Co.I - The Palmetto Guard
2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment
The Palmetto Guard were formed on 28thJune, 1851. The company was attached to the antebellum 17th Regiment, 4th Brigade, South Carolina Militia, also known as the Charleston Regiment. The regiment was made up of two wings. All the militiamen came from Charleston, their antebellum colonel was a local lawyer called John Cunningham. The men making up the 17th Regiment were aged between forty five and sixty years of age. The Palmetto Guard were accepted into South Carolina service, at Charleston, on 27th December, 1860.
On 12th April, 1861, the Palmetto Guard found themselves on Morris Island, stationed at Stephen’s iron-clad battery at Cumming’s Point, directly facing Fort Sumter, and at Point Battery. Fort Sumter was the powder keg that ignited the American Civil War.
Stevens’ Iron Battery was the world’s first iron-clad armoured artillery fortification, which consisted of heavy timbers overlaid with railroad track, angled at 40 to 45 degrees. It protected three heavy Columbiads, and was flanked by impressive slopes comprised of sand-bags, with built-in rat-holes or bunkers. Despite their appellation, these rat-holes were spacious and comfortable shelters, designed to provide cover during counter artillery fire.
A very rare image showing the Palmetto Guard, wearing their slouch hats, approaching Steven’s Iron Battery
The Palmetto Guard also manned a rather special piece of artillery. This was remarkably accurate, British rifled Blakely cannon, with patented side-sights, firing conical shells, gifted to the Confederacy by a South Carolinian resident in Liverpool. That resident was one Charles K. Priolau. This awesomely destructive cannon was positioned, along with three ten-inch mortars and two
42-pounders, at Point Battery, Cummings Point. 2nd Lieutenant T. Sumter of the Palmetto Guard supervised this detachment of the company, under the watchful and experienced eyes of Captain Thomas of the Charleston Citadel Academy. I imagine the irony of Sumter’s surname was not lost on him. Both batteries came under the overall command of Major Steven’s of the Citadel Academy, in Charleston.
The Blakely was engraved with the following inscription Presented to the State of South Carolina by a citizen abroad, in commemoration of the 20th December, 1860. Its accuracy was likened to that of a duelling pistol. Union private John Thompson, defending Fort Sumter, wrote to his father shortly after the siege. He remembered the gun’s astonishing precision and how it rained shaft and shell upon the fort and how almost every other shot, penetrated his embrasure.
The Palmetto Guard was probably the first unit, on either side, to be mustered for the war and with good reason. It was already uniformed and armed. It was regarded as an elite volunteer unit. The personnel came from the districts of Charleston and Beaufort County. In late December, 1860, the Palmetto Guard helped keep watch over the Federal arsenal in Charleston, before it was finally surrendered into South Carolinian hands on the last but one day of that month. By 11th January, 1861, the Palmetto Guard had been ordered to Morris Island and by mid-March the company was directed to the sea-shore there.
Private Edward Octavus Hall recalled that when the Palmetto Guard first arrived on the island the company was quartered in the buildings next to the light house, which doubled as their accommodation. Their duties included guard duty on the beach and sand hills and watch duty in the tower of the light house. They were to report any sightings of the Union fleet that was widely expected to arrive off the harbour in order to support the isolated Federal garrison within Fort Sumter.
Edward Octavus Hall was a new recruit to the unit, having obtained leave from the Post Office, where he worked, to join the company on Morris Island. During the siege of Fort Sumter he was assigned to Stephen’s iron-clad battery at Cumming’s Point. After the siege he was ordered to return to his duties at the Post Office. In time he resigned and enlisted in Sparks Battalion of Cavalry before transferring to Wade Hampton’s Legion in May, 1864.
The Palmetto Guard was composed of very select members; no one was admitted unless they were perfectly respectable. They were known as Palmettoes, a nick-name given to them by General Beauregard, the Confederate general charged with taking Fort Sumter.
A period lithograph, potentially showing the Palmetto Guard at work behind Steven’s Iron Battery
Edmund Ruffin, the elderly and famous Virginia secession firebrand, was in Charleston expecting war to break out at any time. Having secured the use of a musket and accoutrements, from the Citadel, he made his way to Morris Island where he received three loud huzzahs from the men of the Palmetto Guard. He bowed low to them in return, his long white hair cascading down, and accepted an invitation to dine with them. He initially refused an offer to serve alongside them at the Iron Battery, on the grounds that he knew nothing about artillery and because he did not wish to hide behind their defences and miss anything. He eventually reconsidered his earlier rejection of the offer to enlist with the Palmetto Guard and joined the unit as a private, but on condition that his membership lasted only for the period of the battle.
