Fortification Friday: Applying what we know about fortification batteries

So we’ve defined and examined the different types of batteries used in field fortifications.  We know barbettes allowed the guns to fire over the parapet, while embrasures had the guns firing through the parapet.  And we also referred to rules for building platforms under the guns.

Lots of “book learning” but how does that apply out in the field?  Again, let us turn to one of the great primary sources we have for the Civil War – photographs!

First stop, a photo captioned “Company H, 3rd Massachusetts Heavy Artillery at Fort Lincoln”:


Three Parrott rifles in view.  We’ll hold off discussing the 6.4-inch on the right.  It is the two 30-pdr Parrotts (correct me if I have the type wrong) in the center of view.  These are in barbette.  We see the classic layout as described by the textbook.  Note the raised earth, on which the engineers had platforms.  One platform for each gun, plus additional platform between the guns. Such leads me to consider this “beautification” of the works, to prevent a lot of wear and tear from foot traffic.  The parapet stands just higher than the axles of the carriages (siege carriages, by the way).  The gun on the left is at zero elevation (or at least darn close to it), with a few inches at the muzzle to clear the parapet allowing some declination… though without being there at that place and time, we don’t know for sure how much.  Lastly, note this battery one ramp directly behind the right side gun.  That is probably another ramp to the left of view (and there is likely another gun out of frame).  All in all a clean barbette battery.  Glad those heavies had time to keep the fort in order!

Now lets move over to Fort Richardson, where the 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery had their guns firing through embrasures:


Six guns in view here.  The one on the distant left looks to be in barbette, but the rest are embrasure.  Those on siege carriages sit atop platforms. The nearest is at the level of the fort’s parade.  Platforms for the siege gun on the far wall and that at the bastion (far distant right) are elevated at least a slight bit.  From the photograph’s angle, we cannot make out much of the embrasure’s details – the sole and other features are out of view.  But we do see a well cut opening.  The nearest gun and the next over (on a garrison/seacoast carriage) are situated so that the line of the bore is right at the interior crest.  Part of the muzzle is above the crest.  So the embrasure did not provide complete protection for the crew. Just enough, perhaps.

Now those are “garrison” troops well to the rear with plenty of time to make the fortifications look good.  How about those on the front lines who are busy sending over hot iron?  OK, how about Fort Brady, outside Richmond:


Up front we have a big 6.4-inch Parrott firing through a well constructed embrasure.  Note the gabions and sandbags laid to reinforce the parapet.  And the parapet extends well above the line of the bore.  This crew had ample headroom…. but the embrasure is also rather wide.  Had we walked around the gun, we might find a shutter constructed in the embrasure to protect against sharpshooters.  Now this is not a field or siege carriage, but a wrought iron seacoast carriage adapted to the situation (and I think this gun is placed to cover an approach on the James… making it “seacoast” in function).  Note the shelf placed in front of the gun.  When hefting a 100 pound Parrott projectile, one needed a leg up… or two.

Behind that big Parrott are a couple of smaller brothers.  These also fire through embrasures.  We need to strain through the resolution to see the arrangements.  But there are platforms and the guns are given plenty of space to recoil.  All in all, this portion of the line looks well kept and orderly.  Almost like the crew knew they were to serve as an example 150 years later… yep!

A little less orderly, but still in good order, is a battery at Fort Putnam, on Morris Island:


Another couple of Parrotts on siege carriages firing through embasures.   These were aimed at Fort Sumter.  They share a platform.  Notice again the gabions used to reinforce the embrasures.  What we clearly do not see are any shutters.  We know some batteries on Morris Island employed iron shutters for protection, though not present here.  The field piece on the far left appears to be a Napoleon.  It has no parapet, but is sitting on a platform.  It is my interpretation that field gun is situated to provide close-in defense, should the Confederates attempt a raid.  As such, it was there in part to be “seen” more so than to be used.  Sort of like an alarm-company sign on the front lawn.

Elsewhere in Fort Putnam, the field guns out for defense were given better protection:


Talking about that on the left.  The gun is in barbette, though a stockade aligns to give more protection.  And of course to the right is another of those big Parrotts.  But this weapon is arranged to “super-elevate” beyond what the carriage was designed for.  Something seen often at Charleston in an effort to get maximum range out of the guns firing on the city or other points.  I call it out because, in a form follows function manner, the battery layout was altered from the textbook standards.  The gun fired over the parapet, but situated lower behind the parapet than a barbette battery.  In this case, the gunners were not concerned about direct fire.  Their iron blessings were sent indirectly to the target.

