“The saddest day of the siege” of Battery Wagner

Writing about the operations outside Charleston is a daunting task.  There’s simply too many topics to touch upon.  I might spend days with nothing more on the blog than posts about Morris Island – which is what I’ve done for the last month or more!

Let me start by saying that yes, the “first bombardment” of Fort Sumter ended on August 23.  But then let me say that the bombardment of Fort Sumter didn’t end that day.  It only slacked.  From the journal entries kept by Colonel Alfred Rhett in Fort Sumter, while clearly the weight of projectiles falling on Fort Sumter dropped down, the Federals were not ignoring the fort:

  • August 24 – 150 fired, 112 hits outside, 14 hits inside, 24 missed.
  • August 25 – 175 fired, 62 hits outside, 36 hits inside, 77 missed.
  • August 26 – 130 fired, 45 hits outside, 45 hits inside, 40 missed.
  • August 27 – 4 fired, all missed.
  • August 28 – 6 fired, 3 hits outside, 3 missed.
  • August 29 – No firing.
  • August 30 – 634 fired, 322 hits outside, 168 hits inside, 144 missed.
  • August 31 – 56 fired, 34 hits outside, 5 hits inside, 17 missed.
  • September 1 – 382 fired, 166 hits outside, 95 hits inside, 121 missed.
  • September 2 – 38 fired, 12 hits outside, 9 hits inside, 17 missed.

Both Federal and Confederate accounts, however, consider August 17-23 as the “first bombardment of Fort Sumter” phase, while that from August 24 forward marked a period of focus on Battery Wagner.  The surge of fire on August 30? For several days Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren prepared to make the long desired run into Charleston harbor.  For several days bad weather, reports of guns remounted on Fort Sumter, poor coordination, and delays just getting all the pieces together kept that sortie in check.  Finally set for the morning of August 31, the Army directed shots to break up the week’s worth of repairs done by Rhett’s men.  However, the weather again delayed the planned ironclad attack.

If Fort Sumter enjoyed a noisy “slackening” of fires from the Federal guns, Battery Wagner received the full wrath of those guns.  Sensing a point of diminishing returns with continued punishment of Fort Sumter, Gillmore made a tactical shift starting on August 24.  Starting that day, Federal batteries focused fires to keep the guns in Battery Wagner silent and, with some of the larger guns, attempt to breach the bomb-proofs providing shelter to the Confederates.

To really make this work, Gillmore needed the siege mortars much closer to the Confederate works.  But when the positioning of the fourth parallel fell a bit short of the desired line, the Federals spent several days just gaining leverage.  On the ground, or shall I say beach, the Federals faced a cross fire as they tried to move their siege lines forward.  With every move of the sap, fires from Battery Wagner, Battery Gregg, James Island, and occasionally even a defiant Fort Sumter focused on the work details. In his journal, Major Thomas Brooks lamented on August 25:

This has been to me the saddest day of the siege.  Less has been done in existing works than on any other; no advance has been made, nor does any seem possible.  Something besides spades and sharpshooters will have to be tried.  The troops seem to be resting from the labor and excitement of demolishing Sumter, and do not yet take much interest in the operations against Wagner.

Although on the calendar, Brooks and his compatriots were past the “dog days” of summer, I doubt that helped much with the spirits.  The break that Brooks looked for came on August 26, and was indeed something more than spades and sharpshooters.  I’ll take that up tomorrow.

For now, I want to consider the difference between this drawing:


And this photo:


And perhaps how that “slackening” fire listed above might explain any discrepancies, while at the same time helping to better determine when the photo was taken.

(Citations and sources:  OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 26, 295, and 616-21.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

5 thoughts on ““The saddest day of the siege” of Battery Wagner

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