Tag Archives: Fort Sumter

“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.)

3,180 shots at Fort Sumter between August 3 and 14, 1864: Third Major Bombardment continues

On August 16, 1864, Lieutenant-Colonel William Ames, Chief of Artillery of the Northern District (Morris and Folly Islands), Department of the South, provided an in progress report for the Third Major Bombardment of Fort Sumter.  The bombardment, which started on July 7, was at that time in its sixth week.  Ames provided this tally for the ordnance expended:

I have the honor to report the following number of projectiles and guns as expended in the bombardment of Fort Sumter from August 3 to August 14, inclusive: Three 200-pounder Parrott guns; 304 30-pounder Parrott shells, 299 100-pounder Parrott shells(*), 772 200-pounder Parrott shells, 13 300-pounder Parrott shells, 219 10-inch columbiad shells, 1,465 10-inch mortar shells, 108 13-inch mortar shells; total, 3,180.

The Third Major Bombardment had exceeded both previous “major” bombardments in terms of duration.  But it remained behind the Second Major Bombardment in terms of number of shots fired at Fort Sumter.  The problem facing the Federals was the amount of ordnance on hand – both guns and projectiles.  Already the Army was forced to borrow from the Navy.  And the Army lost three 200-pounder (8-inch) Parrotts during the first half of August.

The breakdown of rounds fired also illustrates some changes in the type of fires.  Recalling Ames’ reports from July 26 and August 1 for comparison, consider the proportions.  First from the period from July 7 to July 21:


More than half of the shots fired were from 100-pdr and 200-pdr Parrotts (that would be 6.4-inch and 8-inch for those who prefer the bore diameter designation… like me).  The mortars provided a quarter of the shots fired.  In the minorities were 30-pdr Parrotts, 300-pounder Parrotts, and the columbiads.

Then from July 22 to August 1:


The mortars increased in proportion to nearly a third.  The 30-pdr Parrotts provided a quarter of the rounds fired.  Triple the number of 300-pdr (I mean 10-inch) Parrotts.  Four times increase in the proportion of the columbiad contribution.  And decreasing noise from the 100-pdrs and 200-pdrs.

And from August 2 to August 15:


Now the mortars shouldered half the load.  The 200-pdrs fired nearly a quarter of the shots.  The columbiads sustained nearly the same ratio of shots fired.  But decreases from all the other Parrotts.  I’d love to see a breakdown of this on a day-by-day basis.  Furthermore, a similar breakdown, even if week-t0-week, for the other major bombardments would be interesting.

What these charts are demonstrating is the nature of the Third Major Bombardment. By the start of the second month of work, the Federals turned increasingly to vertical fires.  Some of the same reasons Federals at Petersburg brought up their mortars were at play.  Recall the Second Major Bombardment turned to mortars in the later part of November. However, the Third Major Bombardment of Fort Sumter was burning out resources faster than they could be replenished on Morris Island.

  • The “printed” official records indicate this as “200-pounder Parrott shells” but given the sequence and other information surrounding this report, I think that is a misprint and sh0uld read “100-pounder Parrott shells.”

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, page 241.)


Payne’s Wharf: A high spot in the marshes between the lines at Charleston

Payne’s Wharf was a point between Morris Island and James Island which saw considerable activity during the later half of the Civil War. At this time 150 years ago, a detailed survey of the site came to Major-General John Foster to answer his question – could a battery at that spot add to the bombardment of Fort Sumter.  Payne’s Wharf had an interesting history, which I’ll briefly outline here.

In the spring of 1863, Confederate engineers developed plans to place a battery at the mouth of Vincent Creek, behind Morris Island.  This, called the Vincent’s Creek Battery, would have provided flanking fires down the lower end of the island. The plan called for a pit dug out of the marsh, in which the engineers would place a hulk or crib that would form the foundation of a battery.  However, they had just started placing the foundation prior to the Federal assault on Morris Island in July 1863.  As the location would allow an angle on Federal siege line, Confederates tried to complete the battery.  But on July 12, Federal gunners caught the steamer Gabriel Manigault at the battery.    Disabled, the steamer caught fire and went aground.  At that point, the Confederates abandoned Vincent’s Creek Battery in an incomplete state.

