Greek Fire shells at Charleston: Horrific incendiary or “humbug”?

One of the more controversial aspects of the siege of Charleston was the Federal use of incendiary shells, firing them into the city itself.  Major-General Quincy Gillmore ordered the use of 8-inch shells filled with “Greek fire” when the Swamp Angel bombarded the city in August 1863.   After the Swamp Angel burst, the Federals continued to fire the occasional incendiary shell into Charleston.  Gillmore recorded the results of those, from the Federal side, in his official report:

Greek Fire table

The first two lines in the table represent those fired by the Swamp Angel in August.  Even without running the numbers, the number that exploded prematurely, either in the gun or a short distance from the gun, was alarming.  In his public version of the report, Gillmore added a note to this table:

The premature explosion of shells filled with “Greek Fire” is doubtless caused by the heat generated by the friction between the interior surface of the shell and the tin cases, due to the sudden rotary motion imparted to the projectile.  I do not believe Short’s Greek Fire possesses any special merit over several other incendiary mixtures familiar to pyrotechnists.

(I never new the profession “pyrotechnist” existed… cool!)

The inventor identified by Gillmore was Mr. Levi E. Short, of Philadelphia.  In Patent Application #38424, Short described his mixture and its preparation for use:

I take forty pounds of saltpeter, seven pounds of charcoal, six pounds of asphaltum, two pounds of antimony, seven pounds of sulphur, and two gallons of naphtha. These ingredients, substantially in the proportions described, I thoroughly mix in a large wooden tank lined with copper, and when thoroughly mixed I allow the compound to stand for two or three days to settle. A large amount of sediment collects at the bottom of the tank, and the liquid rises above. The liquid is then drawn off and combined with any vegetable fibrous substance, the said fibrous material to be fully saturated with the liquid. This is then packed in explosive shells or projectiles and used as a destructive war-missile to burn an enemy’s ships, forts, &c. The sediment which collects at the bottom of the tank is taken in its plastic state and pressed into metallic cases of any convenient size-say three inches in length and five-eighths of an inch in diameter, more or less. This makes a combustible missile which, when ignited by the explosion of the projectile will burn with great intensity. As many of these as maybe required are then put into and combined with an explosive shell or any form of explosive projectile for use. When the projectile explodes these missiles will take fire, collodium being sprinkled over their open ends for this purpose, and will dart out in every direction with ten thousand fiery tongues, hissing and burning wherever they go. The fire is unquenchable, Water will not extinguish it. It consumes and burns wherever it strikes. When thrown into an enemy’s fortifications, forts, ships, or camps these missiles will consume everything in their fiery course, sending death and desolation into the enemy’s ranks.

Unquenchable fiery tongues consuming the enemy’s ranks!  Great sales pitch!

Short described the process of loading a projectile in official correspondence with military officials:

First put into the shell about the quarter of the bursting charge, then drop on top of the powder as many of the Greek-fire cases as will easily slide down the inside of the shell; when full, fill up with powder as long as you can jar it down with a mallet, then screw in the fuze, plug with white lead, and oil and fix the fuse firmly to its place, and your shell will be sure to fill its mission.

Short demonstrated his product at the Washington Navy Yard to good effect.    In its March 23, 1863 issue, the Scientific American reprinted a report from the Buffalo Republic, describing the tests:

The first experiment made was with three and a half pints of liquid, which, upon being thrown into a barrel of water, burned with great intensity for seventeen and a half minutes;  the solidified was tried by throwing a quantity of it among a mass of chips and on a plank.  The flame lasted over a minute and a quarter.  The experiments were witnessed by all the Navy-yard officials, all of whom expressed great satisfaction at the trial.

Short’s product went to Vicksburg, where a few samples were used by Rear-Admiral David Dixon Porter in the bombardment of the city – with notable results.  And at the same time, the War Department recommended Short’s “Greek Fire” to Gillmore during the Morris Island campaign.

In response to reports of premature bursting, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton authorized Short to visit Morris Island and aid with preparing the shells (on September 11, 1863 for those with a conspiracy theory to bend).  Captain Alfred Mordecai, ordnance officer serving on Morris Island, noted that before Short arrived the tins of “Greek Fire” furnished to him were covered in cartridge paper.  Short experimented with additional layers of paper, thicker paper, and finally with muslin.  Yet, as the table shows, these gave less than acceptable results.

On the receiving end, the Confederates took note of these incendiary shells.  On November 12, 1863, General P.G.T. Beauregard responded to Joseph R. Anderson, of Tredegar Iron Works, concerning this “Greek Fire.”

I thank you for your kind note of the 9th instant, and the slips of paper from the Scientific American. My ordnance officer here had already tried some experiments with the celebrated Yankee Greek-fire, taken from some of their unexploded shells, and found it to be a mere humbug; one pint of water extinguished the quantity held by one shell. Moreover, the 12 or 14 shells which have fallen in the city fired only one house, which was extinguished with one bucket of water· What a nation of humbugs and humbuggers; and how incorrigible they are, always passing from one absurdity to another still worse! I sincerely hope we have parted company with them forever.

Gillmore seems to be at a loss what to do next. I believe he has got to the end of this rope. He will probably soon commence pulling at another, with which I trust he will hang himself.

Clearly Beauregard, like Gillmore, was unimpressed with Short’s concoction. Beauregard added a post-script, “I am in possession of a ‘liquid fire’ which will make the Yanks open their eyes whenever I commence using it against their encampments.”  An engineer in Beauregard’s employ was working with phosphorus, with some promising results.

While the military ranks were unimpressed, the use of Greek Fire caused a stir in the public eye.  The Scientific American ran articles, letters, and responses, mostly clarifying the difference between Greek Fire in the classical sense and what was employed at Charleston.  And yes, the employment of incendiary weapons was nothing new to warfare.  Yet its use against civilian quarters was cited as a turn in the nature of warfare.   In the north, public response paralleled the response to the Swamp Angel’s bombardment of Charleston.  Cartoons depicted the Southerners as shocked:


But this horror was justified as “retribution.”

Of course Southerners saw this as an outrage.  Songs written about this episode (in New Orleans mind you!) with verses:

Pour the h-ll-fire in like water!
Show the rebel hounds no quarter!
Faster, master! ram and cram her!”
Shouts old Gillmore,
Mad to kill more–
“Give them still more, still more, still more!”

Suffice to say, technology had long exceeded the public perceptions about limitations of warfare.  Be it torpedoes or incendiary shells, the public turned to either justify, or renounce, the employment depending on which side it benefited.

(Citations and sources: OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 33-34 and Part II, Serial 47, page 501; ORN, Series I, Volume 25, page 518; US Patent #38424, “Improved composition for filling shells,” by Levi Short, May 5, 1863; Scientific American, Volume VIII, No. 12, March 21, 1863, page 195; Ibid, Volume IX, No. 12, September 19, 1863, page 181;  Ibid, Volume IX, No. 17, October 24, 1863, page 265; Edwin M. Stanton 1863 Autograph Letter, transcribed at Heritage Auctions, Lot 25298; “Greek fire, or The siege of Charleston“, New Orleans, October, 1863, Library of Congress Collection, Digital ID cw200780.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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