When Columbia, S.C., was being destroyed in mid-February, the City of Charleston was evacuated by Lt. Gen. William Hardee and his Confederate troops. Charleston had been the birthplace of secession and a spiritual capital of the entire South. Its defenders were in danger of being penned in, and Gen. Hardee reluctantly and belatedly pulled out, leaving Ft. Sumter in Charleston Harbor still unconquerably, firmly, defiantly in Confederate hands.
With Columbia in flames and Charleston deserted, it was a tragic time for the Southland. The holocaust at Columbia had burned itself out, but not before Maj. Gen. William Sherman added to the destruction by destroying rail depots, supply houses and public buildings deemed of military importance. Union troops under Brig. Gen. Alexander Schimmelfennig entered Charleston and the city was surrendered by Mayor Charles McBeth. A Northern newspaper correspondent traveling with the Union armies reported of Charleston: “A city of ruins — silent, mournful, in deepest humiliation. The band was playing ‘Hail Columbia’ and the strains flowed through the desolate city, awakening wild enthusiasm in the hearts of the colored people, while the citizens of Charleston remained closeted behind shuttered windows and closed doors.”
After destroying the arsenal, railroad installations, machine shops, foundries and railroad lines in Columbia, and satisfied that the capital of South Carolina was nothing but a field of ruins, Gen. Sherman ordered his troops to continue their march to the north.
On the coast in North Carolina, Federal troops under Maj. Gen. Jacob Cox outflanked the Confederate defense lines at Ft. Anderson on the east bank of the Cape Fear River, in the drive towards Wilmington. The Confederates at Wilmington pulled back to defend the city and fortify the west bank of the Cape Fear River. Gen. Braxton Bragg arrived and ordered the evacuation of Wilmington on Feb. 21 so as not to jeopardize what Confederate forces he had left.
From Richmond, a dispirited President Jefferson Davis wrote to editor John Forsyth in Mobile: “It is now becoming daily more evident to all reflecting persons that we are reduced to choosing whether the negroes shall fight for us or against us.” The Confederate Senate proposed debate on a House bill authorizing use of slaves as soldiers. Gen. Lee wrote Secretary of War Breckinridge of his plan to abandon his army’s position on the James River if necessary. Gen. Lee hoped to unite his army at Burkeville, Va., and maintain communications south and west with other Confederate forces. Further, he asked that Gen. Joseph E. Johnston be ordered to report for duty, as he was uncertain about the health of Gen. Beauregard, now commanding Confederate troops in the Carolinas. Writing to his wife, Gen. Lee said, “I expect that Grant will move against us soon, and Sherman in South Carolina and Schofield in North Carolina are both advancing & seem to have everything going their own way. As for me, I will fight to the last.”
Union troops entered Wilmington, without Confederate opposition on Wednesday, Feb. 22. The last major port of the Confederacy was now lost. Before daylight, Gen. Bragg had withdrawn the last of the Confederate troops. At Petersburg, Gen. Lee issued official orders assigning Gen. Johnston to the Department of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, and the Department of Tennessee and Georgia. Gen. Johnston was ordered to concentrate all available Confederate forces, including those coming in from Mississippi and Alabama.
Gen. Pierre G. T. Beauregard was ordered to report to Gen. Johnston for assignment; Gen. Beauregard was in ill health and he seemed miffed at being displaced, though he agreed to cooperate fully with Gen. Johnston for the benefit of the Confederacy. President Davis and Gen. Johnston had a contentious relationship throughout the war, but the president realized that no talents could be neglected in the hour of the Confederacy’s need. While the South had a formidable group of general officers in the Carolinas — Gens. Johnston, Beauregard, Hardee, Hampton and Bragg — what they did not have was adequate manpower.