For Sale: Fifty Batteries of Field Artillery, Complete!

There are hundreds of artillery enthusiasts right now looking at their check book balances, just in case…. No, I’m not selling artillery, but in 1870 the Ordnance Department was:


This advertisement appeared in the October 29, 1870 edition of the Commercial Advertiser (New York).

This is like a dream list for collectors.  Thousands of muskets, carbines, and pistols along with accouterments and ammunition.  Then the artillery… “50 Batteries of Field Artillery, complete, with ammunition.” This quantity was deemed surplus and to be sold for disposal.  As detailed in the paragraph that followed:

Bids will be entertained for any one, or all of the foregoing lots.  The bids to specify the price offered for the Arms with Ammunition, for Accoutrements by them-selves. The bids for Artillery will be for Batteries complete, with Ammunition; so much for a Battery of light 12-pounders, and so much for a Battery of Parrott 3-inch Rifle Guns, or for Batteries and Ammunition separately.

Yes, it was a different time… one could just buy a whole battery of artillery with ammunition without so much as a photo ID.  Send a bid in the mail to Alexander B. Dyer.  If your prices are good, the good Chief will accept the offer.

But what would you do with a battery of artillery?  In 1870 there was very little interest in Living History or “reenacting” the Civil War (some might argue the war was still being “enacted” even at that late date).  One might post the battery on the lawn to intimidate neighbors.

But fifty batteries?  That’s enough for an army!  And that might be what some had in mind:


This ad appeared on the same day (October 29, 1870) in the New York Herald. It is mostly coincidental, I think, the Ordnance Department ad ran the same day as Starr & Frazier’s.  I suspect one source for Starr & Frazier’s batteries was from an earlier sale, by the Navy:


You read that correctly, 390 guns, 354 carriages, and over 95,000 projectiles.  A lot of iron for sale!  And this lot includes the 20- and 30-pounders calibers that Starr & Frazier offered.

Let me run some numbers for you on Parrotts and their production.  Might be a little boring, but follow the numbers here:

  • Number of 10-pdr (2.9-inch bore) Parrotts produced for Army contracts during the war – 276 guns.
  • Number of 3-inch bore Parrotts produced for Army contracts during the war – 279 guns.

So an aggregate total of 555 Parrott rifles in the 2.9-inch and 3-inch caliber range. One quirk to the caliber, however. We know that 119 of the 2.9-inch rifles were taken in hand for conversion to 3-inch.  I’ve written on that before. If we need a refresher, drop a line.  But long story short, none of those 119 guns survive today… as far as we know.

Keep in mind those are “Army contracts.”  As we well know there were many Parrotts produced for state or other customers in the early days of the war.  The ad from the Army does not break down the number of Parrotts and Napoleons for sale.  But fifty batteries is somewhere between 200 and 300 guns, depending if those were assessed as four or six gun batteries.  You see, that sale might account for a rather large portion of the Army’s wartime-purchase Parrott rifles.

The numbers for the Navy for the advertised calibers:

  • 20-pdr Parrott rifles on Navy registries – 336.
  • 30-pdr Parrott rifles on Navy registries – 407.

Of those two calibers, a total of 743.  And of that total, we see the Navy selling off 390… more than half…. in 1870.

But wait… there’s more….Was there some event, perhaps, in 1870 that may have generated a market for Parrott rifles?  Um… well there was this:


The Franco-Prussian War erupted in mid-1870.  And the newspapers indicate indeed France was very interested in those Parrott rifles.  Rather accusatory, in May 1871 the Daily Albany (New York) Argus ran:

The radical administration of Washington and the majority of their organs throughout the country, have expressed the most profound sympathy for Prussia in the recent war.  Grant went so far as to congratulate the Emperor William on the near resemblance between the institutions of Germany and the United States. While loud in the expressions of love and admiration for the Germans, they were busily engaged in sending arms to the French.

So… our government worked both sides of the street?  Tell me something new.  What is interesting are the details and “naming of names” in the Argus article. The Remington arms company was singled out for providing $14 million to the French that included over 200,000 sand of arms.  The article did not single out a specific source, but indicated “50 Parrott batteries, six guns each” were sold to the French.

That’s a good, round number – 300 guns.  And it is a rather convenient correlation to those being sold in the fall of 1870.  Just soak that a bit…Those were not all 10-pdrs, and some 20-pdrs were mixed in.  But regardless that is a significant number of weapons taken from the US and boxed up for shipment to France.

