Tag Archives: Roswell Ripley

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.)

June 23, 1864: New fortifications or rice? Sam Jones addresses conflicting needs and labor assignments

Much of the labor force employed around Charleston and Savannah came from slave labor, by calling upon the slave owners (be that a direct draft, impressment, or voluntary). During his tenure in command of the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, General P.G.T. Beauregard found the need to balance work on fortifications with other needs.  In particular, Beauregard considered the need to tend crops in the field.  Coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia were still major producers of rice.   With other grain producing regions pressed by Federal advances, the rice from those coastal counties was more important than ever to the Confederacy.

In the summer of 1864, Major-General Samuel Jones, then commanding the department, saw the same conflicting requirements as Beauregard the year before.  He addressed the issue, somewhat, in orders to Brigadier-General Roswell Ripley, commanding the First Military District of South Carolina, on June 23, 1864:

General: As it is of great importance, in the present state of our forces, to cause the defensive works of our most important points to be finished without delay, and of but little less to effect this object with as little interference with the agricultural labor of the country as possible, I desire that you will take steps to obtain from the rice planters in this vicinity the services of as many hands as can be spared during the coming period when their crop is laid by, and make such preparation as will insure that this labor shall be expended to the best advantage, and that proper care and attention is given to the negroes.

It is my wish that under no circumstances shall the negroes be retained when their services are required for gathering in the crop. The usual pay will be allowed and the labor furnished by each planter reported to the State agent to be credited him in future calls.

The priority, set by Jones, was to the crops first and then to the defenses.  Ripley could, however, contact the slave-owners directly, so long as the state-level agents were informed.

Ripley’s command included Sullivan’s Island, where Federals had often cast an eye as to the next move against Charleston.  So Jones must have considered the prioritization with deliberation.    This was yet another aspect of the pressure placed upon Charleston by Major-General John Foster’s Federals.  Measuring the number of troops retained at Charleston who could have fought in Virginia (which by June 1864 was arguably small) is easy.  Measuring the day’s worth of rations that Foster could, by exerting more pressure, deprive the Confederate field armies is a bit harder to calculate.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, page 537.)