“The shells will drop in the most populous portion of the city.”: Foster adjusts fires at Charleston

On September 5, 1864, Major-General John Foster sent, by way of his adjutant, Captain William L. M. Burger, orders down to the commander of the batteries on Morris Island.  Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton had just replaced Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig at the head of the Northern District (including Folly and Morris Islands).  Saxton’s orders read:

General: Several of the medical officers lately released by the Confederate authorities state that our fire on the city of Charleston should be altered so that the shells will drop from 400 to 500 yards further to the east. They also state that the shells explode too short, and suggest the propriety of lengthening the fuse.

The major-general commanding directs that this information be given to your battery commanders, with instructions that they govern their fire accordingly until further orders. By complying with these directions, the quarters of our prisoners of war now confined in Charleston will not be exposed, and the shells will drop in the most populous portion of the city.

A good piece of intelligence applied with proper direction.  Recall the ranges from the Morris Island batteries to Charleston – roughly 7,440 yards:


For those extreme (for the Civil War) ranges, the 3rd Rhode Island’s account indicates percussion fuses were in use (abbreviated “per.” on this table):


Percussion fuses of the Civil War performed erratically.  They worked, but not always as expected.  Gunners preferred time fuses.  But roughly estimating based on the data for other ranges provided, a time fuse for Charleston would need between 45 and 55 seconds.

As for the adjustment of 400 to 500 yards east, that was a matter of mathematics and then applying appropriate traverse to the gun.  At those ranges, the change was a few degrees.

While the intent of Foster’s orders was to prevent any injury to the prisoners held in Charleston, take note of the last phrase – “the shells will drop in the most populous portion of the city.” By the summer of 1864, there were many war-related businesses and storage areas in Charleston. Likewise, one could make the argument that many of those living in the city at that time were employed in the war effort in some form.  But that would dance around the point.  It was 1864… hard war was here to stay.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, page 272.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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