“Obliged to reduce the fire so as to almost entirely stop it”: End of focused bombardments of Fort Sumter

Warren Ripley, historian and newspaper writer who chronicled the history of the Charleston siege concurrent with the Centennial of the Civil War, considered September 18, 1864 as the last day of the last “minor” bombardment of Fort Sumter.  After that time, as Confederate engineer Captain John Johnson described, “No firing upon the fort but such as may be termed desultory occurred.…”

There are several reasons Federal forces ceased their focused bombardments of Fort Sumter.  Some historians have, with notable bias, the Federals simply “gave up” what was a futile effort to reduce the fort.  That was a factor, but not the major factor.  The Federals had demonstrated through three major bombardments the ability to suppress Fort Sumter’s defenders (for offensive or defensive fires).  But at the same time, through three major bombardments the Federals had also demonstrated a great reluctance to press the matter further – that is to actually occupy Fort Sumter.  Major-General John Foster, just as his predecessor Major-General Quincy Gilmore had assessed, believed the fort could be taken.  Recall the original plan, in July 1863, was to silence Fort Sumter so Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren might rush into the harbor with ironclads. That plan stalled as the Navy considered risks associated with torpedoes and obstructions.  So one might argue the major factor at play with Fort Sumter’s defense was the reluctance of the Federals expend the resources that would “damn torpedoes.”

With Fort Sumter, and Charleston for that matter, being lower on the overall list of Federal objectives, Foster received less resources through the summer of 1864.  In particular, with an active siege underway at Petersburg, Virginia, less ammunition could be spared for Charleston.  On September 19, Foster wrote to Brigadier-General George Ramsay, Chief of Ordnance, to complain:

I have the honor to inclose you extracts from a letter received this day from General Saxton, commanding Northern District, which I forward to you for your information. The representations made by General Saxton are confirmed by my personal observation, and I feel satisfied that the ammunition expended in this department is all turned to the best possible account. My object in calling your attention to this matter is to explain my reasons for making what may appear large requisitions for ordnance stores. We are about out of ammunition for the guns in the front batteries of Morris and Folly Islands, and have been obliged to reduce the fire so as to almost entirely stop it, thereby giving the enemy opportunities of repairing Sumter, which they have taken advantage of with great energy.

Enclosed with the letter, Foster added a statement from Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton, commanding the effort against Charleston, in which he demonstrated what the ammunition shortage meant to the front lines:

The shelling from the enemy’s mortars was severe this morning [September 16?] in our front works, and having but little mortar powder, we were unable to reply effectually. The mortars were very much needed to-day. I regret that our ordnance supplies are so scanty that I cannot make a decent defense of this important post. No powder for the mortars; no suitable fuses for the fire on Charleston; no shells for the 30-pounder Parrotts, a most useful gun for silencing the enemy’s fire; no material for making cartridge bags, or grease for lubricating the projectiles. I shall do all in my power with what I have, but these deficiencies in material, which are of such vital importance to successful operations, I deem it my duty to call your attention to the subject in the hope that they may be soon supplied. More ammunition for the 300-pounder, the most useful guns in these works, is also very much needed.

For perhaps the first time since the Federals landed on Morris Island, they could not dominate the surrounding area with the their heavy artillery.  Not because the Confederates had better weapons, but because they had to husband their fires.

Foster also mentioned the growing importance of long range musket fire in the “skirmishing” against Fort Sumter:

I also inclose you extracts from General Saxton’s letter concerning telescopic rifles. I think there is no place where from ten to fifty of these rifles could be used to better advantage than in the front works of Morris Island. I would respectfully suggest that from ten to fifty of these rifles be sent here.

Foster added a statement from Saxton, mentioning how Confederate sharpshooters delayed employment of the naval battery on Morris Island.

Desultory fires were, from then until February 1865, the extent of Federal efforts.  The war was still out there at the mouth of Charleston Harbor 150 years ago.  Just a lot less noisy than previous months.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 295-6.)

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s