time will be a bit different. There will be three articles, which is less than usual, but the themes were broader in this book. Plus, there will be a special guest post from my sister on an ancillary theme in the book. So without further ado, I give you the History Behind the Story Topics for Charleston Tides!
Festivals of Freedom
Fame of Civil War Officers
Violence Against Freedmen and the Rise of Insurgent Movements
Special Guest Post: Elite Free Blacks in Charleston
History Behind the Story #5: The Fall of Charleston
THE HISTORY: Since the Jacksonian days of John C. Calhoun, South Carolina and Charleston, specifically, were known as the “cradle of rebellion” or the “hotbed of secession.” Many in the Union states felt that there would have been no war if the people of Charleston hadn’t agitated for one. Charleston was blamed primarily for three things:
For the divorce of the Democratic Party at the first Democratic Convention in 1860, which was hosted in Charleston and which ultimately led to the nomination of a Northern Democrat and a Southern Democrat. This ultimately led to a fractured party which didn’t stand a chance of defeating the Republican nominee, Abraham Lincoln.
For being the first state to secede, almost immediately after the election.
For firing the first shots of the war, which happened at Fort Sumter in the Charleston harbor.
We could have a discussion of whether it was entirely fair to pin these things primarily on one city. I could make an argument that Charleston was deeply involved in agitating for secession, and I could also make a counterargument that there were a lot of other factors at play. But what really matters is what people thought during the era, and Charleston was a sort of target for propaganda.
Charleston wasn’t, psychologically speaking, a great place to be during the Civil War, enslaved or free. The city was so heavily guarded that it didn’t fall until late in the war. Therefore, the Emancipation Proclamation had no practical effect for enslaved people within the city; slavery remained status quo. I imagine that must have led to feelings of desperation. Not only this, but with South Carolina having a majority black population, many feared uprisings. Sanctions were tightened and freedoms limited. On the eve of war, many Charleston residents sent their slaves out of the city, selling them or sending them to other properties, to prevent uprisings. This was the sort of action taken by owners that led to familial separations and uncertainties among enslaved communities.
For the citizens of Charleston, there were a lot of concerning threats to Charleston in Northern newspapers. I was surprised when I read a report calling for a “holocaust of Charleston.” I had actually thought the word was coined during WWII to describe Nazi actions against Jewish people, but it is actually a Middle English word. The definition of holocaust is: “destruction or slaughter on a mass scale, especially caused by fire.” So this was the language of genocide against a city. This is pretty heavy stuff for the Civil War, or for any civil war. It could probably make you a bit on-edge.
Then, to top it off, Confederate President Jefferson Davis took the stance that it would be better for Charleston to be reduced to “a heap of ruins” than surrender. So as a civilian, slave or free, you know you are in a strategically important city that the government is going to try to protect but that will be a sort of last holdout which may functionally be a shell by the end of the war.
Charleston became a real challenge for the Union, militarily speaking. The guns on the ironclad ships of the Union Navy made the old fort system that America had used to protect port cities more or less obsolete. But there was one exception to this: Charleston. Due to the geography and the heavy fortifications of Forts Sumter and Moultrie, the Union Navy never did break through those Confederate-manned forts until the Army broke into Charleston from behind on land just two months before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
Charleston was one of the first targets in the war. I’ll briefly go through failed Union attempts before we get to the final Union success.
Fort Sumter began the war with Beauregard taking the fort fairly easily from the U.S. military, which had not been sufficiently reinforced. The Battle of Port Royal, a fort versus naval battle, resulted in a Union victory and the fall of most of the Sea Islands between Savannah and Charleston. Most of the white population evacuated the area. The battle and the evacuation led to what has been called “The Port Royal Experiment,” during which the former enslaved people on the islands operated the plantations on their own.
After this, the Union sort of failed to “follow up” on the victory. There were a few other attempts to take Charleston. One was the Battle of Secessionville on June 16, 1862. Secessionville was an Army rather than Navy endeavor. Basically, the Confederates repulsed the Union attack, and the Union evacuated James Island (which is very close to Charleston).
Other than these attempts, the most important one included the continual bombardments of the city and its forts by the Union Navy. These were never successful, but Charleston was indeed slowly being reduced to rubble during the 587-day bombardment. Other amphibious and land attacks were planned or attempted, but they were always repulsed until late in the war.
Charleston officially fell on February 18, 1865. So what eventually caused the fall? It was late in the war, so Confederate resources were tapped out. When Sherman executed his famous march from Atlanta to Savannah, he showed what the Union military was capable of doing: basically, that there was no “interior” of the Confederacy anymore and that he could go anywhere he wanted. He threatened to raze the city of Charleston during his march. “Raze,” again, is a word with connotations of total destruction.