And I want to ensure you catch that qualification… this is the number “sold” to France, but not necessarily the number delivered. The Daily Albany Argus later reported, on February 16, 1872, that some of the sales to the French fell through:

Another large contract with which the French Government found special fault as involving fraud… .  From General Dyer’s statement of sales, it appears that the [C.K.] Garrison purchase from the war department was 26 guns, Parrott batteries, with 10,000 rounds of fixed ammunition. This by contract, was to have been delivered in 35 days from the 24th of December, 1870. Afterward the French Government refused to pay on the ground that the contract was not performed in time, and that the charges were exorbitant.  The French authorities claim they were charged at the rate of $15,000 for batteries that cost $1,000.

Hey, war-profiteering mark-up of fifteen times the cost is somewhat reasonable (don’t get me to going on the rates the French charged in 1917, OK? They didn’t give away those Chauchat machine guns, don’t you know.).

Clearly, however, we have a link between the Ordnance Department ad of October 1870 and the sales of Parrotts to the French.  And that connection was rather evident to many on Capitol Hill in 1871… and Dyer was soon sworn in for testimony.  Had there been a 24/7 news cycle, the story might have dominated the media for a week or so.  But it was, after all, a minor affair in the end.  As there are some nice technical details thrown around, the record is interesting, to me at least, for that discussion.

In closing, let me circle back from the 19th century politics… because darn it, this is “To the Sound of the Guns” not “Fancy Politicians” blog.

Consider there are somewhere between 115 and 120 surviving Parrotts of the 10-pdr/3-inch calibers.  Again, that’s counting guns with a “US” acceptance, and not considering those with New York, Pennsylvania, or Navy acceptance marks.  Subtract that surviving number from the quantity of guns purchased on Army contracts during the Civil War (555).  That gives us roughly 435 to 440 Parrotts that were “lost” to scraping or other means over the last 150 years.  Of that number, I ask, how many ended up in France?  And of those that might have reach France, do any survive today?

Swords into Plowshares,Spears into Pruning Hooks… and Parrott Shells into Wrecking Balls…

The disposition of ordnance after the Civil War has always fascinated me.  The Federals produced enough cannon and projectiles to fight a couple of wars.  Add to that mountains of weapons and ammunition captured from the Confederates.  In short, enough to carry the nation through several wars… provided that no advances in technology rendered the stockpile obsolete… which, well, is pretty much what happened.

The large quantity of obsolete cannon and projectiles was a boon, somewhat.  We have some surviving cannon on the battlefields, in front of courthouses, and in cemeteries across the land as result. In a few cases, those weapons were resold to other nations.  However, reading newspapers from the second-half of the 19th century, it seems rumors of such weapons sales far outnumbered actual sales.  Surplus dealers were another outlet for disposing the obsolete ordnance.

Most notabe was Francis Bannerman IV, who amassed a fortune reselling anyone desirous of old Army equipment.  A browse through one of Bannerman’s Catalog offers tantalizing deals… a dozen decades after the fact.  Imagine Sharps Carbines for a couple bucks!  Or an original Gatling gun complete with carriage!

While rare in number, heavy ordnance appeared in the pages of Bannerman’s, indicating the Army occasionally disposed of large projectiles as scrap.  So what would one do with a large caliber shell?  Well aside from sitting it out on the front porch to impress visitors…

Well, a notice in the New York Evening Post from March 15, 1875 alludes to one other, more practical, use for a heavy shell:

A 500-pound Parrott shell, lately used for breaking iron in Peekskill, was filled with water which froze solid and burst the shell into three pieces, although the iron was upwards of three inches thick.

A 500 pounder?  The 10-inch Parrott, among the heaviest used in the Civil War, only rated 300-pounder.  Well assuming the weight is not some typographical error and assuming the type of projectile is properly attributed to Parrott, that leaves a question.  There were 12-inch Parrott projectiles produced for heavy rifle tests. The bolts for such rated as 600-pounders.  So it is not hard to figure the shell in the same caliber being lighter at 500 pounds… give or take.  Just a swag that might substantiate the story.  But that’s just me being a cannon-guy trying to get all technical.

What’s important is someone was using a very large projectile to break up iron!  Presumably filled with water to add more force to the impact.. as if a 500 pound conical mass of iron needed more “umph!”  Oh, and that water froze, expanded, and cracked the shell, ending its useful second life.  From shell to wrecking ball to scrap… such is the life-cycle for a Parrott shell… one enormously large Parrott shell, mind you.



