“The enemy opened fire upon the city”: Bombardment of Charleston resumes

The journal entry at the Headquarters, Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida for November 17, 1863 noted a grim change in the focus of Federal efforts outside Charleston:

At 11 a.m. the enemy from Battery Gregg opened fire upon the city, and continued for two hours, during which time 20 shells fell inside or in the immediate vicinity of, the city…

In a telegram the next day to General Samuel S. Cooper, Confederate Adjutant General in Richmond, General P.G.T. Beauregard passed along details:

Bombardment of Sumter continued as usual since last report. Enemy fired yesterday on the city from Battery Gregg 23 100-pounder shells.  Three fell in bay, 2 exploded in air, and 18 struck vicinity of Saint Michael’s Church – range, 4½ miles.  Nearly all exploded on striking.  No casualty and little damage done. Enemy’s Greek fire is a humbug.

Records from Fort Sumter indicate the Federals fired 783 shots at that Confederate position, including those fired at night.  The Confederates in the fort tallied 575 hits.  The majority of the Federal shots fired, some 636, were mortar shells.  So Federals addressed the majority of their outgoing ordnance towards Fort Sumter.  The fires on Charleston were a small portion of a larger effort.

At the corner of Meeting and Broad Street, St. Michael’s Church was a readily identifiable landmark on the southern end of Charleston.  Lieutenant Charles Sellmer used the church steeple as a reference when sighting the Swamp Angel in August of that year.   The church stands tall in the distant center of this photo taken at the close of the war:

The Circular Congregational Church on the left and other damaged structures are the result, not of the Federal shelling, but of the great fire which devastated the city in December 1861.

The range of these Federal shells is noteworthy.  The standard range tables for Parrott rifles, even up to the large 6.4-inch (100-pounder) guns mentioned in the telegram, was half that recorded for the bombardment of Charleston.  For the bombardment of the city, Federals modified existing carriages, or fabricated new ones, to allow extreme elevation, for that time.  Major-General Quincy Gillmore recorded the results of these fires in a table accompanying his official report:


Note the last line.  At 35° elevation, with an 80 pound hollow shot, the 6.4-inch Parrott had a range of 8,453 yards, with a time of flight just over 36 seconds. With that range in mind, most of the wharfs of Charleston were under the Federal guns.  One photograph from Fort Putnam shows a 6.4-inch Parrott at about the 35° elevation mark mentioned:

The carriage was not designed for that elevation.  Firing did put stress on parts not designed for such.  But the northern factories could make plenty of wrought iron carriages, if more were needed.

Confederate observers reported the Federals used a non-standard, and somewhat innovative carriage when resuming the bombardment in November.  In his journal of activities on the James Island lines, Major Edward Manigault recorded:

At 11:20 a.m. the enemy commenced shelling the city of Charleston from the battery to the south of Gregg.  the gun is lowered by machinery after each discharge, for the convenience of loading.  After being loaded, it is again raised by machinery to the level of the firing platform at which time several feet of the chase can be seen above the parapet, from Battery Haskell. After the elevation and direction are verified, it is fired.  It recoils several feet, is run again to battery, and descends again to be loaded.

The regimental history of the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery offers another description of this carriage:

It is worthy of record that our marvelous success in throwing metal and flame into the city of Charleston – a horizontal distance of five miles – was very largely due to the novel and peculiar gun-carriage we employed. The kinds of gun-carriages hitherto known would not endure such heavy firing at such great elevations. The elevation in some cases was about forty degrees.  Some of the missiles would be thirty-six seconds on their path.  Special provision had to be made for the recoil of the gun. The new carriage invented, which was kept a secret from all visitors – even from the officers from abroad – consisted of long elastic timbers of such size and adjustment as allowed the gun to spring down and backwards on a parabolic curve.

The secrecy surrounding this carriage may account for the lack of full documentation.  But this does sound like a predecessor to the disappearing carriages used in American seacoast fortifications decades later.  Of course those used steel and counter-weight lifts.

From James Island Manigault added the observation:

The sound of motion of shell through the air could be distinctly heard apparently until it had passed far beyond any part of James Island and then the explosion of the shells in the city would be heard. The firing continued at the average rate of one shot every 6 or 8 minutes for two or more hours.

The bombardment of Charleston had more psychological than material effect.

(Citations: OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 31, 165, 686; Volume 28, Part II, Serial 47, page 511; Siege Train: The Journal of a Confederate Artilleryman in the Defense of Charleston, edited by Warren Ripley, Charleston: University of South Carolina Press, 1986, page 84; Frederic Denison, Shot and Shell: The Third Rhode Island Heavy Artillery Regiment in the Rebellion, 1861-1865, Providence, Rhode Island: Third R.I. Artillery Veteran Association, 1879, page 253.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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