Three days before the fall, Beauregard ordered an evacuation of Confederate troops from Charleston. So as a civilian, this is your worst nightmare: a city that is the last holdout that has finally been abandoned by the military. Civilians were left alone to deal with the aftermath, and the mayor surrendered the city. That has always been an interesting concept for me. A mayor is by nature a civilian, not a military person. One tends to think of military officers or generals surrendering cities, but this was something that happened all over the South, an elected official having to become a quasi-military ruler and take the white flag out to the opposing army.
Union troops moved in, the first soldiers entering the city being United States Colored Troops of the 54th Massachusetts and the 21st Infantry. There is some fascinating history surrounding what happened among the freedmen in Charleston in the year after its fall. I don’t want to give anything away for Book 3 in the Torn Asunder Series, Charleston Tides, however, so that will be covered in a History Behind the Story article for that book.
So was there a holocaust of Charleston? Yes and no. Basically, you could argue that between the bombardments, the Fire of 1861, the blockades, inflation, and starvation, Charleston was already on its knees before it ever fell. Witnesses compared Charleston to Pompeii. There were lots of homes of prominent people burned. You can see that when you visit Charleston’s plantation district on Ashley River Road. But there wasn’t a holocaust in the since that people burned in their homes or the entire city was bombed, as the rhetoric had threatened. Why was that, given the threats?
I speculate that Columbia has something to do with it. South Carolina’s capitol was overtaken just before Charleston. A good portion of the city burned, and there are ongoing arguments about whether it was burned by Confederates or Federals. It seems like there is more evidence that the retreating Confederates burned buildings in an attempt to destroy war materiel. In any event, there does seem to have been a lot of looting and violence in Columbia.
All of this is to say, if vengeance was really wanted against a South Carolinian city, it was had in Columbia. And then imagine you get to a city, Charleston, that’s already reduced to a heap of rubble. There wasn’t much left to destroy in Charleston. Plus, surrendering cities always fared better under Sherman if they actually surrendered than if his army overtook them. His philosophy was that all he really wanted was their surrender.
I depicted a brutal take-over scene at Santarella in Northern Fire. Santarella was envisioned as being on an island really near to Charleston. Its fall happened a few months previous to Charleston’s fall, so it wasn’t part of the overall take-over of Charleston. Everything I depicted was based on actual stories of things that happened during overtaking raids – houses looted and burned, huge trees felled, people shot, land and property confiscated. Many historians say that if the brutality of Sherman’s March through Georgia has been somewhat overstated, it has probably been understated in relation to the march through the Carolinas. South Carolina, in general, greatly suffered during the war. These stories are complicated, though. You probably noticed in Northern Fire that the take-over of Santarella wasn’t purely a story of destruction; the Union soldiers also liberated hundreds of people who were held in bondage.
PERSONAL SPOTLIGHT: Mary Chesnut, a South Carolinian woman, kept a diary which historians have called one of the most important works of the Civil War. Her observations of the Confederacy were obviously limited by the times in which she lived, but she is thought to depict powerfully all levels of society and the intricacies of Southern culture. Here is what was recorded in her diary the day she learned Charleston had fallen:
“Charleston and Wilmington—surrendered. I have no further use for a newspaper. I never want to see another one as long as I live. . . . Shame, disgrace, beggary, all have come at once, and all are hard to bear—the grand smash!…
Rain, rain, outside, and naught but drowning floods of tears inside.”
ANALYSIS OF PHOTOGRAPH:
These are photographs of Charleston’s ruins after the war. A great deal of what you see was caused by the Charleston Fire of 1861. Just take a moment to notice little details in the photos, things that give you a window into the past.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: These were the words of General Sherman about Charleston:
“I doubt any city was ever more terribly punished than Charleston, but as her people had for years been agitating for war and discord, and had finally inaugurated the Civil War, the judgment of the world will be that Charleston deserved the fate that befell her.”
This is an interesting statement, eloquent and involving both sympathy and ruthlessness. Did history prove him right? What do you think? He seems to include natural disasters, spontaneous fires, and acts of the Union military in the word “punishment,” indicating that he believed Charleston’s ultimate destruction was a culmination of fate. Do we still think of disasters and destruction like this today?
This is the final History Behind the Story post for Northern Fire! It has been a pleasure to be on this journey with you! Thanks to all who have taken the ride. I plan to write a similar series of articles for Charleston Tides, which will release late this autumn.
