150 years ago: Beauregard suspends the phosphorus shell project

Through the fall and winter of 1864, General P.G.T. Beauregard promoted a project to employ phosphorus incendiary shells against the Federals.  This project was in retaliation for the Federal “Greek fire” shells used on Charleston.  But not having any northern metropolitan centers to target, Beauregard eyed the Federal camps on Morris Island and the ships supporting them.  By February 10, 1864, Dr. John Cheves, based out of Savannah, reported delivering 83 shells.  He had enough materials on hand to produce two-thousand 8-inch shells.

On February 24, 1864, General P.G.T. Beauregard wrote to Cheves concerning the phosphorus shell project, and the news was not good:

Dr. John R. Cheves,
Savannah, Ga.:
Dear sir: Your letter of the 10th instant has been received and answer deferred only from the pressure of the most urgent work, incident to the active operations of the troops now in Florida.

In no way can it be said that you have shown any lack of promptness or efficiency in the investigation into and preparation of incendiary projectiles and composition, but to the contrary, and it gives me pleasure to say that I have ever found you earnest in your efforts to give these headquarters the benefit of your chemical knowledge and habits of industrious research. In no way are you responsible for the want of any definite or decisive results in the shells which have been prepared under your direction. These have been shown to be of the most effective description, in my belief, yet tried, and I have sought to have them used in such way as to establish their efficiency practically. Some experiments were made, which I had duly reported to you, that showed their value, but for the want of combustible material within range of our guns, little was accomplished. Since then I have made several ineffectual efforts to have further experiments made, but the artillery officers have reported obstacles. Recently I directed an experiment to be made at a target on James Island, the result of which has not been communicated.

Until further experiments have been made it will be best to suspend further preparation of these shells. The phosphorus of which you speak it will be best to turn over to the care of Lieutenant [Alexander T.] Cunningham, to relieve you of its charge, but subject to your future orders; that is, it must not be used except under special instructions, either from these headquarters, the chief of the Ordnance Bureau, or yourself.

If you will render me some statement of the money advances which you have made in connection with these investigations, I will seek to have the matter placed at once in such shape as may cause you to be refunded.

The great trouble has been that we have had no gun in position with range to reach the enemy’s shipping in Light-House Inlet or the Stono.

To relieve you also of all further occasion of having to be subjected to expenses it will be best for you to have all work done hereafter in the preparation of these shells under Lieutenant Cunningham, and I accept your tender of your assistance to that officer as another evidence of your cheerful, sincere desire to render all possible assistance.

Respectfully, your obedient servant,
G. T. Beauregard,
General, Commanding.

Despite plans and schemes to employ either a 32-pdr gun or a damaged Brooke gun, no location offered a vantage from which to use this weapon.  And to be clear, this was not a weapon Beauregard wanted to spring on his enemy with a singular shot or two.  He preferred it to be a shocking display.  In a department filled with heavy artillery, Beauregard had nothing which was suitable for the task of lofting an incendiary shell onto Federal ships in their anchorages.

So Beauregard stuck Lieutenant Cunningham with pile of phosphorus shells on this day (February 24) in 1864.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 65, page 641.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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