Custer stole Abraham Miller’s horses, saddles, and hay: Were the burning raids justified? Legal?

Some years ago I was visiting Cedar Creek and stopped in the visitor center there.  This was before the national park was established there, but still the battlefield organization maintained a good post.  As part of my visit, I took in the orientation video.  As the program covered the events which lead up to Cedar Creek, the Burning Raids received due time.  When the narrator mentioned the number of barns and farms destroyed by the Federals, a couple to my right let out a very emotional gasp.  Later, after the movie was over, they began pressing the guide for more details about the raids.  The docent explained that as part of the raids not only did the Federals burn down barns and other buildings, but they took livestock, crops, and other property.  At some point, one of them reached a conclusion to all this – “All that burning and stealing was wrong.  It was unnecessary.  A crime!”  I’ve learned long ago to avoid such lead-ins and leave the tending to those behind the desk with name-tags.

I would have liked to have interjected, saying to the effect, “I’m from Missouri, and both sides burned our state practically to the ground.”  After all, it was Missouri’s “hard war” that served as a precursor to that experience in Virginia.  But I doubt that would have been constructive.  Better yet I might have brought up many stories from South Carolina that demonstrated similar Federal actions and how those were justified at the time.  That, perhaps, would have demonstrated the evolution in Federal approach.  But to best demonstrate that point, I’d have to avoid the “generalizations” and focus on some “specifics.”  And that’s what is often lost in such conversations.  So let’s talk some brass tacks on this subject today….

One day and 150 years ago, Abraham Miller of Bridgewater in Rockingham County, lost some property.  According to a claim made after the war, on September 29, 1864 a party of Federal soldiers took two horses, a ton of hay, 28 bushels of oats, 10 bushels of corn, and two saddles ($241.86 in 1871 estimates).

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John A. Miller, who later provided testimony to support Abraham’s claim, said:

I went to the Cavalry Camp of General Custer (attached to General Sheridan’s army) on business and while there saw the two horses charged in the said petition in their possession. The horses were accounted as Cavalry horses and a Captain whose name I did not learn was on one of them.  I saw the hay, corn, and oats of the claimant taken by the troops of General Custer at about the same time.  I cannot say how much exactly of the said supplies were taken, but I am fully convinced that they took at least as is charged in this petition.

So a bunch of “Yellow Hair’s” troopers made off with Abraham’s horses, taking with them some supplies without so much as voucher or Yankee greenbacks in return.  They just “took” it all.

With that little bit of information, should we consider Abraham just a farmer trying to make his way in the middle of a war?  Perhaps it would be easy to cast him as a Charlie Anderson (there’s that cultural reference again, Robert).  But we should also consider that Abraham had done business with the Confederate army at several times during the war.

Abraham appears in the Confederate Citizens Files with, while not a substantial amount of business, enough to establish his association.  In June 1862, he sold a small amount of corn to Confederate authorities on two separate invoices.  The total was just over $30. More substantially, in February 1863, he sold $179.50 of bacon.

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Then in March 1863 he sold 28 bushels of wheat to the Confederate army.  Sure, less than $250 in transactions all told in the record – and that assumes the records are complete.  But we are not trying to say Abraham did business that rivaled Tredegar or other major businesses.  Rather this does establish Abraham as a person supplying goods to the Confederate Army, in context of what happened on September 29, 1864.

So did the Federals have reason to be concerned, had they left Abraham’s farm alone, that he would sell or otherwise turn those goods over to the Confederates?  Let’s go back to the records.  First there is this:

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Yes, on October 5, 1864… let be bold that for emphasis …. October 5, 1864, Abraham Miller gave 424 bushels of corn and 1500 pounds of fodder to Captain J.P. Dickinson.  Abraham was given a receipt for $365, and Dickinson marked the account as unpaid “for want of funds.”

But wait… didn’t Sheridan’s guys burn all there was?  Apparently not!

A few days later, Abraham sold 61 bushels of corn and 1200 pounds of hay to another Confederate quartermaster:

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The total there was $280.  And there is a strike through at the bottom “and that the articles have been accounted for on my property return for the quarter ending the 31st day of December 1864.”  I don’t know exactly what to make of that last, other than to say again that Abraham Miller continued to do business with Confederate authorities.

