Inactivity, faulty dispositions, wasted labor: Confederate preparations on Morris Island

Although some of the first shots of the Civil War were fired from Morris Island, the location had not witnessed major actions through the first two years of the war.  Confederates had neglected the barrier, when compared to Sullivan’s Island on the opposite side of the Charleston harbor entrance.  Prior to April 1863, Battery Wagner and a battery at Cumming’s Point (renamed Battery Gregg) were the main defenses on the island.  In addition to the mutually supporting batteries, the remainder of Morris Island contained unnamed works for use by field artillery batteries, should a threat arise.

MorrisIslandDefMar1863

After the Ironclad Attack, the batteries on the lower end of Morris Island received more attention.  Field batteries deployed in support of the Keokuk salvage.  And the proximity of a Federal garrison on Folly Island brought heavy guns to the south end of Morris Island. Charged with defending Charleston, Brigadier-General Roswell Ripley offered plans to improve the defenses starting in mid-April.  But those plans received little traction.  Some of Ripley’s best troops were sent west in May.  Further, Ripley felt the engineers failed to support efforts to improve the works, nor aid placement of new works to strengthen Morris Island from attack.  The engineers defended citing the lack of material, transportation, and labor.

Ripley’s plan was to build up Oyster Point, at the south end of Morris Island, with heavy smoothbore and rifled guns, to keep Federals on Folly Island at bay.  Ripley also pressed for batteries on Black Island and at the mouth of Vincent’s Creek, which would flank any attackers on Morris Island while also preventing Federal lodgement against James Island.  Ripley also called for causeways to connect James, Black, and Morris Islands.  But even through June, work progressed slowly.  By July, Confederate dispositions remained much as they were in mid-May (note the Confederate works in progress or unmanned shown in gold on the map):

June63Dispositions

By late June, Ripley divided his First Military District into four sub-divisions. The first was under Colonel Charles H. Simonton and covered James Island and western approaches to Charleston.  Colonel L.M. Keitt’s second sub-division manned works on Sullivan’s Island.  The third sub-division included the defenses on Morris Island, commanded by Colonel Robert F. Graham.  Lastly, the fourth sub-division consisted of the garrison at Fort Sumter.

On Morris Island at the end of June, Graham had the Gist Guard and Mathewes Artillery at Battery Wagner; a company of the 1st South Carolina Heavy Artillery at Battery Gregg; and two companies of the 1st South Carolina across other batteries on Morris Island. Graham also had ten companies of the 21st South Carolina Volunteers at his disposal along with a detachment of cavalry.  All told, the force numbered 612 infantry, 289 artillerists, and 26 cavalrymen.

Through May and June, the Confederates had improved the works at Batteries Gregg and Wagner.  Perhaps the most important addition was a 10-inch Columbiad at Wagner.  Carronades relocated from James Island provided flank protection to the front curtain of the fortification.

Efforts to establish a battery at Black Island progressed to little more than firing positions for field batteries.  At the mouth of Vincent’s Creek, however, engineers sank a hulk to provide a foundation for large guns.  This work in progress was called “the marsh battery” or “battery at Vincent’s Creek” in correspondence.  This work was supposed to support three or four heavy guns.  But likewise, with little progress made the position was of no value to the Confederates.  Although later the Federals would survey the site for use as a platform to fire upon the Confederates, citing the location as Paine’s Wharf:

VincentCreekBty1

On the south end of Morris Island, the Confederates did make significant progress.  Guns there had fired in support of recovery operations on the blockade runner Ruby and at several times against Federals working on Folly Island.  Turning to the Federal map of the sector drawn after the July 10 assault, these batteries covered the entrance to Light House Inlet while infantry trenches covered the inshore reach of the channel:

Lighthouse Inlet1

In detail, those works were arrayed thus:

MorrisIslandCS

The batteries were armed as such:

  • A – one 8-inch navy shell gun.
  • B – one 8-inch seacoast howitzer.
  • C – one 3-inch Whitworth rifle.
  • D – three 10-inch seacoast mortars, each with a separate position.
  • E – one 30-pdr Parrott (noted as “navy” in Federal records, and likely a captured Federal variety).
  • F – one  “Brooks siege rifle”, which was possibly a 4.62-inch banded rifle or a rifled and banded 24-pdr siege gun.
  • G – one 8-inch navy shell gun.
  • H – one 8-inch navy shell gun.
  • I – unarmed.
  • J – one 8-inch seacoast howitzer.

With the beach and marsh forcing these batteries into a narrow section, the arrangement of batteries was not mutually supportive.  Such underscores the Confederate need for batteries on Black Island and at Vincent Creek.

After the loss of Morris Island, Confederate authorities cast a heavy net of inquiries.  Writing in response, Ripley faulted some of his fellow officers for  “… inactivity, and oftentimes faulty dispositions and waste of labor…”  He went on to characterize, not for the first time, the efforts as “dilatory in the extreme” continuing to cite the “carelessness and inattention of engineer officers.”  In summary, Ripley said:

The action of the engineer department certainly contributed but little to the protection off the south end of Morris Island, although months were afforded them. It is true that the ultimate cause of our weakness in that direction can be traced to a different source; yet the full share of the responsibility for the loss of those points which we have hitherto sustained, the annoyance and injuries now being inflicted on Charleston, and the danger to the people and the cause which must attach to those who neglected a palpably necessary work, and, moreover, interfered to prevent its execution by others.

The weakness Ripley mentioned was tested, to his command’s detriment, on July 10.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part II, Serial 47, pages 517-9.)

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