Category Archives: Charleston SC

“Forty Parrott shells fired at fort to-day, 15 missed”: The Third Major Bombardment of Fort Sumter slows to a close

At 7:30 p.m on September 2, 1864, Captain Thomas A. Huguenin sent his routine summary report for the day from Fort Sumter:

Forty Parrott shells fired at fort to-day, 15 missed.

Routine was right.  For eight straight weeks Fort Sumter was under concentrated bombardment by Federal batteries on Morris Island.  Early in July, the shells came at faster rates and from large caliber weapons.  But by late August and into September, the Federal’s pace and weight of fire fell offFrom the first two weeks of the bombardment (July 7 to July 21) the average rate was just over fifteen rounds per hour, the majority of which were heavy caliber Parrott rounds.  Over the second pair of weeks (July 22 to August 2), the average hourly rate dropped to eleven and a half rounds.  Those weeks saw a larger portion of mortars and small caliber Parrotts used.  Between August 3 and August 14, the hourly average held somewhat steady at 11, but mortar and columbiad fires accounted for half of the total.  So with forty rounds during the day, added to the thirty-three Parrott shells fired overnight, on September 2, the Federal bombardment dropped to “minor bombardment” levels, if not “desultory firing” levels.

From the middle of August through the end of the month, Huguenin recorded the following tallies incoming to Fort Sumter (allow me to cite his reports, as opposed to providing a table, as his notations are incomplete):

  • August 16 – “Forty-two Parrott shells fired at the fort during the night, of which 22 struck; 58 mortar shells, of which 33 struck.”
  • August 18 – “Sixteen Parrott shells fired at the fort to-day, of which 11 missed; 56 mortar shells, of which 11 missed.”
  • August 20, 11 a.m. – “Twenty-six Parrott shells fired at the fort last night, of which 14 hit; 51 mortar shells, of which 31 hit.”
  • August 20, evening – “Nine Parrott shells fired at the fort to-day, of which 8 missed; 51 mortar shells, of which 11 missed.”
  • August 22 – “Thirty-four Parrott shells have been fired during the night, 9 of which missed; 42 mortar shells, 6 of which missed.”
  • August 23, morning – “The enemy fired 20 Parrott shells last night, 14 of which missed; also 23 columbiad shells, 11 missed.”
  • August 23, evening – “Thirty-six Parrott shells fired at the fort to-day, 22 of which missed; also 61 columbiad shells, 5 of which missed.”
  • August 25, morning – “Five Parrott shells fired at the fort last night, of which 4 missed; 27 columbiad shells, of which 5 missed.”
  • August 25, evening – “Thirty columbiad shells fired at fort to-day, of which 28 hit; 19 Parrott shells, of which 3 hit.”
  • August 26 – “Thirty-five columbiad shells fired at the fort last night, of which 16 missed; 18 Parrott shells, of which 9 missed.”
  • August 27 – “Eleven Parrott shells fired at the fort to-day, all of which missed; 35 columbiads, of which 3 missed.”
  • August 28 – “Eighteen Parrott shots were fired at the fort last night, of which 17 missed; 32 columbiads, of which 5 missed.”
  • August 29 – “Twenty-one Parrotts fired at the fort to-day, of which 15 missed; 40 columbiads, of which 9 missed.”
  • August 30, morning – “Ten Parrott shells fired at the fort last night, none of which struck; 29 columbiads, of which 7 missed.”
  • August 30, evening – “Twenty Parrott shells fired at the fort t0-day, of which 10 missed; 38 columbiads, of which 9 missed.”
  • August 31, morning – “Four Parrott shells fired at the fort last night, of which 3 missed; 31 columbiads, none of which missed; 1 mortar, which missed.”
  • August 31, afternoon – “Fourteen Parrot shots fired at the fort to-day, of which 7 missed; 27 mortar, of which 8 missed.”

For September 1, the totals were 34 Parrott shells, of which 14 missed; 41 mortar shells, with 17 missing. And as mentioned, September 2nd saw 77 total Parrott rounds both day and night, with 26 missing.   During second half of August, Huguenin reported two Confederates wounded, and also four negro laborers killed and nine wounded.  Life in the fort continued to be more dangerous for the laborers than for the soldiers.

Huguenin’s observations indicate a significant number of the Federal shots went wide of the target.  One would think, given a year of operations in which to fine tune the direction of the guns, the Federal fires would be very accurate by August 1864.  On the other hand, there was less of Fort Sumter to aim at by the end of that month, and the Federals were focusing fires on specific portions of the fort.  And there was one other issue facing the Federals on Morris Island, alluded to by Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig

In his update of August 24, 1864, Schimmelfennig provided his tally of ammunition expended from August 16 to August 24:

The following is the number of shots fired by our batteries and by the enemy since my last report of the 16th instant: At Fort Sumter, total number of shots, 1,014; at the city we have fired within the last twenty-four hours fifteen 100-pounder shell. Previous to that there was no firing at the city, the 100-pounder being dismounted by reason of a broken carriage, and the powder that we had for the 30-pounder being so poor as not to throw a shell into the city. The enemy has fired from Sullivan’s and James Islands at our camps and front batteries 118 shells.  This fire has been responded to from Fort Strong.

He didn’t indicate if the poor powder affected the firing on Fort Sumter.  But the rate of fire over those days was down to less than five per hour.  On September 2, he added the tallies for August 24 through that date:

The firing from our front battery since my last report (nine days) has been as follows: At Fort Sumter, 936 shells; at the city, 298 shells. The enemy has fired during the same time from his batteries on James and Sullivan’s Islands 490 shells, which have been duly responded to from Fort Strong. The enemy has thrown mortar shells at Paine’s Dock for several nights last.

The firing rate dropped slightly to just over four per hour on average.  At the same time, the Confederates had increased their counter-battery fire somewhat.

On September 3, Huguenin recorded 31 Parrott shells through the night, and one negro laborer killed.  The following day the Federals fired 35 Parrott shells at the fort.  The Third Major Bombardment, as defined by Captain John Johnson, ended with that.   A few days of relative peace came before another “minor” bombardment resumed. So one might read the finish of one period and the start of another as subjective.  Regardless, for sixty straight days Fort Sumter endured one of the heaviest bombardments of the war.  And the only major change in the situation at Charleston was a relocation of rubble.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, pages 72-3 and 236-40.)



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:


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.

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.)