150 Years Ago: The Ironclads Attack! The war returns to Fort Sumter

In April 1861, a bombardment of Fort Sumter ignited the Civil War.  The Confederates fired several thousand rounds, but only achieved a two foot deep penetration of the walls – far from a breech.  Fires set off inside the fort ultimately did more damage.

In April 1862, the Federals bombarded Fort Pulaski, along the Savannah River in Georgia, sending over three thousand rounds at that fort. Concentrated and accurate fires – thanks to the use of rifled breeching batteries – breeched the fort at a vulnerable salient.  Masonry fortifications were vulnerable.

One-hundred and fifty years ago today (April 7, 1863), the U.S. Navy pitted ironclads with heavy caliber guns (and a few rifles) against Fort Sumter.   War had returned to Fort Sumter.  And for the third year in a row, advanced technology tested masonry fortifications.

Today I am going to try something new for my blogging experience.  The focus for today is simply to account for the actions – an embellished timeline if you will.  Analysis to follow over the next few days (weeks?).  But I’m going to span a rather broad story over two blog posts on two blogs.  I’ve posted the naval side of the story on the Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial site (and also invite you to read Andy’s posting of a first hand account of the battle at his site).  I’ll host that of the Confederate army here.

General P.G.T. Beauregard received reports of the ironclads’ presence on April 5.  Immediately, he alerted Savannah to have its mobile column to move by way of railroad to reinforce Charleston.  Beauregard also issued General Orders No. 53 – a lengthy order that was both inspirational and directive.  Anxiously the Confederates watched the much anticipated attack unfold.  Reports of troops landing on Folly Island and gunboats probing the Stono River and Lighthouse Inlet seemed to confirm what Beauregard predicted months earlier.  Observers’ reports indicated April 7 dawned with a heavy haze, which cleared as the day went on.  Among the flurry of dispatches, Beauregard mentioned last minute preparations.   He expressed concern about the “alligator” attached to the Federal ironclads which was clearly intended to clear the harbor obstructions.  He also urged commanders to conceal the buoys used to mark the range of guns.

At around 2 p.m. on April 7, observers on Morris Island, Fort Sumter, and Sullivan’s Island reported the advance of the ironclad fleet up the main ship channel.


As the ironclads slowly worked up the channel, the Confederates called the long roll and manned the guns.  The first “shots” of the battle were actually at 2:35 p.m. when the garrison of Fort Sumter fired a thirteen gun salute.

Recall again that on Morris Island, only Battery Wagner and the Cummings Point Battery contained heavy guns.  Due to the range to the ship channel, weak armament, and other factors, it was Fort Moultrie which would open the action.  At around 2:50 p.m. (near abouts),   Colonel William Butler received permission to open fire at the extreme range of his guns. The shots were inaccurate, and the decision was made to suspend firing until the range closed.  Shortly after 3 p.m., gunners at Fort Sumter joined in at a range of 1,400 yards.  Fort Moultrie resumed firing at that point.  And at ten after the hour, Battery Bee added the weight of its guns.  Battery Beauregard and Cummings Point Battery soon joined the fray, completing the cross-fire that covered the entrance to Charleston Harbor.  Seventy-six guns now focused on the Federal ironclads.

The Confederate accounts of action stress that firing was “by battery.”  So instead of an intermittent rain of projectiles, the gunners aimed and timed fires to focus on specific targets.  Brigadier General J.H. Trapier reported:

It soon became obvious that the enemy’s intention was to fight and not to run by, and orders were given to “train” on vessels nearest in and to fire by battery.  Volley after volley was delivered in this way, but although it was plain that our shot repeatedly took effect – their impact against the iron casing of the enemy being distinctly heard and seen – yet we could not discover but that the foe was indeed invulnerable.

At Fort Sumter, Colonel Alfred Rhett’s gunners were similarly concentrating on targets:

At three minutes past 3 p.m. the leading vessel having approached to within about 1,400 yards of the fort she fired two shots simultaneously, one a 15-inch shrapnel, which burst; both passed over the fort. The batteries were opened upon her two minutes later, the firing being by battery. The action now became general, and the four leading monitors taking position from 1,300 to 1,400 yards distant, the fire was changed from fire by battery to fire by piece, as being more accurate. The fire by battery was again resumed as occasion offered. The Ironsides did not approach nearer than 1,700 yards. The whole fire of the batteries engaged was concentrated on the Passaic for thirty minutes, when she withdrew from the engagement, apparently injured. The other ships each in its turn received our attention. The fire of both Fort Moultrie and this fort being now directed against the Ironsides she immediately withdrew out of effective range.

