Author Archives: Craig Swain

150 years ago: Captains Mitchel and Johnson recommended for promotion for service at Fort Sumter

The names of John Mitchel and John Johnson are as closely associated with Fort Sumter as Major Robert Anderson.  Mitchel spent much of his Civil War at Fort Sumter and by July 1864 was the garrison’s commander.  Johnson played an important role as the fort’s engineer, and post-war recalling details of the siege.  At this time 150 years ago the good work of these two captains attracted the attention of their superiors.  On July 16, Brigadier-General Roswell Ripley wrote Confederate authorities in Richmond to recommend promotions:

I have the honor respectfully to request that Capt. John C. Mitchel, First South Carolina Artillery (enlisted), be appointed a major of artillery in the Provisional Army; also, that Capt. John Johnson, Engineers, be appointed a major of engineers in the same service.

Captain Mitchel has served with energy and fidelity since the war commenced. He is now and has been for some months commander of Fort Sumter, for which position his experience and qualifications peculiarly fit him, he having been on duty in that fort for most of the time since its capture, in April, 1861. He was second in command for most of the term of service of Lieutenant-Colonel (now Brigadier-General) Elliott as its commanding officer, and throughout his service has so conducted himself as to command the respect and commendation of every officer with whom he has been associated. It is proper that this important position should be commanded by a field officer, and I think that Captain Mitchel, by months of ceaseless vigilance and activity therein, as well as previous service, has fairly earned his promotion.

Ripley went on to also recommend and laud Captain John Johnson for service at Fort Sumter:

Captain Johnson has been the engineer officer of the fort since the 7th of April, 1863, and his activity, energy, and skill have principally contributed to the material preparation and repair which have thus far enabled the garrison to withstand the unprecedented cannonade and bombardment to which the work has been subjected.

His services in this position are eminently entitled to recognition, and his general qualifications are such as would enable him to perform the duties of a higher rank than that for which he is recommended.

Ripley closed noting the importance of Fort Sumter, should those in Richmond be distracted by the current situation miles outside the city:

The possession of Fort Sumter, besides its material necessity, has become a point of honor, and I think there can be no doubt of the propriety of fully recognizing the services of those who are engaged in its gallant defense.

Endorsing these requests, Major-General Samuel Jones added the promotions would “stimulate others to emulate their example.”

There’s a old superstition about promotions in the field.  Some consider it a bad omen.  In the cases of Mitchel and Johnson, even a recommendation for promotion might be considered a bad omen.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 589-90.)

July 18, 1864: “I am greatly in want of baskets and gabions.”: Engineers work to repair Fort Sumter amid bombardment

On July 18, 1864, the messages intercepted and decoded by Federal signal troops included this request from Fort Sumter, addressed to Lieutenant W.G. Young:

Remember, I am greatly in want of baskets and gabions.  The barges failed last night; the excuse given was the weather, which was no obstacle at all.  I think they should be reported; it was neither rough nor blowing, and the rain was not hard.  Send the plank, but not the heavy timber.

Readers will be familiar with the author of the message – Captain John Johnson, engineer working in Fort Sumter.  The gabions he requested were similar to these seen in photos taken at the end of the war:

In fact, that photo shows Johnson’s handiwork along with the gabions.  And a few of the heavy timbers that he didn’t need on July 18. He was working against the destruction done by Federal guns, which rendered portions of the fort little more than rubble piles.

Earlier bombardments of Fort Sumter focused on reducing the armament or certain defensive structures in the fort. The aim of the Third Great Bombardment was to physically reduce the fort.  The intent was to continue  “until the walls are demolished,” in Foster’s words.

Johnson’s task, on the other hand, was to shore up the fort’s walls so the Confederates retained at least a post, and limited artillery platform, at the harbor entrance.  Writing after the war, Johnson admitted some “anxiety” over the situation.  Not in all due to the effectiveness of the Federal efforts, but more so due to the shortage of hands to do the work. The labor force allocated to the fort was cut at the end of spring, due to pressing requirements elsewhere.  Now Johnson renewed requests for more labor in order to repair the damage being done.