I would caution, however, that these receipts are just part of the story.  What we don’t know is the back-story.  Was Abraham just doing business with the Confederates because he needed the money?  Was he pressured?  Did the presence of Federals lead him to sell it all off, in hopes of getting at least something?  All good questions to which there are few clues in the records.

But one thing we can say, given that Abraham did sell off what he owned in October 1864, the Federals did have justification.  The case is clear: anything left behind in Abraham’s possession would – and did – end up in Confederate hands.

Now was it legal for the Federal troops to “take” what was Abraham’s?  Keep in mind there was no “Geneva Convention” in 1864.  There was instead General Orders No. 100, also known as the Lieber Code.  Article 15 of that order read:

Military necessity admits of all direct destruction of life or limb of armed enemies, and of other persons whose destruction is incidentally unavoidable in the armed contests of the war; it allows of the capturing of every armed enemy, and every enemy of importance to the hostile government, or of peculiar danger to the captor; it allows of all destruction of property, and obstruction of the ways and channels of traffic, travel, or communication, and of all withholding of sustenance or means of life from the enemy; of the appropriation of whatever an enemy’s country affords necessary for the subsistence and safety of the army, and of such deception as does not involve the breaking of good faith either positively pledged, regarding agreements entered into during the war, or supposed by the modern law of war to exist. Men who take up arms against one another in public war do not cease on this account to be moral beings, responsible to one another and to God.

The logic – if Abraham’s hay, corn, fodder, and horses could be used by the Confederates, then the Federals could take it in order to deny those resources to their enemy.  It may not sound nice.  But such is the nature of “military necessity.”  The last line, of course, offers some words to caution against extremes.  Cited constraints were agreements made between combatants or other conventions of war.  Still, the object remained – Abraham’s property was a legitimate target.

You may ask if Abraham was reimbursed for his loss.  The board reviewing his claim had this to say in 1871:

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The claimant says he was a [non-contestant?].  He voted to ratify the ordnance of secession. He says he had actively opposed secession & was afraid not to vote, or to vote against it, as threats of violence had been made agt. Union men. He does not show any threats to him – nor any force used or threatened.  It all rests on his own statement.

So he hired a substitute & paid him $1000 & afterwards he paid a fine of $500…. We are not satisfied that he was loyal.

As I said with respect to the invoices, there’s more to the story (and a reminder that Robert Moore addressed the secession vote and coercion some time back).  There’s always more to the story.

Let me close by recommending to those who are looking for a fresh perspective on the Burning Raids, a recent post by Robert.  More than barns, mills, and grain were destroyed during those days of autumn.


“General M. Jeff. Thompson arrived in camp”: The “Confederacy’s Swamp Fox” joins Price

For September 29, 1864, the itinerary of Major-General Sterling Price’s Army of Missouri read:

September 29 (Camp No. 30). – Passed through Caledonia and Potosi.  At the latter place General Shelby fought and captured ____ Federals. The enemy, who left Pilot Knob under General Ewing, hearing of Shelby being in front, moved off to the west.  Marmaduke and Shelby started pursuit last night. General M. Jeff. Thompson arrived in camp. Rumors of Steele leaving Little Rock doubted; distance twenty-two miles.

A fair march of twenty-two miles, but not quite up to the “foot cavalry” standards perhaps.  Not mentioned in the itinerary, a force of Confederate cavalry ranged out to Cuba… Cuba, Missouri that is… and destroyed a portion of the Southwest Branch Railroad.


So on this day 150 years ago, M. Jeff Thompson arrived back at the “front” and in the midst of Major-General Sterling Price’s Missouri Campaign.  Perhaps it was fitting that Thompson should participate in the last great campaign in Missouri, as he had been an active part of the war in the Trans-Mississippi from the start.

