Fort Sumter photos after the fire – Intro to a series

Back during the sesquicentennial period, the “home stretch” from January to April 2015 offered a formidable challenge as I blogged through anniversary events (and attended quite a few).  There were simply too many things that I felt deserved attention.  In that rush of postings, several events did not get full, detailed, and deserving treatment.

One of those was the flag raising at Fort Sumter on April 14, 1865.  Reflecting those busy sesqui days, I posted twice that 150th anniversary … while preparing to head into D.C. to attend events at Ford’s Theater that evening.  So while I did get off a sesquicentennial post about Fort Sumter that day, it was somewhat short… and not to my satisfaction.  I had stacked up material for several posts with the intent of “walking around” Fort Sumter using wartime photographs, much as was done earlier for Morris Island and later for Fort Johnston.  But sesquicentennial buzz turned to post-sesquicentennial cool-down…. well … I shouldn’t make excuses… I just got a bit lazy!

So let’s go back and have another look at April 14, 1865:


This is one of a set of photos taken inside Fort Sumter of the flag raising ceremonies. Let me label this one “FSC1” for “Fort Sumter Ceremony #1.”  Being more of a “fort and cannon” type, I’m not overly excited about naming names and identifying celebrities there.  Other bloggers did some of that during the sesquicentennial, so I’ll just refer you over their way.

To me, these photos of the ceremony are the “gateway” into a look back in time.  From these we can see what Fort Sumter looked like in that moment.  And using that view, we can start pinpointing structures and features which do not exist today  – that is the temporary structures erected just for the ceremony and remains left behind by the Confederates.

There are two important sets of paper documentation which should be used to unlock the information in these photos.  The first is a survey of the fort made by Federal engineers shortly after its recapture.  We have, on file with the Library of Congress, high resolution copies of the draft survey:


And the final product, included with Brigadier-General Quincy Gilmore’s report:


While I like using the latter, as it renders well, there is unfortunately a binding seam right down the middle.  Please don’t let that distract.   The former, the draft survey, is also useful as it calls out details not carried over to the final.  And there are several other diagrams and scrap views that are included with the set.  Overall, these provide us a very detailed examination of Fort Sumter, as it existed in February 1865.  There were some alterations made by the Federals between that survey and April.  But those were minimal.  Those changes were generally of two types.  Some of these were functional repairs, such as restoring the lighthouse (which was really just a light mark…) and placing the flagpole.  Other changes were temporary, as part of the ceremony preparation.  And those changes are readily apparent when comparing the survey with the photos.

As you probably noticed, we have two plans and several elevations to work with here.  Mahan would be happy.  It is the plan in the center that is most applicable to photo analysis, as it is the “as seen from above” view, as opposed to a cut-away layer:


Again, that pesky seam right down the side!  Note the “star and line” running out from the center.  That’s a north seeking arrow.

The second major set of documentation we need to consult is from the 20th century.  In 1933 the National Park Service established the Historic American Building Survey (HABS) with the mission to “…document achievements in architecture, engineering, and landscape design in the United States and its territories through a comprehensive range of building types, engineering technologies, and landscapes….”  And that collection of documents, photos, and other materials is also in the Library of Congress’ online resources.  Among the buildings surveyed was Fort Sumter (and, to be proper, this was not just one survey… but an ongoing project which continues to gather information about the structure).

As anyone who has visited Fort Sumter is quick to point out, the fort changed significantly between 1865 and 1933.  The most visible change occurred in the 1890s when the Army decided Fort Sumter was still an important post for the defense of Charleston. So Battery Huger went up in the middle of that historic fort.  The HABS captured those changes in detail, allowing us easy comparison back to the 1865 survey.  Furthermore, the HABS survey then allows us to pinpoint where something was at in relation to what the fort looks like today.

One of the HABS survey diagrams which is most useful, as it lines up with the 1865 survey well, is the “roof” plan:


Here we have a stylistic compass rose on the upper right, allowing orientation.