Captain George Barnwell Cuthbert informed Edmund Ruffin that the company wanted him to fire the detachment’s first shot at Fort Sumter. Deeply moved, he immediately agreed. Once the signal shot was fired, and once the Palmetto Guard were at their respective stations, he pulled the lanyard of a 64-pound columbiad, aimed at Fort Sumter, striking the south-west angle of the fort’s parapet. Ruffin’s shot was the first shot from Morris Island, in this the war’s opening bombardment. He readily conceded that the Union garrison at Fort Sumter were brave men, despite his well-known hostility towards the United States and the Union. Cummings Point was the nearest land-point to Fort Sumter.
A period lithograph of Steven’s Iron Battery, this time from the front showing the Columbiad port holes facing Fort Sumter
It was recorded, by a correspondent of the Charleston Mercury that Edmund Ruffin went on to fire all the cannon and mortars sighted at Fort Sumter. One presumes he meant only those artillery pieces positioned on Morris Island. Ruffin’s aplomb certainly impressed the secessionist editor of the Charleston Mercury who also ran a story of how when Ruffin, in response to an alarm, was making his way to the Iron Battery he was accosted by a sentry who did not recognise him. When challenged to say which company he belonged to, Ruffin replied To that in which there is a vacancy. Clearly here was a man with a sense of mission.
The first shot, fired in retaliation by the defenders of Fort Sumter, nearly took off the head of Arthur Linning, of the Palmetto Guard, who was in the process of raising an unofficial Palmetto Guards flag over the iron battery. With the insouciance of youth, he waved the flagstaff at the fort, before scampering back to safety, cheered on by his comrades. With equal sangfroid the Confederates troops, on Morris Island, nick-named Steven’s artillery iron and wood emplacement, the slaughter-pen. Happily for them, that proved to be far from the case, despite their initial misgivings. Union shots was said to glance off the Iron Battery like marbles, thrown by a child, at the back of a turtle. This was not strictly true as at least one shot, from Sumter, damaged the iron cove port hole of one of the Columbiads, dismounting it and putting it out of action.
Fort Sumter under bombardment from well placed Confederate artillery
A report in the Charleston Mercury newspaper, dated 13th April, 1861, spoke of two members of the Palmetto Guard who paid fifty dollars, in cash, to be rowed out to Morris Island in order to join their company. Such a sum of hard cash was deemed newsworthy and is indicative of the financial resources available to individual members of the unit. This would be in line with their elite social status.
A twelve or thirteen year old brother of one of the Palmetto Guard was allowed to fire some of the unit’s guns at the fort. Thus it can be said that in the opening cannonade of the war, the Palmetto Guard fielded the youngest and the oldest gunners on either side.
Elements of the Palmetto Guard were the first Confederate occupation troops to enter fort Sumter after its surrender. For a short period of time, Ruffin carried their unofficial company flag. A thirty year old, married private, of the Palmetto Guard, William Gourdin Young, was the only Confederate private to have been present when the fort first (unofficially) surrendered. When he and the self-appointed peace emissary, Colonel Louis Trezevant Wigfall (an aide to General Beauregard), returned to Morris Island, the men on the shore ran into the surf and hoisted the two men onto their shoulders to cries of Hurrah for South Carolina! Hurrah for the Palmetto Guards!
One of several variants of Private Bird’s unofficial Palmetto Guard flag
The unofficial flag, briefly carried by Ruffin, was of the lone star and palmetto type. It had originally been flown from the masthead of the Palmetto Line Brig, John H. Jones, on a visit to New York harbour in November, 1860. It created quite a stir in New York, sufficient for the ship’s captain to be greeted as a hero upon his return to South Carolina. John S. Bird, a military goods dealer and member of the Palmetto Guard, was instrumental in gifting the brig’s captain a gold headed presentation walking cane in recognition of his defiant stance in New York. In return Captain Charles E. Mills gave his flag to Private Bird.