He was born Meriwether Thompson in Harpers Ferry, [West] Virginia, but the moniker “Jeff” came from a childhood association.  Thompson attended J.J. Sanbourn Military Academy in nearby Charlestown as a teen, but failed to receive an appointment to West Point.  Working as a store clerk in several communities, Thompson eventually took up residence in Liberty, Missouri.  There he transformed himself into an engineer, working for the city and helping to lay the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad.  He’d presided over the ceremonies inaugurating the Pony Express in April 1860.  So he was a person of some prominence in pre-war Missouri.

Pre-war military activity included service in the Missouri State Guard with the rank of Colonel.  As with many throughout the south, Thompson reacted to John Brown’s Harpers Ferry Raid and began to advocate secession.  That advocacy transformed to direct action on May 12, 1861 when Thompson cut down the American flag from the St. Joseph post office and tossed it to a cheering crowd.  This, and his political connections, secured the command of the First Division, pro-Confederate Missouri State Guard.  His commission as “Brigadier-General” came from Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson and not from the Confederate government.

Operating in the swampy bottom lands in southeastern part of the state, Thompson received the nickname “Swamp Fox.”  Though not as successful, by any measure, as the Revolutionary War “Swamp Fox,” Francis Marion, Thompson was able to make his presence known.  Among other things, his operations proved an obstacle to early Federal operations along the Mississippi River axis.  In particular he was a thorn in the side of one Brigadier-General U.S. Grant during those early days of the war.

In June 1862, he added “naval commander” to his resume.  He led a portion of the Confederate ram fleet, which included one warship named after him, in action at the Battle of Memphis on June 6.  After that defeat, without a command Thompson served in various staff capacities.  During Brigadier-General John S. Marmaduke’s April 1863 raid to Cape Girardeau, Thompson’s engineering skills enabled the Confederate force to escape over the St. Francis River at Chalk Bluff.

Later in August Thompson was captured in Kentucky.  Though still not a “Confederate general” by virtue of the state commission, Thompson was among the “generals” sent to Morris Island in June 1864 in response to the fifty Federal prisoners in Charleston. After exchange on August 3, Thompson returned to the west. But he did not make his way to Price’s command until very late in September.

With Price’s advance into Thompson’s old stomping (or dare we say “swamping”?) grounds, Thompson was a favorite for some command.  But all the seats were spoken for.  On October 2, Brigadier-General Joseph Shelby proposed combining one of his regiments and a separate battalion as a command for Thompson, using those formations as the nucleus to form a full brigade with the recruits.  But before that could take place, Colonel David Shanks, commanding Shelby’s old Iron Brigade, was wounded in action at Prince’s Ford.  On October 6, Thompson received orders to take over the famous Iron Brigade… OK, Phil Spaugy, not THE Iron Brigade, but Shelby’s Missouri Iron Brigade.

As Price’s raid into Missouri progressed through the fall, Thompson joined so many “returning” characters who would share the spotlight in one of the largest (particularly in terms of geography covered) campaigns of the war.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 41, Part I, Serial 83, page 644.)

September 28, 1864: Beauregard heading back to Charleston

On September 28, 1864, Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton passed along two intercepted messages from the Confederate lines at Charleston.  The second of these, from Beach Inlet to Battery Bee, read:

Captain Smith requests that you will let us know when General Beauregard crossed the bridge.

With this bit of information, Saxton asked his superior, Major-General John Foster, for a special liberty:

I propose to give General Beauregard a salute in Charleston this evening from my 200-pounders.

Was General P.G.T. Beauregard returning to command at Charleston?  No, but in a round-about… sort of.  After serving through the summer months in command at Petersburg, Beauregard grew tired of living in General Robert E. Lee’s shadow. And at the same time, the creole’s performance in August left authorities in the War Department looking for a way to ease him out of Virginia.

The visit to Charleston was not, however, a move to resume his old command.  Rather he arrived to investigate the conduct of Brigadier-General Roswell Ripley and to handle some administrative tasks, as Beauregard related to Major-General Samuel Jones on September 25:

The president has ordered me (verbally) to repair to Charleston and await further orders, meanwhile to inquire into the difficulty between yourself and Brigadier-General Ripley, and to examine the condition of the defenses and troops at and about Charleston, assisted by my chief engineer, Col. D.B. Harris, and chief inspector, Lieut. Col. A. Roman.  The former is then to remain on duty with you until further orders as inspector of fortifications and adviser in that branch of the service.