All well and good, you say, but with all those people in the way in the ceremony photos, we don’t get a nice, clean view of the fort’s structures.  Well, here’s the key to unlock the door:


We mostly see this photo mentioned because of the presence of another photographer (yea… paparazzi of 1865!) on the other side of Fort Sumter.  But this gives us a look across the parade ground of Fort Sumter without all the ceremony clutter.   Let me call this one “Fort Sumter 1” or in short hand “FS1″The “keys” here are the berm or crest to the left of frame; a set of gabions on the parapet; the stairs to the right of that entrance; and the chimney-like structure in the foreground.  Let’s circle those in red on FS1:


Using those, we can start matching to the 1865 survey:


Let’s zoom in on one of those red circles as it will give us a very precise idea as to the camera’s location. This is the chimney area on the survey:


What we see in the photo is a column of bricks.  What we see on the survey is a small square.  However, if we look to the middle of that snip, we see an elevation runs through that portion of the fort, along the line E-F.  Here’s that elevation:


So… yes… those are chimneys.  And we have a photo of that section of the fort taken in the spring of 1865:


A great photo with all sorts of things to talk about.  But for now let’s just call it a supporting exhibit.  We’ll walk through this photo later. If we can pinpoint which chimney is in the foreground of FS1, then we have a pretty good idea of where the camera was located.  Given the spacing of the chimneys, and more importantly the “curve” of the gabion line to the side of the chimney in FS1, I think we are looking for the left-most in the photo above.  If we go with that, here’s how the photo lines up with the 1865 survey:


In other words, the photographer was on the south-east wall, atop the bombproofs.  The camera was oriented to the west.  We can then account for the passageway to the Confederate docks, the crest on the west corner, and other features.  And… if we take that over to the HABS diagram we can start talking about where to stand today:

FS1LocatorHABS So the camera was somewhere around about the top of the stairways on the east corner of the fort. Near abouts there: Ft Sumter 3 May 2010 267

Suffice to say, the view from that point today is obscured by Battery Huger. But the flagpoles are in view:

Ft Sumter 3 May 2010 268

Now that we know where the camera was pointed, we can start picking out key features that will appear in other photos.  So… follow this down to that big hunk of iron in the middle of the parade ground, circled in yellow:


On closer examination….


A Confederate Columbiad. The long trunnions, paired with the mushroom cascabel, gives this away. I count eight ratchets, leading to a tentative identification as a 10-inch Columbiad. There were certainly plenty of those around Charleston in 1865. And there are a few still there today. Might we be seeing a cataloged survivor? And we see that Columbiad in several other photos of the fort’s interior.




Sort of hard to move a 13,500 pound cannon, even for a ceremonial flag raising.
That cannon didn’t just have a “front row seat”… it WAS a front row seat.  In some of the ceremony photos, we can see a break in the crowd where that columbiad sat.  Certainly an appropriate trophy to display at a ceremony marking the victory at Fort Sumter.

Fortification Friday: Splinter proof shelter, from the wartime experience

Last week, we split all manner of hairs regarding shelters within fortifications. Some of this hair-splitting had to do with nomenclature – shot proof, shell proof, and splinter proof.  And we saw that post-war writings introduced differences between facilities designated magazines and those designated shelters.  We can read into this a shift in doctrine.  Not only fortification doctrine, but also that of the practice of artillery.  After all, there existed (and still exists) a direct relationship between fortifications and artillery.

Let us focus on the splinter proof shelter for the moment.  Prior to the war, Mahan mentioned splinter proofing as a means to protect the magazine entrance.  But after the war, he introduced a structure called splinter proof shelter:

Splinter proofs for trenches and enclosed works faced with timber from eight to twelve inches in diameter, and covered with a sheeting of thick boards, and from four to six feet of earth, which are supported by uprights at the back; having a board flooring as shown in the figure, have been recently used in our field works and trenches with great benefit in the saving of life.

And the illustration provided demonstrates such as structure:


Note the dimensions of the interior of this splinter proof.  Eight feet tall at the entrance, slanting to six feet.  Shown as 3 ½ feet wide, with a plank floor.  The structure is open to the left, which would be the interior, or rear, of the line of works.  And it is partially sunk into the ground, roughly three feet deep.  The arrangement would protect the occupants from direct fire (from the right of view) and high angle fire (dropping on top).  Being partially sunk down, some protection was afforded against shells bursting behind (to the left) of the structure.  But clearly the solution balance ease of access against protection.