However, Major C.K. Huger at Battery Wagner lamented his guns lacked the range to exert much influence on the battle.  “The guns of this battery were of too light a caliber to be of much service, but those at Cummings Point, under the immediate command of Lieutenant Lesesne, of First [South Carolina Heavy] Artillery, were much heavier, and the firing was particularly good.

As the USS Weehawken, leading the column of ironclads, reached the mouth of the harbor, it slowed both to direct fire at Fort Sumter and to allow an assessment of the obstructions ahead.  The Confederate engineers then triggered one of many torpedoes set in the channel.  Although throwing up lots of water, the monitor was unaffected.  (I’ve noted the general location of that torpedo on the map above, though I must confess that is more a guess than specific.)

Although receiving much attention from the Confederate gunners, the USS New Ironsides did not close the range.  The deep draft ironclad did not handle well in the ship channel and anchored to best utilize its heavy broadside upon Fort Sumter.  However, the selected spot just happened to be over this “infernal machine”:


Days before the attack, Confederates laid a “big torpedo” in the main ship channel.  This consisted of 3,000 pounds of powder in a boiler.  Attached to a frame and anchored at four corners, the total weight of the weapon was 20,000 pounds. This torpedo lay “about a mile off Fort Sumter and half a mile opposite Fort Wagner.”   (The location is depicted on the map above.)


Confederate engineers frantically tried to trigger the torpedo.  But it didn’t fire.  They watched in vain as the New Ironsides drifted away from the torpedo, all the while oblivious to the danger.  The reason for the misfire was discovered later – the cables to the torpedo were too long and thus the electricity attenuated as noted in a survey report from May:

The torpedo was successfully sunk on the spot located by General Ripley, but while running the cable the steamer (Chesterfield) ran out of steam, and, unable to hold against the tide and wind, went aground near Fort Sumter. On the increase of the flood we had to run back a long circuit reach Cummings Point and land the cable. It resulted from this accident that we played out 2 miles of cable, instead of 1, as expected.

But if the New Ironsides escaped the torpedo, the USS Keokuk was fated for calamity.  As the ironclad line shook out to avoid the New Ironsides, the Keokuk pulled up from the rear of the line.  From Fort Sumter, Colonel Rhett observed,

At five minutes past 4 p.m. the Keokuk left her consorts and advanced bow on gallantly to within 900 yards of our batteries. She received our undivided attention, and the effect of our fire was soon apparent. The wrought-iron bolts from 7-inch Brooke gun were plainly seen to penetrate her turret and hull, and she retired in forty minutes, riddled and apparently almost disabled.

The proximity of the Keokuk to Fort Sumter also drew fire from Sullivan’s Island.  Gunners at Fort Moultrie and Batteries Bee and Beauregard joined in.  Observers witnessed 10-inch shot from the columbiads and 7-inch bolts from the Brookes crash through the armor.

From the Confederate perspective, the Federals disengaged at 5:25 p.m. and worked back out the channel.  The crippled Keokuk came aground off Morris Island, and the crew rescued (The location is annotated on the map above).  On the Confederate side, there were three killed and eleven wounded.  The deaths and five wounded were result of an accidental ammunition explosion at Battery Wagner, and not from Federal fire.  The defenders of Charleston fired 2,229 projectiles, using 21,093 pounds of powder during the tw0 hour and thirty minute engagement.  In return, the Confederates counted fifty-five hits on Fort Sumter.

The defenders of Charleston had repelled the ironclads.  But the threat still loomed over the channels. The other half of Beauregard’s prediction – Federal landings on Morris Island – had not occurred.  Worse yet, the expenditure of ammunition left the defenders in a precarious position should the ironclads return.  The months to follow would see what neither side wanted – a protracted siege outside Charleston tying down resources at a critical juncture in the war.

There’s much to analyze about the ironclad attack.  It is one of the few engagements in which we have practically a “shot by shot” accounting.  Reports on both sides are rich with details.  But to avoid lengthening this already long post into a book length survey, I’ll save discussion of those details for the next few days and weeks.



OR, Series I, Volume 14, Serial 20 – Official Confederate reports of the action are in pages 240-78.  Dispatches and correspondence appear in pages 880-90.  Report of the torpedoes is on pages 948-52.

ORN, Series I, Volume 14, pages 3-112.

Browning, Robert M. Success is All That Was Expected. Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s Inc., 2002.

Burton, E. Milby. The Siege of Charleston, 1861-1865. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1970.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

13 thoughts on “150 Years Ago: The Ironclads Attack! The war returns to Fort Sumter

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