 Oxford English. The definition says: “by fire or nuclear war.” It has been modernized to include modern technology. I think just “fire” is more appropriate in the historical context. The interesting thing was that a good portion of Charleston was destroyed by fire without intervention of the Union military. See “History Behind the Story #1: The Charleston Fire of 1861” on this blog.
 There were some islands closer to Charleston that didn’t fall until the end of the war, which is the route I chose to go for the fictional Santarella.
 This was a fascinating “dress rehearsal” for Reconstruction. It is beyond the scope of this article, but I encourage you to look up history on the Port Royal Experiment.
 With the exception of head-shaving, a historical choice which was discussed in “History Behind the Story #4: Violence Against Women in the Civil War.”
 Chestnut, Mary Boykin, “A Diary From Dixie,” D. Appleton and Company, New York: 1905.
Cover Image Credit: Bonanza.com. This depiction is of Union ironclads bombarding Fort Sumter.
History Behind the Story #4: Violence Against Women in the Civil War
*Please note: This article recounts history involving violence, which may be disturbing for some. It is a good idea for parents of children under 18 to read first and then decide whether to let your child read. As always, let me know if you have any questions. Thank you!
THE HISTORY: When I first decided to write The Torn Asunder Series, I made the decision not to sugarcoat the past. This was a tough decision because so much of history can be disturbing for readers. Slavery was a rough and violent institution. The freedmen after the war faced extreme hardships and violence. Women, black and white, slave and free, faced horrors from enemy invaders during the war. I decided that to gloss over any of these truths would be to dishonor those who suffered and tell a falsehood about history.
While I do talk mostly about violence by members of the Union Army directed toward Southern women, it is simply the nature of history that women in war zones are vulnerable to enemy combatants, and most of the Civil War was fought on Southern soil.
The Confederate Armies did stray into Union territory on a large scale twice: for the battles of Antietam and Gettysburg. General Robert E. Lee issued orders that there was to be no violence or looting against civilians as a PR measure: a sort of “show that we are morally superior” plan. This seems to have also been his personal preference. But the novel, Widow of Gettysburg, by Jocelyn Green, imagines what it must have felt like for women in those areas who had escaped slavery, knowing that Confederate Armies were coming through and could round them up and take them back to their former owners. This did happen to hundreds near Gettysburg, and I am sure there were other accounts of Northern women who felt threatened or were abused.
There is still a lot of silence around violence against women, North and South, during the Civil War. I think there are several reasons for that. One is that the women themselves had various reasons not to be vocal about it. This was the Victorian Era, which placed a premium on a woman’s chastity and gave women few legal rights or redresses. And, of course, there are always political reasons for violence to be hushed up by militaries or governments.
But I think the main reason for the silence is that the history of the Civil War as we know it is the history of men, whether they be of the political or military persuasion. You can read an entire one-thousand-page book without a single woman ever being mentioned. In those books which do mention women, a woman’s role is usually considered in connection to men: seeing men off to war, how useful they were to men as nurses, whether they were supportive of their powerful husbands, etc. Rarely does a historical work ever focus on the actual life of a woman as she lived it during the war. Crystal Feimster, who wrote Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching, has said that we need to see women as combatants during the war. They were combatants. They were not safe. They were actively engaged in the struggle. And yet, very rarely are women viewed as active players or victims during the Civil War.
That being said, there are hints on the topic of violence if you look for them. Most are scant references to military history. You’ll see something like: “Rape, looting, and murder occurred as the army came through.” And then, of course, the narrative will continue with the army itself and move on. You usually have to seek out the whole story on your own, but a few individuals’ stories have made it to light.
Violence and the threat of violence against women drove more of what happened in the war than has been adequately stated. Of course, a lot of the fear of violence was fear of the unknown. For example, if you hear an enemy army is coming through your town, you know only two things: 1) That they are the enemy; and 2) That they could hurt you if they wanted to. So much of how things would go in the Civil War came down to the personality of the officers. Some Northern officers were almost gallant in their treatment of enemy women. Some were kind, some were indifferent. But, as in any population, some were cruel, and some looked the other way while their subordinates were cruel.
Anne LeClercq details a story from one of her family members’ diaries in An Antebellum Plantation Household. The woman, then a child, remembered a Federal soldier going up to her mother and ripping the necklace from her neck. The mother eventually convinced him to give it back, and she wasn’t physically harmed, but such events could definitely cause the imagination to spiral out of control.
