Tag Archives: Roswell Ripley

Ripley’s Plan to recapture Morris Island

In October 1864, Brigadier-General Roswell Ripley was beyond “fallen into disfavor.” Even General P.G.T. Beauregard recommended his relief.  But Ripley was not one to sit aside waiting for letters in the mail.  Perhaps looking for a way out of the “dog house,” on October 25, 1864, Ripley send forward a memorandum outlining a plan to retake Morris Island:

To recapture and occupy Morris Island the operation must take the nature of a surprise. The mechanical appliances of the enemy, his means of transportation, and vigilance, as well as the nature of the position, forbid any attempt at regular attack. The latter would certainly involve a greater loss of life and expenditure of material, even if successful, than a surprise would risk, and the chances of success are much in favor of the latter method. I would propose that in a period when high water is, at about 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, after the setting of the moon, the attempt should be made. A few days previous to it a demonstration of collecting troops at Bluffton should take place and strong reconnaissance of the vicinity of Hilton Head and Port Royal should be made by boats and any means in our power. The effect of this movement could be ascertained by watching the enemy’s fleet off Charleston; probably by his signals and the movements of the garrison of Morris Island. It would probably attract his attention, for the passage of Scull Creek from the main is quite easy, and the positions at Hilton Head and Beaufort, under present circumstances, are quite weakly garrisoned, and must remain so until the main operations in the field are over, or their localities changed.

For a conceptual plan, this is not too much of a reach – catch the tides right and make a diversionary move.  As for the Federal defenses, Ripley figured a garrison of only 2,500 on Morris Island, with Fort Shaw and the works on Cumming’s Point being the main strong points.

The main force called for in Ripley’s plan was some 3,000 men loaded on board “three light-draught and tolerably swift-running steamers from the blockade-runners….” These would carry boat howitzers, gang-planks, and other equipments to facilitate rapid debarkation.  Ripley wanted these vessels staged behind Battery Marshall on the northern end of Sullivan’s Island.  And…

On each boat there should be a naval detachment of sailors, under competent and cool officers, for handling the rigging of the planks and other duties of seamanship, and the captains, and engineers and pilots should be selected for their skill, coolness, and intrepidity.

Supporting the main effort would be several diversionary forces.  From Secessionville and Battery Haskell, detachments of 100 to 150 men in boats would mount demonstrations against Black Island.  Another force of 500 troops on boats at Charleston or staged behind Fort Johnson to appear poised in an attack on Cumming’s Point.  A cavalry force would appear on John’s Island to threaten the Stono Inlet anchorage.  And in the harbor, the gunboats and ironclads would make their presence known.    To facilitate coordination, Ripley wanted a telegraph run as a “hot loop” putting all commanders in direct contact.

On the appointed evening, two hours before the steamers left Breach Inlet, the boat forces would demonstrate against Black Island followed shortly after with actions towards Cummng’s Point.  All the batteries around the harbor would also open up on Morris Island.  The object was to draw forces away from Fort Shaw and the garrison camps to the north end of Morris Island and Black Island.  Ripley felt this would also pull the inner blockaders towards Cumming’s Point and open a path for his three steamers.

The two first steamers to run nearly together and to make with all speed for the southern extremity of Morris Island and run stem on shore, high and dry if possible. Gang-planks to be dropped at once and the men, rushing ashore over the bows, deploy forward advancing and move at a charging pace against Fort Shaw, which is about 100 yards from the shore and easily accessible. Axes and hatchets must be carried to cut away chevaux-de-frise if met with, but it is believed that this fort is unprovided. This fact can easily be ascertained. The fort being once occupied the boat howitzers must be brought in to increase the armament, cover taken against Folly Island, fire opened upon transports in the inlet, and a party sent down to drive the guard from the battery at Oyster Point. These duties will occupy at least half the force. The garrison of Fort Shaw is not very large, the main body being encamped to its north. The remainder of the troops must form across the island and advance at once toward Wagner, driving any troops which may be in the camp before them or taking them prisoners. While this progresses the commander of the third steamer diverges from the two first and runs his vessel on shore at Battery Wagner, striving to strike at the southeast angle, lands as at Battery Shaw, and storms the work while attention of the enemy is directed to Gregg. The party from Shaw re-enforces him, the guns of Wagner are opened upon the fleet and on the middle battery and Gregg. Our fleet and boats retire while all our batteries keep up their fire on Gregg, the middle battery and Black Island.

