150 years ago: More boats against Fort Sumter

At 2 a.m. on the morning of November 20, 1863, Federal gunners on Morris Island sent two shells into the night, aimed at Charleston.  Those shots were in addition to the 97 fired at Fort Sumter, as part of the now routine night’s activity.  The moon sat shortly after the shots into Charleston.  The weather at Charleston favored a boat attack.  Respecting the situation, Major Stephen Elliott stood his men in Fort Sumter to arms at 2:30 a.m.

At 3 o’clock a detachment of the enemy’s barges, variously estimated at from four to nine in number, approached within 300 yards of the fort and opened fire with musketry. Most of the troops got into position very rapidly, but, in spite of all instructions, commenced a random fire into the air on the part of many and at the distant boats on the part of others. The troops stationed in the center bomb-proof for the most part refused to ascend the parapet, though encouraged by the example of Lieutenant Mironell and a few other brave men….

No rockets were sent up, because positive attack was not made. The ricochet practice from Sullivan’s Island was very handsome. The fire from Johnson was very bad, the balls passing directly over the fort….

The Federals had not attempted an assault on the fort, but rather conducted a reconnaissance to determine the state and size of the garrison.  Brigadier-General Alfred H. Terry gave a brief report the next day, indicating the boats met heavy fire from an estimated 200 men in the fort.  Federal losses were two wounded.

From the Confederate perspective, there were two issues to work out the next day.  With respect to the reluctance of certain troops to man their posts, Elliott had two lieutenants relieved from their posts.  And to improve the accuracy of Fort Johnson’s guns, on November 22 that post practiced ricochet fire during the day.

The Confederates were justified in their attention to the threat of landings at Fort Sumter.  The attempt in September was fresh in their minds. In October the 7th Connecticut Infantry was pulled aside for special training with boats.  Requisitions for Spencer carbines went out (perhaps the first ever recognition of the need for an “assault weapon”).  The regiment made scaling ladders.  Senior officers studied Fort Sumter by day to determine the best approaches up the fort’s crumbling walls.  Perhaps because these preparations were conducted in secrecy, there is little mention of them in Major-General Quincy Gillmore’s reports.

The 11th Maine Infantry, which was assigned duty in the batteries on Morris Island, recorded some of the boat-landing activity in the regimental history:

There were rumors afloat from the beginning of November that on this and that night a determined attack would be made of the fort.  [Sergeant Elias P.] Morton states that on the night of October 30th the Seventh Connecticut went into boats to storm Sumter, but that the order was revoked before they put off, and that on the night of November 2d a boat reconnoissance of the fort was made, a party reaching it undiscovered, bringing several bricks away….  [Captain Lemuel E.] Newcomb notes, November 18th: “On our way to the front this morning we heard musketry, and it turned out that our picket boats had been close up to Sumter, and had exchanged shots with the garrison.”

These probes of the fort, along with similar activity by the Navy’s picket boats, were commonplace.

As for the night of November 19-20, in Gillmore’s report to Major-General Henry Halleck on November 20, he indicates, “I ordered a reconnaissance of the place last night, of the nature of a simulated attack, with a view to compel the garrison to show its strength.” Captain Newcomb of the 11th Maine recorded in his diary:

Turned out with my detachment at one o’clock this morning to go to the front, as an attack was to be made on Sumter.  Our mortars might be needed.  The assaulting column was seen and fired on by the garrison just as we reached Fort Gregg.  We could see the flashes of musketry from the fort.  They looked like sparks from a chimney. The firing lasted about five minutes, and during it [Forts] Johnson and Moultrie began to ricochet shot over the water, enfilading the fort. Then Moultrie opened on Gregg, and firing was kept up until morning.  As the musketry ceased we could see our boats rowing back past the Point to the rendezvous on the west side of the island.

Reconnaissance, simulated attack, or another botched assault… pick one.  What ever the intent, the action on the night of November 19-20 was the last boat-landing operation attempted against Fort Sumter that year.  The specially trained 7th Connecticut returned to normal infantry duty.*  Gillmore offered no more plans to test Fort Sumter by direct assault.

NoteThe 7th Connecticut’s regimental history, while mentioning the training conducted in October and November, does not mention any attempts made against Fort Sumter.  Terry mentions “Major Cunningham” in command of the boat operations on November 19-20.  But no first name.  Nor any specific regiment.

(Citations: OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 605-6 and 743; The Story of One Regiment: The Eleventh Maine Infantry Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion, Press of J. J. Little & Company, 1896, pages 156-7.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

4 thoughts on “150 years ago: More boats against Fort Sumter

  1. “And to improve the accuracy of Fort Johnson’s guns, on November 22 that post practiced ricochet fire during the day.”

    What would that involve? Trying to bounce shells along the water into the side of a ship?

    1. Yes, bouncing – more correctly, skipping – a shot across the water with the aim of destroying one or two of the boats being rowed out to Sumter.

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