Sherman’s March, February 16, 1865: “I instructed him not to fire any more into”… Columbia

If you ask me, Battery H, 1st Illinois Light Artillery should be among the most recognized artillery formations of the Civil War. The battery served in many important campaigns of the war and played critical roles in several major battles.  Armed with 20-pdr Parrott guns, this volunteer battery saw action at Shiloh (those big guns in Grant’s Last Line), Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Atlanta (where the guns were lost and recaptured on July 22, 1864), and the march to the sea.  Captain Francis DeGress was the battery commander from the summer of 1862 onward, so the unit was commonly referenced in reports by his name.  And yes, the battery hauled the heavy 20-pdrs, which artillerists such as Brigadier-General Henry Hunt shunned, on light-order marches across Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina.  If we could ever determine a surviving example from those allotted to the battery, those Parrotts would be among the most storied cannons from the Civil war.   Consider, those 20-pdrs fired on Vicksburg, Atlanta, Fort McAllister, Savannah, and, on February 16, 1865, Columbia, South Carolina.  The State House still bears the scars from DeGress’ guns:

More Battle Damage on the State House

A map of Major-General William T. Sherman’s dispositions on February 16, 1865 might simply have a solid line from Granby to a point above Columbia on the Broad River, simply saying “Sherman.”  At no time since early January were all the columns so contracted:


In brief, the Right Wing moved, Fifteenth Corps leading, from positions near Granby forward to find bridges over the Congaree burned.  From there, Second Division of the corps leading, engineered a crossing of the Saluda and reached the Broad River before nightfall.  The Seventeenth Corps trailed, but went into camp along the Congaree opposite Columbia.  The Twentieth Corps concentrated behind the Right Wing.  And the Fourteenth Corps moved in from Lexington and took position to cross the Saluda River near Mount Zion Church.  The Cavalry Division moved to Lexington, with advances towards Wise’s Ferry.

Thus Sherman’s entire march force covered an area roughly eleven miles by six miles.  This disposition allowed Sherman to threaten entry into Columbia at several points, and if need be even continue flanking to the north.  Such compelled the Confederates to withdraw.  That’s the macro-view of the movement for February 16.  For the micro-view, let me focus on the advance of Major-General William Hazen’s Second Division, Fifteenth Corps, with the Ninth Illinois Mounted Infantry, detached from the Seventeenth Corps, assisting.

Throughout the night prior, Hazen’s division suffered from considerable Confederate artillery firing from positions outside Columbia.  Hazen reported the loss of one officer killed and two wounded from this firing (keep this in mind for later).  On the morning of February 16, Hazen advanced his skirmish line to find the Confederate positions from the day before abandoned.  Just after daylight, the skirmishers reached the Congaree Bridge, finding it burned by the retreating Confederates.  By 8 a.m. Hazen had his division alined along the river, and was exchanging fire with Confederates on the opposite bank.  At this time, DeGress’ battery deployed and began countering Confederate artillery and sharpshooter fire.  (And I’ll return to DeGress in a moment.)

At 11 a.m., orders from Sherman, passed down through Logan, directed Hazen to move to a bridge over the Saluda near Saluda Factory.  The lead of this advance was Colonel Theodore Jones’ First Brigade of the division, specifically the 13th Ohio and 57th Illinois.  Reaching the Saluda, Jones found the bridge there also burned.  But that did not stop the movement, as Jones later reported:

The Thirtieth Ohio and Fifty-fifth Illinois were crossed in pontoon-boats, and drove the enemy over the crest of the first ridge, where they remained, covering the working party until the bridge was completed. The rest of the brigade then crossed over the bridge.

Once again, the leading elements of a Federal advance had effected, engineered, a crossing and avoided delays.  The advance continued, wheeling onto the Broad River and the bridges into Columbia from the west, as Jones continued:

The command “forward” was then given to the skirmishers, who advanced, driving the enemy with great rapidity across Broad River, the enemy burning the bridge. The brigade then went into camp; distance marched, eight miles.

With darkness, the Federals halted, with preparations to throw a pontoon bridge over the Broad River the next morning.  Hazen reported three wounded in the day’s action.

Hazen’s aggressive advance put the Federals on two fronts against Columbia, but not yet in Columbia.  Again, Sherman was not interested in storming the defenses to gain the city.  Putting a premium on any loss of life, at least in the Federal ranks, Sherman was content to pressure the Confederates into conceding ground.   And a Confederate high command focused more on keeping an army in being, over retaining any control over geographic points, was content to give Sherman the city.

