153 years ago today – First shots in a 3500 ton bombardment, 78 week siege of Fort Sumter began

One of the oft overlooked, yet very significant, artifacts in Fort Sumter is a projectile lodged in the interior wall:

Fort Sumter 4 Aug 11 1575

I believe this is a Parrott bolt.  (Though I hope if it is a shell, the projectile was properly disarmed!)  Very likely one of thousands (tens of thousands…) that were fired by Federal batteries on Morris Island, or perhaps the ironclads on station nearby, at Fort Sumter during the long siege of Fort Sumter.

At dawn on August 17, 1863, 153 years ago today,  an 8-inch Parrott rifle on Morris Island fired a shot at dawn on August 17, 1863, 153 years ago today a massive bombardment of Fort Sumter.   Major-General Quincy Gillmore reported over 145 tons of shot, bolt, and shell followed that shot during the next ten days.  The bombardment continued, unrelenting, until September 2.

The objective of the bombardment was to reduce Fort Sumter.  “Reduce” being a military term to indicate the fort’s firepower was reduced, and thus Fort Sumter would not be able to defend itself or interfere with Federal operations.  There are many ways to soft-chew that objective.  At the start of the bombardment, Fort Sumter had 38 large caliber cannon and two mortars.  By September 2, Fort Sumter had but one 32-pdr gun operational, in the northwest casemate covering the harbor side.  So there was some “reduction” accomplished in the conventional military sense of things. But several factors outside the military rule book came into play.  And Fort Sumter remained, even reduced to an “infantry outpost”, a barrier to Federal operations.  Thus the first major bombardment of Fort Sumter resulted in a stalemate.


But… this was only the first round.  The bombardment of Fort Sumter resumed in late September with a minor bombardment, with freshly captured batteries on the north end of Morris Island.  And with those new batteries registered, on October 26 the Federals began forty-one days of constant bombardment – day and night.  Throughout 1864, this pattern continued.  Six minor bombardments took place in the winter and spring months of 1864.  One more “major” bombardment blasted the fort from July 7 through September 4, 1864.  And finally, one more minor bombardment, the eighth such, over September 6-18, 1864, represented the last sustained effort to reduce the fort.  And that does not include what Confederate observers called “desultory firing” aimed at Fort Sumter almost every day.

In short, what started on this day in 1863 was for all intents the longest continual battle in the Civil War.   Historian Warren Ripley estimated the combined weight of these bombardments to be in excess of 3,500 tons.  All that in roughly a year and a half of siege operations against a fort of about 2.5 acres in size.*  The effort was at times part of a major push by the Federals to capture Charleston.  Then at others little more than a demonstration to distract from other fronts.  But this siege drug on from August 17, 1863 right up to the fort’s capture on February 18, 1865.

And that storm started on this day in 1863.

Note: By way of comparison, starting on the morning of November 20, 1943 the U.S. Navy fired about 3000 tons of projectiles on the island of Betio, roughly 290 acres, as part of the Battle of Tarawa.  In the span of eighty years, technology increased the size and lethality of artillery.  And at the same time, technology increased the need for such weighty bombardments.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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