“Charleston is at your mercy”: Saxton proposes a major bombardment of the city

On the same day he reported arrival of 600 Confederate prisoners on Morris Island, Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton sent a proposal to Major-General John Foster.  In this proposal, Saxton urged his superior to increase the bombardment of Charlestson beyond just harassing fires:

General: In accordance with your directions, I have since my arrival here been endeavoring to make myself master of my position. I find there is a great deal of work to be done to place the works here and this command in the condition they should be, even for tolerable defense. When this is accomplished there is, with a little extra work, an excellent opportunity for offensive operations even with a small force. I have passed considerable time each day since my arrival in experimenting with the fire on Charleston, and notwithstanding the poor materials at hand for working the one gun (a 100-pounder Parrott), which is the only one available for operating on the city, I am convinced that Charleston can be destroyed. With a sufficient number of Parrott guns, 30, 100, and 200 pounders, well sighted, with good iron carriages capable of giving an elevation of 40 degrees, with time-fuses of fifty-three seconds, or good percussion shells, with plenty of grease for the projectiles and a careful superintendence of the firing, and Charleston is at your mercy. I would recommend the putting of twenty, or better thirty, 100-pounder Parrott guns in position on our most advanced works, providing 600 or 700 rounds of ammunition for each gun, and when the naval battery is ready to operate, let our forces open on Charleston and fire until ordered to cease. If then the navy could be induced to sail in, I am confident the city would be completely destroyed or surrendered to our arms.

I have no faith in the impregnability of Charleston, and I trust that our Government will determine ere the fall campaign is over the headquarters of the Department of the South shall be in Charleston, or where it was.

There is a lot to pull out of this proposal for examination.  But I like to keep it in the context – as written.  Saxton came to the Department of the South initially with the Port Royal expedition.  After briefly serving at Harpers Ferry in mid-1862 (for which he received the Medal of Honor – but a topic for another day), he returned to the department.  He commanded various formations and sub-divisions in the department through the summer of 1864.

While at the time of writing the proposal, Saxton was acquainting himself with Morris Island and the siege of Charleston, he was well aware of the overall situation in the Department of the South.  Perhaps, reading between the lines too far, there is a sense of frustration in his proposal.  But even restraining that view, Saxton wanted to take some action that might change the status quo at Charleston.

What he wanted to do is add more guns like this to the mix:

I won’t say that Parrott was the one mentioned by Saxton.  But it does serve to illustrate what he requested – high angle fire from iron carriages.  And give Saxton credit for his grasp of the technical nature of the problem.  He mentioned all the points which the Federal gunners mastered in order to place shells with consistency in Charleston.

Saxton wanted to increase the weight of that bombardment by a factor of twenty… or thirty.  He felt that would be sufficient to destroy the city.  I’d say with hindsight of experience from two world wars, likely even fifty Parrotts would not have “completely destroyed” Charleston.

Saxton added a note to this proposal, “The enemy fired 2 shots at Fort Putnam from Charleston yesterday.  They fell short.”  It is not clear from the record if those shots were from James Island (which could range Fort Putnam) or from the City itself.  If from the city, this indicates the Confederates might have flexed the large Blakely rifles that summer, but to no good result.

Foster’s response to Saxton was brief and to the point, routed through Assistant Adjutant-General William L.M. Burger:

I am directed by the major-general commanding to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 8th instant, making suggestions for offensive operations against Charleston, &c. The major-general commanding directs me to state that your suggestions are approved by him, but as instructions have just been received here from the War Department directing him to remain strictly on the defensive, the fire on Charleston and Sumter cannot be increased at this time. The batteries, however, may be enlarged and more guns mounted, ready for future work.

Foster lacked the manpower to take up a campaign against Charleston.  And, having spent two months blasting Fort Sumter, he lacked the gunpowder to turn on Charleston.  But the idea fell upon sympathetic ears.  The Federal commander still felt the key to winning the war was bringing that war to the doorsteps of those who started it…. literally in this case.

A more practical point to consider with this fallen proposal, however – the Federal prisoners in Charleston were not exposed to heavy, prolonged fires.  And those shells that were fired were directed away from places they were known to be held.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 276 and 282.)