But back to DeGress and his 20-pounders.  Lieutenant-Colonel William H. Ross, Chief of Artillery for the Fifteenth Corps, described the deployment of DeGress’ guns that morning:

February 16, it was found necessary to put a battery in position on the extreme left in order to command rebel batteries, which were shelling the main road leading to the main bridge over Congaree River, and in order to accomplish this it was necessary to run the blockade of the rebel batteries, which I ordered and which was gallantly performed by this battery, Captain De Gress leading the column in sections. The position was gained without casualties; firing commenced and the rebel batteries silenced. Major-General Howard then ordered one section of this battery placed in the road at west end of bridgeway over Congaree River, commanding the main street in the city of Columbia in which the rebel cavalry were moving. The street was briskly shelled and made untenable.

The initial deployment of the guns, as indicated by both Hazen and Ross, was to counter Confederate batteries firing from the opposite shore.  After silencing the Confederate artillery fire, DeGress turned on the depots and other military targets within range.  Around that time, Sherman himself came up to take a look at Columbia from the same position occupied by DeGress:

Captain De Gress had a section of his twenty-pound Parrott guns unlimbered, firing into the town. I asked him what he was firing for; he said he could see some rebel cavalry occasionally at the intersections of the streets, and he had an idea that there was a large force of infantry concealed on the opposite bank, lying low, in case we should attempt to cross over directly into the town. I instructed him not to fire any more into the town, but consented to his bursting a few shells near the depot, to scare away the negroes who were appropriating the bags of corn and meal which we wanted, also to fire three shots at the unoccupied State-House. I stood by and saw these fired, and then all firing ceased. Although this matter of firing into Columbia has been the subject of much abuse and investigation, I have yet to hear of any single person having been killed in Columbia by our cannon. On the other hand, the night before, when Woods’s division was in camp in the open fields at Little Congaree, it was shelled all night by a rebel battery from the other aide of the river. This provoked me much at the time, for it was wanton mischief, as Generals Beauregard and Hampton must have been convinced that they could not prevent our entrance into Columbia. I have always contended that I would have been justified in retaliating for this unnecessary act of war, but did not, though I always characterized it as it deserved.

While DeGress’ firing on the city, specifically, ceased, the artillery fire in general continued against Confederate cavalry and sharpshooters, well into the afternoon. Major-General Frank Blair, who’s Seventeenth Corps moved up to the position, noted, “The enemy’s sharpshooters kept up an exceedingly annoying fire from the opposite bank of the river, which compelled us to open upon them and the city with artillery.”  While DeGress’ guns relocated to Hazen’s sector, other Federal batteries arrived to continue firing against the Confederates in Columbia. The Twelfth Wisconsin Battery fired 31 rounds that day.  Company H, First Missouri Light Artillery added 135 rounds.  While there is no breakdown, DeGress fired 110 rounds from both positions occupied during the day.  And batteries of the Seventeenth Corps no doubt added their weight.

It is said in some circles that DeGress fired upon the city with no justification.  What is clear, even before we get to Sherman’s post-war memoirs, is that the Confederates made Columbia a military target starting the night before and continuing through the 16th.  Quite the contrary, one would be hard pressed to explain why the Federals would not have fired on Columbia that day.

The final play for Columbia would wait until the next day.  But Sherman had already posted orders in regard to the occupation of the city.  A passage in Field Orders No. 26 read:

… occupy Columbia, destroy the public buildings, railroad property, manufacturing and machine shops, but will spare libraries and asylums and private dwellings.

That was the written intent.

(Citations OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 287, 372, 379; William T. Sherman, Memoirs of General Sherman, Volume 1, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1889.)

(Photo credit: Bill Coughlin, August 9, 2013, Courtesy HMDB.)

3,180 shots at Fort Sumter between August 3 and 14, 1864: Third Major Bombardment continues

On August 16, 1864, Lieutenant-Colonel William Ames, Chief of Artillery of the Northern District (Morris and Folly Islands), Department of the South, provided an in progress report for the Third Major Bombardment of Fort Sumter.  The bombardment, which started on July 7, was at that time in its sixth week.  Ames provided this tally for the ordnance expended:

I have the honor to report the following number of projectiles and guns as expended in the bombardment of Fort Sumter from August 3 to August 14, inclusive: Three 200-pounder Parrott guns; 304 30-pounder Parrott shells, 299 100-pounder Parrott shells(*), 772 200-pounder Parrott shells, 13 300-pounder Parrott shells, 219 10-inch columbiad shells, 1,465 10-inch mortar shells, 108 13-inch mortar shells; total, 3,180.