The problems with Ripley came to a head during the long summer months.  And these problems came out of a bottle.  During one of the general alarms sounded in July, in response to Federal activity, aides suspected he was drunk.  Then on September 17, he had a loud argument with the department quartermaster, in which several witnesses claimed he was drunk.  After just a day investigating the matter, Beauregard reached a conclusion:

It is evident from the within communications that Brig. Gen. R.S. Ripley cannot be intrusted at this critical time with so important a command as the First Military District of this department (comprising of the city and harbor of Charleston), which offers such great temptations and facilities for indulging in his irregular habits.  The past efficient services of Brigadier-General Ripley may entitle him still to some consideration at your hands. I therefore respectfully recommend that he may be ordered to active service in the field where time, reflection, and a stricter discipline may have their favorable influences over him.

Everyone from Charleston to Richmond agreed that Ripley should be relieved.  But none outside of Beauregard felt Ripley needed a second chance, especially at Petersburg.  But with all the other concerns of the time, Ripley remained in command pending further deliberation, though reassigned to Sullivan’s Island by the end of the month.  On balance, perhaps the return of Harris to his engineering duties was a fair trade?

September 28 saw another Confederate general receive orders to make way to Charleston.  General John B. Hood’s Special Orders No. 5 as commander of the Department of Tennessee and Georgia:

By direction of the President, Lieut. Gen. W. J. Hardee is relieved from duty in the Army of Tennessee, and will proceed at once to Charleston, S.C., and assume command of the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

With this, Brigadier-General Samuel Jones stepped down from department command and assumed command of the District of South Carolina (the state minus the Third Military District).

For what it was worth, Beauregard was heading the opposite direction after his stay in Charleston.  He’d accepted a command in charge of the “west,” where his responsibilities were largely administrative, though including those areas where Hood and Hardee now operated.

Thus the Confederate command responsible for the defenses of Savannah and Charleston shuffled around in the early fall of 1864.  Before the winter season arrived, those commands would face a Federal threat unlike that seen earlier in the war.   A storm was coming to the coast.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Serial 66, pages 304, 630, 632-3, and 635.)

150 Years Ago: A battle at Pilot Knob, Missouri

I like to dart around the Civil War map in search of good sesquicentennial topics.  So from the coast of South Carolina, let us turn to the “far west” and look at what was happening 150 years ago in Missouri.  Today I will follow up on my earlier post and recall Major-General Sterling Price’s 1864 Missouri Campaign. On this day (September 27) in 1864, Price fought the first major engagement of the campaign.  The place was the town of Pilot Knob in the Arcadia Valley.  There a garrison of approximately 1,500 under Brigadier-General Thomas Ewing stood in the path of Price’s 12,000 (though the Confederates engaged there were likely less – perhaps 7,000 armed troops at most).

I’ll not detail all the events of September 27, 1864 here, as the Battle of Fort Davidson deserves more space than I have for a single post.  For those who would like a good account of the action, and the campaign overall, I recommend Mark Lause’s Price’s Lost Campaign: The 1864 Invasion of Missouri.  However, one failing of the book is the lack of maps (Publishers: Explain how one can have a campaign study without campaign maps?  This puzzles me, please explain.)

So let me offer the campaign map from the Official Records so we have some point of reference:


Yes, that is a big map to consider.  You may want to click and zoom in on the file to see the details.  Or I’ll cut a snip out to show Price’s march during this phase of the campaign:


Fort Davidson was the primary defense of Pilot Knob.  Ewing could have run and I doubt history would have charged him with any neglect.  But he didn’t.  In his report on the campaign, Ewing rationalized his stand,

…the advantages of delaying the enemy two or three days in his march northward and of making a stubborn fight before retreating were so great, even though the defense should be unsuccessful and much of the garrison be lost, that I resolved to stand fast and take the chances.

