Author Archives: Craig Swain

Firing on a flag of truce: An incident of war at Charleston, August 30, 1864

On the morning of August 30, 1864, the Third Major Bombardment of Fort Sumter was starting an eighth week.  The routine of that bombardment might be considered “skirmishing” with heavy guns.  They rattled… or more accurately, boomed … across the outer reaches of Charleston harbor at interval throughout the day.  At Fort Sumter, Captain Thomas Huguenin reported twenty Parrott shells and thirty-eight columbiad shells fired at the fort from Morris Island during the day.  The Confederate garrison on Sullivan’s Island received seventy-four shots from the Federals, and returned fifty-seven.  Lots of iron and gunpowder expended that day.  Yet, for all that noise, those shots were not the “story of the day.”

Earlier in the day, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren sent a package of letters over to the USS Wabash, with instructions for delivery to the Confederates with a flag of truce at Breach Inlet.  Specific instructions were:

Give directions for the flag-of-truce boat to approach the inlet no nearer than 1½ or 2 miles, there to anchor and wait the arrival of a rebel flag-of-truce boat.

The vessel from which the boat is sent, as well as the boat, should show a flag of truce.

These were routine instructions for what had become commonplace.  The time established for the flag-of-truce was early evening, around 6 p.m.  But that day the commonplace was not uneventful, as Acting Ensign George McClure, the truce officer, related:

In obedience to your order I proceeded with a flag of truce in toward Beach Inlet. When within about 2 ½ miles of the beach I cast off from the Winona and pulled in toward the fort at Beach Inlet. When within about 1 ½ miles a shot was fired across our bow from the fort, when I immediately anchored. After waiting about an hour I noticed a boat sailing around from Fort Moultrie, and soon after steering toward us. It was, however, too far distant for me to distinguish whether it showed a flag of truce or not. It had not gone far before our forces on Morris Island commenced firing at it, and I noticed 2 or 3 shells explode directly over the boat. I soon after distinguished a small flag of truce, when I got under way and stood toward it under sail. On communicating I found the boat in charge of Lieut. R. Jones, of General Higgins’ staff. I delivered the packages to him. He complained very bitterly of our forces on Morris Island firing at him while on his way out. I told him I was very sorry anything of the kind had occurred, and hoped that everything would soon be satisfactorily explained. Our communication here ended, and I returned aboard ship.

For perspective, the map below roughly depicts the respective locations of the boats and the Federal batteries:

FlagOfTruceFiredOn

The incident took place between 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., by which time the Confederate boat reported back to Sullivan’s Island.

All’s well that ends well?  Not hardly. Fragments of shells had landed on a flag-of-truce boat.  The Confederates and the Navy, all the way up to Dahlgren, wanted to know why the Army would fire on a flag of truce.  So inquiries went forth over the following days.  On September 2, Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig, commanding the Federal troops outside Charleston, responded to Captain Joseph Green, commanding the blockade at Charleston:

I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your communication of the 31st ultimo, relative to the firing upon a flag-of-truce boat by my batteries. In reply allow me to respectfully inform you that my orders from Major-General Foster are to receive no flags of truce in this district, and that in compliance with these orders I have instructed my pickets and batteries, on the approach of a flag of truce, to warn its bearers back by firing twice over their heads and the third time to fire sharp. I must therefore beg that in case the naval forces wish to communicate by flag of truce they will notify me of the same beforehand; otherwise the occurrences of August 30 will certainly be repeated.

So there were actually several exceptions to the “routine.”  For starters, the Army had express orders not to accept any truces at Charleston, which Major-General John Foster had clearly communicated to the Confederates. So the gunners were naturally wary.  Of course, had the Navy offered a warning to the Army, that might have been different.

But another departure from the norm, alluded to in McClure’s report, was the point of departure of the Confederate boat.  Green emphasized that in his report to Dahlgren, saying “I would state that it is unusual for the rebel flag of truce to come from Moultrie Point to meet ours of [Breach] Inlet; they generally come from the Inlet.”

McClure also mentioned the Confederate boat had not identified itself clearly.  Only after shells burst did he see a “small flag of truce.”  Though none of the other officers echoed that back to the Confederates for an explanation.

In the end, this all boiled down to an incident of war.  There was no intent by either side to deceive.  If anything, the intentions by both sides to avoid being predictable (sending a boat from a different location and firing warning shots before asking questions) had resulted in an unpredictable situation. Still, no lives were lost.  Packages exchanged.  But the “routine” was disrupted.

In the defense of the Federal gunners, there were plenty of good reasons for them to fire upon any unidentified vessel making the way out of Charleston.  The logs from Sullivan’s Island for August 30 closed with this line:

A steamer run in and went up to the city at 1.15 a.m.

That would be the blockade runner Fox.
FoxCargo

Yes, Charleston was still a port of call for those pesky blockade runners.  Sort of a good reason for the gunners on Morris Island to pay careful attention to anything moving out around Sullivan’s Island.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, page 252; Part II, Serial 66, pages 265, 268-9; ORN, Series I, Volume 15, page 652.)

