150 years ago: “The Swamp Angel broods in his gloom”

In the early morning hours of August 22, 1863, a single shot fired from an 8-inch Parrott rifle at the Marsh Battery opened up another chapter in the operations on Morris Island. There’s a lot of “firsts” or “notables” often mentioned with this incident. But the most often cited is the first bombardment of a civilian population. Instead of focusing on the operational particulars, which I suspect most readers have a handle on, let me instead linger on that point.

As related in previous posts, the Marsh Battery was somewhat a side project spawned in the late days of July by Brigadier-General Qunicy Gillmore. Not only was this an engineering challenge, but a novel way of employing artillery. The gun would fire into the city of Charleston, at extreme range, using map and compass as aides. Gillmore justified this, with a fair amount of legal basis, on the fact that Confederate supplies to Battery Wagner, Battery Gregg, and Fort Sumter flowed out from the docks of Charleston. The harbor was by now a “battlefield” and the city might be considered a legitimate target just as the supply trains of a field army.

While I think from our 21st century vantage, it is hard to perceive the city wouldn’t be a legitimate target, there was that notion of limited warfare at play in the 19th century. I could spend a thousand words here pointing out how civilians had become targets in many sieges dating back to the dawn of time. Scott Manning would respond with a long, and lucid, comment. But the bottom line would soon emerge that war, in any age, is not exactly a regulated human activity. Things tend to get messy.

Just as with the discussions about Major-General John Pope, or Gillmore’s predecessor Major-General David Hunter, this is yet another facet of “hard war.” And before we start rattling about “war crimes,” remember that just days before shells started landing in Charleston, some fellow who’s name starts with a “Q” had showed up in Lawrence, Kansas and did a little more than just fire artillery at civilians.

There’s another aspect to the shelling of Charleston which manifests in a rather interesting manner. Shortly after the events, Herman Melville chose the bombardment of Charleston as the subject of a poem. “The Swamp Angel” is not one of his greatest works, perhaps, but a literary work commemorating a long range bombardment:

It comes like the thief in the gloaming;
It comes, and none may foretell
The place of the coming—the glaring;
They live in a sleepless spell
That wizens, and withers, and whitens;
It ages the young, and the bloom
Of the maiden is ashes of roses—
The Swamp Angel broods in his gloom.
Is this the proud City? the scorner
Which never would yield the ground?
Which mocked at the coal-black Angel?
The cup of despair goes round.

I’m no literary critic, and shall stick to my lane. But I cannot help but read between the lines of Melville’s verse – justice is served. Or perhaps, “the city got what it deserved.” Maybe just short of “revenge.” Yet no sense of sympathy to those who are “wizened, withered, or whitened.”

There’s another 19th and 20th century notion that has to be in play when we interpret such events like the bombarding of Charleston. That’s the idea of a “good war,” as in a justified or necessary war. I submit that for every southerner who complained about the atrocity, there were two or three northerners who saw the Civil War as a required crusade to right wrongs and serve justice. The Swamp Angel was just one “voice” in that great argument. From the Confederate perspective, the gun was a problem that resolved itself after 36 shot. But more “problems” of this type would emerge by year’s end.