A tragic accident: The loss of the Confederate steamer Sumter

An old military quip says, “friendly fire, isn’t friendly.”  That held true at the entrance to Charleston, South Carolina on the morning of August 31, 1863.  A series mistakes, miscues, and turns, coupled with plain old bad luck resulted in the loss of the steamer Sumter.  (NOTE:  This was NOT the raider CSS Sumter, later turned into the blockade runner Gibraltar.  Rather this Sumter was one of many steamers used by the Confederates around Charleston.)

The chain of events started on August 30.  Major Motte A. Pringle organized a routine resupply and replacement operation to Morris Island.  Just as the Federals rotated troops on the siege lines, the Confederates rotated troops stationed at Batteries Wagner and Gregg.  Given the danger of operating ships in those waters, normally the Confederates staged troops and supplies at Fort Johnson.  From there the Confederate Navy provided a rowboat shuttle to Cummings Point.  Analogous to the famous “Tokyo Express” of World War II, the boats ran at night to avoid the Federals.  In spite of Federal attempts to interdict, that method served the defenders of Morris Island well.

But on that particular evening, the Confederate Navy was unable to provide sailors for the rowboat detail.  Recall that during the day, the Federals blasted Fort Sumter with renewed vigor, sending 634 shots towards the Confederate bastion.  That and the posturing of the ironclads signaled a much anticipated naval assault on Fort Sumter was in the works.  With the Confederates on high alert, Commodore John Tucker kept all hands on board the CSS Chicora.

Pringle might have stopped right there, with justification, and waited for the next evening.  But with the replacements needed at Battery Wagner, and weary troops on the island needing rest, Pringle pressed on.  The steamer Chesterfield, which he’d taken to Fort Johnson, was unable to continue due to breakdown.  So Pringle turned to the steamer Sumter, and ship’s captain James R. Riley, to complete the night’s work.

The transit to Cummings Point went without incident.  After completing the transfer of cargo and personnel, the Sumter left the docks there around 2 a.m.  On board were troops from the 20th South Carolina, 23rd Georgia, and Matthew’s Light Artillery, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Olin M. Dantzler.  But the delays meant the Sumter was returning to port much later than expected.  Pringle later wrote:

The troops and all their supplies were landed on Morris Island, and those that were relieved were taken on board without any molestation from the enemy, although the night had changed into an exceedingly bright one, and at the upper end of the island there was a powerful calcium light. the tide had become so low that we were unable to cross directly over from Morris Island, and we were obliged to go a considerable distance around Fort Sumter.

The general route to and from Morris Island is depicted below (Point 1 is Fort Johnson. Point 2 is Cummings Point.  Point 3 is the entrance to the main ship channel.  Point 4 is the general location where the Sumter later sank.) :

SumterCourseAug31

The dashed yellow line is the return route not taken due to tides.  As depicted on the map, the wide route taken instead placed the Sumter in front of the batteries of Sullivan’s Island.   Those batteries had been engaged the previous day supporting Battery Wagner.  And the crews were that morning sleeping near the guns in anticipation of an attack by the ironclads.   At Fort Moultrie, Major Robert De Treville, First South Carolina Infantry, reported:

About 3 a.m. the officer of the day reported one of the enemy’s vessels approaching and on going out I saw a low, black steamer coming in from the direction of the enemy’s fleet. As soon as she was in easy range, I ordered fire opened, and she apparently stopped her course.

Dantzler, who was technically just a passenger on the Sumter, later wrote:

Being the senior officer present, I immediately ordered a light to be displayed, which was done for four or five minutes, but nothing better than a common tallow candle could be had.

The firing continued rapidly, and with more accuracy after the light was put up than before, and I therefore ordered it to be put out.  The whistle was also blown, but from some cause it did not blow clearly or loudly; I doubt if it could be heard at Sullivan’s Island amidst the noise of manning the batteries.  A brilliant light was also displayed on the parapet of Fort Sumter and at Battery Gregg.

Riley, in the wheelhouse, later stated he had the ship heel over to the shoal near Fort Sumter.  Other observers said the ship’s wheel was abandoned and the steamer drifted aground.  Either way, the Sumter stopped. While this was going on, Pringle ordered the ship to blow off steam, as an indication the Sumter was not attempting to force passage.  In addition, Pringle himself took an oil lantern up on deck to signal the friendly batteries.  Lastly, he ordered Riley to take a boat to shore in order to establish direct communication with the shore.  Finally, with the opening of the light from Fort Sumter and other signals, the firing from Sullivan’s Island ceased.

But the damage was done.  Dantzler assessed the injury in his report of the action:

I would judge that some 30 shots were fired, and 3 took effect, 2 striking her below low-water mark, and the third cutting down 2 of the men of the Twentieth, on the lower deck, and wounding another.  The men were relieved by small boats and barges, which were sent from Fort Sumter and Fort Johnson, but lost nearly all their guns, accouterments, and ammunition.  I had some 70 guns gathered up on the upper deck by a boat’s crew after the men got off.  I have made requisition for the guns, &c., needed, and solicit your aid in having us speedily supplied.

Thus without a single shot fired by the Federals, the Confederates lost a valuable transport, two men, and couple regiment’s worth of equipment.  The Sumter collapsed later that day and became another obstruction at the mouth of Charleston’s entrance.  Underwater archeologist E. Lee Spence places the wreck “fifty to seventy yards inside the Cumming’s Point buoy and about eight hundred to a thousand yards from Fort Sumter.”  (Spence identifies this as wreck 1863-8-US-SC/GA-5 on his list of shipwrecks on the Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina coast.)

Following this debacle, an official inquiry found Pringle at fault for not communicating the changes to standing plans on the night of August 30 and the morning of August 31.  However, General P.G.T. Beauregard waved any punitive action against Pringle, save an admonishment.  “Major Pringle’s zeal, energy and valuable services in keeping up nightly communications with Morris Island… alone shield him from trial by court-martial...”  To prevent any similar mistakes from occurring again, the Confederates established a system of signals across the harbor for day and night use.

From my blogging perspective, this story allows me to mention another of the interesting cannons found today around Charleston.  One of the guns in action was a 7-inch Brooke Triple-banded Rifle.

Fort Moultrie 3 May 2010 567

It was not the one on display at Fort Moultrie today. Rather the gun that fired on August 31, and at later engagements in the week that followed, was a similar weapon.  It was damaged beyond repair that September.  The gun presently at Fort Moultrie was the replacement.   So calling my next post out… let’s look at the 7-inch Triple-band Brooke.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 689, 694-5, 700, and 706 .)

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