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After years of turbulent politics and increasing frustration over the nation's drift away from a slave-based agrarian economy, South Carolina took actions that launched this nation into a bitter Civil War by attacking Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor on the morning of April 12, 1861. Seven months later, the U.S Government sent an expedition by sea against Confederate positions in Port Royal. In an overwhelming show of force, Federal forces seized Hilton Head, Saint Helena and Beaufort within a few days. Many plantation owners then abandoned their homes and slaves and fled to the mainland. Port Royal would serve as a base for Union operations throughout the remainder of the war. The newly-freed slaves fell under the protection of the Union Army, schools were established for them, and the nation's first African American regiment, the 1st SC -- later the 33rd USCT, was formed.

As South Carolina adjusted its coastal defenses in the wake of the Port Royal defeat, Robert Smalls, a slave hired out as its pilot, commandeered the steamship Planter under the cover of darkness, steamed out of Charleston harbor, and gave important information about weaknesses in coastal defenses to the Union Army. On July 15, 1862, this information led to the largest land battle fought in South Carolina at the village of Secessionville on James Island, just a few miles south of Charleston. Had the Union prevailed in this assault, Charleston likely would have fallen and, perhaps, the war shortened. Robert Smalls also played a role in the next major event in April of 1863 when a U.S. Naval Squadron assaulted Fort Sumter. In this unsuccessful attack, Robert was the pilot of the Keokuck, a twin-turreted ironclad that approached to within 800 yards of the fort. Receiving over 90 hits, the Keokuk withdrew and later sank in shallow waters off of Morris Island.

Following the Naval defeat, the US Army made a determined attempt to capture Charleston by establishing a base on Folly Island, from which they assaulted Morris Island. Combined Army and Naval action captured the south end on Morris Island on July 10, 1863, but a strong defensive position at Battery Wagner blocked progress up the island. On the morning of July 11, an assault on the battery was quickly repulsed and plans were made to reduce the position by artillery. On July 18 all preparations were in place, and naval and land-based artillery pummeled Battery Wagner from dawn to dusk. Meanwhile three brigades, each with 2000 infantry, assembled on the beach south of Battery Wagner. Leading the first brigade was the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, a newly formed regiment of Americans of African descent. As darkness approached, the 54th Massachusetts charged down the beach and gained a foothold on the walls of the battery. However, the following brigade's twenty-minute delay in entering the battle allowed the Confederates to reinforce the battery and resulted in a major defeat for the Union forces. The brave actions of the 54th that night firmly demonstrated the resolve and bravery of the African American soldier and led to the recruitment of almost 200,000 African Americans into the Union Army and Navy.

The battle to capture Charleston continued until the evacuation of Charleston in February of 1865 in advance of General W. T. Sherman's march through South Carolina. The 54th Massachusetts and other African American units played a supporting role in that operation and other raids into the interior of the state as the war wound down. Final Civil War service for most of the units was in occupation duty and in insuring the emancipation of slaves throughout South Carolina.

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