August 2, 1864: “Three boats went entirely around Sumter this evening”- Federal recon of Fort Sumter

Periodically during the Third Major Bombardment, the Federals sent out boats under the cover of night to assess the progress of the destruction of Fort Sumter.  The most detailed of those reports came in the first days of August 1864.  On the night of August 1-2, three boats, lead by Captain Richard Allison, 127th New York Infantry, made a complete circuit around the fort.  Allison provided this report the next day:

I have the honor to report that, in compliance with orders from the general commanding, three boats went entirely around Sumter this evening. The following boats were the three, viz: First boat, Captain Allison and Lieutenant Eaton, with ten oars; second boat, Lieutenant Little and Lieutenant Prowley, with five oars; third boat, Captain Long and Ensign C. C. Neil, U.S. Navy, eight oars.

We left Paine’s Dock at 7.30 p.m., and Gregg at about 8 p.m., passing between Sumter and Johnson near the second telegraph pole. From this point we could see the left flank and the dock. Upon the docks there was a lantern, also a sentry. On this face there are nine casemates, through which the light could be plainly seen. Drifting with the tide past the left face we could see no signs of life. Passing the right face we could see three casemates, through which the light showed very plainly, also glimmering of light through several others.

There was at the base of this face, where it flanks the right flank, a lantern, rather dim; supposed to be a signal lantern for their boats. While turning the left flank could see the three rams, one of which was moving down showing a bright light. We met with no obstacle during the reconnaissance, owing probably to our getting around the fort before the rams had gained their position and thrown out their boats.

I have the honor to inclose a draft of the fort, showing the outlines of the walls as seen from the boats.


We can compare Allison’s diagram to that made during a detailed survey of the fort after it’s capture in February 1865:


Allison’s count of casemates on the left face may be off by one.  But he did accurately count the casemates of the right-face’s (or east) three gun battery.  Interesting indeed the number of lights in the fort, but which were all casting light on sides unseen from Morris Island and the Federal gunners.

Another point to consider from Allison’s report is the activity of the Confederate ironclads.  While bottled up in Charleston, long months removed from their one attempted sortie out, the rams remained a deterrence.

Pause and think about what Allison and his crews had to do to get this information – row out across Charleston harbor on a summer night in August 1864 in open boats, in range of the largest concentration of heavy caliber guns in the south.  Not to mention the Federal batteries firing from Morris Island at the same time.  Lot of grit there with Captain Allison and his men just to get a peak at the far side of Fort Sumter.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 210-11.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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