Author Archives: Craig Swain

“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:

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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!

“Requisition disapproved”: Foster’s plans for assaulting arks sunk, reminded to stay on defense

Throughout the summer of 1864, Major-General John Foster chaffed at the restrictions placed on him as commander of the Department of the South.  Nearly every correspondence with Washington included some dangling proposition to move on Charleston or Savannah, if only authorized, approved, and supported.  He recognized the Confederates lacked the resources to resist a serious attempt at either – or both – cities.  But he also acknowledged his own role in the overall strategy.  Charged with simply demonstrating to tie down Confederate forces in the Low Country, Foster also lacked resources.

Earlier posts have discussed the troops transferred out of the department to Virginia.  Another resource Foster lacked, and which was very important for both offensive and defensive purposes, was shipping.  He’d already received a rebuke from Quartermaster-General Major-General Montgomery C. Meigs in regard to certain practices with shipping.  Foster continued to press Meigs for more watercraft to support his operations.  Much like operations along the Mississippi, the “hold what we have for now” posture along the southern coastline depended upon the ability to rapidly move troops to threatened points.  Thus, Foster had a legitimate reason to ask for more steamers.

But another vessel that Foster requested were light draft boats for use in the shallow coastal waterways.  Two of the types desired were described in correspondence to Major-General Henry Halleck on August 8, 1864:

These will be simply modern row galleys, fifty oars on a side; will draw 26 inches of water when loaded with 1,000 men; will have elevated towers for sharpshooters, and an assaulting ladder or gang-plank of 51 feet in length, operated by machinery. These will be very useful anywhere, in assaulting a fort or landing troops in shoal water. I propose also to build a light-draught iron-clad, and have written to General Meigs to ascertain if I can have the railroad iron, obtained from Florida, rolled into plates without delay; or if he can have an exchange made for 2-inch or 4-inch plates at once.

Reading the description provided (and lamenting that diagrams for such were not included in the Official Records), these appear quite similar in function, if not appearance, to landing craft developed for World War II.  Foster went into more detail of these craft, which he called “assaulting arks,” in a letter written to Meigs, also on August 8:

I am now commencing the building of two “assaulting arks” at the yard here. These are to carry 1,000 men each, and are to be propelled by oars.
Requisitions for 3/8-inch iron as musket-proof protection for the sides will be sent on, together with plans, as soon as they can be copied. I also propose to build a light-draught iron-clad, and plans are now preparing. This is absolutely required for a particular service where the navy iron-clads cannot go, even if they were willing, on account of their draught of water. I shall obtain the iron from the Lake City railroad, in Florida. I wish to know if you cannot have these rolled out into 2-inch plates for me, or exchange them for either 2 or 4 inch plates. Time is a consideration, and unless the exchange or the rolling out can be done without delay I will use the rails as they are.

I would assume, from the context provided in this letter, that the ironclad versions were powered, armed vessels.  Rather resource-wise, Foster proposed acquiring his own iron in sort of an ersatz manner like many Confederate ironclad projects.  And again, consider the similarity in function, if not appearance, to specialized World War II landing support vessels.  Foster’s proposed ironclads were light-draft, in-shore fire support vessels.

Had these been completed, Foster would have a set of formidable craft that could ply the backwaters in support of “demonstrations.”  Or should those in Washington agree, he could finally launch an assault on Fort Sumter or Charleston.

But that was not to be.  On this day (August 27) in 1864, Meigs wrote to Foster on this matter:

Your letter of the 17th instant, inclosing drawings of an “assaulting galley” which you propose to build, and a requisition from J. H. Moore, assistant quartermaster, for quartermaster’s stores  (iron), were referred to Major-General Halleck, Chief of Staff, who returned them with the following indorsement:

August 26, 1864.
By direction of General Grant, General Foster has been repeatedly ordered to confine himself strictly to the defensive, and to send north all troops not required for holding his present position without offensive operations.
Requisition disapproved.
H. W. Halleck, Major-General and Chief of Staff

Very rsepectfully, your obedient servant,

M.C. Meigs, Quartermaster-General and Brevet Major-General.

Perhaps that is a shame, for Foster’s “assaulting galleys” or “arks” might have advanced amphibious warfare techniques by some fifty years. But then again, there was a war to be won and Foster had no business assaulting Fort Sumter, arks or no arks.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, page 21; Part II, Serial 66, pages 225 and 259-60.)