On the map, Fort Davidson was not exactly a Thermopylae affording secure flanks and a prime defensive position.  The fort served its intended purpose protecting the industrial community from the occasional raider.  But against a large Confederate force?  In Ewing’s own words, “The fort was always conceded to be indefensible against any large army having serviceable artillery.”  High ground dominated the fort:

For Price, this appeared fruit ripe for the picking.  What worked against him was a Federal garrison which made the most of what it had and which took advantage of the sluggish movement of the Confederate force.  The slopes of the surrounding hills were cleared to give the Federal artillery clear lines of fire.  The range to any of the summits overlooking Fort Davidson was 1,200 yards or less. So any direct attack by the Confederates was done under fire.  So severe was the Federal fire that on several occasions the Confederates resorted to using a flag of truce as cover to get their formations in position.  So Fort Davidson became a tough nut to crack, from the tactical perspective.

In the face of this tactical dilemma, the Confederates didn’t offer their best effort.  Price failed to bring the weight of his artillery to bear on the fort.  Two 12-pdr Napoleons did get into a good position to fire on the Federal rifle pits. But on the other side, the guns of Battery H, 2nd Missouri Artillery, under Captain William Montgomery, along with the fort’s 32-pdr siege guns and 24-pdr howitzers did most of the “booming.”  Price also to seal off all routes into and out of Fort Davidson.  So not only was the garrison permitted an unmolested rear flank, they were also granted an escape route.

Price planned on massive assault.  But as these things are apt to play out, the attack was done piecemeal.  Federal gunners could focus on one advancing formation at a time and thus blunt the wave.  But the fighting did reach the parapets of the fort.  So close in fact that Federal soldiers used hand-grenades to repel the assault.

After midnight on September 27, Ewing started a quiet withdrawal from Fort Davidson.  After sparring with some Confederate advance guards of Brigadier-General Joe Shelby’s command (which were maneuvering to assault the fort at dawn), the garrison slipped out of the valley.  A slow match in the fort’s magazine touched off a large explosion around 4 a.m.  Yet, the Confederates did not see that as a queue.

The next morning, Price had his prize but at a cost.  Estimates of the Confederate casualties in the battle vary, but the most credible put the loss at 200 killed and around 600 wounded. Ewing had indeed delayed the march while receiving just under 100 casualties (and just over 100 captured between the fort and the retreat).

In his report on the action, in the usual “thanks” to his subordinates who had performed well, Ewing mentioned several local citizens who took up arms and joined the Federal ranks during the emergency.  In particular, “A colored man named Charles Thurston, organized and commanded a company of negroes, who eagerly bore their share of labor and danger.”  I have long suspected that Thurston and his company were largely composed of laborers from local lead industry (the town sits in the middle of Missouri’s Old Lead Belt).  If so, these men were likely not escaped or freed slaves from some plantation, but rather working-class citizens.  They could have fled, or even stayed quietly at their jobs.  They chose instead to defend their homes and country.

No assessment of the action at Pilot Knob is complete without considering the “strategic” impact.  Set in the fall of 1864, with all the air of an election cycle, this action could have been another “Harpers Ferry” (referring to the 1862 battle, just over two years earlier).  Yet Ewing’s stand was celebrated in newspapers throughout the mid-west as positive war news.  The Daily Illinois State Journal ran this lead-in on September 30, 1864:


Not a route or delaying action, but a defeat of the rebels.  In the northern press, Ewing had won the battle and lived to fight another day.  After September 27, 1864, anything Price might accomplish in Missouri which might affect the presidential elections had to overcome this spin.  And, as later events would show, Price was never able to overcome the setback at Pilot Knob – either on the battlefield or in the eyes of northern voters.  In short, this battle at Fort Davidson deserves a place alongside Mobile Bay, Atlanta, and Cedar Creek as actions which factored into Lincoln’s re-election.