It was subsequently flown above the Federal arsenal in Charleston, when that place was seized by South Carolinian troops, before being redeployed on the old Charleston lighthouse on Morris Island. It accompanied the Palmetto Guard when they were ordered to the Iron Battery at Cummings Point. It flew over them as they retrained as artillerymen. When the Palmetto Guard were ordered to occupy Fort Sumter, Private Bird went with them, along with his flag. When an opportunity arose, Bird obtained a suitable pole from the steamer Excel which had brought the Palmetto Guard to Sumter, attached his flag to it, hared up a stairway and planted it on the left flank parapet of the fort. Thus his flag was the first Southern flag to fly over Fort Sumter.
Bird’s flag remained with the Palmetto Guard when they became Company I of the 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment, when the Palmettoes were eventually mustered into Confederate service at Camp Davis, Virginia, on 22nd May, 1861. It saw action at 1st Manassas or Bull Run. When Private Bird was discharged from the army, on the grounds of ill health, he carried the flag home with him, where it remained until his grandson fittingly donated it to museum at Fort Sumter. Replicas of Bird’s Palmetto flag may be bought on eBay; such is its enduring appeal to students of the American Civil War.
Private Bird was not the only member of the Palmetto Guard to make his mark that day. Private Octavus Hall likewise broke away from the Palmetto Guard and secreted himself away in a casement. He took with him his violin. As the Confederate troops entered the much battered and battle damaged fort they both surprised and delighted to hear the tune Dixie coming from the casement where Private Hall was hidden from sight. He later recalled how he worked his violin with as much vim as he could muster, thus becoming a footnote in history.
Whilst at Fort Sumter, the Palmetto Guard helped man a fire engine, one of two, sent over from nearby Sullivan’s Island to assist the Union garrison in putting out the fire caused by the Confederate bombardment of the fort. Some of the Palmetto Guard also paid their respects, when the only Union casualty of the siege was buried in the sandy soil of the fort’s parade ground.
Edmund Ruffin made a makeshift cross,and placed it over the artilleryman’s grave. His name was Daniel Hough and he was the first official casualty of the Civil War. He was also one of its unluckiest as he died in a freak explosion as the departing Union garrison saluted the fort’s Stars and Stripes flag, one last time, with a one hundred gun salute. This was promptly cut short at fifty salutes following the unexpected blast that killed Hough. Hough was disinterred and reburied on Morris Island by the Palmetto Guard.
The cadets of the South Carolina Military Academy firing upon the Star of the West
Edmund Ruffin was photographed wearing the uniform of the Palmetto Guard. His image quickly became popular across the south as pro secessionist supporters rallied to the recently established Confederate States of America. The remainder of the Palmetto Guard continued to maintain a presence on Morris Island, between Gadberry and Vinegar Hill, until late April when the 17th Regiment, 4th Brigade, South Carolina Militia, was relieved from duty and returned to Charleston. They helped man the famous Star of the West sand battery, from whence the first warning shot of the war had been fired by youthful cadets of the South Carolina Military Academy.
There is a wonderful description of the officers and men of the Palmetto Guard which deserves being quoted, almost, in full. It comes from the Charleston Mercury, and its April 13th, 1861 issue. … a gallant corps, which for numbers, alertness, efficiency and unexampled coolness in action, won the respect and admiration of all who saw them in the fight. I think that their officers must be proud of such men and I know that those officers are not unworthy of their command.
After the action at Fort Sumter the Palmetto Guard divided into two companies. Half the men volunteered for service in Virginia and became Company I of the 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment, whilst the remainder stayed behind in Charleston and became artillerymen in the Buist Light Artillery or Company A, 18th Battalion, South Carolina Artillery. Confusingly, for a time, the artillerymen continued to also be known as the Palmetto Guard.
Before departing for Virginia, the original Palmetto Guard took part in two presentation ceremonies at the Institute Hall in Charleston. In the first they received a large gold medal and in the second an official, gold tasselled, blue silk flag bearing a palmetto and the company’s motto, fabricated from individual sequins. Before Confederate battle flags were widely introduced, the banner received three bullet holes before being returned to South Carolina. The flag was a gift of the women of Charleston, many of whom accompanied the Palmetto Guard on its march to receive it into the hands of Captain George Cuthbert, their company’s commander. The men of the Palmetto Guard were enjoined to …make their future deeds worthy of the glorious past.
