Tag Archives: Fort Sumter

Mortars at night against Fort Sumter: Another “minor” bombardment

Although not at the rate seen the previous fall, shot and shell still fell around Charleston as the spring season arrived.  Federals on Morris Island continued what is best described as “harassing fire” on Fort Sumter.  Usually no more than a handful of mortar or Parrott rifle rounds.  But on the afternoon of April 3, the pace of fire picked up.  Reports from Lieutenant-Colonel Stephen Elliott, the fort’s commander, reflected this increase.  His report on the morning of April 3 noted the previous night’s activities:

Fort Sumter, April 3, 1864.
Sir: Eight shots were fired while the obstructions were being taken in before daylight this morning; 6 struck, but did no damage, No further change.

Later, after dark, he sent another report:

Fort Sumter, April 3, 1864.
Enemy commenced firing slowly from two mortars at 5 o’clock this afternoon.

And the following morning, he offered this summary:

Fort Sumter, April 4, 1864.
Sir: I have the honor to report the firing continued up to 5 a.m. There were 66 mortar and 1 Parrott shell fired at the fort, of which 57 struck. One negro killed; no injury done to the work.

A “minor” bombardment for Charleston.  Yet anywhere else, that many heavy projectiles would have solicited more than a few casual lines in a report.  Elliot’s carried a humdrum tone.  On the other side of the channel, the Federals might have contested his round count.  The 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery reported firing 80 shots that day from two 10-inch mortars:


The table includes figures for fires on April 29, which I’ll turn to at the appropriate time.  The 3rd’s regimental history described the weather at the time as calm.  The two mortars firing on April 3 were in Battery Seymour, just outside Fort Chatfield.


Given the Federal mortarmen knew better what they fired, I go with 80 shells fired, propelled by 490 pounds of powder, to a range of 1,800 yards.  Seventy five of those hit Fort Sumter with five falling short.  Yet, for all that effort, no serious damage to the fort and only one casualty – one of the laborers at that.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, pages 199-200; Frederic Denison, Shot and Shell: The Third Rhode Island Heavy Artillery Regiment in the Rebellion, 1861-1865, Providence, R.I.: Third Rhode Island Artillery Veterans Association, 1879, page 239.)

The warning bell at Fort Sumter: “A mode of alarm as startling as it was complete….”

From the fall of Morris Island in early September 1863 until February 1865, the garrison at Fort Sumter remained vigilant.  Though, by spring of 1864, several attempts had failed, the fort’s defenders stood watch looking for any moves by the Federals against the fort.  It was one of the longest (if not the longest) continually manned picket during the Civil War.

In the case of an attack, the garrison had to move quickly and prepare to confront the threat.   But to remain protected by the fort’s remaining structure, the garrison remained well below the parapets.  To achieve the minimum reaction time, in February 1864 the Confederates implemented an interesting alarm system.  Captain John Johnson detailed this in his post-war history of the siege, The Defense of Charleston Harbor:

This was the period marked by the introduction of something quite new in the defense of fortresses.  A post so advanced as Fort Sumter had become since September was perilously isolated, and on the dark nights greatly exposed to capture from assault.  Everything in such a case depended on the promptest manning of the walls to repel attack; and to effect this General Beauregard suggested that a system of bell-ringing be used throughout the fort to communicate the alarm from the lookout sentinel on the wall or in the breach to the commanders of detachments in the bombproof quarters of the garrison.  The plan ordered was executed without delay, and from four points on the crest of the ruins the signal of danger could be transmitted by the sentinel or his officer touching a bell-pull.  This at once rang the alarm in the soldiers’ quarters down below in the cavernous recesses of gallery and casemate, otherwise only to be reached with a delay that might have proved fatal. The system was maintained in perfect working order from this time in February to the end of the defense in the same month of the following year.  It was a mode of alarm as startling as it was complete, and few of the surviving defenders of Fort Sumter in those long watches of the night will be apt to forget the use of those bells, with the turning-out of the garrison to meet a threatened assault.

Very simple application, using an item readily available.  Sounds so simple that I would cast some doubt on Johnson’s claim about the “introduction.”   On the other hand, not having details of the arrangements, perhaps this was more than a simple bell and a string.

(Citation from John Johnson, The Defense of Charleston Harbor: Including Fort Sumter and the Adjacent Islands, 1863-1865, Walker, Evans & Cogswell Company, 1890, pages 201-2.)

