Bad fuses and a burst Brooke Rifle: Confederate bombardment of Morris Island

By July 25, 1863, Confederate gunners had three heavy guns and two mortars ready to fire on Morris Island from James Island. Falling on the flanks of the Federal trenches, the fire from James Island had the potential to land severe damage Brigadier-General Quincy Gillmore’s operations. Battery Simkins was the first of these to bear on the Federal siege lines.

JamesIslandImprovements

Captain John C. Mitchel, First South Carolina Artillery, directed the guns at Battery Simkins. At this stage of operations, the battery included two 10-inch Columbiads, one 6.4-inch Brook Rifle, and three 10-inch seacoast mortars. His journal entries from July 24-31 read:

July 24.–The double-banded Brooke rifle put in position.

July 25.–Opened fire on the enemy’s batteries, my battery consisting of two 10-inch columbiads, one Brooke rifle (6.40 caliber), and three mortars. Fired at intervals of fifteen minutes, to which enemy replied slowly. Toward evening the fire slackened, and about 7 o’clock it ceased. At 11 and 2 o’clock, same night, I fired salvos from all my guns and mortars, by special order, about 3 rounds from each piece.

July 26.–Reopened fire at daylight, firing at fifteen-minute intervals for each gun. At the second discharge of the Brooke gun, then under special charge of Lieut. C. C. Rush, it burst, killing I and wounding 3 cannoneers. It was loaded with 12 pounds of powder and a solid shot. The fire was continued with the other pieces.

July 27, 28.–Firing continued. The fuses burned badly, many never igniting, and those that did burning very irregularly.

July 29.–Firing continued. No regularity in the fuses. Would effect as much by throwing solid shot. An 8-inch columbiad mounted in place of the Brooke gun. Captain Stallings’ company relieved by Capt. B. E. Dickson’s company (E) Second South Carolina Artillery. Stallings’ company sent to Morris Island.

July 30.–Firing continued with same results. Fuses very bad–worthless. Enemy replying in the afternoon.

July 31.–Firing continued. Directed to right and left of Graham’s headquarters. Fuses no better.

The Brooke rifle lasted but two days in action. Contrary to what some later-day Brooke experts have contended, the Brooke Rifles experienced such failures. I’d submit the failure rate was no better than the Parrott Rifles on the other side of the line.

Bad fuses continued to impair Confederate artillery. In this case the target was engineers and fatigue details in the open. If allowed to continue their work, the engineers would have better cover, in some places overhead cover (oh, and put up some sandbags), which would make the workers at least more secure, if not immune, from artillery fire. But the faulty fuses and small number of guns so allocated limited the effcectivenes of the Confederate counter-siege bombardment.

On the other side of the line Major Thomas Brooks journal confirms the work details received fire from the James Island batteries:

Friday, July 24 …. Heavy firing from both sides to-day, which was continued by our mortars in the first parallel through the night.

Saturday, July 25 …. The enemy opened on our advanced works on the right this morning with columbiads and a Brooke rifle, from what was afterward known as Battery Simkins, on Shell Point, distant from the second parallel about 3,300 yards. This is the first fire we have received from James Island, and was particularly heavy to-day. (It afterward, with the fire of Sumter and Battery Gregg, continued day and night.) Our batteries reply by firing at Wagner, which does not respond. This James Island battery will be most annoying, because our works are not, and could not easily be, defiladed against it, either in profile or trace, on account of the form and scarcity of the ground on which we have to operate.

Brooks gave no notice in his journal to the Confederate fires from James Island through the rest of the month. On the other hand, Lieutenant Peter Michie, responsible for the construction of the Left Batteries on Morris Island, did find the James Island guns an inconvience:

The position [of the Left Batteries] being within range of the enemy’s batteries on James Island, ground was broken at night, a detail of 10 engineers and 100 men being employed for this purpose. A small detail of 10 engineers and 50 men were employed the next day, working as much as possible under cover, which, however, did not prevent the enemy from shelling them.

Perhaps if the Confederate fuses acted more reliably and more heavy guns been allocated to the task in the later part of July, the gunners on James Island might have disrupted the siege operations on Morris Island. I don’t think they could have lifted the siege entirely, however. But there’s a “what if” to consider. Had General P.G.T. Beauregard defeated the siege of Wagner and Sumter, would that rank with Seven Days or Chickamauga as a turn around of Confederate fortunes?

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part II, Serial 47, pages 275-6, 336 and 564-5.)

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