Category Archives: Charleston SC

“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.)

Light gun for inshore duties – 12-pdr, or 3.4-inch, Dahlgren Rifled Boat Howitzer

On September 15, 1864, Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton made a request for naval support to help picket the backwaters behind Morris and Folly Islands:

I have the honor very respectfully to request that, if consistent with the interest of the service, a navy launch, manned and armed with a rifled 12-pounder howitzer, may be placed on picket service in the creeks opposite Long Island and in Stono and Folly Rivers.  Such a boat will be of very great service there.

Although the Army’s forces had long patrolled and picketed the marshes in that sector, recent reductions in the force left them short of personnel.  Shifting light artillery to other sectors (such as guarding the 600 Confederate prisoners) meant the Army had few field pieces –  which were unsuited for duty in the marshes to begin with.  Aside from the little mountain howitzers, the Army’s system of artillery lacked anything light enough for handy operation in the boats used in the backwaters and bays.

The 12-pdr rifled howitzers were used often around Charleston during the war.  I’m of the mind these weapons were valued due to greater accuracy at long range when compared to the smoothbore howitzers.  Let me reach back to some charts posted several years back to demonstrate the characteristics of these rifled boat howitzers.  First comparing the different types of Dahlgren Boat Howitzers:

The Navy introduced the 12-pdr rifle (next to last column on the right) in 1861.  The rifle used the same bronze casting as the 12-pdr Heavy Boat Howitzer (second column from the left), but with a 3.4-inch rifled bore.  Early rifles had three groove rifling.  That was later increased to 12 grooves.  The smaller bore diameter translated to a slight increase in weight of the weapon to 870 pounds.  That meant the rifle was slightly heavier than a standard Army 12-pdr field howitzer.  But because the rifle used the Dahlgren carriage, overall weight remained lower than the Army type in action.

The 12-pdr rifle fired shot, shell, and case shot (shrapnel).  The Navy Ordnance Instructions of 1866 credit the 12-pdr rifle with a range of 1,770 yards at 5º elevation using a 1 pound powder charge (time of flight was 6 seconds).    That compared to 1,085 yards for the same powder charge and elevation for the smoothbore 12-pdr Heavy Boat Howitzer.

During the Civil War, the Navy received 423 of these 12-pdr Rifled Boat Howitzers.  The rifles saw frequent use during the war, particularly around Charleston.  Aside from the Army’s request, the 12-pdr rifles were used from the decks of the monitors to fire upon grounded blockade runners.

Having established the weapon’s importance at this time 150 years ago, let me turn to a pair of the fifteen survivors for a walk-around.  Two 12-pdr Rifled Boat Howitzers are on display today at Battery Jameson, part of Fort Lincoln, in Brentwood, Maryland… allowing me to bridge wartime activities at Charleston back to Washington, by way of John Dahlgren and the Washington Navy Yard!

Bladensburg 110

The two howitzers are registry numbers 211 and 250, both produced by the Navy at the Washington Navy Yard.  (Ames Manufacturing also produced 26 of this type in 1862.) From a distance, the rifles have the same appearance as the 12-pdr heavy smoothbores:

Bladensburg 122

Notice the location of the fixtures, particularly the lock-piece mount, rear sight base, and pierced knob.  Again much the same as with the smoothbore gun:

Bladensburg 111

The measure of axis for the lock-piece was the same as on the smoothbore:

Bladensburg 116

Looking at the muzzle, we see the difference with the rifle:

Bladensburg 121

Yes, 12-groove rifling:

Bladensburg 119

The rifle retained the front sight base.

Bladensburg 114

Markings on the barrel also give away the type:

Bladensburg 113

In this case – Rifled 12 pdr // Boat Howitzer // 1863 // J.A.D.  The later being Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren’s initials.  There are other markings on these howitzers, and some are rather interesting in regard to the “administrative” history of the guns.  But due to the years of exposure, many have been obliterated.

There are some interesting variations among surviving 12-pdr rifled boat howitzers.  Some were bored out from rifles to be standard 12-pdr smoothbore weapons.  The assumption is the Navy learned, as did the Army, that bronze was not good for rifled guns.  There are a few of the steel versions around, which I’ll show in a walk-around at a later date.  At least one 3-groove rifling version has survived.  At least one was converted to brechloading, either for experiments or as a saluting piece.  Also there were several steel guns cast by Norman Wiard.  Those should not be confused with Wiard’s “puddled wrought iron” rifles of the same caliber produced for the Army’s “Marine Artillery” and used in North Carolina.

Dahlgren’s 12-pdr Rifled Boat Howitzer was mentioned on several occasions in correspondence and reports.  All indications are the weapon served its purpose well.  But as with all bronze pieces of the era, it was eventually rendered obsolete with the arrival of steel breechloading weapons.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, page 289.)