A Defiant Thorn: The Three Gun Battery at Fort Sumter

The Second Major Bombardment of Fort Sumter petered out in the first week of December 1863.   For that week and into the second, the tally of shots fired was:

  • December 1 – six mortar shells
  • December 2 – 253 shots total; 180 direct fire, 73 mortar
  • December 3 – 38 Parrott (or Columbiad) shots
  • December 4 – 149 shots fired.
  • December 5 – Six Parrott rifle shots
  • December 6, 7, 8 – Nothing
  • December 9 – Six Parrott rifle shots
  • December 10 – Nothing

With the exception of December 11 (which will be explained in a follow up post), the Federals fired only four more rounds at Fort Sumter through the close of the year.  So the Second Great Bombardment was over.  The objective, when begun on October 26 was to silence any guns the Confederates had repositioned in Fort Sumter.  And the intent was to render the fort of no threat to the ironclads in preparation for a run into the harbor.  Was that accomplished?

Not exactly.  One of the more famous illustrations of Fort Sumter during the siege of Charleston depicts the fort’s only remaining battery.  The drawing is titled ” Fort Sumter / December 9th 1863 /  Interior View of Three Gun Battery”:

The drawing’s central subject is a 10-inch columbiad, guarded by a solemn soldier.  Scattered about are projectiles and debris.  But standing informally to the left are implements for the cannon.  Two other columbiads give justification for the name three gun battery.  But guards there apparently were more concerned with keeping warm against what must have been a cool breeze through the gun ports. One might argue the artist took license with the rather clean archways and casemate chambers, figuring by this time the fort would be in complete disarray.  But that notion would be a bit hasty.

Lieutenant John Ross Key made this drawing while serving as an engineer at Charleston.  I intend to examine Key’s background and work as a follow up (… a rather interesting subject, being the grandson of Francis Scott Key, among other things).  Key drew several other scenes of Fort Sumter attributed to December 9th.  One of which was captioned “View of Entrance to Three Gun Battery.”

There’s the debris and desolation one might expect after weeks under Federal bombardment.  These two drawings actually match well with surveys done by the Federals at the close of the war:


Let me “zoom” in to show what I’m referring to.  The drawing in the center of that set shows the fort, as it looked in 1865, as seen from above. The Three Gun Battery was on the northeast, or right, face:


Even with the debris removed, that section of the diagram shows the bank of earth put up behind the battery to enclose and protect, which appears in Key’s drawing. Profile line labeled Section G-H follows the entrance to the battery:


Confederate engineers used sandbags, and later gabions, at the entrance. Heavy beams secured the earth and debris piled up behind the battery.  And the right flank of the battery incorporated the old brick wall from the east salient of the fort.  Note the “ghost” outline of the fort’s original profile.  That corner of the fort was shot away during the Federal bombardment.

Looking down inside to what was the lower tier level of the fort, the galleries for the three guns show up in the 1865 survey:


Three profile traces follow the lines across those three gun positions.  First the right most, which would be closest to the viewer in Key’s drawing of the interior, is along Section I-K:


Note again the ghost outline of the original walls.  Because this face did not front the Federal batteries, much of the brick-work remained. Notice the embankment behind and the structure in front of the original embrasure.  That structure to the front extended down to the high water mark.  Notice the middle tier casemate remained somewhat intact.  At least the archway remained in 1865.  And that archway appeared in Key’s December 1863 sketch of the entrance way.

The same could not be said for archway over the middle of the three gun positions.  Section L-M from the 1865 survey indicates that part of the fort was gone:


Logical inference is the archway was shot away after Key visited the fort.  From Sections I-K and L-M, clearly the interior of the casemates, to include the archways, remained intact.  So their appearance in Key’s drawing was not so much artistic license.

Consider again the structure to the front of the original embrasure.  An earthen wall reenforced by logs in the form of a crib.  That cover structure was not over the fort wall to the left of the Three Gun Battery.  Section N-O from the Federal survey indicates the casemates were intact, but somewhat cramped compared to those on the immediate right.


From the outside, here’s how the Three Gun Battery appeared in the Federal survey of 1865:


There’s the crib for the earth placed in front of the Three Gun Battery.  That arrangement gave the battery a little extra protection while preventing damaged sections from falling to blocking the embrasures.  And the structure covers the three gun positions, with an extension to towards what appeared to be an guard post accessed through the fourth embrasure, in which no gun was mounted.  The survey diagram matches well with a sketch made by Alfred Waud at the end of the war:

And even better… a photograph of the Three Gun Battery taken at the end of the war:

There are other views of the Three Gun Battery, particularly the embankment behind the works. But I’ll save that for the right sesquicentennial appearance.

The Three Gun Battery’s armament must have varied from time to time.  Key’s drawing shows three 10-inch columbiads (Confederate revised columbiads, that is).  By 1865, the right most gun (to the left as seen from the outside) was a 42-pdr banded and rifled.  Yes, probably like this gun mounted at the fort today:

Ft Sumter 3 May 2010 312

But it’s location is closer to the “other” three gun battery.  With the new year, Confederate engineers designed a second battery on the northwest-facing wall of the fort (close to where the current entrance to the fort is located).  With that, the original Three Gun Battery became the “east battery.”

Ironically, while positioned at a very active front of the war, the Three Gun Battery was never to fire a shot in anger.  However its presence remained a problem to Federal designs aimed to clear the harbor entrance of obstructions and torpedoes.  The ironclads, the Federals feared, could not work under the cross fire between the Three Gun Battery and Sullivan’s Island.  As such, Fort Sumter remained a defiant thorn against Federal plans.