On July 7, Captain John Mitchel, commanding the fort, pressed Johnson’s request for more laborers up the chain.  In reply, Brigadier-General Roswell Ripley indicated neither laborers or troops were available on July 10.   Only as Federal pressure eased on James Island were resources released for work at Fort Sumter.  In Johnson’s words, “… with a hundred and fifty workmen and mechanics the anxieties of the situation were soon allayed.”

In the interim, the fort suffered substantial damage:

At first the fire, directed at the gorge, left its marks there in deep furrows, flattening the already practicable slope and wasting away much of its substance.  Within a week the crest was breached in three places and reduced at one point, the gap previously mentioned, to a height of only twenty feet above the water; a chamber of the abandoned magazine at the eastern end of the gorge was also breached; and the boom, anchored off the south-eastern angle, was broken so as to show an opening of about twenty feet in width.

This was the result of a heavy and constant bombardment.  From Confederate roll-up report comparing the daily tally*, the numbers were:

  • July 11 – 172 hits in the day, 51 at night, 16 missed.  Total – 239.
  • July 12 – 157 hits in the day, 31 at night, 14 missed. Total – 202.
  • July 13 – 202 hits in the day, 45 at night, 51 missed. Total – 298.
  • July 14 – 279 hits in the day, 73 at night, 42 missed. Total – 394.
  • July 15 – 219 hits in the day, 141 at night, 71 missed. Total – 404.
  • July 16 – 166 hits in the day, 62 at night, 55 missed. Total – 283.
  • July 17 – 166 hits in the day, 44 at night, 70 missed. Total – 280.
  • July 18 – 109 hits in the day, 93 at night, 62 missed. Total – 264.
  • July 19 – 327 hits in the day, 174 at night, 193 missed. Total 694.
  • July 20 – 310 hits in the day, 194 at night, 202 missed. Total 706.

Through this mid-July period, the Federals expended over 3,700 rounds.  An average of over 375 per day… or just over fifteen every hour.  One every four minutes, give or take.  And this was an “backwater” theater, mind you!  Often Federal fires came from a handful of guns, being worked specifically against particular sections of Fort Sumter.

Over the same period, Mitchel reported five killed and fifteen wounded in the Fort’s Garrison.  Relatively light considering the amount of projectiles fired.

One other consideration in regard to Johnson’s message of July 18.  The message was one of many observed by Federals on Morris Island then decoded thanks to the work of Sergeant John Colvin.  This was a wig-wag message.  A telegraph system connected Fort Sumter to Fort Johnson, and was used for communications.  There is no reference to problems with the telegraph at that time.  Perhaps there were issues with the telegraph that day.  Or perhaps the telegraph was busy with other messages of higher priority.  Regardless, this was a communications “leak” to which the Federals were privy.

  • These figures come from a roll-up provided by Captain Thomas Huguenin on August 1, 1864, and do not often match those reported daily by Captain Mitchel in the same period.  A discrepancy I will look at in a subsequent post.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, page 591; John Johnson, The Defense of Charleston Harbor: Including Fort Sumter and the Adjacent Islands, 1863-1865, Walker, Evans & Cogswell Company, 1890, pages 225.)

510 wagons, 120 guns and mortars, and six days of work: Siege preperations at Petersburg

On July 16, 1864, Brigadier-General Henry Hunt offered a report to the Army of the Potomac’s headquarters in regard to siege preparations.  The report was somewhat inverse of what one might expect.  Rather than focused on what was being done, Hunt responded to an inquiry as to how quickly the siege preparations might be undone (and materials withdrawn) if the Confederates abandon the lines or the Federals opt to abandon the siege for other reasons.  Sort of the staff work that a good commander (in this case Major-General George Meade) presses.  While the conclusions reached by Hunt are of little use to us today, as not supporting “what if” scenarios of interest, the particulars he offered are worth consideration.  They speak to the magnitude of the effort required to lay siege at Petersburg:

In compliance with the direction of the general commanding to furnish a report as to the time which would probably be required to Withdraw the siege train and material in case it should be desirable, I have to state that the siege material which will be brought into requisition if operations are fully entered upon will be: Forty siege guns, for which must be kept on hand in the magazines for daily supply, 6,000 rounds of ammunition; for 6,000 rounds 100 wagons are required; for 30 mantlets 10 wagons; 40 platforms 40 wagons; implements, equipage, &c., 10 wagons; 20 8-inch mortars 20 wagons; 3,000 rounds of ammunition 60 wagons; implements and equipage 20 wagons; 20 10-inch mortars, &c., 100 wagons: 20 Coehorn mortars and ammunition 30 wagons; total, 410 wagons. Twenty more 8-inch mortars are expected for the siege train, and if received will be used. To move them there will be required another 100 wagons.

To move and maintain the siege batteries – 40 guns, 20 10-inch mortars, 40 8-inch mortars (20 on hand at the time, with 20 more expected), and 20 Coehorns – required 510 wagons. With the number of guns, platforms, rounds of ammunition, and wagons in mind, Hunt calculated the time needed to withdraw the siege weapons… in a round about way:

The loading of the material in order to withdraw it must be done by night, and probably even then under fire. The movement of so many wagons can scarcely be made and the noise of loading heavy bodies finished without being heard by the enemy when the lines are so near, as in this case; nor will it do to sacrifice any portion of the material if there is any prospect of its being needed within a month. But little over half the supply of ammunition estimated for has yet been received, although it is sent forward as rapidly as it can be procured. The time needed to load the wagons will be necessarily much longer than ordinarily required at depots. For instance, the positions of the batteries were not selected with any reference to convenience in this respect, and but few wagons can be brought up at a time or placed in favorable positions for loading, so that the number of men who can be employed at any given place will necessarily be limited. At many of the batteries the inconvenience and danger of providing the daily supply of ammunition will make a system of covered ways necessary for the men who transport it from wagons stationed so far in the rear as to find cover from the enemy’s fire, and also from the approach of the wagons to these points. Time, therefore, becomes the most important element; forty-eight hours would, therefore, be necessary, under favorable circumstances, to remove the material.

And did he get to the point?….. Yes.

I do not think it probable that the entire train could be withdrawn in less than three days.

Hunt went on to say the guns and platforms would be moved last, as to at least give the impression the siege was continuing.  With that, Hunt warned, just in case there were any schemes floating about which pointed in directions other than a prolonged siege:

For these reasons the planting of the batteries should not be commenced until it is determined to carry through the siege operations, or, as an alternative, in case a sudden movement of the army should be deemed advisable, we are prepared to sacrifice a large portion of our material.

Meade forwarded this report to Lieutenant-General U.S. Grant, prefaced with a status report of the siege preparations:

In compliance with your wishes, preparations have been continued for commencing the siege. Batteries are being erected for placing guns and mortars in position to silence the enemy’s fire at the salient on the Jerusalem plank road. The chief engineer estimates that it will take eight days to finish these works and have them ready for their armament. The chief of artillery will require three days to unload the vessels now containing the siege guns, mortars, and materials.

Meade added, for emphasis, a summary of Hunt’s conclusions:

In case of withdrawal, besides the three days indicated in his report for withdrawing these guns, if reloaded at the landing where the vessels now are, Broadway Landing, it would require three additional days, but if they are carried to City Point and there reshipped, this last estimate would not enter into the calculation. I have deemed it proper to lay these facts before you, as they may be material to you in your future plans, and to say that I have directed the siege works to go on and in the course of three or four days shall commence the unloading of the guns and material.

Just some figures to have handy… so to speak.  Six days to break-up the siege and move the materials – at great effort.  Sort of means both feet were solidly in the ring by mid-July 1864.

Meade concluded:

The mine will be ready in a day or two, but will not be loaded or sprung till the effect of our operations against the salient is ascertained.

Digging a shaft under the Confederate position was one thing.  Getting all the pieces in place to take advantage of the planned mine blast… well that was another.  More long days of work were required.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 40, Part II, pages 276-7.)