Three days later, accompanied by upwards of one thousand friends and supporters, many of whom were women, the Palmetto Guard set off for war. Departing from South Carolina Hall, at nine o’clock in the evening, they briefly stopped at Military Hall, on Wentworth Street, where they met up with a military escort provided by a group of cadets from the Citadel and members of the Carolina Light Infantry. The Palmetto Guard then proceeded north to John Street and the North-Eastern Railroad Depot. Martial music filled the air as women waved their handkerchiefs at the departing South Carolinians. As the men lined up, alongside the train cars that were to take them to Virginia, someone proposed three cheers for Captain Cuthbert. Moments later they were gone. The first casualties would return to Charleston on 24th July, 1861.
The Palmetto Guard numbered 102 men, all ranks (85 privates), when it first entered Richmond, the capital of the Confederate States, in May, 1861. They breakfasted at the Exchange Hotel where they were welcomed by their regimental commander, later brigade commander, Colonel Kershaw. They were described as South Carolina gentlemen and were said to be armed with rifles.
The Palmetto Guard, with their band, later welcomed the Brooks Guards or Company K of the Second South Carolina Volunteer Infantry into camp at Richmond. Both companies were praised for their soldiery appearance. This mention in the Richmond Daily Dispatch is the first time a Palmetto Guard band is mentioned. Given their collective wealth it is possible they were able to field a band of sorts or to hire one for the occasion.
The Palmetto Guard helped cover the retreat of their parent regiment at Germantown, following the 2nd South Carolina’s rapid and forced withdrawal from the environs of Fairfax Court House, to distant Centreville. Private Brown of the Palmetto Guard was reported to have died from sunstroke during this frantic dash for safety. From Centreville, after a silent midnight trek of four miles, the Palmettoes eventually joined up with Kemper’s battery at Blackburn’s Ford, and provided needful infantry support to the artillerymen there.
Edmund Ruffin caught up with the Palmetto Guard again, this time at Manassas, in his home state of Virginia, with the intention of presenting them with a flag, but as the company had more than enough flags of its own, he gave them instead a donation of $100.00. He also brought with him a cheese and a barrel of crackers, which was no doubt much appreciated. True to form Confederate artillerymen allowed him to fire one of the opening shots in the ensuing battle of Manassas or Bull Run, as it was known in the north.
Several members of the Palmetto Guard were slightly wounded as the regiment subsequently marched to take up position at the bottom of Henry House Hill, during the battle of Manassas. In their attack on the 14th Brooklyn, Colonel Kershaw, of the 2nd South Carolina Regiment, yelled at his command to move forward. The men responded with a wild cheer, which was later claimed to have been the origin of the famous rebel yell.
The Palmetto Guard ended the battle in an advanced position firing on a retreating northern column, fleeing from Sudley Ford.
At the battle of Malvern Hill, the Palmetto Guard lost an experienced company commander, Lieutenant Thomas Sumter Brownfield. He was the grandson of the famous revolutionary war hero, General Thomas Sumter, after whom Fort Sumter was named. The lieutenant was a graduate of the South Carolina Military Academy. The Palmetto Guard continued to lose promising officers and non-commissioned officers to enemy action; witness the deaths of lieutenants Samuel Robinson and William Darby at Antietam, along with Sergeant James Brown. Only three members of the original company remained at the war’s end.
An archetypical 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantryman of the early war period – artist unknown
At the battle of Fredericksburg the Palmetto Guard were detached from the regiment and deployed to Telegraph Hill, whilst the rest of the regiment deployed to the stone wall, in support of the Georgian troops positioned there. During the battle twenty or so men of the Palmetto Guard, ostensibly on a reconnaissance mission, enfiladed a Federal reserve unit positioned in a ravine. Fire, directed by Captain Cuthbert, poured into the Union troops, whose casualties quickly mounted as the Palmettoes expended upwards of fifty to sixty rounds per man. The Palmetto Guard lost six men in this action, dead or wounded.
Captain George Barnwell Cuthbert was said to be brave and daring man. His action at Fredericksburg amply bore out that view of him. The same diarist also wrote that he did not maintain good discipline and that his men’s initial positive view of him lessened during the course of the war. He died at the battle of Chancellorsville. He was remembered as a pleasant and handsome fellow with beautiful blue eyes. Not a bad epitaph.