“Directions and signals for vessels composing the inner and outer blockade off Charleston”

I’ve written quite a bit about signals intelligence (SIGINT) and attempts to block that gathering in the context of the war at Charleston.  Stretching the definition a bit, we might also consider Emissions Intelligence (EMINT) in context of the blockade operations (and I’m probably bending the modern definition a bit, as EMINT specifically involves collecting sensor and other forms of electronic transmissions… but in the Civil War sense, can we include “lights”?).  During operations the blockaders used running lights,  signal lights or flares, and similar means of passing messages visually.  The meaning of these was, as one might expect, something the Confederates sought to understand.  So the Federals adopted some rather complex systems to keep the Confederates out of the loop.  On September 23, 1864, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren issued a set of instructions detailing the use of ships lights and signals at Charleston.  Long read, but allow me to submit it into the “register” here for reference:

The following running lights, specified for each day of the month, are to be hoisted when in chase or approaching the limits of the blockade after an absence from it.

When in chase, they will be shown occasionally for two or three minutes at a time, after the established signal for an attempt to run the blockade inward or outward has been made, to indicate the direction of the chase.

When returning to the limits of the blockade after an absence from it, the running lights are to be shown until the ship’s number or signal of recognition has been exchanged with one of the vessels on the blockade.


A vessel discovering and desirous of ascertaining the character of another at night will show a light (signal lantern) of the same color as the upper light of the running lights designated for the night until answered by the vessel to which it is shown by a light corresponding with the lower light of the running lights designated for the night. Then the vessel which made the signal first will obscure her light, which is to be followed immediately by the vessel to which the signal was made obscuring hers.  The latter vessel will then flash twice with a light of a different color from that shown by her in answering, with an interval of five seconds between the flashes, which must be answered by the vessel which made the first signal by two flashes made in the same manner, with a light of a different color. The signal lights should be held, if practicable, in a position so that they may be seen only by the vessel to which the signal is made.

Got that?  To ensure no misunderstandings, Dahlgren offered some examples of this pattern:

Example, 1st day of the month:

A discovers B.

A shows a white light.

B answers with a red light.

B flashes twice with a white light.

A answers by flashing twice with red light.

Dahlgren went on to provide two more examples before relating general instructions about security of the light patterns.

A knowledge of the running lights is to be confined to commanding, executive, and signal officers. Officers in charge of the deck should only be informed of the running lights for the night at sunset, daily.  It is also desirable that a knowledge of the signal to ascertain character should be confined to officers alone, who should give the necessary directions to make them to quartermasters or persons detailed for that duty.

In the event of there being a doubt about the character of a vessel after the forgoing signals have been exchanged and repeated, fog signals of ship’s numbers may be exchanged.

And the instructions turned to fog signals next:

 Steamers will make fog signals with their whistles; sailing ships with their bells.


Then Dahlgren turned to “Special signals regarding rebel movement”:

Blockade runner going inward: Rocket and red light (Coston). Going outward: Rocket and white light. The vessel that discovers the stranger will fire on her while signaling.

This will be understood as a signal for the whole squadron to be on the alert; but no vessel will leave her particular station to chase unless she discovers the blockade runner or can steer a course understandingly to cut her off.

Rebel rams in sight and near: Rocket, red, white, red. When the signal is made, a single red light at the masthead of the vessel commanded by the senior officer present will indicate that all the heavy-built and armed vessels are to assemble near that vessel.

The light-built and armed vessels will be on the alert to discover and capture any vessels attempting to run the blockade, and render such other services as the occasion may suggest to their respective commanders.

Torpedo boats in sight and near: Rocket, white, red, green.

Enemy’s boats in sight: Green.

Vessel in danger from fire of another: Running lights.

Please note when Dahlgren referenced “Coston” he was referring to Coston’s night signals (also see here.)

Signals for “Assistance required”:

Show in a horizontal position, about 10 or 15 feet distant from each other, a red and white signal light (lantern) to be screened or held in a position, if possible, that it may not be read by the enemy; particularly if the vessel making the signal should be ashore or aground. This signal is to be answered by Coston’s “Answering.” [Red-White-Red flare]

Continuous and rapid firing of guns will be understood as a signal that assistance may be or is required by the vessel firing the guns, and the vessel nearest to the locality of firing will proceed to give assistance, but will not be absent from her station longer than is absolutely necessary.

