“Nothing unusual occurred to-day”: Skirmishing with heavy guns and mortars

In most theaters of war during the Civil War, a little light skirmish or two was a daily affair.  That usually involved pickets, cavalry patrols, or other forces discharging muskets, pistols, or carbines.  Not so outside Charleston.  Even the skirmishing involved gunners firing 8-inch Parrotts, 10-inch Columbiads, 7-inch Brookes, or 10-inch mortars.  Such was the case on December 16, 1863 when Confederate gunners fired 57 shells, none of which was smaller than 7-inch in diameter.  Yet the Headquarters journal entry for the day began, “Nothing unusual occurred to-day.”  This weight of metal would have constituted a major engagement in some theaters of war.

After the magazine explosion on December 11, the artillery “skirmishing” fell into a pattern.  The Federal guns no longer disturbed Fort Sumter.  But they did not let up on Charleston.  Most days, around mid-morning, the guns on Morris Island opened on Charleston.  And the Federals normally added a few more shots during the night.  In response, most days the Confederate gunners tried to silence those annoying Parrott guns.  In short, very much as occurred at the end of November, only nothing fired at Fort Sumter.


On December 12, the Federal guns fired a few shells at Sullivan’s Island.  In response came, “Twelve mortar shells from the Brooke gun battery, Sullivan’s Island, and 15 shells from Battery Simkins, were fired during the day against Morris Island.”  Later, at around 10 p.m., the Federals opened on Charleston with at least four shots fired before midnight (one of which was loaded with Greek fire).  The overnight total for shots into the city was around 10.   In addition, Batteries Tatom and Ryan fired four shots at a Federal boat that ventured up Lighthouse Inlet.  That drew fire from Federal batteries aimed at Secessionville.  Every action seemed to draw an equal reaction.

On December 13, the journal entry read:

During the morning, the enemy were silent, as were also our batteries. At about 2.20 p.m., however, Battery Cumming opened upon the city, but, after firing 4 shots, was compelled to desist by a concentrated from Simkins, Cheves, Rutledge, and Marion. As ambulances could be distinctly seen going to and from Battery Gregg, it is thought our fire was not altogether without effect.

December 14 passed without any cannon fire of note.

December 15 remained quiet until 11 a.m. when the Federals opened on Charleston again.  Just over a dozen shells went out to the city, with about a third falling short.  The firing drew a heavy reaction from the Confederate batteries:

The following is a summary of shot and shell thrown by our batteries during the day: Marion, 25 mortar shells; Simkins, 21 mortar and 12 rifle and columbiad shells; Cheves, 18 columbiad shells; Rutledge, 27 mortar shells, and Brooke gun battery, 103 mortar shells.

Yes, 206 shells fired at Morris Island.  Beauregard had ordered many of the mortars concealed and silent in anticipation of a chance to concentrate fires on the Federal batteries.  Now those mortars were sending off their deadly packages.  The Confederates claimed to have dismounted one of the Federal guns.  But there are no matching reports of damage on the Federal side.  Though the “dismounting” may have been one of the Parrotts bursting, not due to Confederate fire.

And the “nothing unusual” day of December 16 started quiet, but…

The enemy remained silent until 10 a.m., when they opened on the city, and fired but one shell, which brought on a general engagement between Batteries Simkins, Cheves. Rutledge, Marion, and the Brooke gun battery. As the enemy desisted for the time from firing in the direction of the city, our batteries soon closed….

The following is a summary of the shots fired by our batteries today: Brooke gun battery, 10 mortar shells; Marion, 10 mortar shells; Rutledge, 16 shells; Simkins, 14 mortar and 2 rifle and columbiad shells; Cheves, 5 8-inch columbiad shells.

In contrast December 17 saw only a handful of shells exchanged between Fort Putnam and a mortar battery, firing eight shells, on Sullivan’s Island.

The record for December 18:

The enemy were again silent last night, but at the usual hour this morning, about 11 o’clock, opened on the city from the mortar battery near Gregg with two Parrott guns. After the second shot had been fired, Batteries Marion, Rutledge, and the Brooke gun battery, on Sullivan’s Island, and Batteries Simkins and Cheves, on James Island, opened vigorously on Morris Island, and compelled the enemy to close after they had fired only 5 shells. All of these shells fell short….

The following is the number of shots fired by our batteries to-day: Rutledge, 23 mortar shells; Marion, 19 mortar shells; Brooke gun battery, 34 mortar shells; Simkins, 12 mortar and 18 columbiad rifle shells; Cheves, 17 columbiad shells.

Yes, the Confederates again exceeded the Federals in outgoing shots with 123.

Similar activity on December 19:

At 10.50 p.m. Battery Cumming, with two guns, opened on the city, and fired 12 shells, one-half only of which exploded. As usual, Batteries Simkins, Cheves, Marion, Rutledge, and the Brooke gun battery returned the fire, and ceased as soon as the enemy closed, which he did at 11.40 p.m.

The number of shots fired from our works to-day is reported as follows: Battery Rutledge, 26 shells; Marion, 24 mortar shells; Brooke gun battery, 18 shells; Simkins, 18 shells, and Cheves, 14 shells.

A number of the shells fired at Fort Putnam were aimed at a work party.

And on to December 20:

During the entire morning our batteries, as well as those of the enemy, remained silent, but at 3.45 p.m. three guns at Battery Cumming opened on the city, and in thirty minutes threw 17 shells, only 5 of which failed to explode. Several buildings are said to have been struck, and one was set on fire, but was soon extinguished. No casualties are known to have occurred.

Shortly after the enemy commenced shelling the city, Batteries Simkins, Cheves, Marion, Rutledge, and the Brooke gun battery opened a steady fire with mortars, columbiad, and rifle shells, and ceased as soon as the guns on Cumming’s Point ceased….

The following is the number of shots fired by our batteries during the day: Brooke gun battery, 30 mortar shells; Rutledge, 27 shells; Marion, 20 shells; Simkins, 4 columbiad, 3 rifle, and 11 mortar shells, and Cheves, 11 columbiad shells.

I could continue with tallies well past the end of the month.  But that’s the pattern here. Federals fire a handful of shells at Charleston.  Confederates respond with, for their measures at least, a heavy counter-battery fire.  The records are silent as to any response from Richmond about this expenditure of powder and shells.  Odd, considering the past disputes in that regard.  Then again, that would be “nothing unusual.”

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 178-82.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

3 thoughts on ““Nothing unusual occurred to-day”: Skirmishing with heavy guns and mortars

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