“I firmly believed the fort was attacked”: Almost a case of fratricide at Fort Sumter

Maybe it was a new year at Charleston, but the same old pattern of activity continued.  The Federals continued almost nightly bombardments of Charleston from the Parrott rifles on Morris Island.  The Confederates fired in return in attempts to silence those guns.  A few dozen heavy caliber rounds fired, yet few if any casualties.  An incident occurred on the night of January 3, 1863 which might have resulted in heavy casualties, though not from an exchange of fire between belligerents.

With the Federals less concerned with Fort Sumter after the start of the winter season, Lieutenant-Colonel Stephen Elliott, commanding the garrison, took advantage of the relative quiet and improved the fort’s defenses.  One improvement was a boom placed on the east (sea) face of the fort, extending to the gorge wall (facing Morris Island).  The boom would help the fort resist boat attack.  The risks involved were high, not the least of which was the sea itself.  To reduce the risk of Federal interference, the work was done under cover of darkness on January 3.  But that introduced another risk, which played out during the night, as Elliott would report:

While the work of laying was going on Fort Johnson fired 3 shots in this direction; fortunately no harm was done.  I understand that the sentinel thought he saw and heard musketry at this post.  As we had two steamers and a fleet of small boats here, the risk to property was very great.  The batteries being near the telegraph office, I was able to check it before our range had been attained.

Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph A. Yates, commanding Fort Johnson, related the details from his side on January 8:

On receiving notice on that night that our boats intended operating around Sumter, I saw Captain [David G.] Fleming, the officer commanding the artillery, myself, informed him of the fact, and at the same time gave him most particular instructions for that night.  He informs me that he informed the officer immediately in charge of the battery.  To my surprise, while visiting the picket, I heard the discharge of three guns, and immediately ran to the battery and stopped the firing, sent for Captain Fleming, and ordered him to immediately investigate the matter….

Fleming identified the officer in charge of the guns as Second Lieutenant M.P. Halsey.  In his investigation, Fleming noted that the gun crews, and Halsey, were recently assigned to Fort Johnson.  Thus they may have lacked full familiarity with the “duties and orders of the post.” But he lay the proximate cause on a false report from a sentinel.  In his defense, Halsy stated, “I firmly believed the fort was attacked by the enemy.”  He added, “I was aware that our boats were at the fort, and trailed my guns to the right to avoid striking them.”  In Fleming’s view, Halsey acted rashly but not without some reason, concluding, “…I believe his action was prompted by the best of motives, and although under a wrong impression, he thought that he was performing his duty.”

Yates accepted this conclusion and related such to the Department headquarters in Charleston:

The officer in charge of the battery, Lieutenant Halsey, Second South Carolina Artillery, had but recently come to this post.  I am informed he is a good officer, energetic and prompt in the discharge of his duties, but being unaccustomed to the signals &c., permitted this unfortunate mistake.  He states that he firmly believed that there was an attack upon Fort Sumter at the time, and consequently fired, which was virtually a disobedience of orders, but under the circumstances I did not think the interest of the service demanded his arrest, but called his attention to the facts, and cautioned against a recurrence.

One point playing in Halsey’s favor was that he was one of three officers in his company at that moment.  Due to extended duties, Halsey was needed at Battery Cheves the next day.

Yates, it seems, was less concerned about the proximate cause of the incident than he was with clearing his good name.  His January 8 correspondence with headquarters pleaded for the command to relieve him of censure associated with the mistake.  Yates went as far to request relief “if there is any want of confidence” of his abilities.  General P.G.T. Beauregard responded by relieving Yates of any censure and retained him in command of Fort Johnson.  As Beauregard often reasoned in similar cases, the pressing situation at hand far outweighed any need for disciplinary actions.

Towards reducing the risk of similar mistakes, if not removing it completely, Elliott proposed a change in defensive arrangements:

I recommend that Fort Johnson be no longer included among our supporting batteries.  The distance is too great and the required adjustment of aim too nice for good results to be attained, and the probability is that the effect on the garrison will be more injurious than upon the enemy.  The difficulty is not owing to any defect in the skill of our artillerists, but belongs to the nature of the case.

This, of course, was not the first time the accuracy of fires from Fort Johnson were supporting Fort Sumter were called into question.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, pages 178, 510-2.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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