Ripley expected the Federals on Black Island and any isolated pockets on Morris Island to surrender.  Furthermore, the blockaders would have to pull back outside the bar.  Such would roll the situation at Charleston back and erase fifteen months of Federal progress.

A very complicated plan to say the least.  Just to give you a visual, I’ve dropped my interpretation of Ripley’s plan on a map of the Charleston area:

Ripley_Plan_Oct64

I’ve given my best guess as to the route for Ripley’s steamers to take.  I figure the steamers had to use dangerous Maffitt’s Channel for the move.  Otherwise the shoals required a long transit out and back through the outer blockade. And for all of this to work the Federals had to act in a very predictable pattern responding to the demonstrations.

Recognizing the complication and risk, Ripley submitted:

This appears, somewhat complicated as a measure of attack, but after a full consideration, I do not think any other promises so well. It depends upon secrecy and boldness of execution as well as careful judgment on such information as we can obtain. It ruins three steam-boats certainly, and if it fails, loses some 3,000 men. The advantages of success it is hardly necessary to speak of. We have often risked more on quite as hazardous expeditions, where less was to have been gained.

Considering Ripley’s plan, keep in mind three were only around 4,800 Confederates in the vicinity of Charleston.  Lieutenant-General William Hardee could call upon 12,446 effectives in all of Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida.  So to implement Ripley’s plan, reinforcements were needed.  And if successful, and the odds were long on that, the Confederates would only succeed in making Charleston a little more open to blockade runners.  By October 1864, 3,000 men was a rather large portion of the remaining chips to bet on a long shot.

On the other had, if this plan received at least some consideration, it would serve the purpose intended – giving Ripley some favorable attention.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 640-643.)

150 years ago: Captains Mitchel and Johnson recommended for promotion for service at Fort Sumter

The names of John Mitchel and John Johnson are as closely associated with Fort Sumter as Major Robert Anderson.  Mitchel spent much of his Civil War at Fort Sumter and by July 1864 was the garrison’s commander.  Johnson played an important role as the fort’s engineer, and post-war recalling details of the siege.  At this time 150 years ago the good work of these two captains attracted the attention of their superiors.  On July 16, Brigadier-General Roswell Ripley wrote Confederate authorities in Richmond to recommend promotions:

I have the honor respectfully to request that Capt. John C. Mitchel, First South Carolina Artillery (enlisted), be appointed a major of artillery in the Provisional Army; also, that Capt. John Johnson, Engineers, be appointed a major of engineers in the same service.

Captain Mitchel has served with energy and fidelity since the war commenced. He is now and has been for some months commander of Fort Sumter, for which position his experience and qualifications peculiarly fit him, he having been on duty in that fort for most of the time since its capture, in April, 1861. He was second in command for most of the term of service of Lieutenant-Colonel (now Brigadier-General) Elliott as its commanding officer, and throughout his service has so conducted himself as to command the respect and commendation of every officer with whom he has been associated. It is proper that this important position should be commanded by a field officer, and I think that Captain Mitchel, by months of ceaseless vigilance and activity therein, as well as previous service, has fairly earned his promotion.

Ripley went on to also recommend and laud Captain John Johnson for service at Fort Sumter:

Captain Johnson has been the engineer officer of the fort since the 7th of April, 1863, and his activity, energy, and skill have principally contributed to the material preparation and repair which have thus far enabled the garrison to withstand the unprecedented cannonade and bombardment to which the work has been subjected.

His services in this position are eminently entitled to recognition, and his general qualifications are such as would enable him to perform the duties of a higher rank than that for which he is recommended.

Ripley closed noting the importance of Fort Sumter, should those in Richmond be distracted by the current situation miles outside the city:

The possession of Fort Sumter, besides its material necessity, has become a point of honor, and I think there can be no doubt of the propriety of fully recognizing the services of those who are engaged in its gallant defense.

Endorsing these requests, Major-General Samuel Jones added the promotions would “stimulate others to emulate their example.”

There’s a old superstition about promotions in the field.  Some consider it a bad omen.  In the cases of Mitchel and Johnson, even a recommendation for promotion might be considered a bad omen.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 589-90.)

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.)