And, unfortunately, women didn’t have to rely on imagination. Feimster, a Professor of African American Studies at Yale, has said, “that sexualized violence was ‘common to the wartime experience of Southern women, white and black. Whether they lived on large plantations or small farms, in towns, cities or in contraband camps, white and black women all over the American South experienced the sexual trauma of war.’”
Federal records show that there were over four-hundred-fifty federal court martial trials for rape or attempted rape committed during the Civil War. It would be a mistake to think that this number represented anywhere close to an accurate reflection of how widespread the violence was. Kim Murphy, the author of I Had Rather Die: Rape in the Civil War, said, “[When] I uncovered several hundred cases [of rape], I think that speaks loudly because very few women would have come forward. Very few women come forward during peacetime; it’s even fewer that come forward during wartime, so we know that this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what’s being reported.”
She goes on to make a point about how difficult it was to report even if a woman wanted to.
“Also, the thing that most people don’t recognize is that most of the records, like the court-martial records that we do have, were reported during times of occupation. That means that the troops were there, they weren’t in an active battle situation. That’s when women could find someone to go forward to. During times of battle, the chances of them even knowing who they could report to would be almost nil, and even if they did find someone, the chances that the officer in charge would be able to find enough officers to take on a court martial at that time would be next to impossible. In the book, I mention [a rape that occurred during] Sherman’s March, when the army was on the move. The victim did report it. But by the time the case made it to court martial, they were 100 miles away, so she could not testify. That’s what people don’t understand—it was totally against the women to even be able to report it.”
Beck, Julie, “Gender, Race, and Rape During the Civil War.”
A few studies have shown that Southern black women were particularly vulnerable to violence during the war. Already, a lot of states had legal systems that offered them no protection from violence. So to the extent wartime psychology makes people think they can get away with crimes, that would have been multiplied tenfold when applied to an enslaved or a free black woman. Rape and violence of all forms against black women were already extremely common to slavery, making wartime violence all the more tragic.
A lot of times, there were isolated events when certain troops or groups of them would happen upon a home, commit violence, and then just get away with it. Sometimes, violations occurred in the chaos of a place being overrun by enemy invaders or during times of battle. Violence also continued during occupations of towns or regions. Other times, violence against women was used as an officer-sanctioned military tactic of suppression.
As example of the latter, General Benjamin Butler gave General Order No. 28 during his occupation of New Orleans. The text is, “As the officers and soldiers of the United States have been subject to repeated insults from the women (calling themselves ladies) of New Orleans in return for the most scrupulous non-interference and courtesy on our part, it is ordered that hereafter when any female shall by word, gesture, or movement insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States she shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation.”
A leap was made so quickly from insults to sexual violence. Logically speaking, there really isn’t a connection between the two things. But during the Civil War, a woman was most always defined in reference to her sexuality.
There was a huge outcry both in the United States and worldwide against Butler’s order. Even though the implication of sanctioned rape is plain, even some newspapers and commentators who condemned the order were unable to say so, pretending that being treated as a prostitute would mean that women would be imprisoned. However, if you look at rape trials from the time, to prove rape had occurred, a woman had to physically fight off a man even to the point of being killed or almost killed by him. And of course, during that time, a prostitute could never prove that by the very nature of her being a prostitute, so any “woman of the town plying her avocation” (read: asking for it) would be seen as open to sex and ineligible to claim rape. Butler himself said that he meant that the women should be ignored. If he had wanted them to be ignored, however, it seems more likely that he wouldn’t have issued the General Order at all. And a look at venereal disease rates (183,000 reported cases were treated) among the Union Army indicates that the automatic response to a prostitute wouldn’t always be ignoring her.
It is hard to know whether this Order led to heightened instances of violence. In keeping with Civil War history being mostly men’s history, most sources just state that the General Order solved the problem of women insulting the military and move on. But it seems likely that some violent episodes arose out of this. If it was happening when the government and officers had strictly forbidden it, violence seems much more likely when actively encouraged by authorities.
There are other examples of officer-sanctioned civilian suppression. General William Tecumseh Sherman’s promise to “make Georgia howl” was a promise of total warfare, a strategy to take the war to homes to finally bring the South to its knees. It may have been a sound military tactic, but it was women who ultimately suffered from it. A lot of individual stories of violence arise out of the March to the Sea. Sources debate whether the violence which ensued was sanctioned by General Sherman or simply committed by stragglers off the radar. I do think the plan to “make Georgia howl” certainly had undertones of civilian violence from its inception, and sometimes, that is all that is needed to set a mood.
