150 Years Ago: A minor little bombardment of Fort Sumter

From September 9 through September 27, 1863, the Federal batteries on Morris Island remained, relatively speaking, quiet.  But for an occasional ranging shot or short exchange of fire, the Federals focused on building and improving what was Battery Gregg into Fort Putnam.  The same might not be said for the lines between Major-General Quincy Gillmore and Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren.

Back in July, the plan had been to land on Morris Island, claim Battery Wagner by (short) siege, reduce Fort Sumter, then support the Navy as it forced its way into Charleston’s harbor.  When the early failures in July lead to a dual siege in August, Gillmore had leaned heavily on the Navy for support. Now with Morris Island in hand and Fort Sumter a shell of its former self, Gillmore was ready for the Navy to take up the lead.  But Dahlgren saw things differently.  Having operated for an extended time in the summer months practically engaged every day, the ironclads were in need of refit and crews in need of rest.  The lax days of September provided a much needed rest.  However, Dahlgren was not ready to put his ironclads back into the fray.  Writing to Gillmore on September 26, he wanted a Federal flag on Fort Sumter first:

With Sumter in our possession, the obstructions ranging from that work to Moultrie, whatever they are, would be removable with no great trouble and little risk, and I should advance upon the next series of defenses with the least possible expenditure of means, and with the iron-clads in the best condition.

May I ask, therefore, when your batteries may be able to operate on Sumter, and whether I may depend on your driving the enemy out of it? I shall be glad to contribute any cannon you may need to complete your works.

Gillmore saw this as a new requirement added by the Navy and also, understandably, misunderstood the meaning of “drive the enemy out.”  At length he responded to call into question any operation assaulting Fort Sumter, concluding:

I am myself willing to attempt the removal or destruction of the outer line of obstructions, rather than sacrifice men in carrying a work that possesses no power to harm an iron-clad fleet that has already repulsed one naval assault from small boats, that would be held with difficulty at the present time if we possessed it, and which must fall into our hands whenever the naval part of the programme before Charleston is carried out.

The following day, Dahlgren responded, stiffly, to clear up the matter.  It was the musketry fire from Fort Sumter, he feared, which might disrupt efforts to clear obstructions.  He had only suggested another bombardment of Fort Sumter.  “No assault is in question. If the cannon will not do it, the remainder will be on my hands, though I may say that even an assault was not so remote from your calculations at one time.”  In response, Gillmore related that several rifled guns were in place on Cumming’s Point and five of the heavy Parrotts remained in the Left Batteries ready to support the Navy.  “It now is my time,” Gillmore wrote, “to play a subordinate part, and all the means under my control are at your disposal for that purpose.”

While this dialog between senior Federal leaders took place, Gillmore had indeed began a fresh bombardment of Fort Sumter.  Major Stephen Elliot in command of the Confederate garrison offered this journal entry covering the activities of September 28:

I have the honor to report that at a quarter before 2 yesterday land batteries, distant 2 1/3 miles, opened a slow fire upon this work, directed mainly upon the southwest angle. One hundred shots were thrown, of which 48 struck, 16 fell short, 36 passed over. A negro was killed. The damage to the work is not considerable. A monitor came up apparently to observe the effect of the practice. This morning the fleet retains the position and numbers of yesterday.

Over the next few days, more Federal projectiles sailed over the waters towards Fort Sumter.  On the receiving end, Elliot recorded these results:

  • September 28: 100 rounds fired with 48 hits
  • September 29: 95 rounds fired with 34 hits
  • September 30: 68 rounds fired with 45 hits
  • October 1: 129 rounds fired with 75 hits
  • October 2: 74 rounds fired with 44 hits
  • October 3: 95 rounds fired with 78 hits
  • October 4: six rounds fired with no results recorded

At the same time, the Confederates gave as good as they got.  From the batteries on James Island and occasionally from Fort Moultrie, the rebel gunners fired a total upwards of 700 rounds through October 4.  At times the Confederate fire outnumbered that of the Federals.  The journal of operations kept at the Department headquarters in Charleston noted for October 4:

Three hundred and seventeen shots have been fired by our batteries (Sullivan’s Island, Simkins, Cheves, and Haskell) since 6 a.m. yesterday.  The enemy have fired in the same time 136 shots.

However mixed in with that count were a substantial number of mortar shells fired at Black Island where the Federals were building new gun positions.  From Battery Haskell a 10-inch mortar firing a 10 pound powder charge required 26.5 seconds (give or take) to explode a few hundred feet above the Federal battery.

With the tapering off of Federal fires on October 4, Elliot made a survey of the damage:

The effect of the week’s bombardment has been to cut the top of the gorge wall slightly in one or two places, to dig holes in the parade, and to extend the breach in the north wall, and to give give indications of future reaches possible at some remote period.

This brief action by the Federals became known as the “first minor bombardment” of Fort Sumter.  Instead of the 5,009 projectiles fired in the week of August 17-23, the Federals sent over just 567, by Confederate counts, in this “minor bombardment.”  Part of the reason for the anemic showing was the ongoing efforts to shift guns and build new works. But also factoring into operations at this time, Gillmore faced a long sick-call roll.  Department wide returns for the month of September closed with some 5,438 sick, out of a total present 28,831 troops present.  That’s nearly 19% across the Department.  On Morris Island alone, 2,246 were listed as sick, leaving only 8,734 present for duty.

Looking at the timing of Federal correspondence, I’ve always been inclined to see this bombardment as an effort by Gillmore to let Dahlgren know the Army was ready to resume operations.  A point of honor, perhaps.  So while the two combatants exchanged iron, the senior Federal leaders exchanged verbal barbs.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 26, pages 140, 626 and 627.; Serial 27, pages 97-8 and 100-1, and page 102 for Department of the South’s returns for September.)

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