150 Years Ago: Engineer support for Morris Island “dilatory”

Sorry to hop around lot here, but I cannot resist sesquicentennial themed posts… and at the same time I want to keep in these threads about Charleston. That in mind, let me turn to a report filed by Brigadier-General Roswell Ripley, commander of the First Military District of South Carolina defending Charleston, on this day (May 24) in 1863. Ripley addressed Brigadier-General Thomas Jordon, General P.G.T. Beauregard’s Chief of Staff:

General: The continued occupation and activity of the enemy on Folly Island may reasonably lead us to expect an attack from that direction sooner or later, unless we are thoroughly prepared to receive it. What their force is we have no means of ascertaining, and from the great reduction in our numbers it is impossible to employ scouting parties in such strength as to furnish an approximation. Steamers are seen to communicate with them from time to time; but whether they bring or carry away troops, or whether they are merely supply vessels, are matters of doubt.

From personal observation, I have the honor to state that the preparations which are going on under the engineer department, for communication with, and the defense of, Morris Island, are dilatory, and will not be finished, according to present appearances, for a long period. The bridge over the first creek south of Fort Johnson is commenced; the ferry arrangements over Light-House Creek and the causeways over the Soft Marsh are only started. The progress on the battery at Vincent’s Creek, which was ordered some six weeks since, consisted a few days ago in the hulk being in position, and the collection of a few mounds of mud, sand, and shells, about one-fourth enough to fill the hulk, and which would hardly be efficient material for an epaulement.

Ripley’s concerns about attack from Folly Island were valid, as later events would show. In April, the southern half of Morris Island was mostly undefended. Ripley’s modest improvements at least allowed some defense of the island in the face of attack from the south.


To reinforce Battery Wagner against land assaults, Ripley ordered the reallocation of two carronades would for flank defense. The battery at Vincent’s Creek, then under construction, covered the rear of Battery Wagner and fire upon the flanks of any attack up Morris Island. The Confederates would never complete the work (although remains, along with the wreck of a steamboat and remains of similar Federal efforts to build a battery at that location, are in the marshes today.)

Ripley had seven guns on the south end of the island. Four of those guns covered Light-House Inlet. He asked for a 30-pdr Parrott to properly cover the inlet. Furthermore, he had plans to place a 10-inch mortar just below the lighthouse in order to harass any Federals working on Little Folly Islands.

However, as Ripley indicated, work was not progressing fast enough. Ripley held little faith that a series of paths and causeways intended to connect Morris Island with James Island would reach completion or be of much use. He complained, “The work on Fort Sumter, as usual, is going on slowly. No work is progressing at Battery Bee, nor on Morris Island, except a little being done by the troops.” In particular he leveled criticism at the engineers. His efforts to connect and improve the works on Morris Island were at a standstill, “…waiting for engineers to build and finish up magazines, the sickness of the artillery officer in command, and the inefficient supply of ordnance material, they are all badly prepared for service.”

Towards that later point, Ripley offered a suggestion to improve the ordnance on hand:

After several ineffectual efforts to have some arrangements made by which heavy guns can be rifled and banded at the [Charleston] arsenal (there being nobody at that establishment capable of the work), I have arranged with Mr. Cameron to put up a furnace himself, that the business can be proceeded with, and have ordered the iron from Atlanta.

I propose, if our heavy guns can be rifled and banded properly, and the south end of Morris Island be strengthened, so that it can be held against a strong attack, to place several at different points on the shore to command the whole anchorage from inside the bar to Fort Sumter, to prevent the possibility of assistance to disabled iron-clads by wooden vessels inside. This occurred after the action of the 7th of April for five days, and we were powerless to prevent it for want of a few guns of respectable caliber and range in such positions.

Up to this time, the Confederates at Charleston had rifled and banded weapons up to 42-pdr caliber. Prior to the ironclad attack of April 7, most felt the columbiads were useful enough as they were, without rifling. Now, as Ripley suggested, some were looking to band and rifle 8-inch and 10-inch columbiads. Particularly since no new heavy guns were due from Richmond in the near future.

Fort Moultrie 3 May 2010 490
8-inch Columbiad, Banded and Rifled

From the perspective of history, Ripley was correct in many regards. Morris Island was the next objective for Federal forces outside Charleston. But with the threadbare nature of the defense of Charleston, in order to improve Morris Island, something had to give elsewhere. A strong forward line would hollow the remainder of the Charleston defenses.

Needless to say, Ripley’s comments did not go over well with the engineers.

(Ripley’s report is part of the Appendix of OR, Series I, Volume 14, Serial 20, pages 1021-3.)


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