President Lincoln did issue General Orders known as the “Lieber Code,” which laid down rules for dealing with enemy combatants and civilians. Basically, the gist was that “if you couldn’t do it at home, don’t think you can get away with it there.” The Lieber Code encouraged very strict punishment for violence against civilians, particularly women civilians. The part of The Code that got the most notice, though, was how to deal with prisoners of war.
Historians have suggested that Lincoln’s purpose in issuing the Orders was to send a message to the Confederate government. The Confederacy had made the decision to treat captured black Union troops not as prisoners of war but just as captives, which usually meant sending them back to slavery (if not killing them outright, as often happened). So while the Lieber Code addressed one huge problem well, the part that addressed civilian violence was a side-show. There is some evidence that many Union commanders never consulted the Lieber Code for rules on their actions toward civilians.
That isn’t to say that the effects were not good for women’s history: the Lieber Code was used as a template for international law moving forward, and with WWI and WWII not too far down the line, that was a very good thing. It also provided grounds for any court martials that did occur during the Civil War or after, and some did occur. Particularly, this was the first time many black women had any protection under the law at all, and some were able to prosecute their attackers successfully. However, whether the Code actually prevented violence during the war is more questionable.
In Northern Fire, I chose various ways to represent what women lived through during the war. [The following contains a few spoilers for Northern Fire. Skip the next five paragraphs if you would haven’t read the book yet and hate spoilers!]
Shannon and Phoebe met with Confederate troops who assumed they were prostitutes on their way back to South Carolina. Prostitution was so widespread during the Civil War that one soldier called his camp “a perfect Sodom,” and it is known as one of the few professions to cross enemy lines. And Shannon and Phoebe were crossing enemy lines where there were numerous camp followers who were prostitutes, as well as brothels nearby. Therefore, there was a real danger that women travelling alone and unkempt from travel could be deemed prostitutes and taken into camps as such or sent back across to the lines to the enemy camp.
Another depiction of this history is that Phoebe is tragically killed during the chaos of the takeover of Santarella by Union troops. After all of my research indicated the depth of violence black women faced during the war, I knew I had to convey that truth. Even though I cried, along with readers, I think Phoebe’s story translates the extent to which the law was no protection for women in her situation. Which, sadly, was nothing new, since slavery had perpetuated violence and nonchalance for it under the law for decades.
The other instance is that Shannon and her sister-in-law, Elizabeth, have their heads shaved by Union officers during the confiscation of Santarella. You may have only heard of this form of wartime violence in relation to French women in WWII. But this was a common practice perpetrated against women who were considered traitors dating far back in history. I first learned that this was the case when I read Grant, by Ron Chernow. Ulysses Grant witnessed Mexican women’s heads being shaved during the Mexican American War. I knew immediately that I wanted to use this little-remembered piece of history in Northern Fire, so I set out to find if there were specific instances of head-shaving during the Civil War. But as I said, much of the violence against women has been covered in silence. It is hard to track down specific instances because they were muted so thoroughly. So I found no recorded instances of head-shaving during the Civil War in my research.
I think it is possible, and even likely, that this did happen, however, given the widespread violence that was occurring. For one, many officers and soldiers of the Civil War had been in the Mexican American War. They, too, had seen this happen to Mexican women for giving aid to the Americans. There are many instances of officers drawing on their Mexican wartime experience during the Civil War.
This particular type of violence is a little different from outright revenge violence or lustful violence. It is driven by a desire to humiliate and subjugate the victim and the populace, so the psychology is a bit more nuanced. In fact, it is psychological warfare. Even though I wanted to use head-shaving as a plot device, I decided I wouldn’t do so unless I could find specific instances of that kind of subjugation psychology during the war. I found plenty. There are numerous reports of Union troops forcing white women to watch while they raped black enslaved women. Feimster says, “Just as the rape of white women implied that Southern men were unable to protect their mothers, wives and daughters, the rape of slave women told whites they could no longer protect their property.” This was violence for a purpose: to get into the enemy’s head. A message of subjugation was sent. I think that is very similar to the message sent by head-shaving, except that head-shaving has an added ingredient of woman-shaming—sort of this idea that you have stepped out of your role as a lady, and you’re going to be punished for that. We see a lot of that in the Civil War, too.
I want to reiterate that I do not mean to degrade whole armies on account of the acts of some men who were in those armies. There are always two dangers to any researcher of the Civil War. There is the Lost Cause Theory, which was a body of history that developed after the war to make the Southern cause appear noble and heroic in every aspect, while conversely degrading Northern causes and actions. Conversely, on the other side of the coin, Feimster, writes that “there are people who work on the Civil War and Reconstruction who have been committed to writing the narrative as one of progress, of liberty, and of freeing the slaves.” Particularly, as it relates to violence, she adds, “and to suggest that the soldiers would have raped black women goes against this narrative. It’s hard for historians to grapple with this because it changes the way people see the war, and most people don’t want to see the war as one of occupation.” Please know that I am always cognizant of both theories and vet every story I come across for the taint of each.
