“Sustained with mortars and the occasional service of the 300-pounder rifle”: Fort Sumter’s seventh minor bombardment

Throughout the spring of 1864, Federal batteries on Morris Island maintained pressure on Fort Sumter with occasional shots.  These were aimed to prevent Confederate improvements, while at the same time to remind those in Charleston of the ever present threat.  Even one battalion in Fort Sumter was one less in Virginia.  Furthermore, keeping one battalion in the fort required resources that would otherwise be spent elsewhere.

On May 30, the Federals picked up the tempo of bombardment for a few days.  Major-General John Foster, new commander of the Department of the South, began testing the lines, so to speak.  One might say there was a bit of irony at play – in April 1861, Foster was the chief engineer worried about damage from Confederate batteries on Morris Island; now he was commanding Federal batteries on that island pounding Fort Sumter’s rubble.

But these activities were monotonous to say the least, though still very deadly. Chronicler of the siege, Major John Johnson, later wrote of the period starting on May 30:

During the next six or seven days the firing upon Fort Sumter was increased to the extent another minor bombardment – the seventh – being sustained with mortars and the occasional service of the 300-pounder rifle from May 30 to June 5th.  Four casualties occurred, but the fort suffered no damage.

In Fort Sumter, Captain John C. Mitchel recorded the hits and misses:

  • May 30 to June 1 – 55 mortar shells fired, with 41 hits; two Parrott shells, with one hit.
  • June 2 – 39 mortar shells fired, with only 14 hits; four Parrott shells fired, with three hits (one by a 300-pdr which dismounted a howitzer in the fort).
  • June 2 (night) – Eleven Parrott shells fired, with seven hits.
  • June 4 – 23 mortar shells with 13 hits.
  • June 4 (night) – 37 mortar shells, with only 14 hits.

The Federal batteries lay quiet on June 5, but resumed with five Parrott shells on June 6.  Skipping a day, the Federals fired four Parrott shells at the fort on June 8.  This bombardment, with somewhere close to 200 shells of large caliber (the by-day tally above is not complete, unfortunately), was negligible compared to the heavy bombardments of the previous fall.  But the war was still there outside Charleston, every day and every night.

During the bombardment on June 2, one of the Federal 300-pdr shells broke through a casemate and dismounted a 24-pdr flank howitzer in the fort.  A defensive weapon placed to counter Federal landing parties, the howitzer was important to the defense of the fort.  Having no replacement carriage, Mitchel immediately requested one from Fort Moultrie.  The injury, though, was slight. This does, however, run contrary to Johnson’s assessment of no damage to the fort.

The four casualties mentioned by Johnson are worthy of further discussion.  Not a single Confederate solider was injured in this bombardment.  None.  All four casualties – recorded as wounded – were negro workers. The most exposed work in the fort was done by the impressed or contracted laborers.

However, the most significant report from the fort during those days did not involve the bombardment.  On June 6, Mitchel noted, “The Ironsides has moved out over the bar, and lies now about 6 miles off.”  For well over a year, the USS New Ironsides was the nucleus of the ironclad squadron standing in the channel off Morris Island.  Her presence loomed as a mailed fist at the entrance to Charleston harbor.  The Confederate counter-ironclad efforts focused on this capital ship, and included torpedo boat attacks.  But the wear of operations and cumulative effects of combat damage left the ship in need of a refit.  The New Ironsides was heading north to Philadelphia and would be out of service for several months.  Her departure signaled the Confederates that no further naval attacks were planned or contemplated at Charleston.

(Citation from John Johnson, The Defense of Charleston Harbor: Including Fort Sumter and the Adjacent Islands, 1863-1865, Walker, Evans & Cogswell Company, 1890, page 214; Mitchel’s reports are from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, pages 2)