The Third Major Bombardment had exceeded both previous “major” bombardments in terms of duration.  But it remained behind the Second Major Bombardment in terms of number of shots fired at Fort Sumter.  The problem facing the Federals was the amount of ordnance on hand – both guns and projectiles.  Already the Army was forced to borrow from the Navy.  And the Army lost three 200-pounder (8-inch) Parrotts during the first half of August.

The breakdown of rounds fired also illustrates some changes in the type of fires.  Recalling Ames’ reports from July 26 and August 1 for comparison, consider the proportions.  First from the period from July 7 to July 22:


More than half of the shots fired were from 100-pdr and 200-pdr Parrotts (that would be 6.4-inch and 8-inch for those who prefer the bore diameter designation… like me).  The mortars provided a quarter of the shots fired.  In the minorities were 30-pdr Parrotts, 300-pounder Parrotts, and the columbiads.

Then from July 23 to August 1:


The mortars increased in proportion to nearly a third.  The 30-pdr Parrotts provided a quarter of the rounds fired.  Triple the number of 300-pdr (I mean 10-inch) Parrotts.  Four times increase in the proportion of the columbiad contribution.  And decreasing noise from the 100-pdrs and 200-pdrs.

And from August 2 to August 14:


Now the mortars shouldered half the load.  The 200-pdrs fired nearly a quarter of the shots.  The columbiads sustained nearly the same ratio of shots fired.  But decreases from all the other Parrotts.  I’d love to see a breakdown of this on a day-by-day basis.  Furthermore, a similar breakdown, even if week-t0-week, for the other major bombardments would be interesting.

What these charts are demonstrating is the nature of the Third Major Bombardment. By the start of the second month of work, the Federals turned increasingly to vertical fires.  Some of the same reasons Federals at Petersburg brought up their mortars were at play.  Recall the Second Major Bombardment turned to mortars in the later part of November. However, the Third Major Bombardment of Fort Sumter was burning out resources faster than they could be replenished on Morris Island.

∗The “printed” official records indicate this as “200-pounder Parrott shells” but given the sequence and other information surrounding this report, I think that is a misprint and sh0uld read “100-pounder Parrott shells.”

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, page 241.)

August 10, 1864: Big guns going to… not Charleston… not Petersburg… but San Francisco!

Maybe this sesquicentennial stuff is limited to east of the Rocky Mountains and mostly even east of the Mississippi at that.  Yes, most of the Civil War was fought in what we’d consider today the “eastern” United States, with relatively little activity in the “west” of the modern definition.  But as all good Civil War buffs know, there was indeed activity in the western part of the country… and in particular California played a critical role in the Federal war effort.  There’s that four letter word – G-O-L-D.

Follow that gold, and the path led to San Francisco.


Or more specifically passage through the Golden Gate.  Today we think of this:

But during the Civil War, the Golden Gate looked like this:


And this, looking over Fort Point at the narrows of the Golden Gate:

Fort Point was, at that time, the main defense of the passage.  Rushed to completion early in the Civil War, the work reflected military thinking of the pre-war era.  After three years of war, that Third-System brick fort was considered inadequate.  The fort’s designed armament consisted of older seacoast guns and pre-war Columbiads – and little of that was in place.  She lacked more powerful Rodman guns or large caliber rifles.  The pressing threat was steam powered Confederate raiders, which might make the passage before a few rounds were fired from the fort.  But the most dangerous threat was an ironclad like this one:


Intended to be the CSS Stonewall, the ship had a interesting history beyond the Civil War… but that’s for another day.  Ironclads armed with powerful rifled guns cold stand in the channel and render Fort Point inert, with immunity from all but the largest cannons on shore.  And that threat came from both Confederate and possibly foreign flagged warships.  If the Europeans intervened in the Civil War, San Francisco was more likely a target than New York.

Major-General Irwin McDowell, exiled to the Department of the Pacific (which was probably about as “cushy” a job as one might get in the Civil War, by the way), described the particulars of the Golden Gate passage from a military perspective in a letter to the Engineer Corps, in Washington, on July 27, 1864:

The charts of the harbor will show you the islands, the width of the channel, and depth of the water, but will not inform you of the prevailing winds which blow from the sea right into the gate; nor of the fogs which for a large part of the year enable vessels (as was the case when I arrived) to get quite inside before being seen. The Golden Gate is about as wide as the Narrows at New York, but the gate here opens right at once upon the broad ocean and not into a lower bay. On account of the width of the channel at the Golden Gate and the deep water at Lime Point, the work at Fort Point, about the size and kind of Fort Richmond, would be no barrier against steam vessels. Lime Point is a cliff with water at its base so deep and so swift that a lead has never (Captain Elliot, engineer, says) found bottom.