I think the greatest danger on this particular topic is that women’s stories have been covered up, whatever the reason for doing so. The more we can uncover, the more we will know about women’s experiences and about the war itself.
PERSONAL SPOTLIGHT: Minerva Cook lived at Hardtimes Plantation near Vicksburg, Mississippi during the Union occupation. The situation during occupation was volatile between the civilians and the military. General Grant gave the Cooks a paper guaranteeing safety from harassment. However, orders do not always translate to individual soldiers’ behavior. Union soldiers came to the house at night to loot, tossing the Cooks’ young sons out of bed to look in their mattresses. Minerva and her husband, Jared, were dragged out of bed, and arguments escalated to the point that Jared Cook was shot in the shoulder, a wound from which he survived, and Minerva was shot fatally. The perpetrators were dealt with swiftly: they were court-martialed and executed. While this story is little-known today, it must have loomed large during the war. One report calls it the largest mass-execution of Union troops during the war, so I have a feeling the story would have been widely circulated.
Reports say that there were as many as twenty-five men who went to the plantation that night. Most say that they were all USCT (United States Colored Troops), although I think that would be hard to say at this distance. Ultimately, nine USCT soldiers were executed. Race was instantly a factor in the discussions. There is no evidence that USCT troops were more violent than regular army troops. But I imagine this incident was used by people already inclined to prejudice to promote the idea that the populace was especially endangered by the USCT. I speculate that the perpetrators were dealt with so swiftly and comprehensively to soothe the populace. Possibly, the swift reaction was even to protect other USCT who would have been more at risk for something like Fort Pillow (where USCT troops were killed after they surrendered) happening if the populace didn’t feel that the Union had fully punished the perpetrators.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: There seems to be a deep political connection to violence against women and how prisoners of war would be treated. One historian has suggested that the killing of the men who should have been treated as prisoners of war at Fort Pillow was motivated in part by violence against local women. We already discussed how the Lieber Code addressed both prisoners of war and women civilians together. Another connection was that Jefferson Davis issued a statement that General Butler and his officers would be executed if captured following the General Order about treating women as prostitutes. Again, there is the same link between violence against women and treatment of male prisoners of war. This is a perfect example of women being combatants, or active participants, in the Civil War.
What do you think? Were women being used as political pawns, or was the link made to prisoners of war an honest effort to police violence against women? Perhaps it was considered to be the only way to protect civilians in that era?
In Benjamin Butler’s Orders, he shamed women for not acting like ladies (he sneers: “calling themselves ladies”). There was overwhelming societal pressure for women to be docile, and this political cartoon from Harper’s Weekly illustrates that well.This is a depiction of New Orleans before the Women’s Order and New Orleans after the Women’s Order. The women in the first, one of whom is turning her back to the Union soldier and the other of whom is spitting in his face, were drawn to look ugly, and, of course, the whole thing is unflattering. In the picture on the right, after women are acting submissively, they are drawn in a flattering light—pretty and meek. The implication was: if you make noise, you are ugly and socially unacceptable; if you are submissive, you are pretty and accepted. What a tough world it was!
 There are also many incidents of recorded violence against civilian men, which I do not seek to ignore. Those incidents are merely beyond the scope of his paper.
 Paterson, Kerry K., “Q&A: A Fresh Look at Rape During the U.S. Civil War,” WMC: Women Under Seige, May 9, 2013.
 Paterson, Kerry K., “Q&A: A Fresh Look at Rape During the U.S. Civil War.”
 Beck, Julie, “Gender, Race, and Rape During the Civil War.”
 Feimster, “Rape and Justice in the Civil War.”
 Historically speaking, a woman’s hair was regarded as caught up in her womanhood. So when her head is shaved, she is “unwomaned” in a way, or defeminized, which would have been a penance to a Victorian woman. She had to wear her shame for all to see.
 Mitcham, Jr. Samuel W., “Bust Hell Wide Open.” This may or may not be true. The book does not go into great detail or explore the charges of violence. Still, the connection was made.
Welcome back to the History Behind the Story Series! This is a series of articles in which I give you the background on the events that happened in my books or the historical choices I made when writing the book. There were ten articles in total for Southern Rain, and the following is the first of the five articles that dig into the history of Northern Fire. There are some fun new features to the series, including different sections called “The History,” “Personal Spotlight,” “Food for Thought,” and “Analysis of Photograph.” Ready? Here we go!
