Four big guns protecting Charleston Harbor: Fort Johnson, Photo Analysis, Part I

Shortly after the fall of Charleston, Federal engineers and survey teams arrived in the city.  One of those teams, under US Coast Survey Assistant Charles Otis Boutelle, focused on the waterways, channels, and shorelines. But the US Coast Survey also provided some excellent surveys of the fortifications.  On the other hand, the Army’s teams focused mostly on the fortifications.  We, 150 years later, are very fortunate to have the products from these surveys as references.  Most of the wartime defenses of Charleston have long since disappeared.  So these surveys give some fine details to back up written reports and observations.

And while the survey teams were busy measuring and drafting, several photographers descended upon Charleston to ply their trade.  Many arrived to “capture the moment” during the flag raising ceremony at Fort Sumter.  But those photographers did not narrowly focus their lens on that celebration.  They brought back a visual catalog of places and sites around Charleston.  Those images coupled with the very fine survey work – and both activities occurring at the same time frame, mind you – offer some unique windows into the Civil War landscape of Charleston, as it existed in the spring of 1865.

Let me offer Fort Johnson as an example of how these resources allow us to “see” what was, as it was.  The fort’s armament varied throughout the war.  But in January 1865, Colonel Ambrosio José Gonzales reported Fort Johnson as armed with two 10-inch columbiads, one rifled 10-inch columbiad, one rifled 8-inch columbiad, one 7-inch Brooke Rifle, and two 24-pdr Austrian howitzers.

But that does not provide Fort Johnson’s layout, dimensions, or arrangement.  So let us turn to the US Coast Survey’s work on James Island:


North is to the top on this survey.  So place the city of Charleston to the upper left, off the sheet.  Likewise, Fort Sumter is to the right and off the sheet.  Zooming down a bit, let us look at Fort Johnson in more detail:


Immediately, you should notice a puzzle here.  What Boutelle called Fort Johnson has too many gun positions for the armament Gonzales listed.  Part of this puzzle falls into place with the fortifications on the left (directly under the scale key).  That is Battery Harleston.  Still we should see five big-gun positions… not counting the two howitzers which were used as flank defense.  But there are only four positions indicated along the line designated “Section 1” from the survey.  There is another gun position at the lower right of the map, detailed with “Section 4.”  Here are those profile sections for review:


Sections 1 and 2 look across the Water Battery of the fort, facing east toward the harbor.  Section 3 cuts across the rear of the main part of the fort.  And Section 4 is a profile of that bastion on the southwest side face of the fort.

See what’s interesting about this puzzle when you mention the cardinal directions?  Yes, four guns faced the harbor while only one gun faced the Federal positions on Morris Island.  While the guns at the Water Battery could train towards Fort Sumter, that was not their primary facing.  Only one gun from Fort Johnson confronted the Federal positions.  The task of countering Federal activity on Morris Island fell mostly to Battery Simkins (also on the survey map, but outside of the snip I provide above).   So part of this puzzle is now what gun did the Confederates assign to firing on Federal batteries?  And what guns were detailed to counter any Federal naval force breaking into the inner harbor?

The US Coast Survey didn’t detail the guns by caliber (they did with Sullivan’s Island, but that doesn’t help us here).  The Army’s survey of Fort Johnson is more detailed in some respects… but also fails to provide any annotation of the guns. The original digital copy is on the LOC website.  Here is a snip for our purposes here:


Again we see four gun positions facing north toward the harbor and one position facing towards Morris Island.  Still doesn’t help sort out the guns.

But we do have a photograph looking across the front of the Water Battery of Fort Johnson (original digital at LOC):


Let’s call this photo “FJ1” (for Fort Johnson #1).  Notice Fort Sumter in the distance (left of center).  That confirms this as a photo of Fort Johnson.  A great “this is where the war began” shot.  George Barnard receives credit for this photo, taken after the Federals occupied Charleston.  The damaged carriage is ample proof of that (and I’ll go into more of the many details seen in this photo at a later point).

Now if you follow this blog on a regular basis, you should be able to identify these guns with ease!  Closest to the camera is a 10-inch Confederate columbiad.  A second is in the next position.  Third from the camera is a 7-inch Brooke Rifle (calling this photo FJ2):


Double-banded 7-inch Brooke to be exact.  Again, we know this to be after the fall of Charleston due to the axe work done on the carriage.

Next in line is a 10-inch rifled columbiad (FJ3):


How do I know this to be a rifled 10-inch columbiad?  Because that weapon is still in Charleston today… in fact sitting on a brand new carriage in Fort Sumter. We also see here a fifth weapon – an 8-inch Siege Howitzer, Model 1841.  That weapon was not listed in Gonzales’ report. But it is on a siege carriage and thus was probably at another point (or more likely part of the reserve), and relocated by the Federals.

The photographer even turned around and took a photo looking back across the Water Battery (FJ4):


Again, there is some good “stuff” in this photo that I will discuss at a later point.  Not the least of which is that smokestack at the wharf to the far right.    And we also see three mortars laying beyond the battery, apparently waiting transport elsewhere.  One of those appears in another photograph looking back at Fort Johnson (FJ5):


These five photos provide sound visual documentation.  All were taken on the same day.  And, given the damaged carriages, the big guns had not moved since the Confederates departed.  The details of the photos allow plotting against the fort surveys.  I’ve plotted the position of the camera here:


The blue octagons are labeled FJ1 to FJ5, as referenced above.  The green lines from those octagons depicts the rough angle of view seen in the photo.  So every inch of the Water Battery’s face is covered.  And better still, the details in the photograph match up well with the survey.  If we visit the site today, we don’t see those earthworks, which were replaced by a hospital and quarantine post.  Today the grounds are used by the South Carolina Wildlife and Marine Resources Department.  So those wartime photos are a glimpse back to something that does not exist today.

Going back to the question about the guns, what these photos tell us, conclusively, is that four of the guns were placed in the Water Battery to face the harbor – one 10-inch rifled columbiad, one 7-inch Brooke Rifle, and two 10-inch columbiads.  That leaves the 8-inch rifled columbiad to face Morris Island.  What this further details is the primary mission for Fort Johnson’s garrison – to defend Charleston’s inner harbor in the event the Federal ironclads had broken through.  Such is important to consider when analyzing the overall defensive arrangements made by the Confederates, as it tips us to how the commanders hoped to defeat the monitors.

As the post title indicates, this is the first in a set that will look through the photos of Fort Johnson.  More photos and more details ….

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

9 thoughts on “Four big guns protecting Charleston Harbor: Fort Johnson, Photo Analysis, Part I

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