Tag Archives: Fort Sumter

“The garrison appears in good spirits.”: Huguenin takes command of Fort Sumter

With the death of Captain John Mitchel on July 20, 1864, Captain Thomas A. Huguenin arrived to assume command of Fort Sumter.  The moment was critical for the garrison, and to no small degree the defenses of Charleston.  Fort Sumter was the absolute front edge of the Confederate defenses and most exposed to Federal attention.  The Third Great Bombardment was at that time entering a third week with heavy, sustained fire.  The most important job for the men in Fort Sumter was upkeep of the rubble pile which the fine brick walls had become. So long as the walls presented a barrier to Federal landings, the fort could be defended.  There was the Confederate focus.

The following day, July 21, Huguenin provided a detailed report of the fort’s status:

I reported my arrival yesterday evening by telegraph. I regret to say that on my arrival I found Capt. J. C. Mitchel, First South Carolina Artillery, was dead from the wound he had received during the day. Captain Phillips, Thirty-second Georgia, the temporary commander, turned over the fort to me, and, after as careful inspection as could be made at night, I found the fort not seriously damaged by the present bombardment. Capt. John Johnson, engineer in charge, is endeavoring to repair during the night whatever damage may be made during the day; every effort will be made to effect this purpose. The fire from rifle guns has lately been directed upon the southwest angle with considerable effect, cutting away the exterior crest, and thus making a more easy ascent with the debris which falls. The loss of material at this point has required the abandonment of the most southerly casemate on the second tier of the western face, and if it continues will require a similar abandonment of the corresponding casemate in the lowest tier; these casemates are being filled up, and the only real loss will be the loss of quarters.

So as for the garrison’s primary mission of just “being” and remaining a point contesting the Federals, the fort retained its wall.  The Federals blast down parts during the day.  Johnson rebuilds at night.  Though some portions of the fort were by that time so badly damaged as to become useless to the garrison.

Huguenin went on to mention some fire shells, perhaps left over from trials the previous fall, were used against the fort:

The enemy are using some incendiary shell upon this point, and I have been compelled to remove the ammunition from the southwest magazine for fear that some incendiary matter may be communicated by the ventilator, which cannot be filled up at present.

Huguenin turned to the priority of work, specifically repairs:

The firing upon the gorge wall has been discontinued, and I hope that it will soon be repaired. The boom has been broken in two places near the southeast angle, and I would earnestly urge upon you the necessity of having it repaired at the earliest possible moment. Captain Johnson thinks it necessary that about a thousand bags of sand should be sent down every night whenever it can possibly be done, as if the present bombardment continues it will be required in large quantity. He desires it to be sent in bags, as it is easier handled. In the event of an attempt to assault the fort it will be important that the batteries on Sullivan’s and James Islands be apprised as soon as possible, and therefore I desire to keep a signal officer on the parapet all night, so that he may be able to communicate the intelligence of the enemy’s approach as soon as it is known to ourselves. I have only 2 signal men here at present on duty and I cannot carry out my wishes in the above respect unless the number is increased. I would therefore respectfully request that the signal force be increased to 4.

So add sandbags and signal officers to the list of requests, including the baskets and gabions Johnson requested earlier.  Closing he added, “The garrison appears to be in good spirits.

From June 21 to June 25, the Federals launched 1603 shots against the fort:

  • June 21 – 281 shots in the day, 38 at night, and 57 missed; Total 376.
  • June 22 – 214 during day, 35 at night, and 137 missed; Total 386.
  • June 23 – 155 during day, 32 at night, and 50 missed; Total 237.
  • June 24 – 94 during day, 32 at night, and 35 missed; Total 161.
  • June 25 – 298 during the day, 53 at night, and 92 missed; Total 443.

An average of over thirteen shots per hour.  Rather odd, however, is the high number of those which missed on June 22. On the Federal side, there is mention of new guns added to the batteries.  So some of the missed shots may be those expended registering new guns onto the targets.

Major-General John Foster was now determined, 150 years ago today, to level Fort Sumter.  And the garrison defending it was just as determined to rebuild the fort out of the ruble.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, page 227.)

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.)

 

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.)