And notice the caption, “Shows a section of Splinter Proof used in the trenches at the Siege of Fort Wagner.”  Yes, we’ve seen this sort of structure before… many times:


Looking to a handy example, right at the top is the a-a’ profile line, working from one of the splinter proofs forward through Battery Brown to the Howitzer Battery in the Second Parallel. For cross reference, this line runs through the red oval highlighted here:


A clean look at the profile:


Looking to the left, we see a slightly more elaborate splinter proof shelter, with two supporting uprights.  But notice the Battery Brown splinter proof is at surface level, not sunk in.

Something closer to what Mahan illustrated stood just a few yards behind Battery Brown, indicated by profile d-d’:


In profile:


The walk-space is wider than on Mahan’s diagram. But the structure generally matches. We know from reading accounts from the campaign, the intent was to provide shelter for troops staged for work on the parallels.  The orientation of the trench provided protection from Confederate batteries further up on Morris Island, as well as those on James Island. The Confederate fires reaching this point of the Federal lines were typically large caliber weapons fired at higher elevations.  Though not high-angle as used with mortars, which were out of range to hit these Federal trenches, the columbiad shells arrived at an angle which would normally defeat standard parapets.  So a splinter proof provided some overhead protection.

So we see, documented with the maps, diagrams, and accounts from Morris Island, a shift in emphasis for field fortifications.  This is not to say overhead cover was not used prior to the Civil War. Nor is it to say splinter proof shelters did not appear on earlier battlefields.  What it does say is that field experience in the Civil War caused engineers to focus more attention on overhead cover, to the extent that more elaborate shelters were built.  A shift in doctrine, you see.

Keep in mind, these examples come from a field army engaged in a siege.  So field fortifications directed for offensive purposes, as opposed to defensive arrangements.  Certainly these sort of works continued to appear on Morris Island after the fall of Battery Wagner, as the Federal presence shifted more to garrison of the hard-gained foothold in front of Charleston.  But more to the point – field fortifications are “tools” that can be used for either defense or offense as the tactical situation demands.  (And thus we’ll see later “lessons” from Mahan on how to build fortifications in support of siege operations.)

Writing even later, Junius Wheeler would further refine wartime experience to suggest even more elaborate shelters, in particular using wartime experience building the defenses of Washington.  We’ll consult Wheeler’s lessons in turn… before then, we should consider another of those split hairs – shelters vs. magazines.

(Citation from Mahan, An Elementary Course of Military Engineering: Part 1: Field Fortifications, Military Mining, and Siege Operations, New York: John Wiley & Son, 1870, page 52.)


On this day… September 7, 1863 -Charleston learns Morris Island lost

Robert Moore ran a couple of “on this day” posts earlier, looking back at reports in Shenandoah newspapers.  After spending most of the sesquicentennial with “on this day” writing, I’ve gotten out of habit for the most part.  But I retain the historical mindset when looking at the calendar. So occasionally I’ll link to an old post on Facebook or Twitter as a way of mentioning anniversary dates.

But Robert’s use of newspaper accounts reminds me of the veritable mountain of source material that I’ve accumulated over the years when studying the war at Charleston, South Carolina.  And September 7 is an important anniversary date.  On that date in 1863 Morris Island was evacuated marking the end of a long Federal campaign to secure that barrier island outside Charleston.  Readers will recall the many posts about that campaign during the sesquicentennial.  I detailed the last three days of the campaign at that time.  On September 5, under protection of a withering bombardment, the Federal sap advanced towards Battery Wagner – just fifty yards short at around midnight.  The following day, Federals prepared to make a final assault, developing footholds just 100 feet from the battery parapet by 10 PM that evening. However, that final assault would not be necessary.  Overnight, the Confederate garrison withdrew, leaving Morris Island to the Federals.

Using that story (detailed in the links above), let’s step back and think of another perspective.  How did the citizens of Charleston, the Confederate “home front” so close to the fighting front, receive this news?

