Category Archives: American Civil War

“Obliged to reduce the fire so as to almost entirely stop it”: End of focused bombardments of Fort Sumter

Warren Ripley, historian and newspaper writer who chronicled the history of the Charleston siege concurrent with the Centennial of the Civil War, considered September 18, 1864 as the last day of the last “minor” bombardment of Fort Sumter.  After that time, as Confederate engineer Captain John Johnson described, “No firing upon the fort but such as may be termed desultory occurred.…”

There are several reasons Federal forces ceased their focused bombardments of Fort Sumter.  Some historians have, with notable bias, the Federals simply “gave up” what was a futile effort to reduce the fort.  That was a factor, but not the major factor.  The Federals had demonstrated through three major bombardments the ability to suppress Fort Sumter’s defenders (for offensive or defensive fires).  But at the same time, through three major bombardments the Federals had also demonstrated a great reluctance to press the matter further – that is to actually occupy Fort Sumter.  Major-General John Foster, just as his predecessor Major-General Quincy Gilmore had assessed, believed the fort could be taken.  Recall the original plan, in July 1863, was to silence Fort Sumter so Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren might rush into the harbor with ironclads. That plan stalled as the Navy considered risks associated with torpedoes and obstructions.  So one might argue the major factor at play with Fort Sumter’s defense was the reluctance of the Federals expend the resources that would “damn torpedoes.”

With Fort Sumter, and Charleston for that matter, being lower on the overall list of Federal objectives, Foster received less resources through the summer of 1864.  In particular, with an active siege underway at Petersburg, Virginia, less ammunition could be spared for Charleston.  On September 19, Foster wrote to Brigadier-General George Ramsay, Chief of Ordnance, to complain:

I have the honor to inclose you extracts from a letter received this day from General Saxton, commanding Northern District, which I forward to you for your information. The representations made by General Saxton are confirmed by my personal observation, and I feel satisfied that the ammunition expended in this department is all turned to the best possible account. My object in calling your attention to this matter is to explain my reasons for making what may appear large requisitions for ordnance stores. We are about out of ammunition for the guns in the front batteries of Morris and Folly Islands, and have been obliged to reduce the fire so as to almost entirely stop it, thereby giving the enemy opportunities of repairing Sumter, which they have taken advantage of with great energy.

Enclosed with the letter, Foster added a statement from Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton, commanding the effort against Charleston, in which he demonstrated what the ammunition shortage meant to the front lines:

The shelling from the enemy’s mortars was severe this morning [September 16?] in our front works, and having but little mortar powder, we were unable to reply effectually. The mortars were very much needed to-day. I regret that our ordnance supplies are so scanty that I cannot make a decent defense of this important post. No powder for the mortars; no suitable fuses for the fire on Charleston; no shells for the 30-pounder Parrotts, a most useful gun for silencing the enemy’s fire; no material for making cartridge bags, or grease for lubricating the projectiles. I shall do all in my power with what I have, but these deficiencies in material, which are of such vital importance to successful operations, I deem it my duty to call your attention to the subject in the hope that they may be soon supplied. More ammunition for the 300-pounder, the most useful guns in these works, is also very much needed.

For perhaps the first time since the Federals landed on Morris Island, they could not dominate the surrounding area with the their heavy artillery.  Not because the Confederates had better weapons, but because they had to husband their fires.

Foster also mentioned the growing importance of long range musket fire in the “skirmishing” against Fort Sumter:

I also inclose you extracts from General Saxton’s letter concerning telescopic rifles. I think there is no place where from ten to fifty of these rifles could be used to better advantage than in the front works of Morris Island. I would respectfully suggest that from ten to fifty of these rifles be sent here.

Foster added a statement from Saxton, mentioning how Confederate sharpshooters delayed employment of the naval battery on Morris Island.

Desultory fires were, from then until February 1865, the extent of Federal efforts.  The war was still out there at the mouth of Charleston Harbor 150 years ago.  Just a lot less noisy than previous months.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 295-6.)

 

“The Yankees have done no work to-day… because of our sharpshooters”: A real skirmish at Fort Sumter

Most of the time, when I discuss the fighting around Charleston harbor during the Civil War, the actions involved very large caliber artillery – indeed the largest weapons of the war.  I have referred to it as skirmishing with Parrotts, columbiads, and mortars.  But on September 17, 1864, the “skirmishing” involved weapons most often seen on other battlefields – rifled muskets.

Two reports from Captain Thomas Huguenin point to the musketry exchanged between the opposing forces at the mouth of Charleston harbor that day.  The first came that morning:

Enemy keeps up a brisk fire with small-arms in answer to ours.

Then later at 6:40 p.m.:

The Yankees have done no work to-day at Gregg because of our sharpshooters.  Forty-four shots fired to-day at fort (18 missed), mostly from small rifle guns. No casualties.

On the Federal side, Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton reported:

Within the last two days the work on this battery (naval battery) has been greatly interfered with by a corps of sharpshooters which the enemy has stationed on Fort Sumter. The bullets came in very thick when I was at the front this morning.  I hope if there are any telescopic rifles in the department or any can be procured they may be sent to me at once. I think I can use them to great advantage.

