150 years ago: Beauregard aims to turn off the lights on Morris Island

On November 13, 1863, General P.G.T. Beauregard had just about enough of the Federal calcium light on Morris Island.  The light, which illuminated Fort Sumter most every night, put a crimp on Confederate night-time activity as they repaired damage from the day-time bombardments.  The light also aided aiming night fire from the Federal mortars.  So Beauregard called upon his subordinates to pinpoint the location of the calcium light.  Brigadier-General Roswell Ripley relayed the order to his battery commanders that evening:

The commanding general has directed that the exact direction of the enemy’s calcium light shall be determined, by triangulation or otherwise, from certain batteries on James Island, and he also wishes the same steps to be taken at Fort Moultrie, in order that the position of the light in question may be ascertained, and that a concentrated fire may be maintained upon it until it shall be extinguished.

The Federals inadvertently delayed this effort by turning off the calcium light at 3 a.m. on the morning of November 14.  But Confederate observers had provided enough information within a day to put the calcium light on the list of targets.  On November 15, batteries on Sullivan’s Island began firing on the suspected location of the light.  From the journal entries of Beauregard’s headquarters for that day:

In reply to the enemy, to-day the Brooke Gun Battery fired 40 mortar shells; Battery Rutledge, 21 columbiad shells and 13 mortar shells; Fort Moultrie, 29 shells, and Battery Marion, 28 shells. The fire from the two latter works was directed with a view to extinguish the enemy’s calcium light, the position of which has been determined by triangulation from several points, by direction of the commanding general, and it is believed to be in an embrasure of Battery Gregg. General Ripley telegraphs that he fired briskly for about three-quarters of an hour, and did not succeed in putting it out….

The Confederates unleashed the bombardment against the light in the early evening, well after dusk.  Turning again to a (color) map of the harbor entrance as it looked towards the end of the war:


The two Confederate positions directly responsible for extinguishing the light were Fort Moultrie and Battery Marion in the upper right.  Their target was Fort Putnam, formerly Battery Gregg, at the north end of Morris Island, just below center on the map.  Other batteries mentioned in the journal were Battery Rutledge, on Sullivan’s Island next to Fort Moultrie; and the Brooke Gun Battery just outside Fort Johnston on the left of the map. 

The weight of this bombardment surprised the Federals on Morris Island.  Up to this time, the guns on Sullivan’s Island fired only the occasional shot at the Federal batteries.  But the arrival of just under sixty shells that evening indicated something was afoot.  Brigadier-General Alfred Terry signaled a request to the fleet:

The enemy have opened a heavy fire on Cumming’s Point.  Will you have some of your vessels move up, so as to prevent an attack by boasts on the sea face of the point.

This message reached Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren at around 10:30 p.m.  The request was also seen by Confederate observers, who passed it on to Ripley.  So despite their lack of success against the light, the Confederates were consoled knowing their small bombardment (comparatively speaking) had concerned the Federals.

Dahlgren complied with the request and ordered the monitors then on picket duty in the main ship channel to move forward and cover Cumming’s Point.  In particular, the USS Lehigh moved to a position, as described by Commander Andrew Bryson who skippered the monitor, “which would enable me to use my guns on any boats of the enemy which might be seen approaching Cumming’s Point.”  Bryson recorded the depth at that position was 3¼ fathoms.  But that was not enough.  During the night the Lehigh swung with the current and grounded.  With the dawn on November 16, the Confederates once again had a stranded ironclad in front of their guns.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, page 164 and Part II, Serial 47, page 502; ORN Series I, Volume 15, pages 117 and 119.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

9 thoughts on “150 years ago: Beauregard aims to turn off the lights on Morris Island

    1. It’s interesting that in the ensuring 35+ years nobody ever took a sledgehammer and tried to pound the dents out. I suppose they were badges of honor.

      Can you imagine being stationed on an old-style Monitor in the 1890s, when when the pre-Dreadnaught battleships were coming into being? You probably realized then that that you were being fast-tracked for oblivion.

    2. Well first off, that’s plate iron. Would take more than a sledge to beat out the dents. And replacing the entire plate would be cumbersome, with the removal of the bolts and such. Almost all the wartime monitors continued in service through the end of the century (off and on service that is) with dents and dings like this.

      Subject for a longer post, perhaps after the 150ths, is the fate of these monitors. The Navy, like the Army, didn’t have funding to replace the Civil War era weapons. So it worked with these antiquated ships right up to the 1880s. Some of the monitors were replaced, one for one, under a scheme of “great repair.” Everyone knew what was going on. But it was a classic example of creative bookkeeping. By the time of the S-A War, these were reserve ships relegated to coastal defense duties. Brought out of reserve, their last duty was to stand guard over the ports, should the Spanish fleet show up. And what was backing them up? 10- and 15-inch Rodmans!

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