The “Answering” (Coston) followed by “Preparatory” (Coston) will indicate that all of the vessels employed on the blockade are to repair to the locality where the signal is made.

Annulling signals:

Two perpendicular red lights (signal lanterns) shown at the masthead or yardarm will annul the signal last made

Strange vessels approaching the blockade in the daytime:

In the event of a strange vessel approaching the limits of the blockade during the daytime, as a general rule, the blockading vessel nearest to her will ascertain her character, etc., by boarding or speaking, and report to the senior officer present, by signal or otherwise. In communicating with a strange vessel, a blank cartridge is first to be fired, if necessary, as a summons to heave to, and a shot is not to be fired unless the summons by blank cartridge is unheeded. Vessels of doubtful character and foreign men-of-war are to be accompanied by the vessel communicating with them to, and outside of, the anchorage of the senior officer present.

Commanders of vessels composing the blockade are expected to observe and exact from officers under their respective commands the greatest vigilance, attention to, and promptness in making and answering signals, and to use the utmost care in not firing into a vessel until well satisfied she is attempting to violate the blockade.

As for other lights which might displayed:

No lights will be shown by the blockading vessels at night excepting for signal purposes.

All signals conflicting with the above are revoked.

A little lengthy, but these instructions provide another insight into the operations along the coast of South Carolina in the maintenance of the blockade.

(Citation from ORN Series I, Volume 15, pages 685-8.)

Fort Moultrie honored with a silver coin

This isn’t a Civil War tribute, more so Revolutionary War, but it does involve a Civil War site and one of my favorites.  From the Charleston Post-Courier:

Fort Moultrie to be featured on coin

Sullivan’s Island – Fort Moultrie is about to be made of something richer than any other park in South Carolina. Silver bullion.

An image from the history of the iconic national park at the tip of Charleston harbor will be minted onto quarter coins in 2016. As a bonus, a number of “investment coins” will be minted, three-inch discs of fine silver. Those coins now sell for about $225 each.

Sgt. William Jasper waving the Palmetto flag was picked by a U.S. Mint citizens committee earlier this week. Gary Marks, committee chairman, called it a depiction of an iconic moment in the classic 1776 Revolutionary War victory that immortalized the fort….

The Fort Moultrie coins will be among five national park or site designs issued for 2016 as part of the America the Beautiful series started in 2010. All told, 56 America the Beautiful designs will be issued, one from each state or territory. The designs appear on the reverse side of the coin; the obverse side still depicts George Washington….

(Full story here.)

I tend to focus on Fort Moultrie’s Civil War importance, but the fort which stood at that location during the Revolutionary War arguably was greater in terms of influence.  A state flag was derived from that action.

Fort Moultrie is one of the few places where visitors can consider military history from nearly every era of US history.  The post was active right up to the end of World War II in some shape or form.  As such it offers a unique location to interpret coastal defense (a somewhat overlooked and important component, historically speaking, to the national defense).  And for those not inclined to study the big guns, there is the story arch from Revolution to Secession and thence to reconciliation.


“None of your ironclads will be withdrawn”: Status quo for Dahlgren’s squadron

Where as a year earlier the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron might have complained of over use, in September 1864 the sailors, particularly those on the ironclads, may have complained about the doldrums of inaction.  The blockade of Charleston required long hours of watch interrupted with an occasional chase of a runner or shell fired at the Confederate batteries.  With the Army taking a defensive posture, the outlook did not call for any “Mobile Bay” actions.  Earlier in the summer the Navy Department weighed options to withdraw some of the monitors from Charleston.  With developments at the Gulf ports and a shuffling of Rear Admirals David Farragut and David D. Porter, rumors floated that Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren might be relpaced… or the monitors might leave Charleston for efforts elsewhere.

However, on September 22, 1864, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells sent a message to Dahlgren which shook loose those rumors.  The first part of the transmittal covered instructions for Farragut, who was at that time in transit north, to take a short leave of absence.  The nature of instructions left Dahlgren at Charleston while Porter would take over the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron (a post which the 63-year old Farragut had declined).