The point, which McDowell amply described, was that steamships could make a relatively fast passage, through deep waters and gain San Francisco.  And if timed right, fog and other factors would work against the defenders.

All of this was known by authorities in Washington.  In 1856 a survey of the terrain brought back numerous recommendations to fortify the bay. Those included additional batteries to supplement Fort Point and located on Alcatraz, Yerba Beuna, and Angel Islands, Point San Jose, and, most important to the Golden Gate, Lime Point opposite Fort Point.  I’ve highlighted some of those on a snip from the 1859 coastal survey map (which, by the way, indicates that someone had “cast a lead” into those waters to figure out the depth):


By 1863, none of these options advanced far, as the Department of the Pacific lacked resources – chiefly heavy guns.  In August 1863, a board of officers suggested focused effort – and funding – for batteries on Lime Point, Point San Jose, and Angel Island, with the caveat that Lime Point would be a costly endeavor.  A year later, McDowell made the same comment about Lime Point:

To blast this cliff and build up a castle-work of masonry on the shelf is the labor of years at a cost of a million. It would not meet the existing emergency to do anything with it, and I would not in the present exhausted condition of the country advise its being even commenced.

However, McDowell offered another option:

 Within a few hundred yards seaward of Lime Point, between it and the light-house, is a little valley–a recess in the line of cliffs–where a water battery could be constructed in a few days, and which, if suitably armed and the overhanging heights properly occupied, would do all that could be done to give immediate strength to the first line of works. This valley is a couple of hundred yards farther off from Fort Point than is Lime Point, and should have heavy guns, some of them rifled.

McDowell went on to suggest other points, further into the harbor, where batteries were needed.  Somewhat like Beauregard at Charleston, McDowell wanted to build a ring of batteries to prevent any safe anchorage within the bay. But McDowell had much more, and deeper, water to cover.

Regardless of the placement of these batteries, McDowell needed guns.  On August 10, 1864, Chief Engineer Brigadier-General Richard Delafield responded to McDowell in regard to the defenses of San Francisco:

The effect of building and arming these batteries would be to bring a certain portion of the bay under fire which is not now under fire. But the vessels could find many other places to anchor, and still be out of reach of any batteries we might establish. A board of engineers has within a year considered the subject of additional defenses at San Francisco, and has come to the conclusion that it is best to bring a certain belt, or part of the harbor, through which all vessels entering it from sea must pass, under as heavy fire as practicable at the earliest day, in the first place, and after this is effected the subject of covering other portions of the bay with fire is to be undertaken in connection with floating defenses. This appears to me to be a prudent policy, and the most that we can undertake while our supply of ordnance suitable for these purposes is so very limited.

In short, he preferred to arm the Golden Gate.  Delafield went on to suggest imposing an administrative solution in the near term – forcing all foreign vessels to anchor at points under the existing defenses prior to entering the bay.

But help was on the way:

A due proportion of such ordnance as we have been able to obtain has heretofore been allotted to San Francisco, and, upon notice just received from the Ordnance Department that there are now some guns available for distribution, I shall ask to have sent to San Francisco the following: Three 15-inch guns, ten 100-pounder rifles, two 200-pounder rifles.

So in the middle of 1864, with commanders in active theaters such as Mobile Bay, Charleston, Petersburg, and Atlanta calling for heavy ordnance for use in siege operations, the Ordnance Department was to allocate fifteen of their largest and finest weapons to defend San Francisco.  And more such heavy guns would follow.  By the end of the Civil War, San Francisco would boast some of the heaviest coastal defenses in the Pacific.  Justifiably, after all.  It was the GOLDen Gate.

