Most of the time, when I discuss the fighting around Charleston harbor during the Civil War, the actions involved very large caliber artillery – indeed the largest weapons of the war. I have referred to it as skirmishing with Parrotts, columbiads, and mortars. But on September 17, 1864, the “skirmishing” involved weapons most often seen on other battlefields – rifled muskets.
Two reports from Captain Thomas Huguenin point to the musketry exchanged between the opposing forces at the mouth of Charleston harbor that day. The first came that morning:
Enemy keeps up a brisk fire with small-arms in answer to ours.
Then later at 6:40 p.m.:
The Yankees have done no work to-day at Gregg because of our sharpshooters. Forty-four shots fired to-day at fort (18 missed), mostly from small rifle guns. No casualties.
On the Federal side, Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton reported:
Within the last two days the work on this battery (naval battery) has been greatly interfered with by a corps of sharpshooters which the enemy has stationed on Fort Sumter. The bullets came in very thick when I was at the front this morning. I hope if there are any telescopic rifles in the department or any can be procured they may be sent to me at once. I think I can use them to great advantage.
Keep in mind the situation here. The heavy guns of Fort Sumter no longer faced Morris Island. Two three gun batteries were built and partially armed. But those were setup to fire on the channel and not Morris Island. The only other artillery in the fort were mountain howitzers for defense against landing parties and the saluting gun. So the Confederates had nothing at Sumter to contest the construction of new batteries. And the long range fires from James and Sullivan’s Islands were not sufficiently accurate to seriously interfere with such work. So the most important weapons in Fort Sumter at that time were small arms. Recall the range from Fort Sumter to Morris Island was around 1400 to 1500 yards. Long range indeed for small arms, but within the ballistic limits for such weapons – certainly for those equipped with telescopic sights.
On the Federal side, the biggest problem was a shortage of powder and shells. One of the reasons for the naval battery was to employ guns for which the department could obtain more projectiles (from the Navy’s stocks). But to get those XI-inch Dahlgrens in place, the work crews needed a break from those sharpshooters.
Consider the nature of the Federal fires, as reported by Huguenin. The shells fired that day were mostly light Parrotts – 20-pdr or 30-pdr. Those weapons were favored to counter Confederate fires. Imagine them as large caliber “snipers” used by the Federal artillerists. From many long months of firing on Fort Sumter, the Federal gunners had refined calculations so as to put their rounds on specific parts of the rubble pile – for instance where they’d seen evidence of a Confederate sharpshooter.
But those sharpshooters would often select positions on the flanks of the rubble pile so as to get a good angle against the Federal positions. For the Parrott gunners firing at them, this posed a “point” target. Such shots were at the mercy of winds or variations in powder. That might explain why over a third of the shots missed.
For all the heavy guns at Charleston firing on a daily basis, the siege could and did fall down to a simple exchange of small arms fires.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, page 242; Part II, Serial 66, page 296.)