“The enemy floated a torpedo down”: Federal attempts to blast Fort Sumter to bits

At the start of the Third Major Bombardment of Fort Sumter, Major-General John Foster had in mind a plan to level the fort by way of a large explosive device.  “As soon as a good cut is made through the wall,” Foster wrote to Washington on July 7, 1864, “I shall float down against it and explode large torpedoes until the wall is shaken down and the surrounding obstructions are entirely blown away.”

Seven weeks later, the desired “cut” was evident, but the torpedoes were yet to be employed.  Early in the bombardment, Foster called upon the Navy for support, as they were somewhat more experienced with floating demolition devices and torpedoes.  On July 21, 1864, the USS Nahant attempted to push an explosive laden barge into position.  But miscommunication and bad weather thwarted the attempt. After this failure, the Navy, particularly Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren, became disenchanted with the whole idea.

Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig, in command of the forces in front of Charleston, continued with the plans as directed.  Using his special relation with the Admiral and other naval officers, Schimmelfennig received technical support while troubleshooting the torpedo clocks that timed the explosive device.  By the close of August, the explosive devices were ready for employment.  The first of these devices was a raft, filled with explosives and fitted with a torpedo clock.  It would be towed out to Fort Sumter and pushed into position.

Reporting on the first effort, which took place on the night of August 28, 1864, Schimmelfennig wrote:

On the night of the 28th ultimo, a pontoon-boat, fitted up for the purpose and containing about twenty hundredweight of powder, was taken out by Lieut. G.F. Eaton, One hundred and twenty-seventh New York Volunteers, boat infantry, and floated down into the left flank of Fort Sumter. The garrison of Sumter was alarmed before the mine reached them, and opened upon our boats with musketry, without, however, doing them any injury.

At 9:15 p.m. that night, Captain Thomas A. Huguenin, Confederate commander of Fort Sumter, reported the first torpedo attack. “The enemy floated a torpedo down from direction of [Fort] Johnson, which exploded near our wharf; no damage as far as ascertained yet.”  Huguenin went on to suggest the Federals had caught onto the Confederate passwords, perhaps alluding to how the Federals had gotten so close to Fort Sumter without any challenge.

Two nights later, the Federals tried again with different equipment:

On the night of the 31st ultimo six torpedoes, made of barrels set in frames, each containing 100 pounds of powder, were set afloat with the flood-tide from the southeast of Sumter with the view of destroying the boom.  They probably exploded too early and only injured perhaps two lengths of the links of the boom, which are now not visible.

At Sumter, Huguenin reported, on September 1, “The enemy again attempted to blow up the fort with a torpedo, but failed. The torpedo exploded about 300 yards off the east angle.”

Although picking at a weak corner of the fort, the means to place the explosive were faulty.  In the end, these Federal efforts came to naught.  So the long bombardment of Fort Sumter continued through September.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, pages 15, 74, 239, and 240.)

Fighting for Freedom: Leesburg’s newest Civil War marker, and first for the African-American contribution

Earlier this week, the Civil War Trails marker team installed this marker at Mt. Zion Cemetery in Leesburg, Virginia:

IMG_3135

The full text and location details are up at HMDB (of course!).  The entry also has photos of four veterans’ tombstones mentioned in the marker text.  There will be a dedication ceremony for this marker on September 6, details for I’ll post at a later date.

This marker is the fulfillment of a project I took up several years back. In 2011, Kristen Umstattd, Leesburg’s Mayor, asked if there were plans to highlight the experience of Leesburg’s African-American community as part of the sesquicentennial.  At the time I was not a member of the Loudoun County Sesquicentennial Committee, nor did I know of a “story” which we might highlight.  But the project was there.

When I joined the sesquicentennial committee in mid-2012, I went head-on for two marker projects – Edwards Ferry (which had my priority of effort due to timing considerations) and a USCT marker of some form.  Still, I didn’t have the “story” to serve as the grounding for that second project.  About the same time that Emanuel Dabney asked “…how have you incorporated their stories in your interpretation?” a news item provided the story I’d been looking for.  And not just “a” story, but a “great story” that fit into history of the community.  With that, I made the formal proposal to the committee for a marker at Mt. Zion Cemetery (that happening somewhat concurrently with the addition of Kevin Grigsby, who’s research was highlighted in that news story, in the committee).

Through the work of the committee as a whole, we’ve matured that project to a focal point – a dedication scheduled for the afternoon of September 6.  There are some important parts of that dedication – that will make this a really “big thing” – that I cannot relate at this point.  Suffice to say, this will be a good event to attend.  From our estimates, this may feature the largest attendance of any of the 150th marker dedications.

And let that sink in for a moment.  The sesquicentennial has occurred in a broad spectrum of colors.  There’s a lot more on the stage than was the case fifty years ago.  I think that is the best possible legacy we can hand over to those who will follow.  This marker at Mt. Zion Cemetery will be there long after the 150ths have faded from the headlines.  Tourists will see that “red star” on their tour maps and mentioned at travel information kiosks.  In short, it will serve a purpose.  And I do hope that we are able, with time and resources, to add more markers for the USCT veterans from Loudoun (see the map on the marker itself, as we have ample reason to add more interpretation).

One of my professors impressed upon me that good history is about “Three Ps” as he put them – People, Place, and Perspective.  With that marker, we have those three Ps.  And more importantly, a place where people can consider that perspective.

Again, please mark your calendars for September 6.  If you are in the area, you’ll want to attend this dedication, trust me!