Sunday, December 11

This Week in The Civil War: Sunday, Dec. 11

Charleston fire, Soldiering on, firing squad

In April 1861, the Civil War began as Confederate artillery barraged a Union-held fort off Charleston, S.C. Another momentous event befalls Charleston on Dec. 11, 1861, when a fire sweeps much of the downtown area. The cause of the fire is never determined and The Mercury of Charleston reports a low-tide impeded easy access to coastal waters to douse the flames. When the fast-moving fire finally is put out, about a third of the city is in ashes. Blackened stonework of a fire-gutted cathedral is left standing, but many businesses and shops of wood are gone. The so-called "Great Fire of 1861" would do nearly as much damage, if not more, to Charleston than war itself. Early months of war saw ill-trained, raw volunteers from the North go off to fight green and poorly equipped Confederate rivals. It was a time when many expected a short conflict, some even an adventure. But the bloodshed at the First Battle of Bull Run in the summer of 1861 hinted at deadly battles to come. The Union, seeking to raise a professional fighting force, announces this week that appointed superintendents will oversee the recruiting, organizing and drilling of Union soldiers. Volunteer officers are to be relieved of duty on Jan. 1, 1862, The Associated Press reports: "After that time, volunteers will be mustered for pay ... for the regular army." In other news, AP reports the first execution of a Union deserter from the Army of the Potomac. The account states that a private, William H. Johnson, seeking to escape was captured and "taken back to his own camp a prisoner." About 700 soldiers watched his death by firing squad in mid-December of 1861. "Eight of them fired when Johnson fell on his coffin, but life not being extinct, the other four in reserve fired with the required effect," AP reported.

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