History Behind the Story #1: The Charleston Fire of 1861
THE HISTORY: One thing that has always been difficult to remember when I am writing about the Civil War is the fact that other life carried on at the same time that the Civil War was in progress. I know that the war was all-consuming and that its progress was probably one of the only topics in the conversation of the entire country for four years. I once read a happy-go-lucky romance set in Tennessee during the Civil War that felt a bit off-base. There was no real normalcy during the Civil War.
But there was a certain business-as-usual aspect to certain facets of life that doesn’t initially occur to you. Seasons changed, there were weddings, mothers still died in childbirth, ordinary people still came down with tuberculosis and typhoid, mental institutions still had to function, city governments still operated unless it was impossible, and, apparently, there were still accidental fires which wiped out huge portions of cities.
I was surprised when I learned about the fire. There was already a blockade, the constant threat of bombardments and battle, and just add a destructive fire into the mix! It must have felt like the Apocalypse! Or maybe not. I once read a first-hand account of a woman reflecting on the feelings of her enslaved butler as things got really bad in Charleston. She said he sat by the door as serenely as though nothing had happened. Maybe from his perspective it felt like deliverance!
In any event, things got pretty rough in Charleston before they got better. The city was in a unique situation where it was protected by forts, and it didn’t fall until the last days of the war. All of this will be covered in a later post dealing with the fall of Charleston. But for now, just to set the stage for the fire, Charleston was carrying on in as business-as-usual fashion as possible. There were no Union troops occupying the city. Certain islands had fallen near the city, Union troops were on South Carolina soil, and naval vessels were angling toward its outlying forts, but there was no extremely substantial threat of Union troops getting truly near the city yet since it was so heavily protected.
This was early in the war, so there was hardship but not the extreme poverty the later war years would see. There was still something of a social season in the winter because there were many forts nearby, and people wanted to entertain all of the officers. So we’re right in the middle of all of that on December 11 when a cold front moves in during the night.
I should note that the origins of the fire are unknown. However, there are some theories. One is that there were enslaved people who were refugees who started a fire for warmth or to cook, and the fire got out of bounds. I am a little skeptical of this theory because we know that the fire started at the corner of East Bay and Hassell Streets, which seems to have been a business district. I think it’s more likely that one of the other theories is true: that the fire began in one of the businesses in the area—either Russel & Co.’s Sash and Blind Factory or Cameron & Co.’s Immense Machine Shops.
Apparently, it was one of those quick fires that starts to spread rapidly almost before you even know it has ignited. The weather conditions were perfect to give the fire speed. Confederate troops as far as 14 miles away could see the flames—whoa! Union troops 6 miles out to sea could see the flames, too.
Picture the historical moment…
The wind is especially high. The fire is just eating these massive mansions, and the city officials get concerned about the fact that the fire is heading toward the Marine and Roper Hospitals, the Medical College, and the Roman Catholic Orphanage House. They realize the fire isn’t going to stop spreading without some drastic measures, so they blow up 14 houses on Queen Anne Street to create a fire block in order to save those vulnerable buildings. I haven’t heard that the owners of those 14 houses kicked up much of a dust about their houses being blown up. I think we would say the same thing today: save the kids, save the hospitals, we’ll deal with the rest later. (And it probably helped that the houses were in the fire’s path anyway!)
There are firefighters on the scene, many of whom were enslaved men. There is a 19th century equivalent of a fire engine. But it is dead low tide, and the workers are unable to pull enough water from the bay to handle this out-of-control situation.
People are saving what they can from the houses and businesses. Locals bust into St. Andrews Hall to save the full-length portrait of Queen Victoria (which just goes to show Americans have long been Royal Addicts; I would probably have saved Victoria, too!).
It isn’t until noon the next day that the fire clears the peninsula and dies out. The casualty tolls were as follows: hundreds of acres burned, 575 homes burned, 5 churches burned, and numerous businesses destroyed. There are no recorded lives lost, but it has been speculated that there must have been some deaths, possibly including enslaved people.
Some interesting building casualties: The Circular Congregational Church. (I say interesting because there wasn’t a huge Congregational presence in the South, but my historical New Englander John Thomas is a Congregationalist.) The church was rebuilt and claims with pride to be one of the oldest continuously worshipping congregations in the South. It was founded in 1688. You can see its ruins here in a period photograph. The graveyard in the foreground is rather eerie.
Photo Credit: CircularChurch.org
Another notable building which burned was Institute Hall, where matters had really started to break down between the Democratic Party in 1860 and where South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession had been ratified.
