150 years ago: The bombardment of Fort Sumter begins

At daybreak on August 17, 1863, an 8-inch Parrott in Battery Brown fired a shell at Fort Sumter.  That shot signaled the start of the first, of many, bombardments of the fort from Federal batteries on Morris Island.  This shot was the culmination of a month’s worth of activity, which for all practical purposes started immediately after the failed July 18 assault on Battery Wagner.

Gillmore had desired to open the bombardment days earlier. But several factors, including faulty powder, delayed the start.  Even with that delay, only eleven guns and two mortars joined in the bombardment on that first day.  The other 8-inch Parrott at Battery Brown was temporally disabled by a broken gimlet. All three guns of Battery Rosecrans and two guns of Battery Meade joined in that day.  All four rifled guns of the Naval Battery answered the call. The 8-inch gun in the advanced position on Battery Hays made its presence felt.  And the two seacoast mortars from Battery Kirby added their weight.

The following day, guns in Battery Reno joined in, adding three more heavy Parrotts to the count of those engaged. And on August 19, one gun from Battery Stevens opened fire.  Not until August 20 was the full weight of Federal artillery felt, as the remaining guns in Battery Brown and Battery Stevens went into battery along with the addition of Battery Strong‘s 10-inch Parrott.  At that time, eighteen rifled guns an two mortars fired on Fort Sumter.  So this bombardment started out as one of the heaviest of the war, and gained intensity through the days which followed.

Other batteries in the Federal lines focused on Battery Wagner and Battery Gregg.  The 30-pounder Parrotts of Battery Hays and Battery Kearny along with mortars in Battery Reynolds and Battery Weed focused on those targets.

Off shore, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren ensured the Navy’s presence was felt.  The ironclads USS Weehawken, USS Catskill, USS Nahant, USS Montauk, and USS New Ironsides moved up to bombard Battery Wagner.  Additional ships, USS Canandaigua, USS Mahaska, USS Cimarron, USS Ottawa, USS Wissahickon, USS Dai Ching, and USS Lodona, joined in from a safe distance. The monitors USS Passaic and USS Patapsco, both carrying an 8-inch Parrott rifle in lieu of the normal XI-inch Dahlgren, focused their attention on Fort Sumter, at a range of 2,000 yards.  However, at noon on August 17, Dahlgren pulled his ships back to rest the crews.  They would need the rest for the next day.

The land batteries each had specific instructions, as detailed in Special Orders No. 481 from Brigadier-General Qunicy Gillmore:

  • Battery Brown, with two 8-inch Parrotts, had one gun firing percussion shell and one firing solid bolts at the gorge wall of Fort Sumter.
  • Battery Rosecrans, with three 6.4-inch Parrotts, fired on the gorge wall with one gun firing percussion shell and the other two firing bolts.
  • Battery Meade, with two 6.4-inch Parrotts, also focused on the gorge wall with both guns firing percussion shells.
  • The Naval Battery had the option of aiming at the gorge wall or the barbette tier of Fort Sumter.  The Parrotts fired shell.  The Whitworths initially fired shell but switched to shot.
  • The 8-inch Parrott in the advanced position on Battery Hays targeted the gorge wall with solid bolts.
  • Battery Reno‘s 8-inch Parrott fired solid bolts at the gorge wall.  One of the battery’s 6.4-inch Parrotts also fired bolts, but the other fired shells.
  • The two 6.4-inch Parrotts of Battery Stevens fired on the gorge wall with one firing solid bolts and the other percussion shells.
  • The 10-inch Parrott of Battery Strong fired both solid bolts and percussion shells at the gorge wall.
  • The two seacoast mortars of Battery Kirby fired shells timed to explode within the fort, but just before hitting the parade field.
  • Battery Kearny fired three 30-pdr Parrotts at Battery Gregg and aimed three coehorn mortars at Battery Wagner.
  • The 10-inch mortars of Batteries Reynolds and Weed targeted Battery Wagner, with shells timed to explode just before hitting the Confederate works.
  • The 30-pdr Parrotts of Battery Hays split their fires between Batteries Gregg and Wagner.

So the weight of this Federal bombardment fell upon the gorge wall of Fort Sumter.  That was the most vulnerable section of the fort’s wall, and the side facing Morris Island.  Recall the Confederates employed the same technique in April 1861, but with ranges far less than that of August 1863.  And the number and weight of projectiles raining down on Fort Sumter far exceeded that employed two years earlier:


Yes, 145 tons of ordnance.  And that is only the Army’s tabulation. I’ll go into the practice of fire employed in this bombardment in a future post.  For now let me leave you with the last paragraph from Gillmore’s order of the day:

The brigadier-general commanding takes this occasion to remind the officers and men under his command, and especially those to whom he has this day assigned the posts of honor and of danger, that the eyes of a beneficent country are fixed upon them, with not only the ardent hope, but the confident expectation, of success.  The nation is indeed waiting to crown you the victors of Sumter.  We need not, and must not, fail. Let us fearlessly do our whole duty to our beloved country, and in the language of our late companion in arms, the gallant and lamented Strong, “Put our trust in God.”

With that, the Federals on Morris Island began an engagement which more resembles a battle from World War I than that of the Civil War.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, page 22.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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