UPDATE:  I should point out, this image from 1908 demonstrates both the fears expressed in 1864 while at the same time the ultimate resolution of the military defense of San Francisco:

You must click and zoom in to get the full effect.  That’s the US Atlantic Fleet making a call at San Francisco in May 1908. No getting around it, the US needed a two ocean navy.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 50, Part II, Serial 106, pages 921-2, 936-7; Base maps used above are “From San Francisco Bay to the northern boundary of California,” 1855 and “Entrance to San Francisco Bay, California” Coastal Survey of 1859; “Stonewall-Kotetsu“. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.; other images from WikiCommons or Library of Congress collection, where linked. )

Ask for IX-inch guns, you get XI-inch guns: Naval support for the Third Major Bombardment

Last week, I mentioned this gun that was put to use on Morris Island in the summer of 1864:

At the end of July, 1864, Major-General John Foster requested support from Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren to sustain the Third Major Bombardment of Fort Sumter.  In addition to asking for replacements for burst heavy Parrott rifles, Foster asked if the Navy might loan some heavy smoothbore guns.  Foster asked for IX-inch Dahlgrens, but his subordinate, Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig, felt XI-inch 0r XV-inch Dahglrens would be more suitable for the work.  While Schimmelfennig had a cordial relationship with Dahlgren, I don’t think he pressed the Admiral directly on the issue.  Likely, Dahlgren had more of the XI-inch guns on hand, as the IX-inch guns were heavily used by the smaller blockaders and the XV-inch guns were for the monitors.

On August 5, 1864, Foster wrote to Schimmelfennig to announce the Naval “reinforcements” for the Third Major Bombardment:

Admiral Dahlgren has declared his willingness to lend six 11-inch guns, with carriages, implements, and the requisite officers, crew, and ammunition. The guns are to be landed by the navy at Light-House Inlet, and will be transported to their positions by the army. It is recommended, however, that at high tide the scows used for carrying the shells be run up as high as possible on the beach near the battery and the shells be thrown overboard, so that they can be picked up at low tide by the wagons and taken into the battery. Four 100-pounder Parrott guns will be sent up also as soon as transportation can be had. I will borrow from the navy some 100 and 200 and 300 pounder ammunition, and send it up at the same time, if possible.

Six XI-inch Dahlgrens and four 100-pdr Parrotts to add their weight to the bombardment falling on Fort Sumter. And the Army would receive ammunition to refresh their depleted stocks.  Notice how these would be delivered:  directly over the beach. In fact, dropped on the beach to be retrieved at low tide!  And I do like the use of the verb “borrow,” as if the Army intended to give those shells back.

Foster used the same letter to discuss the ongoing investigation of the failed raid on Fort Johnson.  But after briefly touching upon that matter, he turned to the care of ordnance used in the bombardment.  Referencing the ordnance report from the end of July, he wrote:

I likewise inclose an official copy of the ordnance report from your command, with indorsements thereon, and your attention is invited to indorsement from Lieut. John R. McGinness, chief of ordnance, who states that there is a good supply of lacquer on hand, and that he even used some himself when up there, instructing the men how to lay it on.

The report of the chief of artillery for the Northern District states that the suggestions of R. P. Parrott have not as yet been put into practice. You will cause an investigation to be had in this matter at once, and ascertain with whom the fault of this negligence lies, and have orders issued immediately to lacquer the shells, as per instruction given by Lieutenant McGinness, chief of ordnance, Department of the South, when in your district. The officer who is responsible for this negligence should be punished.

Lieutenant John McGinness complained the interior of the shells were not varnished as recommended by the weapon’s inventor.  And he leveled blame on the artillerists:

As soon as received, Captain Parrott’s letter to the major-general commanding, recommending that the interior of his shells be coated with lacquer or varnish, a copy was made and forwarded through the ordnance office, Morris Island, to the chief of artillery Northern District. An abundance of lacquer has long since been sent to Morris Island and the ordnance officer has been directed to send a supply of it to the batteries. A portion of the 12 shells herein mentioned were varnished by my own hands. I stood over the man until he had completed the balance, and I venture to say that had I not done so even this small number would not have been tried. Why were there not more varnished by the officer commanding the work (Putnam), as plenty of material remained, and give the suggestion a fair trial? I requested the chief of artillery that morning, after I had these shells varnished, to have others prepared in the same way, using lacquer. I respectfully submit that too little interest is manifested by the commandants of batteries in the working, care, and management of their guns, and that this fact more than any other accounts for the great number of guns burst at the front. Too much is expected of ordnance officers.

McGinness felt the artillerists should take an interest to ensuring their ordnance was properly prepared… and not assume the ordnance officers were handling those details.  It’s the little things, such as a light coat of varnish, that spell the difference between a shell sent to a precise point in the rubble that was Fort Sumter and a premature explosion damaging the gun and possibly killing the gunners.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 192 and 216-7.)