Category Archives: Charleston SC

July 20, 1864: Fort Sumter garrison loses a commander – Captain John C. Mitchel

On July 20, 1864, probably close to mid-day, Captain John C. Mitchel offered this routine report from Fort Sumter:

Seventy-one Parrott shots (19 missed), 175 mortar shells (53 missed) fired at fort.  Private J.A. Todd, Gist Guard, wounded in head and leg, not dangerously.  One negro killed; 2 severely wounded, 5 slightly wounded. Firing from Gregg at southwest angle with 8-inch Parrotts and with mortars from middle battery this morning.

The Federal’s Third Major Bombardment of Fort Sumter continued with this great display of firepower – mostly mortars at this time.  This would be the last report from Mitchel.

As mentioned earlier, Mitchel’s service at Fort Sumter had attracted favorable attention from his superiors. Such is particularly noteworthy as Mitchel was not a native-born southerner, but rather an immigrant from Ireland in a round about way.  Mitchel was the oldest son of John C. Mitchel, Sr. – an Irish patriot.  Briefly, Claudine Rhett described John, Jr.’s early life, in the Southern Historical Society Papers:

When he was eighteen years old his father was tried for “highs treason against the Crown” of England, and he asked and obtained permission to stand by his side in the dock, to show what he too felt and thought about Ireland’s wrongs and woes.

His father owned a beautiful estate, which was confiscated when he was condemned (along with Smith O’Bryan and General Meagher) for their brave words to their countrymen. His household goods were put up and sold at auction, the gates thrown open to the public, and the vulgar gaze and careless touch of strangers desecrated the most personal possessions of the family. Portraits of those who were gone, love-tokens, souvenirs of childhood, favorite horses, beloved pets, all went under the hammer. Their home treasures were dispersed to the four winds of heaven, and their fireside was given to the alien.

John Mitchel, Jr. followed his father into exile in Australia.  Then later he followed his father to America.  I must defer on the details of this bit of Irish and American history to my pal Damian Shiels, who is the web’s foremost authority on the Irish-American experience in the Civil War.  So for brevity here, I’ll add that John, Jr. and his two brothers volunteered to serve in the Confederate army.  While John, Jr. secured a commission in the 1st South Carolina Artillery, James Mitchel served as a staff officer in the Georgia Brigade of the Army of Northern Virginia and William Mitchel joined a Virginia regiment but was killed at Gettysburg.

John, Jr. served through the war at Charleston.  Initially at Fort Moultrie then later moving over as part of the garrison manning Fort Sumter.  When Lieutenant-Colonel Stephen Elliot left the fort for higher command in April, John, Jr. received the position commanding the fort’s garrison.  By July, he’d lead the garrison through several minor bombardments, and now was directing the efforts to sustain the position.  Just “being” with a visible presence every day at Fort Sumter was a victory of sorts for the Confederates by this stage of the siege of Charleston.  John Jr.’s duties during the Third Great Bombardment required that he survey the Federal activity on Morris Island and afloat, assess the damage done, and shore up the walls where needed to sustain that presence.  He was performing those duties on July 20, as his engineer, Captain John Johnson, later recorded:

On the fourteenth day of the bombardment, being the 20th of July, 1864, Captain Mitchel ascended the stairway of the western angle of the gorge, about 1 o’clock P.M., to examine the movements of the fleet and land force of the enemy, preparatory to writing his daily report for transmission to the city by dispatch-boat that night. Arriving at the head of the stairs and passing out upon the level of the original terreplein of the fort, he found the sentinel there at his post well protected by breast-high shelter within the massive parapet of earthwork necessary to secure the safety of the stair-tower beneath it. Stationing himself near the spot, but not within the sentry-box, he rested his arm and glass on the parapet and began his observations.  Before him, in the sea-view, were the low hulls of the monitors lying at anchor off Morris Island, the wooden gunboats and blockaders resting also at their appointed stations outside the bar, and father out, in the offing, a despatch-boat going North.  No movement in the fleet at all that day, except among the tugs and tenders. The sea was smooth, the sky bright, and the sun blazing with midsummer heat.  Not work in the Union batteries of Morris Island close by, their rifle and mortar-shelling keeping their gunners as busy as they could be; hottest time of all at the battered ruin of a fort taking daily transformation into an indestructible earthwork.

The commander was not unduly exposing himself, but while engaged with his glass a mortar-shell of the largest kind rose in the air, and, descending well to the westward of the fort, as if about to strike the wharf, burst at an altitude of some eighty feet above the water. The bursting of a mortar-shell so high in the air and somewhat outside the walls was no more to the garrison than a matter of ordinary occurrence, scarcely noticeable in the climate of the fort.  The commander continued his observation through it all, his eye fixed to the glass, until suddenly struck to the ground by a large piece of the shell, wounding him with great laceration on the left hip.  Had he been in the sentry-box, he would have escaped all hurt, for that was protected on the rear as well as the front.

Taken down from the parapet, Captain Mitchel received attention of the fort’s surgeon.  But at 5 P.M. he died of the wound.  According to Rhett, his last words were, “I die willingly for South Carolina, but oh! that it had been for Ireland!”

That evening, Captain Thomas A. Huguenin arrived at Fort Sumter to replace Mitchel.  The bombardment, and the war, would continue at Fort Sumter.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, page 226; Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 10., edited by Reverend J. William Jones, Chapter 5.48, page 268-72; John Johnson, The Defense of Charleston Harbor: Including Fort Sumter and the Adjacent Islands, 1863-1865, Walker, Evans & Cogswell Company, 1890, page 227.)

 

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.)