Old forts and batteries on the dunes: Defending the entrance to Charleston Harbor, Part 1

I’ll continue with a “tour” around Charleston’s defenses as they existed around March 1863 by looking next to the harbor entrance itself. For those wondering why I’m on this tangent, I’m working up to a couple of 150th events here. Setting the stage, as it would be, for the ironclad attack on Fort Sumter and the siege of Battery Wagner… oh and further down the line the Swamp Angel and the reduction of Fort Sumter. But all of that is “future” in the context of this blog post.

General P.G.T. Beauregard, the victor of Fort Sumter in 1861, now saw that fortification as critical to success. Yes there was some symbolism attached to that fort on the artificial island. But it was also served as the center pin of the harbor defenses. So long as a Confederate flag flew over Fort Sumter, Charleston remained an option for blockade runners. Beauregard predicted the Federals had two courses of action in mind. The Navy would attempt force the harbor by running ironclads past Forts Sumter and Moultrie. Meanwhile the Army, Beauregard felt, would occupy Morris Island and thence reducing Fort Sumter by long range siege. Within a few months, the Federals would attempt both.

Geography provided Beauregard platforms, in the form of Morris and Sullivan’s Islands, astride the harbor entrance where guns could cover the main channels entering the harbor. With Fort Sumter providing the “cork” in the bottle, guns covered every square foot of the harbor entrance. In March 1863, the defenses appeared formidable on the map:


Looking back at the 1861 battlefield, many of the important works remained in place, but with weapons re-oriented towards the channel.

An October 1862 report detailed some ninty-one guns in the fort. The largest were 10- and 8-inch columbiads, 9- and 8-inch Dahlgren shell guns, and 42-pdr rifles. However, the majority of the fort’s guns were small caliber smoothbores, including thirty-one 32-pdr smoothbores, of little use against the feared ironclads. Between the October report and the April 7, 1863 ironclad attack, the Confederates improved the fort’s armament, while relocating some of the smaller bore weapons. Major weapons in the fort used in that battle included four 10-inch columbiads, two 9-inch Dahlgrens, four 8-inch columbiads, four 8-inch shell guns, two 7-inch Brooke rifles, one rifled 42-pdr, five 42-pdr smoothbores, eight 32-pdr smoothbores, and three 10-inch mortars.

Looking south of Fort Sumter, Beauregard was most concerned with Cummings Point of Morris Island. After all, he had used breaching batteries at that point with great effect in April 1861. The sea has shifted Morris Island considerably in the 150 years since the war. In 1863 the island was just under four miles long, with a width of at most 1000 yards. At several points the island narrowed to barely twenty-five yards. Elevations were insignificant on the dunes. In some places the island was scarcely a couple of feet above high tide. The 21st South Carolina Infantry along with the Gist Guards and Matthews Artillery garrisoned Morris Island.


On Cummings Point, a work that would later be named Battery Gregg contained one 10-inch columbiad and one 9-inch Dhalgren. These guns covered the approaches to Fort Sumter along the main ship channel in front of Morris Island.

Further down Morris Island, Battery Wagner covered approaches to Cummings Point and also the ship channel. In March 1863 the works included one 32-pdr rifle, one 24-pdr rifle, and two 32-pdr smoothbores.

The southern two-thirds of Morris Island contained several smaller works fronted the beach. These were mostly remains from earlier Confederate activity. Only one, labeled “sand battery”, had a name on contemporary maps. Oyster Point, on the southern end of the island, featured several large dunes and could support a fortification like Battery Gregg. This should have been attractive to Confederate planners, considering the Federals occupied Folly Island to the south. Some accounts indicate these works had firing platforms for field artillery. But certainly the works contained no heavy weapons in March 1863. Work on a battery placed behind Morris Island never properly started.  Had this been completed, it would have provided enfilading fire against any attacker moving up the island.  The most important contribution these works added to the defense of Charleston at that time was as fortified picket posts. After the ironclad attack, the Confederates looked to improve the defenses on the southern end of the island.

The decision to leave half of Morris Island unfortified, is indeed perplexing. Particularly since Beauregard feared a repeat of Fort Pulaski. However, the lack of firm footing on the long, thin island may have weighed in the decision. Furthermore, Beauregard barely had resources to hold existing lines, much less extend those. Unless, as Brigadier-General S. R. Gist hoped, the Stono River was denied to Federal gunboats, James Island needed men, material, and labor. The situation left Battery Wagner as the primary bulwark against a Federal advance up Morris Island.

In the next installment, I’ll look at the Confederate fortifications on Sullivan’s Island.

9 thoughts on “Old forts and batteries on the dunes: Defending the entrance to Charleston Harbor, Part 1

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.