Tag Archives: Fort Sumter

“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.)

“A minor bombardment, the eighth and last of all”: More shells against Fort Sumter

Writing after the war, Captain John Johnson, Confederate engineer and historian, wrote this of the bombardment of Fort Sumter in September 1864:

The bombardment which had begun on the 7th of July, and continued with varying intensity, but without any real intermission, day and night through July, August, and the first week in September, is recorded as having lasted sixty days.  A minor bombardment, the eighth and last of all, ensued for a week longer…. It can, therefore, be truly said that the military interest of the Confederate defense of Fort Sumter came to its end with the close of this third grand bombardment.  No firing upon the fort but such as may be termed desultory occurred after September, 1864.

Before discussing the reasons Federals shifted attention away from Fort Sumter, let us consider the nature of this Eighth Minor Bombardment.  Captain Thomas A. Huguenin, commanding the fort, reported some 35 shells fired at the fort on the night of September 3-4.  After that no shells came at the fort until the night of September 6-7.   So a two day “pause” before resumption of fires.  In the morning of September 7, Huguenin reported, “Twenty-eight Parrott shells fired at fort last night, 7 missed.”  From there until the 22nd, he tallied the Federal fires:

  • Night of September 7-8 – 28 Parrott shells fired, 8 missed.
  • September 8 (day) – 25 Parrott shells fired, 8 missed.
  • September 11 – 140 Parrott shells fired, 28 missed.
  • September 16 – 36 Parrott shells and one mortar shell fired at the fort. Seven Parrott shells missed.
  • September 17 – 44 shots fired, 18 missed.
  • September 19 – 15 shots (from the Marsh Battery), all missed.
  • September 20 – 13 shots (again from the Marsh Battery), one hit.
  • September 21 – 70 shots fired, 15 missed.
  • September 22 – 15 Parrott shells fired, 9 missed.

During this period, Huguenin reported one private wounded, two negroes killed, and three negroes wounded – all on September 16.  We see again the heaviest loss among the garrison was to those laboring to repair the fort, and not among the soldiers defending it.  Statistically, this “minor bombardment” seemed loosely defined.  Assuming Huguenin’s reports were complete (and none were misplaced along the way), there were several pauses during September.

But, broadening the focus, there was a lot more big gun activity around Charleston harbor which was not focused narrowly at Fort Sumter.  Sullivan’s Island was an occasional target of Federal fires.  On September 6, Colonel Alfred Rhett, commanding the batteries there, reported 15 shots fired at Fort Moultrie. The Federals fired another ten on September 8.  Then on September 9, the Federals fired 127 shots at Sullivan’s Island, which elicited 51 shots in return from the Confederate batteries.

On the other side of the harbor, at Fort Johnson, Colonel John Black reported firing “Twenty-eight mortar and 24 columbiad shells” at the Marsh Battery on September 10.  In return the Federals fired 45 Parrott shells and six mortars at Battery Simkins and Fort Johnson that day.  September 11 also saw heavy firing in that sector with 28 Federal shots incoming and 32 Confederate shots outgoing.  The shots exchanged between Morris Island and James Island batteries continued through the month, but began to slacken.

So while the Federal fires did slacken all around, the “pauses” in fires at Fort Sumter were in part due to emphasis placed on other points around Charleston harbor.  Subjectively, I would re-assess the “Eighth Minor Bombardment” of Fort Sumter as more of a general engagement around Charleston.

(Sources – OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, pages 241-3, 252-3, and 256-7; John Johnson, The Defense of Charleston Harbor: Including Fort Sumter and the Adjacent Islands, 1863-1865, Walker, Evans & Cogswell Company, 1890, page 235.)

September 6, 1864: Foster stops bombardment of Fort Sumter “for want of ammunition”

On September 6, 1864, Major-General John Foster provided a status report to the Chief of Staff, Major-General Henry Halleck, in Washington.  The update, while routine, brought several ongoing operational lines together – prisoners, health and sanitary concerns, and the bombardment of Fort Sumter.  And above all, Foster emphasized he was not engaging in offensive operations:

General: I have the honor to report that no military operations of importance have taken place since the date of my last report. The enemy have sent over the lines without exchange a large number of surgeons and chaplains whom they had held in custody. This is the result of the correspondence which I had with General Samuel Jones, showing him that these persons were to be considered non-combatants.

The exchange of non-combatants, in this case medical officers and chaplains, was allowed under standing policy of the time, and considered a separate matter from the exchange of other officers and enlisted troops.  A fine detail distinction to consider with regard to prisoner exchanges.

Foster went on to relate the Confederates also sent over, without insisting on an exchange, a sergeant and a private who’d been captured at Port Royal Ferry earlier in the summer.  The reason these two were released involved the circumstances of their capture:

The rebel pickets at that point called to our pickets to send over a boat for them, as they wanted to desert. The sergeant in command of our pickets, credulously believing them, went in a boat with 1 man, and upon their arrival on the opposite shore were taken prisoners and the boat seized.

General Jones returns them without exchange, with the remark that “they were captured under circumstances which he cannot approve.”

Earlier in August, Foster had requested to send supplies to the prisoners in Charleston, Savannah, and Andersonville.  Now Foster related Jones’ response:

General Jones refuses to allow our officers, prisoners of war, to take charge of supplies for our prisoners at Charleston and Savannah, but says he will insure their faithful delivery. He has no jurisdiction over the prisoners at Andersonville, and therefore declines to entertain that part of the proposition.

So a partial solution, but not one that would ease the suffering where most exposed – Andersonville.

But Andersonville was not the only place in the south with concerns for health and sanitation:

The health of the department is growing rapidly worse. The number of sick in hospital is increasing, and a large number of the officers have to be furnished with sick leave to prevent permanent disability. I have no idea, however, that it is more than the usual malarious epidemic and disease peculiar to the climate this season of the year. It will not enfeeble the strength of the command beyond a proper limit of strength. I can get along very well with the force I now have until the enemy’s strength is very much increased.

Such indicated the “no offensive operations” instructions which Washington had frequently reiterated over the summer.  The Third Major Bombardment of Fort Sumter was an acceptable activity, as it did not commit the force to action.  The gunners on Morris Island would sweat as they handled the big guns.  But that did not risk a larger engagement, as did the demonstrations of early July 1864.  With that in mind, Foster related the progress of the bombardment:

I have been forced to almost entirely stop the fire upon Fort Sumter for want of ammunition, the requisitions upon the ordnance department having been entirely unfilled, and, on the contrary large orders having been received to send ammunition from this department to Fort Monroe. We had reached a point in the demolition of the fort beyond which the enemy could not have held out many weeks in their occupancy. Since the gradual cessation of fire they have exerted every effort to pile earth upon the parts which were being laid bare by the force of our fire.

The Third Major Bombardment ended on or around September 4 – basing that date on Captain John Johnson’s account, from the Confederate side. Foster had simply ran out of ammunition. I’ve run across the detailed orders in regard to ammunition forwarded from Hilton Head to Fort Monroe, but don’t have it handy as of this writing.  The point being – not only troops were going to Virginia.  The center of gravity around Richmond-Petersburg was also pulling in heavy ordnance.

Johnson and other Confederate accounts stressed that the fort was in better condition to resist a Federal assault than it was before the bombardment began.  That may have been so.  But it was only due to the employment of precious labor – impressed negro labor – to keep pace with the demolition done by the Federals.  If the Confederates could boast the ability to rebuilt the fort, the Federals could counter that the the bombardment was not sustained to the level needed to destroy the fort.  Were the strategic priorities weighed differently, the balance would shift accordingly.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 272-3.)