Fort Sumter, April 1865 Photos, Part 3: Three sets of stairs

Last week we discussed the sallyport, or the entrance into Fort Sumter.  Let’s now consider the means by which that photographer made his way up to the top of the wall. Turning back to our “pre celebration” photo of Fort Sumter’s interior:


Looking close at the entrance way again:


How many ways do you see to the top of the wall?

There’s a set of stairs to the right of the sallyport.  There’s the ladders laying down to the right of that.  But there’s also a hidden set of stairs, covered up by the berm at the top – the interior stairs in this sector of the fort.  So, not counting those intrepid types who would just run up the berm, there were three options here.  For the photographer, one was unlikely (ladder), another presented problems handling equipment (internal stairs), thus leaving the open, external stairs laid against the berm of the wall.

An otherwise plain old set of steps:


Fifteen steps, if you count the block at the bottom.  Note also there is a break where a wider set, at top, fits over the narrower part.

We see these steps in many interior photos:


Don’t confuse.  There’s an additional set of stairs in this view.  A second, more elaborate, set added for those VIPs attending the April 1865 ceremony.

Looking closely, we see the break from another angle:


Obviously this photo was taken after the first (which I call FS1).  The dirt was cleared away from the lower part of the steps.  In fact, I’d probably say the entire lower section was picked up and reset.  The heavy beam used as the bottom step is not in view.  But one of the ladders is there.

And do take note of the fine workmanship of that second set of stairs.  Elaborate.  With handrails.  Probably was sanded to protect VIPs from wood splinters.  We’ll see these stairs in other photos.  So let’s save discussion for later.

But, we should ask if the first set of wooden stairs was put in place by the Confederates or Federals?  Well, the stairs do appear on the draft survey:


The Confederates would probably avoid having a light wooden structure such as those stairs exposed in the fort.  A lucky Federal shell might shatter it and spray deadly splinters all about the parade ground.

The Confederates did have reason to climb to the top of the wall.  Most importantly, the garrison’s flag was on this particular quarter for much of the siege.  But access was provided by the much safer internal stairway.  We see that structure along the profile section RS:


Again, note the dashed “ghost” of what the fort had looked like before the war.  We have, just inside the original fort’s wall, a couple of steps for what had been stairs up to the second tier.  With the wartime changes, those steps were covered by a berm.  A passage connected the galleries of the lower tier to the stairs, and thence provided access to the top of the wall… now rubble and dirt.  The opening at the top of the berm was reinforced by a frame and lined with gabions.  We see that in our photo… but just barely:


Earlier I was a bit confused about the location of this stairway, and mentioned the gabions in the background.  Those are directly over the external sallyport.  I don’t know what to call those, other than perhaps a bonnett (which we discussed last Friday).  Certainly in a position to protect the sallyport from stray fragments.  But also, perhaps, in a line to block enfilade fire on those internal stairs.

From the other view, the top of the internal stairs is a little more apparent:


Good little mountain howitzer right there in view!

Thinking again about the second set of stairs and the preparations for the ceremony, note the landing of the outside stairs, with an “entrance statement” complete with garnishing.  This photo had to be just a few days prior to the ceremony, with those decorative branches still green.  Note also the railings setup to prevent some poor VIP from falling over the side.  Yes, their safety was important… as they walked about a site full of unexploded shells!

UPDATE: A paragraph which I inadvertently deleted, but should be added back here.  Some of the fine points about the construction of that original set of stairs is worth examination.  The upper portion appeared to be anchored into the berm.  Thus making it somewhat permanent.  The lower portion, however, was held in place by placement within the uprights of the upper section and a set of cleats anchored to the heavy beam at the bottom.   It appears to me that lower section was configured as something which could be removed, stored, then replaced when needed.  Given that possibility, I’d think the stairs were built by the Confederates, with a lower section which was only put in place during quiet times (i.e. when the Federals were not bombarding).

Both sets of external stairs appear in the ceremony photos, often with lots of activity:


Here we see a blur of people descending to the parade ground.  To the right of that, four people are using the old steps as a viewing perch.  The one at the bottom is a Navy-type.  I conjecture he was a petty officer, finding a way to keep out of the crowd but still get a good view (as they are apt to do). At the top are three of civilians – two seated and one standing.  The standing man is in a convenient position for us to obtain a rough measure of the stairs:


His height covers five steps of the upper section, with him standing on the top step of the lower section.  Assuming him of average height… maybe a little over six feet perhaps… can we measure the stairs overall?


So maybe fifteen to eighteen feet?

Better still, we might also use that measure to address that question about the Confederate sallyport:


Standing-man’s measure compares favorably to others standing next to the gabion revetment beside the sallyport. We see a person standing there is roughly up the mid-point of the second row of gabions.

Circling back to the pre-ceremony photo, let’s apply that same measure:


Not necessarily scientific, but I would contend the entrance was much smaller than the survey would lead us to believe.  And, of course, that would also explain why the Federals built such an elaborate set of stairs for the VIPs.  Having those gray-headed dignitaries climb up and down steps was preferable.  Opposed having them crawl on their hands and knees through the passage.

One last note on that sallyport.  You see also a metal plate set up by Confederates to block that entrance.  A reminder  – this was Fort Sumter after it was pummeled by tens of thousands of shot and shell, over the span of a year and a half.  The gabions were not just there to prevent erosion, but to sustain a defensive structure exposed to the heaviest weapons devised at the time.


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