” ‘Twas the night before Christmas,” but all in the house was stirring as lively as a cat for a mouse. We were hurling shell and our Yankee sort of Greek fire into the city of Charleston. We sent a shell every five minutes from our 200-pounder Parrotts in Fort Chatfield. This music kept up an animated dance among the rebels, and they answered us to the best of their ability. About midnight we could see three fires in the city; two of them quite close together, and within the range of our pieces. We inferred, what we afterwards learned, that our shells had occasioned the conflagration, at least in part, and the Charlestonians had a severe task in subduing the flames. This loss to the city was a very heavy one.
That report is from the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery’s diarist.
According to Confederate journals, the Federals waited to open fire until 1 a.m. on Christmas morning. One of those early shells started a fire in Charleston:
Captain [T.S.] Hale remained at his post of observation (Saint Michael’s steeple) during the entire bombardment, and recorded each shot. He reports that the second shell thrown into the city struck and set fire a building on Broad near Church street; that he called to the police at the guard-house, directing their attention to the matter (the watchman in the belfry had left when the first shell struck the city); that the alarm was not given for twenty minutes, and the first engine did not arrive on the ground until an hour after the alarm. In the meantime the flames had spread to other buildings, and before they were extinguished several houses were destroyed.
Hale believed that prompt response might have contained the fires. However, in addition to the Federal shells, Hale claimed to have seen “a man with a torch, who set fire to a building known as Turner’s Hall.” Troops from Colonel Alfred Rhett’s Fifth Military District worked alongside the firefighters to bring the blaze under control.
Within a few hours, the Federal guns in Fort Putnam joined in. The Confederates opened counter-battery fires against the bombardment. “Batteries Simkins, Cheves, Rutledge, Moultrie, Marion, and the Brooke gun battery opened on Cumming’s Point with vigor, but did not, as usual, succeed in checking the fire of the enemy.” The firing from both sides continued for over twelve hours, ending in the early afternoon. As the sun set on Christmas Day, the Federals on Morris Island lowered their flags for the night. Instead of the normal ceremonial salute, the heavy Parrotts fired one more barrage into Charleston.
All told, the Confederate observers recorded 134 shells landing in the city and sixteen falling sort or wide. In response, Battery Simkins fired 111 shots of all types; Battery Cheves fired 40 shells; Battery Rutledge added 58 shells; guns in Fort Moultrie fired 49 times; Battery Marion fired 48 times; and gunners in the Brooke Gun Battery fired 39 times. So against a total of 150 Federal shots at Charleston, the Confederates returned 345 that day. And the totals do not count for the Federal counter-counter-battery fire against Confederates on James and Sullivan’s Islands.
On the day after Christmas, General P.G.T. Beauregard reported, in a message to authorities in Richmond, “Six houses burned by fire of yesterday and 7 persons wounded by it and enemy’s firing on the city.” Yes Christmas Day passed with much noise around Charleston in 1863. And not all of it was from the harbor. The Confederates initiated their activities on the Stono River around daylight that Christmas morning.
(Citations from Frederic Denison, Shot and Shell: The Third Rhode Island Heavy Artillery Regiment in the Rebellion, 1861-1865, Providence, R.I.: Third Rhode Island Artillery Veterans Association, 1879, page 206-7; OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 184-5; Part II, Serial 47, page 581.)