The later part of the message addressed the monitors at Charleston: “None of your ironclads will be withdrawn, and none sent from the north at present.”  Thus Charleston remained important enough to require four monitors on station.  With one other monitor holding check at Ossabow Sound outside Savannah and three more repairing at Port Royal, the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron remained a potent force should the Confederate ironclads attempt a sortie.

So for the fleet off Charleston, the doldrums remained.  Given the “leaks” in the blockade experienced earlier in the month, Dahlgren had, on September 16, issued very detailed instructions to the fleet in regard to their duties covering the Confederate port.  “In order to prevent any misunderstanding as to my views in regard to the duties of the blockade at this place, the following are issued in explanation thereof….”  Those orders began with delineation of command responsibilities.  When Dahlgren himself was not at Charleston, the senior officer present was “responsible for the efficiency of the blockade, inside and outside.”  The orders gave that officer direct control over all vessels outside Charleston.  As for their stations, Dahlgren gave some latitude to the senior officer, but there was not much slack in the line:

The picket duty performed by the monitors is peculiar, and resembling no other.  The monitor which has the picket is to take position from 2,200 to 2,300 yards from Moultrie (terminations of Cumming’s Point and Simkins, in line), at such part of the channel there as may be most advantageous.  The tugboats and cutters which are assigned to picket duty for the night will report to the commander of the picket monitor and receive their directions from him.  These are designed to advance the picket more toward the  main passage by Sullivan’s Island, and between Sumter and Moultrie, and to check or capture the rebel boats, or to give notice of an attempted escape of any vessel….

This advanced monitor is to be supported by another, which may be placed 500 yards to the southward of the former, or if the passage of blockade runners is anticipated, may be stationed in line with the picket monitor, and in case the picket monitor is attacked must render instant aid….

Two more monitors are to take post farther down the channel, and not so far off that they can not be got conveniently to the front, in case of an alarm there…

So long as the picket monitor is only performing picket duty the officer in command is to follow his own discretion, but in case of an attack or of any unusual move by the enemy, which is sufficient to bring the supporting monitor into play, then the senior officer of the two will command, and so on with the other monitors when they arrive….

It was assumed that any action involving all four monitors would involve the senior officer present in the blockade force.  Furthermore, it is clear the inner line of blockaders covering Charleston harbor were aligned to the placement of the monitors.  So with Dahlgren’s orders, can paint a picture of just what this boring duty for the monitors looked like on the map!


Add to this layers of picket boats, tugs, and, out where the water is deeper, the larger blockaders.  I still find it remarkable, and a testament to the skill of those captains who dared, that any blockade-runners made port in Charleston at this time of the war.

Dahlgren’s orders also addressed how the monitors were to use their guns:

It is unnecessary for me to say that the picket monitor and other monitors are to use their guns just when their commanders deem fit, and are not to fail to do so upon blockade runners, or boats, or vessels of the enemy, and also on his batteries, if instant action is needed, but they are not to leave stations in order to enter upon a regular engagement with the batteries on Sullivan’s Island without orders, because the senior officer, being within full view by day and signal distance by night, can best judge of the necessity himself. It is also enjoined that the XV-inch is not to be used except in engaging rebel ironclads or principal forts, as it is almost impossible to replace them here when worn out.

So like the Army’s land batteries, the Navy’s big guns had orders restricting their use.  The largest of these guns might as well been in a glass case – break in the event of a Confederate ironclad sortie.

But there was one weapon that Dahlgren was willing to “air out” against the Confederate batteries:

It is desirable to sustain a continued fire with the rifle 12-pounder howitzers on the works on Sullivan’s Island whenever the duties of the monitors permit, so as to interfere as much as possible with rebel operations, the distance about 3,500 yards to 4,000 yards.

So John Ericsson’s magnificent engineering marvels, with those heavy caliber smoothbores and rifles, with all that armor, representing the cutting edge of technology… and the crews are told to roll a boat howitzer out on deck to lob shells at the Confederate forts.  Despite being the smallest weapons in the fleet, the boat howitzers were the most often used at Charleston during this period of the war.

(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 680-2 and 684.)