Keep in mind the situation here. The heavy guns of Fort Sumter no longer faced Morris Island.  Two three gun batteries were built and partially armed.  But those were setup to fire on the channel and not Morris Island.  The only other artillery in the fort were mountain howitzers for defense against landing parties and the saluting gun.  So the Confederates had nothing at Sumter to contest the construction of new batteries.  And the long range fires from James and Sullivan’s Islands were not sufficiently accurate to seriously interfere with such work.  So the most important weapons in Fort Sumter at that time were small arms.  Recall the range from Fort Sumter to Morris Island was around 1400 to 1500 yards.  Long range indeed for small arms, but within the ballistic limits for such weapons – certainly for those equipped with telescopic sights.

On the Federal side, the biggest problem was a shortage of powder and shells.  One of the reasons for the naval battery was to employ guns for which the department could obtain more projectiles (from the Navy’s stocks).  But to get those XI-inch Dahlgrens in place, the work crews needed a break from those sharpshooters.

Consider the nature of the Federal fires, as reported by Huguenin.  The shells fired that day were mostly light Parrotts – 20-pdr or 30-pdr.  Those weapons were favored to counter Confederate fires.  Imagine them as large caliber “snipers” used by the Federal artillerists.  From many long months of firing on Fort Sumter, the Federal gunners had refined calculations so as to put their rounds on specific parts of the rubble pile – for instance where they’d seen evidence of a Confederate sharpshooter.

But those sharpshooters would often select positions on the flanks of the rubble pile so as to get a good angle against the Federal positions.  For the Parrott gunners firing at them, this posed a “point” target.  Such shots were at the mercy of winds or variations in powder.  That might explain why over a third of the shots missed.

For all the heavy guns at Charleston firing on a daily basis, the siege could and did fall down to a simple exchange of small arms fires.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, page 242; Part II, Serial 66, page 296.)

“In case of an alarm…”: Instructions for a Morris Island QRF in the event of Confederate attack

With the draw-down of forces on Morris Island in August 1864, the Federals assigned there assumed somewhat a “garrison” stance, but one in direct contact with Confederate forces.  In spite of living in well established camps, with accompanying liberties, the troops shared picket duties, supported the artillery, and guarded the 600 Confederate prisoners.  With that last assignment, the risk of a Confederate raid, aiming to free those men, was ever present.  So the garrison of Morris Island had to establish plans to react in that event.  On September 15, 1864, Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton issued General Orders No. 56 which outlined the contingency plan:

General instructions for the guidance of this command in case of an alarm:

In case of an alarm at this post, a rocket will be sent up from Fort Shaw and one gun fired from the same place. At this signal the long-roll will be sounded, and the entire command will be formed under arms at once.

Two rockets and two guns from Fort Shaw will be the signal for the command to assemble at the place of rendezvous, which is on the beach, in rear of Fort Shaw, fronting the water.

The regiments will move to the place of rendezvous at double-quick step, and will form in line of battle in the following order:  First, on the right, the Fifty-sixth New York Volunteers; second, the One hundred and twenty-seventh New York Volunteers; third, the Fifty-second Pennsylvania Volunteers; fourth, the Twenty-first U.S. Colored Troops.

The One hundred and twenty-seventh New York Volunteers will act as a reserve and hold Fort Shaw.

The Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteers will join that portion of the regiment guarding the rebel prisoners.

The light battery will form in rear of the line of battle.

Each regimental commander will send an officer to report his command in line to the post commander, who will at once proceed to the place of rendezvous with his staff, to superintend the formation of the line.

At the first signal every officer and enlisted man in this command’, except the sick excused by the surgeon, will turn out under arms, and, if mounted, with his horse.

District staff officers will repair at once to the district headquarters and report to the brigadier-general commanding.

Post staff officers will, in like manner, report to the post commander. All mounted orderlies will report mounted. The quartermaster will see that all his means of transportation by land and water are ready to move at a moment’s notice, and the medical department will have its ambulances and other appliances for the sick in readiness.

The most prompt and thorough compliance with these instructions will be required, and no negligence or failure to respond to the above-mentioned signal call will be overlooked.

Modern day military professionals might compare these instructions to quick-reaction forces (QRF) established at forward bases.  Except that in the modern context, the QRF is a squad or platoon sized element in most occasions.  In 1864, the QRF was portions of four regiments with an artillery battery in support.

The important consideration with these instructions is not that Saxton outlined a strict response to Confederate attack.  Rather he provided a set of steps all men in the command would take if that attack came.  Detailed instructions, such as the line of attack, would follow as any situation warranted.  But at a minimum, the troops would be assembled for movement.  Momentum, you see, is a critical element in the reaction.

But while Saxton’s orders might be cited as a great example of QRF contingency planning, he did violate another consideration for base operations – operational security! Major-General John Foster addressed this on September 19:

I like your General Orders, No. 55, very much in itself, but very much fear that some one of the printed copies will find its way into the enemy’s camp. It should have been strictly confidential, and in such cases it [is] never safe to print. I have known for some time that we have spies among us, who have not as yet been detected, hence the necessity for extreme caution.

Whoops!  So the rebels might well have known the signals and intended actions, and thus adjusted any of their plans accordingly.

Foster went on to ask for similar detailed instructions for the other posts on Morris Island.  But he emphasized the general response over particulars:

The main and vital point in all the latter instructions will be to do the best under all circumstances, but under no circumstances to forget that their imperative duty is to hold their own work beyond peradventure.

Every officer and man in any work of ours who may be surprised or taken will be held in the lowest possible estimation thereafter, and will be condemned for extreme inefficiency or cowardice. These latter orders had better perhaps be given in manuscript.

So tell the men to man their posts with determination – and print that out.  But save the detailed instructions about signals, assemblies, and actions as closely guarded information.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, pages 289-90 and 296-7.)