On the morning of August 30, 1864, the Third Major Bombardment of Fort Sumter was starting an eighth week. The routine of that bombardment might be considered “skirmishing” with heavy guns. They rattled… or more accurately, boomed … across the outer reaches of Charleston harbor at interval throughout the day. At Fort Sumter, Captain Thomas Huguenin reported twenty Parrott shells and thirty-eight columbiad shells fired at the fort from Morris Island during the day. The Confederate garrison on Sullivan’s Island received seventy-four shots from the Federals, and returned fifty-seven. Lots of iron and gunpowder expended that day. Yet, for all that noise, those shots were not the “story of the day.”
Earlier in the day, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren sent a package of letters over to the USS Wabash, with instructions for delivery to the Confederates with a flag of truce at Breach Inlet. Specific instructions were:
Give directions for the flag-of-truce boat to approach the inlet no nearer than 1½ or 2 miles, there to anchor and wait the arrival of a rebel flag-of-truce boat.
The vessel from which the boat is sent, as well as the boat, should show a flag of truce.
These were routine instructions for what had become commonplace. The time established for the flag-of-truce was early evening, around 6 p.m. But that day the commonplace was not uneventful, as Acting Ensign George McClure, the truce officer, related:
In obedience to your order I proceeded with a flag of truce in toward Beach Inlet. When within about 2 ½ miles of the beach I cast off from the Winona and pulled in toward the fort at Beach Inlet. When within about 1 ½ miles a shot was fired across our bow from the fort, when I immediately anchored. After waiting about an hour I noticed a boat sailing around from Fort Moultrie, and soon after steering toward us. It was, however, too far distant for me to distinguish whether it showed a flag of truce or not. It had not gone far before our forces on Morris Island commenced firing at it, and I noticed 2 or 3 shells explode directly over the boat. I soon after distinguished a small flag of truce, when I got under way and stood toward it under sail. On communicating I found the boat in charge of Lieut. R. Jones, of General Higgins’ staff. I delivered the packages to him. He complained very bitterly of our forces on Morris Island firing at him while on his way out. I told him I was very sorry anything of the kind had occurred, and hoped that everything would soon be satisfactorily explained. Our communication here ended, and I returned aboard ship.
For perspective, the map below roughly depicts the respective locations of the boats and the Federal batteries:
The incident took place between 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., by which time the Confederate boat reported back to Sullivan’s Island.
All’s well that ends well? Not hardly. Fragments of shells had landed on a flag-of-truce boat. The Confederates and the Navy, all the way up to Dahlgren, wanted to know why the Army would fire on a flag of truce. So inquiries went forth over the following days. On September 2, Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig, commanding the Federal troops outside Charleston, responded to Captain Joseph Green, commanding the blockade at Charleston:
I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your communication of the 31st ultimo, relative to the firing upon a flag-of-truce boat by my batteries. In reply allow me to respectfully inform you that my orders from Major-General Foster are to receive no flags of truce in this district, and that in compliance with these orders I have instructed my pickets and batteries, on the approach of a flag of truce, to warn its bearers back by firing twice over their heads and the third time to fire sharp. I must therefore beg that in case the naval forces wish to communicate by flag of truce they will notify me of the same beforehand; otherwise the occurrences of August 30 will certainly be repeated.
So there were actually several exceptions to the “routine.” For starters, the Army had express orders not to accept any truces at Charleston, which Major-General John Foster had clearly communicated to the Confederates. So the gunners were naturally wary. Of course, had the Navy offered a warning to the Army, that might have been different.
But another departure from the norm, alluded to in McClure’s report, was the point of departure of the Confederate boat. Green emphasized that in his report to Dahlgren, saying “I would state that it is unusual for the rebel flag of truce to come from Moultrie Point to meet ours of [Breach] Inlet; they generally come from the Inlet.”
McClure also mentioned the Confederate boat had not identified itself clearly. Only after shells burst did he see a “small flag of truce.” Though none of the other officers echoed that back to the Confederates for an explanation.
In the end, this all boiled down to an incident of war. There was no intent by either side to deceive. If anything, the intentions by both sides to avoid being predictable (sending a boat from a different location and firing warning shots before asking questions) had resulted in an unpredictable situation. Still, no lives were lost. Packages exchanged. But the “routine” was disrupted.
In the defense of the Federal gunners, there were plenty of good reasons for them to fire upon any unidentified vessel making the way out of Charleston. The logs from Sullivan’s Island for August 30 closed with this line:
A steamer run in and went up to the city at 1.15 a.m.
Yes, Charleston was still a port of call for those pesky blockade runners. Sort of a good reason for the gunners on Morris Island to pay careful attention to anything moving out around Sullivan’s Island.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, page 252; Part II, Serial 66, pages 265, 268-9; ORN, Series I, Volume 15, page 652.)