“An instance of great coolness and bravery.”: Replacing the flag at Fort Sumter amid a bombardment

From August 1863, when Major-General Quincy Gillmore decided to start the reduction of Fort Sumter, the fort remained “under the guns” of Morris Island – either being bombarded or experiencing a brief rest between bombardments.  Common for the “between” periods was for the Federals to fire a half dozen shots.

Confederate engineer and chronicler of the siege, Captain John Johnson, divided these periods into “major” and “minor” bombardments in his work, The Defense of Charleston Harbor.  By way of his records, Johnson defined three major and eight minor bombardments, which I’ve highlighted in sesquicentennial order here on the blog.  The last of these, in the sesquicentennial time line, was on May 30-June 5, 1864 and considered the “Seventh Minor Bombardment.” Johnson also noted the “betweens” as “desultory firing” without enumeration.  For the period from June 6 to June 30, 1864, Johnson designated, “Desultory firing (17 days) on Fort Sumter, attended by 2 casualties.”  Captain John C. Mitchel, commanding the garrison, reported the number of incoming during that period in his daily (or almost daily) reports:

  • June 7: “Five Parrott shells fired at fort yesterday evening; 2 missed.”
  • June 9: “Four shots fired at fort yesterday evening; 2 missed.”
  • June 11: “Two shots fired at fort last night; both struck.”
  • June 12: “Sixteen rifle shells fired at fort yesterday; 10 struck.”
  • June 13: “Thirteen Parrott shots fired at fort yesterday; 1 struck.  Also 17 shots from small rifle gun on deck of picket monitor, 2 of which struck.”
  • June 14: “A few shots from 30-pounder fired at fort this morning.”
  • June 15: “Five Parrott shells fired at fort yesterday; 2 missed.”
  • June 17: “Four shells fired at fort; 1 hit.”
  • June 19: “Ten Parrott shells fired at fort yesterday; 6 struck.”
  • June 20 (a.m.): “Two shells fired at fort; 1 struck.”
  • June 20 (p.m.): “Twenty-six Parrott shots fired at fort to-day; 11 missed.”
  • June 22: “Fourteen shots fired at fort yesterday; 6 struck.”
  • June 24: “Twenty-two Parrott shells fired, 7 missed; 8 mortar shells, 3 missed….”
  • June 25 (a.m.): “Three Parrott shots fired at fort yesterday at 3 o’clock; all struck…. A volley of mortar shells (7 in number) fired in the afternoon; 5 struck or burst over fort.”
  • June 25 (mid-day): “Three-hundred-pounder Parrott from middle battery opened on south angle and teazing fire of 30-pounder on gorge wall.”
  • June 27: “Thirty-four shots fired at the fort yesterday; 10 missed.”
  • June 28: “Sixteen shots fired at fort yesterday; 6 missed.”

So for this period of “desultory firing” the Federals fired at least 210 shots at Fort Sumter, scoring … again, at least… 114 hits.  During that period Johnson noted two casualties, but only one appears by name, Private Moses Davis of the Gist Guard Light Artillery, killed on June 26.  While the count of incoming rounds is, in my view, worthy of at least a “minor” designation, Johnson didn’t feel such warranted a rating.  He was there, and I was not.  So we go with desultory.

What Johnson did feel worthy of highlighting was the number of times the Confederate flag was shot away and restored at Fort Sumter during this period.  Four times to be exact – June 20, 24, 26, and 27.  Johnson recounted the first of those, occurring on this day (June 20) in 1864 in his post-war writing:

An instance of great coolness and bravery occurred at Fort Sumter on the 20th of June.  The flagstaff had been cut so often by the expert artillerists of Morris Island that a new one had been placed on the crest of the gorge, nearly at its centre and about ten feet above the large bombproof in that quarter. The new staff attracted attention, and, after receiving the compliments of two or three shells from the sharpshooting 30-pounder rifles, it shared the fate of its predecessors.  The stump remained fast in the crest of the gorge-wall, while the splintered spar, bearing the flag, was thrown downward upon the top of the “bombproof.” In such cases the orders provided that the sergeant of the guard should immediately plant a small battle-flag in the place of the fallen colors.  But some little delay occurring, the state of things was observed by Lieutenant Charles H. Claibourne, of the First South Carolina (regular) Infantry, who made for the spot and mounted the ladder with the colors in his hand. Here, in full-length view of the enemy, he began to lash the two parts of the spar together with the halyards, while the enemy, seeing the action, began firing as rapidly as the two cannon could be serviced.

June20Flag

At this critical moment the ropes, blown about by a high wind, became entangled, and the spectators below were fearing to see the brave officer’s life sacrificed by the delay.  But two generous and high-spirited men of the Engineer department instantly sprang to the aid of the lieutenant.  One, Sergeant N.F. Devereaux, mounted the wall and assisted him in the lashings, while the other, Corporal B. Brannon, sitting on the top of the ladder, held the slack of the halyards until the work was successfully achieved. Five or six shells burst close overhead and about their feet or flew past them, but no hurt was received.  The aim of the skilled gunners may have been disturbed by their extreme haste, but the exploding of the shells was not equally under their control, and the preservation of life, due to a higher Power, was remarkably impressive. The actors in this scene were heartily congratulated by Captain Mitchel and others who awaited their descent, and they were, besides, honorably mentioned in the department general orders.  Among the many like instances at Fort Sumter this case was conspicuous on account of the greatest and longest exposure of person.

The “desultory firing” of June 7 to 30, 1864, including over 200 shots, with 114 hits, causing two casualties and four flag replacements, was but a precursor to a larger bombardment starting in July.  That would be the “third major” for those counting, and one of the war’s greatest in terms of weight of shot thrown.  As the ill-fated captain of the H.L. Hunley wrote earlier that winter, there was always something happening at Charleston.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, pages 216-220; John Johnson, The Defense of Charleston Harbor: Including Fort Sumter and the Adjacent Islands, 1863-1865, Walker, Evans & Cogswell Company, 1890, pages 212-4.)

3 thoughts on ““An instance of great coolness and bravery.”: Replacing the flag at Fort Sumter amid a bombardment

  1. […] As detailed in an earlier post, this was a period of “desultory firing” in the words of Confederate engineer John Johnson.  For Johnson, the most important incidents during the days between June 7 and 30 was the four times Federal fires cut down the flag of Fort Sumter.  The third of those incidents occurred on June 26… but there’s more to the story than Johnson recalled.  In fact, it was a bad day for flagstaffs all around.  Starting with Denison: […]

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