July 20, 1864: Fort Sumter garrison loses a commander – Captain John C. Mitchel

On July 20, 1864, probably close to mid-day, Captain John C. Mitchel offered this routine report from Fort Sumter:

Seventy-one Parrott shots (19 missed), 175 mortar shells (53 missed) fired at fort.  Private J.A. Todd, Gist Guard, wounded in head and leg, not dangerously.  One negro killed; 2 severely wounded, 5 slightly wounded. Firing from Gregg at southwest angle with 8-inch Parrotts and with mortars from middle battery this morning.

The Federal’s Third Major Bombardment of Fort Sumter continued with this great display of firepower – mostly mortars at this time.  This would be the last report from Mitchel.

As mentioned earlier, Mitchel’s service at Fort Sumter had attracted favorable attention from his superiors. Such is particularly noteworthy as Mitchel was not a native-born southerner, but rather an immigrant from Ireland in a round about way.  Mitchel was the oldest son of John C. Mitchel, Sr. – an Irish patriot.  Briefly, Claudine Rhett described John, Jr.’s early life, in the Southern Historical Society Papers:

When he was eighteen years old his father was tried for “high treason against the Crown” of England, and he asked and obtained permission to stand by his side in the dock, to show what he too felt and thought about Ireland’s wrongs and woes.

His father owned a beautiful estate, which was confiscated when he was condemned (along with Smith O’Bryan and General Meagher) for their brave words to their countrymen. His household goods were put up and sold at auction, the gates thrown open to the public, and the vulgar gaze and careless touch of strangers desecrated the most personal possessions of the family. Portraits of those who were gone, love-tokens, souvenirs of childhood, favorite horses, beloved pets, all went under the hammer. Their home treasures were dispersed to the four winds of heaven, and their fireside was given to the alien.

John Mitchel, Jr. followed his father into exile in Australia.  Then later he followed his father to America.  I must defer on the details of this bit of Irish and American history to my pal Damian Shiels, who is the web’s foremost authority on the Irish-American experience in the Civil War.  So for brevity here, I’ll add that John, Jr. and his two brothers volunteered to serve in the Confederate army.  While John, Jr. secured a commission in the 1st South Carolina Artillery, James Mitchel served as a staff officer in the Georgia Brigade of the Army of Northern Virginia and William Mitchel joined a Virginia regiment but was killed at Gettysburg.

John, Jr. served through the war at Charleston.  Initially at Fort Moultrie then later moving over as part of the garrison manning Fort Sumter.  When Lieutenant-Colonel Stephen Elliot left the fort for higher command in April, John, Jr. received the position commanding the fort’s garrison.  By July, he’d lead the garrison through several minor bombardments, and now was directing the efforts to sustain the position.  Just “being” with a visible presence every day at Fort Sumter was a victory of sorts for the Confederates by this stage of the siege of Charleston.  John Jr.’s duties during the Third Great Bombardment required that he survey the Federal activity on Morris Island and afloat, assess the damage done, and shore up the walls where needed to sustain that presence.  He was performing those duties on July 20, as his engineer, Captain John Johnson, later recorded:

On the fourteenth day of the bombardment, being the 20th of July, 1864, Captain Mitchel ascended the stairway of the western angle of the gorge, about 1 o’clock P.M., to examine the movements of the fleet and land force of the enemy, preparatory to writing his daily report for transmission to the city by dispatch-boat that night. Arriving at the head of the stairs and passing out upon the level of the original terreplein of the fort, he found the sentinel there at his post well protected by breast-high shelter within the massive parapet of earthwork necessary to secure the safety of the stair-tower beneath it. Stationing himself near the spot, but not within the sentry-box, he rested his arm and glass on the parapet and began his observations.  Before him, in the sea-view, were the low hulls of the monitors lying at anchor off Morris Island, the wooden gunboats and blockaders resting also at their appointed stations outside the bar, and father out, in the offing, a despatch-boat going North.  No movement in the fleet at all that day, except among the tugs and tenders. The sea was smooth, the sky bright, and the sun blazing with midsummer heat.  Not work in the Union batteries of Morris Island close by, their rifle and mortar-shelling keeping their gunners as busy as they could be; hottest time of all at the battered ruin of a fort taking daily transformation into an indestructible earthwork.

The commander was not unduly exposing himself, but while engaged with his glass a mortar-shell of the largest kind rose in the air, and, descending well to the westward of the fort, as if about to strike the wharf, burst at an altitude of some eighty feet above the water. The bursting of a mortar-shell so high in the air and somewhat outside the walls was no more to the garrison than a matter of ordinary occurrence, scarcely noticeable in the climate of the fort.  The commander continued his observation through it all, his eye fixed to the glass, until suddenly struck to the ground by a large piece of the shell, wounding him with great laceration on the left hip.  Had he been in the sentry-box, he would have escaped all hurt, for that was protected on the rear as well as the front.

Taken down from the parapet, Captain Mitchel received attention of the fort’s surgeon.  But at 5 P.M. he died of the wound.  According to Rhett, his last words were, “I die willingly for South Carolina, but oh! that it had been for Ireland!”

That evening, Captain Thomas A. Huguenin arrived at Fort Sumter to replace Mitchel.  The bombardment, and the war, would continue at Fort Sumter.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, page 226; Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 10., edited by Reverend J. William Jones, Chapter 5.48, page 268-72; John Johnson, The Defense of Charleston Harbor: Including Fort Sumter and the Adjacent Islands, 1863-1865, Walker, Evans & Cogswell Company, 1890, page 227.)

 

3 thoughts on “July 20, 1864: Fort Sumter garrison loses a commander – Captain John C. Mitchel

  1. Came to read your blog from a tweet on Damian Shiels feed and I am very glad I did. It seems that if he had stayed in Ireland his last words would have rang true too.

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