Buried alive by debris at Fort Sumter on Halloween

Robert, as he usually does this time of year, posted a “spooky” post yesterday.  The topic was the 19th century obsession concerning “The Premature Burial.”  At Fort Sumter, 150 years ago this Halloween, there was a very real premature burial.  But the cause was less sinister than something from an Edgar Allan Poe tale.  These were battle deaths.

During the second major bombardment of Fort Sumter, which started in the closing days of October, 1863, the Federals kept up the pressure with slow paced firings overnight.  At times, the besiegers used their calcium lights to illuminate the target.  This tactic served to keep the Confederates awake all night, diminish the repair work normally conducted at night, and keep the guard forces watchful for a sneak attack.

On the night of October 30, Colonel Alfred Rhett, the commander of the Fort Sumter garrison, kept a detachment inside the remaining structure on the sea-facing wall.  The men were there as a rapid-reaction force should the Federals attempt another amphibious landing.  They remained at the ready through the night into the early morning hours.  Their otherwise uneventful vigil interrupted by the 68 shots fired overnight from Morris Island.  Until one of the shots scored a lucky hit:

At 3 o’clock this morning a Parrott shot struck an iron girder in the sea wall, and a moment after the roof fell in crushing 13 men, who were posted there in readiness for an immediate mount to the crest, in case of a boat attack. The position was considered comparatively safe, as the roof had resisted the shock of this falling débris.

Rhett listed the names of those killed with the collapse in a separate dispatch:

Sergt. W. C. Owens, Sergt. J. A. Stevens, Privates S. L. Burrows, F. M. Burrows, S. W. Anderson, James Calder, O. J. Burn. W. E. Gibson, J. W. Jones, L. S. Lee, and W. N. Patterson, of Washington Light Infantry, Company A, Twenty-fifth Regiment, Private W. Martin, of Twelfth Georgia Battalion, and Mr. Matthewes, an overseer, were buried this morning by the falling in of the barracks on the sea face, where they had been placed in position for mounting the parapet in case of an assault.

Rhett lamented that a better bomb-proof might have prevented this loss.  But looking forward he requested ladders to better facilitate the defense.  In Charleston, General P.G.T. Beauregard’s reaction was a bit more cautionary –   “Order all walls threatening to fall and injure garrison to be pulled down or shot down, for which purposes an iron field piece can be sent there if desired.”

With daylight, the Federals continued the bombardment, but at a slower pace than previous days.   Summarizing the activity the following day, Rhett wrote that fires came from…

from two monitors, two heavy and two light rifled guns at Gregg, three heavy rifled guns and four 10-inch mortars at the middle battery, and four rifled guns at Wagner; 443 rifled shots were fired from the land batteries, of which 61 missed; 86 shots were fired from the monitors, all of which were reported as having struck, and 373 from mortars, of which 120 missed. The mortar fuses are cut so as to explode the shell a second or two after impact. In fact, during the night 70 rifled shots were fired, mostly with time fuses, of which 10 passed over, and 33 mortar shells, 12 of which did not strike. The fire of the land batteries was directed chiefly at southwest angle, which suffered severely.

The fuse settings chosen by the Federals indicates the intent was to break up the rubble and any repairs inside the fort.  And again the Federals appeared to focus more attention on the fort’s bastion closest to Morris Island.

In addition to the damage to the fort, Rhett cited a couple acts of bravery during the day:

The flag-staff was shot away twice and replaced by Sergeant [James] Garahan, Corporal [W. M.] Hitt, and Private R. J. Swain, all of Company F, Twelfth Georgia Battalion. The flag-staff was so cut up that it was necessary to raise the battle-flag of the Georgia Battalion in place of the flag.

Despite family ties to Georgia “Swains,” I have no evidence that Private R.J. is related to this blogger.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 631-2.)


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