Mortars That Signaled the Start of the War

Continuing with my discussion of the cannons used at Fort Sumter in April 1861, I turn now to the mortars employed by the Confederates.  One of these weapons signaled the “start” of the war (although I plead ambiguity there).

A drawing in the first volume of Battles and Leaders depicts two mortars on Morris Island from Lieutenant C.R. Homes’ Battery.   (Several published photographic collections credit the original image to the Charleston Historical Society.  If you know of a digital copy, please let me know!)

Mounted on wooden beds, these mortars appear very similar to a surviving mortar on display at Fort Sumter today.

Ft Sumter 3 May 2010 180
10-inch Mortar at Fort Sumter

The central band with trunnions, the chase, and the muzzle lip match the shape from the drawing and photograph.  Over the trunnions are the stamps “HF // No. 4 // 34 – 1 – 25.”

Ft Sumter 3 May 2010 184
Breech and Top of 10-inch Mortar

The initials HF are associated with several early cannon-makers, but in this case points to Henry Foxall, the first owner of Columbia Foundry in Washington, D.C.  A report from 1807 indicates Columbia was producing forty 10-inch mortars to complement eighteen already on hand.  As such this mortar is tentatively considered “Seacoast Mortar of 1807 Pattern.”

The three numbers in the stampings indicate the hundredweight measurements, which translate to 3861 pounds. The mortar at Fort Sumter is the sole survivor of its kind. It measures 45 inches in length. and has 10 inch diameter trunnions.  The 10-inch seacoast mortar fired a 90-pound shell with a 10-pound powder charge to a maximum range of 4,250 yards.

Two similar surviving weapons (one of which is at West Point) are smaller in length, at 31 inches.  These are tentatively identified as “Siege and Garrison Mortars of 1807 Pattern.”  And these differ externally, having trunnions set further back on the central band.  Given that distinguishing characteristic, likely the mortars depicted at Morris Island were of the seacoast type.

Correspondence and witness accounts from Charleston in 1861 allude to a lot of Tredegar mortars.  Although Tredegar was not a prolific source for Federal mortars, the firm must have produced some for state requirements.  Perhaps Tredegar used the same or similar pattern from the early days of the 19th century.

Ft Sumter 3 May 2010 183
Muzzle of 10-inch Seacoast Mortar

Looking at the muzzle, I would be remiss not mentioning the shot that “almost could have been” the start of the Civil War (a story my friend Robert Moore is fond of).  On March 8, 1861, some of the South Carolina volunteers on Morris Island were in the middle of drill with blank cartridges.  At some point in the process, the crew loaded a shell and let fly! The shell bounced off the fort causing little harm.  A Confederate officer proceeded to Fort Sumter under a flag of truce to explain the miss-fire and all were satisfied.  (see OR, Series I, Volume 1, Serial 1, pages 192 and 273.)

On April 6, Major Robert Anderson, commanding at Fort Sumter, noted with alarm more Confederate mortar drills.  In that case a mortar battery at Mount Pleasant, on the other side of the bay, fired practice shells too close to the Federal garrison.  Again, the Confederates offered an apology and redirected their practice fires.  (see OR, Series I, Volume 1, Serial 1, pages 246-7.)  But with these two incidents – what today we’d cite as “fire discipline” related – we have episodes which might have sparked the war before the Confederates had completed their preparations… had the Federals the presence of mind to “practice” back at them.

Of course the presence of mortars, such as that pictured above, on Morris Island does not help positive identification of model which fired from Fort Johnson to start the war.

Charleston 4 May 10 275
First Shot of the War Marker

A Model 1840 for both seacoast and siege mortars in the 10-inch caliber also existed, and their presence at Charleston may not be ruled out.  But I would point out the mortars around the harbor were not among the weapons taken over by South Carolina in December 1860, and presumably were part of the state’s militia arsenals.  Such lends weight to uniform batteries of the older types, but not with much certainty.

Regardless of the exact type, at around 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, Captain George S. James fired (or at least gave the order to fire) a 10-inch shell in the direction of Fort Sumter.  And unlike the two previous incidents, this shot was not for practice.

Charleston 4 May 10 276
View of Fort Sumter from Fort Johnson


Aside from on site notes and links provided above, sources consulted for this post were:

Ordnance Manual for Use of the Officers of the United States Army.  Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1862. (Google Books copy)

Olmstead, Edwin, Wayne E. Stark, and Spencer C. Tucker. The Big Guns: Civil War Siege, Seacoast and Naval Cannon. Alexandria Bay, NY: Museum Restoration Service, 1997.

Ripley, Warren. Artillery and Ammunition of the Civil War, 4th Edition. Charleston, S.C.: The Battery Press, 1984.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

7 thoughts on “Mortars That Signaled the Start of the War

  1. Wait a moment here, the noted Virginia whack-a-doodle Edmun Ruffin is no longer being credited with starting the war?

  2. Hi –
    My son and I need your help – we found a mortar VERY similar to the one pictured above at Fort DuPont in Washington, DC. According to the Park Service, it was initially at Fort Washington before being moved (and lost…and found again). The length is 31.5 inches, with the trunion set to the rear of the center band (center band is app 10.5 inches wide). It has a brass plaque on one of the trunions that says “10-inch seige mortar Model of 1819.” We were able to measure the walls at 4 inches thick and a 10 inch bore. There is a very simlar picture of this same mortat at Question is – what type of mortar is this and more importantly what weight shot did it fire? The Park Service is very interested as it has no idea what it is and would like to know as well. I can send pix, lots of em, and we look forward to any assistance out there!

    1. Frank, that particular mortar is likely the same one which was at Fort Pulaski for many years, then moved to Fort Washington. It is one of two pre-War of 1812 siege mortars (mentioned in my post) that exist today. Although sometimes named as “Model of 1819” it was probably in a batch made in 1807.

  3. The Confederate mortars shown being manned on Morris Island in 1861, are identified as the “Trapier Battery” in a slightly different photo reproduced on page 109 (I believe) of Bob Zeller’s book The Blue and Gray in Black and White:

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