More “dialtory” engineer work: Delays improving Sullivan’s Island defenses

By November 1863, Confederate defenses on Sullivan’s Island took on a greater sense of importance.  The loss of Morris Island and the reduction of Fort Sumter left the batteries clustered around Fort Moultrie as the primary defense at the mouth of Charleston harbor.  The guns along Sullivan’s Island’s beachfront were a key part of the Confederate deterrence against Federal ironclads.  And, with a mind to the reduced blockade runner traffic, the guns on Sullivan’s Island also protected the best channel for those who might chance a run.  This close up of an 1865 chart labels it “Beach Channel” but “Maffitt’s Channel” is more common:


Notice the number of wrecks at the head of the channel.  That is no small coincidence, as the waters there were not idea for transit.  But starting in September 1863, it was the only channel with Confederate guns to keep Federal blockaders at a respectful distance.  Breach Inlet, while not deep enough for most ocean going ships, offered a haven for light draft vessels – to include one particular submarine-type vessel.

With the importance of Sullivan’s Island in mind, on November 8, Brigadier-General Roswell Ripley issued detailed instructions for the defense of the island should the Federals attempt a landing.  The most likely attack would involve a landing on Long Island, to the north, or directly upon the northern end of Sullivan’s Island.  Ripley’s preparations were justified just days later when, on November 12, one of the monitors moved up Maffitt’s Channel and fired on the Island at a range of a mile.

The bombardment was inconsequential, but spurred Confederate efforts to improve the defenses of Sullivan’s Island.  And it also revived a long standing argument between the field commanders and the Confederate engineers.  On November 23, Ripley forwarded a long complaint to General P.G.T. Beauregard’s headquarters concerning the lack of progress on those defenses.  he began noting a recent urgency to improve the layout of Battery Marshall while generally enlarging the works.


The intent was a layout to block any enfilade fires from Monitors in the channel, while allowing for mounting more guns.  But this, like other Confederate construction projects around Charleston, did not proceed with the rapidity needed.  Ripley intended to use his troops for a labor force, but lacked tools.  Colonel D.H. Hamilton, commanding at Battery Marshall, finally secured enough to start work.  But then Lieutenant-Colonel D.B. Harris, Chief Engineer of the department, arrived to, in Ripley’s view, mess things up.

Some weeks after the matter had been brought forward, Lieutenant-Colonel Harris, chief engineer, visited Battery Marshall, and finding that the work was to progress, proceeded to lay out a piece of fortification, without consultation with the district commander, and in direct opposition to the views of Colonel Hamilton. This was in effect, as reported, a miniature citadel, which would not effect the object indicated, and apparently, if finished, is to be used as a place of last resort…. The development of the proposed citadel is quite as great or greater than of that deemed more efficacious by the local commander and myself.

This confusion further delayed the construction project, and worse left the island’s defenses weak at a critical phase of operations.  Ripley’s concern was the lack of coordination and communication from the engineers.  But his real point was control of the engineering.  In his view the engineers were supposed to build what the commander requested, not devise their own plan of defense.  Furthermore, Ripley believed the commander should direct the allocation of resources, not the chief engineer.  Ripley’s complaint took into account recent operations:

Instances of dilatory action on the part of the Engineers, during the period succeeding the evacuation of Batteries Wagner and Gregg, can be found in the four or five weeks’ delay, deliberating on the shield for the renewed batteries of Fort Sumter; in the insufficient supply of material for the construction of the bomb-proofs, simple as they are, there required; in the slow progress of the works on Sullivan’s and James Islands; in the faulty disposition and slow progress of the works of defense at Battery Marshall–a work in the same relative position to Sullivan’s that the south end was to Morris Island, and the loss of which will entail similar but greater disasters.

In the end, he issued a warning:

The action of the engineer department certainly contributed but little to the protection off the south end of Morris Island, although months were afforded them. It is true that the ultimate cause of our weakness in that direction can be traced to a different source; yet the full share of the responsibility for the loss of those points which we have hitherto sustained, the annoyance and injuries now being inflicted on Charleston, and the danger to the people and the cause which must attach to those who neglected a palpably necessary work, and, moreover, interfered to prevent its execution by others.

Beauregard’s Chief of Staff, Brigadier-General Thomas Jordon, returned Ripley’s letter with a bit of admonishment about general allegations.  While Ripley could, “prefer… specific charges against Colonel Harris” or others, he was to “arraign in the general way the policy and measures of the commanding general….”  For the time, that concluded the matter without, of course, furthering the actual improvement of defenses on Sullivan’s Island.

Let me turn, in a follow up post, to the details of those defenses as they existed in November 1863.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part II, Serial 47, pages 515-20.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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