Granted, many could simply look across the harbor at Morris Island and Fort Sumter.  And the sound of cannons likely echoed into the streets at times (not to mention shells fired at Charleston itself, as way of showing the war was not very distant).  And of course there were always rumors and gossip spreading news. But for the “factual” news, Charleston had two primary newspapers – the Charleston Mercury and the Charleston Daily Courier.  I have reason to believe the Courier was a morning paper, while the Mercury was afternoon or evening. Perhaps confirming that cycle, the Mercury was able to break the news of Morris Island’s evacuation on September 7, 1863 (on the second page):

Evacuation of Morris Island

To sum up the events through which we have just passed, Battery Wagner has been subjected during the last three days and nights to the most terrific fire that any earthwork has undergone in all the annals of warfare.  The immense descending force of the enormous Parrott and mortar shells of the enemy had nearly laid the wood work of the bombproofs entirely bare, and had displaced the sand to so great a degree that the sally-ports are almost entirely blocked up. The parallels of the enemy yesterday afternoon had been pushed up to the very mouth of Battery Wagner, and it was no longer possible to distinguish our fire from that of the enemy.  During the entire afternoon the enemy shelled the sand hills in the rear of Battery Wagner (where our wounded lay) very vigorously.

Under these circumstances, and in view of the difficulties of communication with Cumming’s Point, the impossibility of longer holding Morris Island became apparent, and it was determined that strenuous efforts should be made at once to release the brave garrison of the Island, who seemed to be almost within the enemy’s grasp.  This desirable result was accomplished with the most commendable promptitude and success.

At about six o’clock, yesterday afternoon, the orders for the evacuation were delivered to Col. Keitt, commanding our forces on the island. Everything was at once made ready for the abandonment of Batteries Wagner and Gregg.  The dead were buried, and, at nightfall, the wounded were carefully removed in barges to Fort Johnson.  The guns, which, for so many weeks had held the foe at bay, were double-shotted, fired and spiked; the heavier pieces were dismounted, and the carriages rendered worthless. The preliminary preparations being thus completed, the work of embarkation was noiselessly begun, and the brave men of the garrison, in forty barges, were soon gliding from the beach they had held so stoutly and so long.  The evacuation was conducted by Col. Keitt, assisted by Major Bryan A.A.G.; and the success with which what has always been considered one of the most difficult feats of warfare has been performed is worthy of the highest praise.  Batteries Gregg and Wagner had both been carefully mined, with a view to blowing them up.  It was about one o’clock this morning when the last three boats – containing Col. Keitt and a number of his officers – left the island. The slow match was lighted by Captain Huguenin at Wagner, and by Captain Lesesne at Gregg; but, owing to some defect in the fuses, no explosion took place at either fort.

During the evacuation the enemy was not idle. A constant fire of shell was kept up against Wagner, and his howitzer barges were busily plying about this side of Morris Island, to prevent the retreat of our men. But fortunately the night was murky, and all our barges,with the exception of one, containing twelve or fifteen men, passed in safely.

Such is how the residents of Charleston learned of the loss of Morris Island on the evening of September 7, 1863.  Notice the narrative put some, not so unexpected, spin on the events.  In some ways to save face, to be sure.  At the same time to let readers know the Confederate soldiers had fought well and endured much.  A retreat could be justified with honor.

When we look back at this, knowing more so the 360° panorama of history, might offer more details to the story.  Certainly it is significant that US Colored Troops were at the fore of those efforts to take Battery Wagner.  Did the reporters for the Mercury know that? And did the residents of Charleston (white and black) know that?  I have a feeling the deeds of the USCT were indeed known, if not reported.  And we might imply some spin from just that alone.

Regardless, on this day in 1863 the residents of Charleston witnessed a grim turn in the war occurring at the mouth of their harbor.  Not surprisingly, on the second column of the first page ran a story, what we’d call today an op-ed piece, titled, “The Fate of Charleston if Captured.”

(Citation from Charleston Mercury, Monday, September 7, 1863, page 2, column 2.)


Charleston’s ship channels – then and now

During our visit to Charleston last week, the Aide-de-Camp and I walked the Sullivan’s Island beach near sunset.  During our walk, our study of the harbor was interrupted as this big white thing passed:


That’s the Carnival Ecstasy outbound on a cruise to some tropical ports of call.  One escort boat paces to the stern.  There was a larger pilot boat on the other side.  We kept tabs on the liner’s progress as she worked out the channel to the sea.