The battle of Gettysburg proved to be a devastating engagement for the 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment, casualties were appalling, and the regiment never fully recovered from its ordeal in the fields of Pennsylvania, in terms of numbers and leadership. The Palmetto Guard and the Columbia Greys were marginally luckier than the rest of the regiment, in that they did not lose their company commanders, in the three day slogging match that constituted the battle of Gettysburg. This factor however did not mean that the Palmetto Guard was spared on the field of battle. Some of their best men fell at Gettysburg, including Private Edmund James Mills described as “the pet of the Corps”and Septimus Charles Miles similarly regarded as ...the life of the company. A poignant photograph of their partially buried bodies, taken in the aftermath of the battle by the northern photographer, Alexander Gardner, reminds one of the heavy cost war places on humanity.
Captain Ralph Emmes Elliot, assumed command of the Palmetto Guard, on the death of Captain George Barnwell Cuthbert. He held this command until friendly fire cut him down at Cold Harbour. The twenty nine year old physician lingered for five days, managing a smile before he died, on hearing the news that his brother had received a promotion to that of brigadier-general. It is unknown who then took immediate command of the Palmetto Guard.
By late June, 1864, command of the Palmetto Guard had fallen on the shoulders of Captain James E. Dutart. He fell, in action, on the night of 21st June, when Union troops assaulted the trenches he commanded. The Petersburg Campaign would continue, with other losses recorded amongst the Palmetto Guard. Thus within the space of three weeks, the Palmetto Guard lost two of its commanders.
The aftermath of the last battle fought by the 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment, at Bentonville, found only three men of the original company remaining to the Palmetto Guard. A few recruits helped bulked up their numbers. As if recognising the enormity of their sacrifice, history allowed these stalwart South Carolinians a respite of three weeks; during which horse racing, a grand review of the army, a brigade reorganisation and visitations by the fairer sex helped distract their minds from the coming collapse of their hard fought for cause. The Palmetto Guard had, by then, fought in upwards of thirty two engagements, of varying length.
That end came on the 28th of April, 1865, when just fewer than two hundred men of the 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment presented themselves at this their last roll call. The brave Southerners received their paroles home on the 2nd and 3rd of May, 1865, their equally courageous northern opponents showing great sensitivity by staying away from the proceedings, a gesture which was much appreciated by the southern soldiers.
The last act of Kershaw’s South Carolinian Brigade was to exchange provost guard with their northern counterpart. The South Carolinians conduct and composure was exemplary, as they stacked arms for the very last time. One would like to believe that these men were drawn from the ranks of the 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment, but history does not say. We can only hope it was thus.
Martyn Clarke – Private 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, ACWS
The Charleston Mercury – Charleston, South Carolina April 13th, 1861
The Charleston Mercury – Charleston, South Carolina July 25th, 1861
The Richmond Daily Dispatch – Richmond, Virginia May 13th, 1861
Abner Doubleday – Reminiscences of Forts Sumter and Moultrie in 1860-61
Evans and Cogswell - The Battle of Fort Sumter and First Victory of the Southern Troops, April 13th, 1861: Full Accounts of the Bombardment, with Sketches of the Scenes, Incidents, etc.
Arthur P. Ford – Life in the Confederate Army, and some Experiences and Sketches of Southern Life
Edward Octavus Hall – Some Recollections by Edward Octavus Hall (1837-1913) 1905 For the Family (Private Unpublished Manuscript)
Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper – New York April 27th, 1861
Major Robert Gilchrist (The Gist Guard) - The Confederate Defence of Morris Island, Charleston Harbour, By the Troops of South Carolina, Georgia and North Carolina, in the Late War Between the States: Prepared from the Official Reports and Other Sources
War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies
Donagh Bracken - The Civil War Reportage of The New York Times and The Charleston Mercury…and what historians say really happened: The War of Words
J. Edward Lee & Ron Chepesiuk – South Carolina in the Civil War: The Confederate Experience in Letters and Diaries
Robert S. Seigler - South Carolina’s Military Organizations during the War Between the States: State-wide Units, Militia and Reserves
Robert S. Seigler - South Carolina’s Military Organizations during the War Between the States: the Low Country & Pee Dee
Mac Wyckoff - A History of the Second South Carolina Infantry: 1861-65
The 2nd South Carolina is a part of the American Civil War Society Ltd