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Charleston Military History Highlight | LT W. T. Sherman and Charleston

Thursday, December 13, 2018

William Tecumseh Sherman graduated from West Point in 1840, sixth in his class of 42, and was commission a lieutenant in the Third U.S. Artillery. He briefly served in Florida near the end of the Seminole War, then at Fort Morgan in Mobile Bay. He was then assigned to garrison duty at Fort Moultrie in Charleston, South Carolina. Ft Moultrie was largely abandoned in the 1820-30’s and fell into disrepair. Repair was given to the Corps of Engineers and the effort was led by Capt. Alexander H. Bowman from 1839 to 1842. Having successfully built a more permanent and effective shoreline breakwater founded on a porous “grillage” design, Bowman was able to hand the refurbished fort over to the 3rd U.S. Artillery Regiment by June 1842.  

On Friday, June 24, 1842, Sherman arrived at the refurbished fort, already a veteran 22-year-old First Lieutenant. A junior officer in Company G of the 3rd U.S. Artillery Regiment. Because he was the foster son of Thomas Ewing, a prominent Whig politician from Ohio, Sherman was able to enjoy to the high society of the Charleston upper class. In his letters home, he wrote of his pleasures in his spare time of fox hunting, fishing, boating, dancing, and making hundreds of visits to his new friends in Charleston and the resorts of Sullivan's Island. 

After eleven months of duty at Ft. Moultrie, Sherman would write a letter to his younger brother John in Ohio on May 23, 1843, describing his daily routine:

“I'll try and give you an idea of how our days pass in a garrison like this. Here at Fort Moultrie we have about 250 soldiers, divided into four companies. These are quartered some inside the wall, some outside. All the unmarried officers, eight of us, live inside; all the married, five, outside. This being the headquarters of the regiment, we have the Colonel and his band of about fifteen instruments.

Every morning at daylight all get up at reveille, attend a drill, either as infantry or artillery, at sunrise; breakfast at seven, have a dress parade at eight, and half-an-hour after the new guard takes the place of the old one, a new officer relieving the old one. After that, each one kills time to suit himself, till reveille of next morning commences the new routine. Thus, it is every fair day except Sunday, when we have an extra quantity of music, parade, and inspection in honor of the day, and to keep our men in superfine order at church.

Thus, you see that every day at nine o'clock and after, we [the off-duty officers]have nothing to do but amuse ourselves. Some read, some write, some loaf, and some go to the city [Charleston]. For the latter class, a barge is in attendance, going and coming. Although six miles from a city, we have all its advantages, whilst separated from its annoying noises, taxes, and expenses ...”

Years later Col. Samuel M. Bowman (Sherman’s former lawyer in California) and Lt.-Col. Richard B. Irwin — compiled a history of their commander’s life and published it in New York City in 1865 under the title of Sherman and His Campaigns: A Military Biography. On Page 16 of that work, the two authors included the following recollection from their chieftain, about his antebellum posting:

“Moultrieville, on Sullivan’s Island quite near the fort, was at that time a place of fashionable resort during the summer season for the wealthy families of Charleston and South Carolina generally, many of whom had temporary residences there, to which they removed on the approach of hot weather to escape from the malarious influences of the city and lower country and enjoy the cool breezes and the sea-bathing. Officers of the army were at that time sought after and hospitably entertained by nearly all of the better classes of society in the South, and Lieutenant Sherman was thus, upon his arrival at Fort Moultrie, ushered into a life entirely new to him. During the summer [of 1842] he made many agreeable and some valuable acquaintances, which were cemented and extended during the following winter when he, in common with the other officers, was almost overwhelmed with invitations to accept the hospitalities of the citizens of Charleston to whom they had been attentive at the fort.”

And twenty years after Bowman and Irwin’s biography had appeared, Sherman published his own two volumes of personal Memoirs, which included this description of Charleston Harbor and of Fort Moultrie during the mid-1840s, in his own words:

“Farther down the bay, a point of the mainland reached the bay, where there was a group of houses called Mount Pleasant; and at the extremity of the bay, distant six miles, was Sullivan’s Island, presenting a smooth sand-beach to the sea, with the line of sand-hills or dunes thrown up by the waves and winds, and the usual backing of marsh and crooked salt-water channels.

At the shoulder of this island was Fort Moultrie, an irregular fort without ditch or counterscarp, with a brick scarp wall about twelve feet high, which could be scaled anywhere, and this was surmounted by an earth parapet capable of mounting about forty twenty-four and thirty-two pounder smoothbore iron guns Inside the fort were three two-story brick barracks, sufficient to quarter the officers and men of two companies of artillery.

At sea was the usual “bar,” changing slightly from year to year, but generally the main ship-channel came from the south, parallel to Morris Island till it was well up to Fort Moultrie, where it curved, passing close to Fort Sumter and up to the wharves of the city, which were built mostly along the Cooper River front.”

In a Letter from MG Sherman to Gen. Henry Halleck, Chief of Staff, US Army, December 24, 1864, he indicated:

.”. communicating with the fleet in the neighborhood of Georgetown, I would turn upon Wilmington or Charleston accordingly to the importance of either. I rather prefer Wilmington, as a live place, over Charleston, which is dead and unimportant when its railroad communications are broken.”

After the war, Sherman visited the Charleston and was stricken by the sight of his former home: “Anyone who is not satisfied with war should go and see Charleston,” the general later wrote, “and he will pray louder and deeper than ever that the country may in the long future be spared any more war.”