However, the remains of the Confederate project and the wrecked steamer afforded the Federals a convenient observation out on the marsh. In particular Captain Lewis Payne of the 100th New York Infantry liked to use the wreckage as cover during the summer nights, as he observed Confederate activity in the harbor.  Due to his activity, the Federals gave the name “Payne’s Wharf” or “Paine’s Wharf” to the old Confederate works and wreck.  Having made his activities too well known, by way of lights and signal rockets, the Confederates countered Payne’s nighttime activities with a raid on August 4, 1863.  They killed one and captured Payne and nine others.  The Federals continued to use Payne’s Wharf through the summer, but not so much to illicit a Confederate response.  The location appears on Federal maps of the siege (look to the upper center, left of the legend, at the point of the marsh):


I would also add it is my opinion (emphasis) the Confederate effort inspired the Federal engineer to explore possibilities  that lead to the Marsh Battery and Swamp Angel.  But I would caveat that – there is no indication of Federal intent to place a battery at Payne’s Wharf during the Morris Island campaign (against Battery Wagner).  That did change in the fall, as Major-General Quincy Gillmore looked for positions offering angles on Fort Sumter to support the Second Major Bombardment of the fort.  Lieutenant Charles Suter, one of the Federal engineers in the department, offered their assessment of the location at that time:

 I found it (Paine’s Wharf) to consist essentially of a floor of heavy planking resting on some foundation of which I could not ascertain the nature, and inclosed by a crib-work of heavy square timbers about 4 feet high, except on the side toward Moultrie and Gregg, where it has been burned away down to the flooring. About 12 feet inside the crib-work is another inclosed space about 1½ feet high, also composed of square timbers. Its sides are parallel to those of the exterior crib-work. This inclosed space is filled up flush with oyster shells.

In shape it (the wharf) is a hexagon equilateral, but not equiangular. The sides are about 70 feet long; those of the interior polygon about 54 feet long. It lies on the left side of the mouth of the creek and detached about 30 feet from shore. At high tide the water overflows the flooring in those places where the parapet was burned. Spring tides probably overflow the greater part of the area filled with shells.

Accompanying his report, Suter added the following diagrams illustrating the layout of the old Confederate cribwork:


The crib itself stood just off the point, and extended into the shallows.  Suter also noted the respective angles from the wharf towards the intended targets:


The Federals, based on Suter’s assessment, declined to improve upon the Confederate work.  But they did continue to use Payne’s Wharf as an observation post and rendezvous point.  Those departing on the failed Fort Johnson Raids of early July 1864 used the wharf as a staging point.

By late July 1864, with the Third Major Bombardment in full swing, once again Federal officers looked to another artillery platform to gain fresh angles on Fort Sumter.  Addressing that, Suter, now the Chief Engineer in the Department of the South, dug out his old files and responded… in the tone of an engineer responding to an impractical request from higher authorities:

I beg leave to state that in my opinion the results to be attained by placing a battery in this location are entirely incommensurate with the time and labor required for its construction. Besides, when completed, it will be often open to a surprise party, as it cannot be supported.

In addition I will state that the distance to Sumter from Paine’s Wharf is 1 ⅔ miles; from the Marsh Battery to Sumter 2 ⅓ miles. The line of fire from the Marsh Battery is nearly perpendicular to the gorge wall of Sumter.

Paine’s Wharf lies considerably to the right of this line of fire. The line of communication to Paine’s Wharf is about one-third longer than to the Marsh Battery, and being by water is often impassable at low tide.

The space available on this wharf would be mostly occupied by the battery, as will be seen by the accompanying sketch. The direction indicated for the battery is necessary, otherwise the work would be seen in reverse from James Island. There will be little or no room for building bomb-proof shelters for the supports, hence the difficulty of holding the work.

The shore of the harbor to the left of this point is good and firm, so that a surprise party might easily creep along there and surprise the work.

Finally, I am afraid the foundation would not be reliable for firing heavy guns. It would probably settle unequally and necessitate continual alterations. I think the Marsh Battery decidedly the best location. A 100-pounder would compensate sufficiently the increased range (two-thirds of a mile).

Foster had already ordered the Marsh Battery rearmed, with lighter Parrotts, to gain an angle on the west face of Fort Sumter.  Suter concluded his response, mentioning at least one use for the crib at Payne’s Wharf (and the slip here to Paine’s Dock is yet another variation in the site’s naming!):

The [Marsh] battery may be increased in area by pulling Paine’s Dock to pieces and towing the timbers to the Marsh Battery; also by using marsh mud in making parapets. I think a magazine and bomb-proof could be constructed there.

To demonstrate Suter’s point about the value of Payne’s Wharf as a battery location, consider the angles of fire from Morris Island and the Marsh Battery (dark blue) compared to that from Payne’s Wharf (light blue).


Likewise, the exposed position of Payne’s Wharf is apparent, looking at the location respective to Confederate works.  Observation post perhaps, but not the place to put several tons of ordnance.  Suter’s arguments against the work appear to be the last word on the subject.

Today the remains of Payne’s Wharf remain, and are visible from Fort Sumter if you know where to look and have a good pair of binoculars.  There is a slight rise of marsh just behind Morris island:

Notice, to the east, the Army Corps of Engineers is still at work on Morris Island.  The activity there is a dredging pond associated with work in the harbor.  And I would point out, surveys were done to ensure damage to historical sites, such as Payne’s Wharf and the Marsh Battery, was avoided.  The location where the pond is today was open marsh during the war.  Morris Island has “walked” to the west over the last 150 years.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, page 236.)