“I desire … to join some large army in the field…”: Gillmore gives up plans for Charleston

On this day (March 19) in 1864, Major-General Quincy Gillmore finally confirmed that Charleston was outside his grasp.  Earlier in February, Major-General Henry W. Halleck, General-in-Chief at that time in Washington, inquired about future operations in the Department of the South and what troops might be spared for other departments.  Gillmore responded with reports from the recent Florida operations, but only offered vague references to opportunities at Charleston.  These were generally the same options on the table since the previous December:


The approach across James Island hadn’t worked so well in the summer of 1862, and held little promise in 1864.  And “there was a lot of green” on the approach from Bull’s Bay to Charleston.  Yet, as late as March 10, Gillmore wrote that:

As regards prospective operations against Charleston, I had a long conference with Rear-Admiral [John] Dahlgren some days since, on the evening before he started for Washington.  The admiral desires to resume active operations in that quarter as soon as he receives the expected re-enforcements to his fleet, and it is of course my wish to co-operate with him.  I informed the Department in my communication on December 17, 1863, that with 10,000 or 12,000 good infantry I could operate by way of James Island or Bull’s Bay. I understand from Admiral Dahlgren that either of these operations, or the capture of Sullivan’s Island instead, would meet his views of the requirements of the case.

Gillmore, much like commanders in other theaters, needed to wait to resume these offensive activities until the re-enlisted veterans returned from furlough.

But just a week later, Gillmore changed his outlook:

In response to your letter of the 26th ultimo, to which I partially replied in mine of the 10th instant, I have to say that from 7,000 to 11,000 effective fighting men may be spared from this department and still leave it in a condition of safe quiescent defense.  This force corresponds pretty nearly with the present available strength of the thirteen regiments of infantry, one regiment of heavy artillery, one battalion of cavalry, one regiment of volunteer engineers, and the four batteries which comprise the Tenth Army Corps. There seems no special objection to a division of the engineers and artillery force of the corps should circumstances render it necessary or advisable to do so. I therefore request, in case it be decided to leave the force on this coast in a purely defensive attitude, that I may be ordered out of this department with my own corps to some command where it can serve together as a unit, with authority to leave behind me temporarily such portions of the artillery and engineer force of the corps as I may deem proper. I desire very much to join some large army in the field where the operations will be purely military and not dependent for success upon two distinct branches of the public service. If I cannot take the Tenth Corps to some point where it can serve as a unit of an army conducting offensive operations I have no desire to take it out of this department. There are, however, sanitary reasons why the troops comprising this corps should leave the coast. I inclose a note from my medical director covering this point. I desire in this connection to express my opinion that all the troops now serving in this department can be used here to advantage.

There’s the towel – thrown in 150 years ago.

At some point in a later post, I’ll detail what elements were removed from the Department of the South as part of Tenth Corps to operate in Virginia.  Might be interesting to lay out where those units came from and what their level of experience was up to that time.  But let me leave that aside for the moment.  And for good measure discussion of the delays moving those troops north to Virginia.

There is one line here that alludes to friction between the army and navy commanders. Gillmore wanted a command where success was not dependent on “two distinct branches of the public service.”  Not by name, but clearly that is aimed at Dahlgren.  Keep in context of the March 10 message (first block quote above), that at the time of conference, Dahlgren was dealing with his son’s death on the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid.  The admiral had little time for detailed planning.  Later, Gillmore must have felt reality set in.  The reinforcements Dahlgren waited on were ironclads that would never arrive.

I believe that Gillmore honestly, and with some measure of justification, believed he’d accomplished what he originally planned to do starting in June 1863.  He had taken Morris Island.  A little long in the execution… OK … too long.  But he had established the breaching batteries required by the plan.  And he had reduced Fort Sumter, by one measure of that definition, concurrently to the capture of Morris Island (recall the reduction of the fort’s armament to a lone gun at one point).

But these efforts had not opened the door to Charleston as desired as an end state.   From Gillmore’s point of view, Dahlgren had not followed up with the planned smash and dash into the harbor.  But from Dahlgren’s perspective, his ironclads were worn down from constant use in support of Morris Island operations and the danger of torpedoes was too great.  While Dahlgren wasn’t a “damn the torpedoes” admiral, there is some merit to his caution at that time and place.

My observation, having studied the relation between the two leaders, is that Gillmore and Dahlgren readily cooperated at the tactical level.  There were some disagreements at that level from time to time (namely the boat attack on Fort Sumter).  But overall, there was a spirit of cooperation at that level.  However at the operational level, the two men seemed to be continually fencing.

The last lines in Gillmore’s reply is also worth consideration.  An inclosure from Surgeon Ebenezer Swift suggested troop rotations:

In reply to your inquiry of this date in regard to the class of troops, with reference to their date of service in this department, which should, if the exigencies of the service demand it, be transferred to a more northern climate, I would respectfully say, in my opinion of the sanitary condition of the soldiers, you should select the regiments which have passed two summers here.

The troops who’d served (suffered) through the hot summers on the South Carolina coast would now move to Virginia.  I’ll leave the reader to ponder if the “northern climate” was more “sanitary” there.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 16 and 23-4.)