153 years ago today: A “Coal Black” Swamp Angel delivered 36 shots of retribution

In the early morning hours of August 22, 1863, a Federal gunner pulled a lanyard attached to a friction primer.  That action launched a 8-inch Parrott shell from this muzzle:

Trenton 14 Aug 10 373

The gun was aimed at Charleston, South Carolina, using rough estimates and the city’s church spires as reference points.  The projectile flew for about thirty seconds to a range close to 7,500 yards (over four miles).  Thirty-five shells followed until, on the following night, the gun failed and burst.

But the Swamp Angel had served notice.  Such was the first of many rounds to follow as Federal batteries targeted Charleston during the remainder of the war.  As I related back on the 150th of the event, for proper context we must look at this episode from several angles.

We often see the Swamp Angel connected to notions of lost chivalry and abandonment of conventions of war.  Wistfully, the angle is to say the Swamp Angel was firing on defenseless civilians, as the Federals were impotent to move the Confederates on the battlefield.  And there is some foundation to that charge.  Major-General Quincy Gillmore tied the bombardment to a demand for Confederate withdrawal from Morris Island.  However, before we start drawing war crime charges for Gillmore consider since the advent of gunpowder western armies had threatened and bombarded cities as leverage to demand the withdrawal (or surrender) of a defender.  In fact, such practice dates gunpowder and cannon, going back to days of trebuchets, catapults, and… well bow and arrow!  And always there was a fine hair to split – were the defenseless citizens legitimate targets, as they aided the defenders in some way… or were they afforded protection?

But there is more to consider here than just some barbaric act.  Charleston was a major base of supply for the Confederate war effort.  The stubborn resistance at Battery Wagner was only possible with nightly resupply from Charleston.  Factories produced all manner of supplies feeding the Confederate war effort.  Cannon produced and modified in Charleston bolstered the defenses ringing the city.  Ironclads under construction, to add to the already large squadron, sat on the ways.  There is no disputing that Charleston was a large cog in the Confederate war machine.  And that status made it a legitimate target.

Yet, as we read accounts of those who manned the guns which fired on Charleston, there seems to be a deeper justification of the bombardment. Indeed, an attitude which is seen even from northerners well beyond and detached from the battlefield.  As Melville put to verse, to many this was about retribution.  Charleston had sinned and had to be punished. The very name given the gun – Swamp Angel – calls that notion.  Consider the opening verse:

There is a coal-black Angel
With a thick Afric lip,
And he dwells (like the hunted and harried)
In a swamp where the green frogs dip.
But his face is against a City
Which is over a bay of the sea,
And he breathes with a breath that is blastment,
And dooms by a far decree.

Regardless of the perspective you chose to emphasize, we are lucky to have physical reminders of the Swamp Angel and the bombardments that followed.  The site of the battery is marked and can be found today by intrepid visitors, provided they have a boat and can navigate the flats.  Several shells have been excavated from Charleston over the years and are on display in museums.  But most prominently, the scrap iron remains of the Swamp Angel were set aside for a memorial:

Trenton 14 Aug 10 381

It is fitting, I think, the gun remains “coal black” as the day it fired on Charleston.  Likewise fitting, for many reasons, that it retains its jagged crack.

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