September 6, 1864: Foster stops bombardment of Fort Sumter “for want of ammunition”

On September 6, 1864, Major-General John Foster provided a status report to the Chief of Staff, Major-General Henry Halleck, in Washington.  The update, while routine, brought several ongoing operational lines together – prisoners, health and sanitary concerns, and the bombardment of Fort Sumter.  And above all, Foster emphasized he was not engaging in offensive operations:

General: I have the honor to report that no military operations of importance have taken place since the date of my last report. The enemy have sent over the lines without exchange a large number of surgeons and chaplains whom they had held in custody. This is the result of the correspondence which I had with General Samuel Jones, showing him that these persons were to be considered non-combatants.

The exchange of non-combatants, in this case medical officers and chaplains, was allowed under standing policy of the time, and considered a separate matter from the exchange of other officers and enlisted troops.  A fine detail distinction to consider with regard to prisoner exchanges.

Foster went on to relate the Confederates also sent over, without insisting on an exchange, a sergeant and a private who’d been captured at Port Royal Ferry earlier in the summer.  The reason these two were released involved the circumstances of their capture:

The rebel pickets at that point called to our pickets to send over a boat for them, as they wanted to desert. The sergeant in command of our pickets, credulously believing them, went in a boat with 1 man, and upon their arrival on the opposite shore were taken prisoners and the boat seized.

General Jones returns them without exchange, with the remark that “they were captured under circumstances which he cannot approve.”

Earlier in August, Foster had requested to send supplies to the prisoners in Charleston, Savannah, and Andersonville.  Now Foster related Jones’ response:

General Jones refuses to allow our officers, prisoners of war, to take charge of supplies for our prisoners at Charleston and Savannah, but says he will insure their faithful delivery. He has no jurisdiction over the prisoners at Andersonville, and therefore declines to entertain that part of the proposition.

So a partial solution, but not one that would ease the suffering where most exposed – Andersonville.

But Andersonville was not the only place in the south with concerns for health and sanitation:

The health of the department is growing rapidly worse. The number of sick in hospital is increasing, and a large number of the officers have to be furnished with sick leave to prevent permanent disability. I have no idea, however, that it is more than the usual malarious epidemic and disease peculiar to the climate this season of the year. It will not enfeeble the strength of the command beyond a proper limit of strength. I can get along very well with the force I now have until the enemy’s strength is very much increased.

Such indicated the “no offensive operations” instructions which Washington had frequently reiterated over the summer.  The Third Major Bombardment of Fort Sumter was an acceptable activity, as it did not commit the force to action.  The gunners on Morris Island would sweat as they handled the big guns.  But that did not risk a larger engagement, as did the demonstrations of early July 1864.  With that in mind, Foster related the progress of the bombardment:

I have been forced to almost entirely stop the fire upon Fort Sumter for want of ammunition, the requisitions upon the ordnance department having been entirely unfilled, and, on the contrary large orders having been received to send ammunition from this department to Fort Monroe. We had reached a point in the demolition of the fort beyond which the enemy could not have held out many weeks in their occupancy. Since the gradual cessation of fire they have exerted every effort to pile earth upon the parts which were being laid bare by the force of our fire.

The Third Major Bombardment ended on or around September 4 – basing that date on Captain John Johnson’s account, from the Confederate side. Foster had simply ran out of ammunition. I’ve run across the detailed orders in regard to ammunition forwarded from Hilton Head to Fort Monroe, but don’t have it handy as of this writing.  The point being – not only troops were going to Virginia.  The center of gravity around Richmond-Petersburg was also pulling in heavy ordnance.

Johnson and other Confederate accounts stressed that the fort was in better condition to resist a Federal assault than it was before the bombardment began.  That may have been so.  But it was only due to the employment of precious labor – impressed negro labor – to keep pace with the demolition done by the Federals.  If the Confederates could boast the ability to rebuilt the fort, the Federals could counter that the the bombardment was not sustained to the level needed to destroy the fort.  Were the strategic priorities weighed differently, the balance would shift accordingly.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 272-3.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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