Some of the buildings which had been lost were colonial structures, a real loss for lovers of architectural history. The Charleston Mercury ran a series of obituaries to the mansions lost. As someone who loves old buildings, I feel that!
Soup houses were set up to feed the homeless. There were relief committees and lots of donors, and the Georgia Legislature generously voted to send $100,000 in relief aid to Charleston. But even still, it was hard to dig out and rebuild with a war in progression, so a lot of the city just lay in ruins for the rest of the war and the years beyond.
Charleston, when it finally did fall, was not necessarily a good place to be. Many in the North saw The Holy City as the main perpetrator of the beginning of the Civil War and wanted, ultimately, to make the city pay for the incredible expenditure of human blood. And yet, “The vast majority of damage and destruction to Charleston during the Civil War was caused by The Great Fire of 1861, the worst in its history.” One source says, “…nature did what the Yankees only dreamed of doing.”
PERSONAL SPOTLIGHT: Robert E. Lee was in Charleston on the night of the fire. He had not yet attained his ultimate fame or the position as the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. Instead, he had been sent to organize coastal defenses in the Carolinas and Georgia. He was staying at the Mills House Hotel, where he and some of his staff went up either onto the balcony or the roof to watch the progress of the fire. It started to get too close to the hotel (see the picture below which shows just how close), and they were evacuated to Edmonston-Alston House (which is the house my fictional Ravenel House is based on) on East Battery Street. These facts were what gave me the clue that Shannon and her family would certainly be coughing from the smoke nearby but that they would be thought to be in a fairly safe area of town.
The Mills House Hotel was reported to have been saved only by staff placing wet blankets on the walls and roof.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: It sounds like there were slave refugees in Charleston in December of 1861 if their presence was well-enough known that their actions became a principle/folk theory as to the source of the fire. My question is: where had the refugees come from? Some of the surrounding islands that had been invaded by the Union or abandoned by their owners? From other abandoned towns of South Carolina? And if the refugees had left abandoned or occupied properties, why do you think they would flee those places into the middle of a city that was still functioning as part of the Confederate government? Wouldn’t they be afraid they would be captured and returned to their owners or sold at one of Charleston’s famous slave markets?
What do you think motivated the slave refugees? Do you think they were left alone by the authorities in Charleston? If so, why? I have some thoughts, but I’d love to hear yours!
ANALYSIS OF PHOTOGRAPH: Take a look at this photo showing the still-intact Mills House Hotel.
Photo Credit: LowCountryWalkingTours.com
Several things strike me about this picture. One is how close the Confederate officers were to the flames. Do you see buildings that nearly touch it are totally destroyed? You can see that the east side of the building is charred. Another thing that strikes me is the man who is standing. He appears to be an African American man. He is carrying a number of items. Can you identify any of them? I’m not sure what some of them are. What do you think his situation is? Is he cleaning up the debris? Just passing through? I also notice the man who is sitting. I believe he is in a Confederate uniform, but I’m not certain. It might be a cadet’s uniform. I think he has a gun in his right hand. Does he strike you as rather forlorn? Do you think he has some sort of connection to the building he is sitting on?
Stop by next time for a look at the Roper Hospital’s use as a military hospital in Charleston during the Civil War!
Ferrara, Marie, Moses Henry Nathan and the Great Charleston Fire of 1861, The South Carolina Historical Magazine, Vol. 104, No. 4, (Oct., 2003).
Photo Credit for Feature Photo: LowCountryWalkingTours.com
Southern newspapers report that the efforts of the firefighters were really valiant, while at least one Northern newspaper reports that the enslaved men disabled two of the fire engines. You can see in this split the ongoing debate about slavery during the war. The Southern newspapers had an interest in showing that the slaves were happy enough with their lot to try to save the city, while the Northern newspapers had an interest in showing that slaves were deeply unhappy. As a side-note, the Northern newspapers tend to tie what happened to slavery or to a retribution from Providence for secession.
Do you think the portrait was special to the citizens of Charleston for a particular reason, or do you think this had something do to with the hopes that Great Britain would join the South as an ally?
I wonder if there wasn’t a huge death toll because of the adequacy of the warning system within the city. We hear that “the alarm rang out, calling the citizens to quell the fire.” (Schreadly.) This is pure speculation, but I imagine that means that the bells from the steeples of Charleston’s many churches were pealed.
This article references that the fire was started as part of a planned slave insurrection. An interesting theory. You hear rumors of that in several sources, but I could never determine whether they were fact or only speculation.