150 years ago: Beauregard considers using his own “fire shells” against the Federals

On January 8, 1864, Brigadier-General Thomas Jordon, Chief of Staff for General P.G.T. Beauregard, wrote to Major-General Jeremy F. Gilmer, second in command of Confederate forces in Savannah, Georgia:

The commanding general wishes to know if some way cannot be devised for destroying the enemy’s dock-yards, machine shops, &c, at Scull Creek [sic], either by an expedition specially organized for the purpose or by long-range rifled 32-pounder used as mortars, firing “liquid-fire shells” at from 3 ½ to 4 miles’ range.

Back in November 1863, Beauregard alluded to his own incendiary shells in correspondence with authorities in Richmond.  At that time, he related, “I am in possession of a ‘liquid fire’ which will make the Yanks open their eyes whenever I commence using it against their encampments.”

The “liquid fire” referred to was a phosphorus mixture.  In the spring of 1863, Dr. James R. Cheves of Savannah received authorization to experiment with white phosphorus.  As the compound will ignite under some conditions in contact with air, packaging of the material in the shell was as important as promoting the ignition at the target.  By late August, he was ready to demonstrate his research. Cheves modified some 12-pdr shells, with the loading described in a report from Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Jones:

Having been placed under war water, they were filled with lump phosphorus, which, under those circumstances, immediately melts.  They were there upon transferred to cold water, and, upon the hardening of the phosphorus in each shell a cavity was bored out sufficiently large to receive the metallic tube, and also to admit a thin stratum of water around it after it had been hardened.  The cavity of the shell thus charged is kept filled with water, the metallic tube inserted, and its tightness insured by means of a washer of lead, quite thin, and the use of white lead in screwing in the screw-stopper to which the metallic tube is attached.

The presence of water prevented contact with air.  When readied for action, a bursting charge and fuse was placed in the metallic tube, and ignited as a standard fuse when fired.  Jones reported the results of the test against a stand of pines at White Bluff, outside Savannah:

The first shell was fired at a considerable elevation, exploding at a distance of perhaps 300 yards from the muzzle of the piece and evolving a burning cloud of phosphorus, probably not less than 30 or 40 feet in diameter, from which particles of ignited phosphorus descended, reaching the ground, and for some moments continuing in a state of ignition.

The other shells were fired with second-fuses, and were exploded at one time in a clump of green pines, the leaves of which were considerably scorched, although dripping with rain-drops from the recent shower…. In each case there was a similar evolution of a large cloud of burning phosphorus, while the large particles, falling to the ground, in some instances fired the grass and twigs to a certain extent, the combustion continuing for several moments after the explosion of the shell.

Jones concluded that the wet conditions prevented a larger fire during the tests. The obvious conclusion was these shells would have considerable effect on wooden structures or positions inside tree-lines.  “If exploded within the cavity of a vessel, their effects would be most disastrous.”

Page 13

Through the fall, Cheves continued to refine the application and to produce a stockpile of incendiary shells (12-pdr and 8-inch mentioned) and grenades.   The problem then became one of delivery.

Service Record Page 11

The portions of Morris Island within range of Confederate guns did not present very good targets for incendiary devices.  Save a lucky hit upon a magazine, the sand batteries were not vulnerable to fire.  The Federal camps on the south end of Morris Island or on Folly Island, on the other hand, did present targets for incendiary shells.  Likewise the complex of camps and buildings on Hilton Head also offered targets for these phosphorus shells.  But the problem was ranging those bases.

That in mind, on January 4, Beauregard authorized Colonel J.R. Waddy to experiment with rifled 32-pdr guns fired at extreme elevation:

The commanding general wishes you to make experiments in the city with the 32-pdr rifle intended for Battery Haskell, with a view to ascertain its range when used as a mortar.  The charge, which should be the smallest practicable, length of fuse, &c, must be determined for ranges from 2½ to 3½ miles. When in position at Battery Haskell, it will not be fired without orders from these headquarters.

But even with that extended range, the guns could not range all the desired targets.  The map below demonstrates a 3½ mile range, with a red arc, from Battery Haskell:


Within range of the 32-pdr rifle/mortar arrangement were the camps on the south end of Morris Island, the ordnance and engineer depot, camps on Little Folly Island, and Light House Inlet.  From the Confederate perspective, perhaps a chance to strike a blow directly against the troops firing on Charleston.  But this implied firing the weapon at maximum range towards camps inside sand dunes.  But one wonders about the effect of fires among all those ammunition crates in the Ordnance Depot.  And the 32-pdrs would not range Major-General Quincy Gillmore’s headquarters on Folly Island.

As for any position on Skull Creek, consider the most advance posting I can think of:


Again, the red arc demonstrates the maximum range specified.  Fort Mitchel falls in range, but that might be done with a direct fire weapon.  The important targets fell well out of range.  And this implies the Confederates could work under the noses of Federal pickets from Fort Mitchel.

While desiring to retaliate against the Federal bombardment of Charleston with “fire shells,” Beauregard simply lacked the weapons to reach the really good targets.

(Citations and sources: OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part II, Serial 47, page 340-42, 501; Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, pages 504 and 513;

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