The ever shrinking armament of Fort Sumter

In April, 1863, Fort Sumter repulsed an attack by Federal ironclads using forty-four guns. After that crisis past, the fort received a few new heavy guns. By the end of June, the fort bristled with sixty-four guns and four mortars. While General P.G.T. Beauregard would have preferred more of the heavy guns, particularly Brooke rifles, the fort remained a formidable obstacle blocking Federal attempts to reach Charleston harbor.

But with the Federals in possession of the southern two-thirds of Morris Island, the handwriting was on the wall. As a harbor defense, Fort Sumter’s days were numbered. Starting in July, Beauregard directed the reduction of Fort Sumter’s valuable heavy ordnance. If the Federals were soon to reduce the work, better to salvage those guns for work elsewhere in the harbor defenses.

According to John Johnson, who was a lieutenant during the campaign, serving as an engineer, and later wrote The Defense of Charleston Harbor, at the time of the August bombardment, Fort Sumter’s armament was reduced to thirty-eight guns and two mortars:

  • West flank barbette – two IX-inch Dahlgren guns
  • North-west face barbette – two 10-inch columbiads, two 8-inch columbiads, and four 42-pounders.
  • North-eastern face barbette – two 10-inch columbiads, and five rifled 42-pounder.
  • East flank barbette – one XI-inch Dahlgren and four 10-inch columbiads, one 8-inch columbiad, one 7-inch Brooke, and one rifled 42-pounder.
  • Gorge barbette – five rifled 32-pounders and one 24-pounder.
  • Salient casemate – three rifled 42-pounders.
  • Lower tier casemates on northwest and northeast flanks – two VIII-inch Dahlgrens and two 32-pounders.
  • Parade field – two 10-inch mortars.

Colonel Alfred Rhett provided a table detailing the distribution of Fort Sumter’s guns from the start of July through early September:


First line down, the XI-inch Dalhgren was one of those recovered from the USS Keokuk earlier that spring.

In his remarks about this table, Rhett explained the “left uninjured” weapons were buried in the fort’s remains. Most of those, he felt, were actually injured but could not confirm. At the time of this report, just before the evacuation of Battery Wagner, only one 32-pounder smoothbore, on the northwest casemate tier, was operational. All the remaining guns were buried, incapacitated, or transferred out of Fort Sumter.

The disarming of the Fort Sumter gave some sectors of the Confederate defenses a much needed boost. The biggest beneficiaries of the distribution were the batteries on James Island. The fourteen guns going to the batteries there included eight columbiads, a Brooke rifle, and four VIII-inch shell guns. A dozen guns went to the batteries in Charleston itself, finally giving the inner harbor a credible defense. Four more columbiads on Sullivan’s Island added weight to that flank’s already formidable armament. But a mortar and a rifled 32-pounder transferred from Fort Sumter would end up among the weapons given up in the withdrawal from Morris Island.

As these guns came out of Fort Sumter, the Confederate engineers filled casemates and other open spaces with sand and other materials to buttress the fort’s walls. Quaker guns kept the Federals from knowing the exact details about the fort’s disarmament. By the first week of September, Fort Sumter was little more than a symbol of defiance, lacking its former position as the centerpiece of the Charleston harbor defenses.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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