Unremitting attention in every detail: The practice of fire against Fort Sumter

When the Federal batteries opened on Fort Sumter on August 17, 1863, they were not simply flinging shells about with the hope that simple weight of shot would bring victory. There was a method to the work. Not only were the batteries directed to fire on specific points of the Confederate fortifications, the crews were given explicit instructions as to how they would handle the big guns. In other words, a rigid practice. In the words of Brigadier-General John Turner, Chief of Artillery on Morris Island:

It very soon became manifest, after our fire upon Sumter had opened, that unremitted attention to the service of these rifled guns in every particular of detail would be imperative to insure that accuracy necessary for success.

The “practice” directed by Turner started out with careful attention to the most important resource engaged – the crews. The work of building the batteries had already fatigued the men. Now the unrelenting cycle of loading, putting into battery, and firing was going to further wear down the crews.

Another problem facing the crews servicing the guns was simply getting to and from the battery stations. Sleeping quarters needed to be at least a mile behind the batteries to avoid Confederate fire.

Camping on the beach might sound tranquil. But this was a noisy beach with all sorts of things blasting away and blowing up just to the north. The distance from the batteries afforded the crews at least some respite, but it also meant they had to walk a mile or more to do their assigned work.

To alleviate the strain on the crews, Turner sought to reduce the work into shifts. The Federals didn’t need a heavy infantry line as seen in the “stand up” Civil War battles, and could afford to distribute detailed infantry to man the artillery pieces (as I’ve mentioned in the examinations of each battery position in earlier posts). Each gun had three shifts, or reliefs. Each relief contained a full crew plus a few men to handle the work in the magazines. For the guns firing on Fort Sumter, each relief worked four hours in the battery followed by an eight hour rest. Although the crew drawing the 8 p.m. shift generally stayed at the gun until dawn, as little night firing took place. The shift work for guns firing on Battery Wagner was twelve hours on, with twelve hours rest.

Early on, Turner expected to fire the Parrotts about once every eight minutes. But in short order that pace increased with improved crew efficiency. Resolution of certain issues with the carriages likewise improved the rate of fire. In time, the 6.4-inch Parrotts fired once every five minutes. The 8-inch Parrott rate of fire improved to one in 7-8 minutes. But the crews were directed to reserve the big 10-inch Parrott in Battery Strong to just one shot every ten minutes.

As these guns were firing at extreme ranges, relative to the Civil War, the battery commanders had to exercise a great deal of supervision of the crews. The smallest defect on the projectile; the slightest change of wind; or a minor settling of the gun might throw off the shot. Much attention was paid to preparing the projectiles for firing. The projectiles received a coat of grease. The bore received a sponge swipe of oil after every third or fourth shot. However this practice came into question as the oils attracted a lot of beach sand, as one might imagine.

After every twentieth round, the crews washed out the bores. Then they allowed the guns to cool before resuming firing. Such helped to clear the accumulation of sand in the bore, and of course clear some of the residue out.

Another preparation involved the brass sabot at the base of the Parrott projectiles. Some of the Parrott shells failed to take to the rifling and ended up tumbling badly in flight. To help force the brass into the rifle grooves, the handlers would separate, very slightly, the sabot from the projectile. Too much separation and the brass sabot might strip loose… or worse, lodge in the gun. So this became another fine detail point which the officers and sergeants inspected with a careful eye.

When several shells exploded prematurely just past the muzzle, or in some cases inside the bore, the fear was flames were slipping past the fuse threading into the powder charge. To resolve this, the ammunition handlers sealed the fuses with lead. But further observations determined this was not the issue. Instead there were defects to the shell castings.

All these “practices” added to the normal drill of the crew. For hours on end, day after day, the artillerists, including those detailed infantry, cycled through as they fired projectiles weighing between 80 and 200 pounds at Confederate fortifications. Something to keep in mind when we look at the faces in those photographs.


(Source: OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 220-22.)