2016-03-19 Charleston 090

The cruise liner is 150 years removed from the days of coal-fired steamships that attempted to run out of Charleston during the Civil War.  Sailors of those blockade runners might not recognize the modern diesel engines powering the liner.  For that matter, maybe the concept of luxury cruises might seem odd to the Civil War sailors….

But one thing that would look familiar are those boats tending to the big ship.  I wrote about the problems getting ocean going ships over the bar at Charleston on several occasions, in particular how that limited options during the crisis days at Fort Sumter.  During the war, the US Navy kept numerous armed tugs in the blockading force off Charleston.  These light-draft and maneuverable vessels were invaluable for working in the shallows and also for assisting the larger ships through the narrow confines of the channels.  Recall that during the Civil War the approaches to Charleston harbor offered four channels:


Of all the wartime maps of Charleston, I like this one best.. and not just because of the colors.  The US Coast Survey produced this map in 1865 by direction of Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren.  Annotations on the map supported Dahlgren’s reports filed at the end of the war.  So we see notes about the locations of significant wrecks, torpedoes, harbor obstructions, and batteries.

But look at the channels.  Charleston had four:

  • Main Ship Channel – coming up from the south in front of Morris Island.  The Federal ironclads used this channel to attack Fort Sumter on April 7, 1863. And later the Federals maintained a presence in the channel, first as they worked against Battery Wagner then later for operations against Fort Sumter.
  • Swash Channel – Somewhat a secondary route directly over the bar.  Federals often posted tugs or light draft gunboats in the Swash Channel overnight on blockade duty.
  • North Channel – Also a secondary route.  Used often by the blockade runners in the first half of the war (as evidenced by the wreck of the Georgiana.
  • Beach Channel, better known as Maffitt’s Channel – Running along Sullivan’s Island, this became the preferred channel for blockade runners.

Now let’s consider how the entrance to Charleston looks… from under the water… today:


I’ve called out some key points in red on this navigational chart.  Note the locations of Forts Sumter and Moultrie, still watching the passage of vessels at the harbor entrance.  But other than that, a lot of changes – above and below the water.

We see Morris Island Lighthouse on the lower left.  That’s not the location of the wartime light, but rather a postwar light built in 1876.  It servers to depict how much Morris Island has retreated. Keep in mind that the coastal survey teams documented rather alarming changes to Morris Island between the pre-war and 1863. So don’t get the idea that barrier island’s erosion is all a 20th century thing.  Barrier islands shift and move… that’s what they do.

Looking under the water, notice that Charleston now has just one channel.  Two jetties reach out from shore to help stabilize that channel.  For ships entering harbor, the first leg of the passage is the “Fort Sumter Range,” on which the vessel’s bearing is directly at Fort Sumter.  The Corps of Engineers maintains that channel to a depth of 49 feet mean low lower water (MLLW) but has plans to deepen that to 52 feet.  MLLW?  Yes, the “The average of the lower low water height of each tidal day observed over the National Tidal Datum Epoch.”  It’s a low tide thing.  Wonder what Dahglren would say about a 52 foot deep channel into Charleston for his ironclads?

Note the locations of the wartime channels, marked in red, on the modern chart.  Only a remnant of the Main Ship Channel remains in front of Fort Sumter.  Maffitt’s Channel is but a memory.  The modern channel splits the Swash and North Channels (and my annotation of those two channels there is somewhat a ballpark estimate… both channels wandered around a bit even during the war).  Some of these changes were prompted by all the activity off the coast in the 1860s.  Certainly the number of wrecks, to include the stone fleet, had some impact.  But the biggest issue was four years in which no channel maintenance was conducted.  After the war, Charleston needed a deeper channel.  Jetties built in the 1870s widened out the Swash Channel.  Now in the 21st century ships are getting bigger and thus the project to make it 52 feet deep, at low water.

Oh… and by the way, for that project to deepen the channel, the Corps of Engineers has conducted a “cultural resources assessment.”  On page 23 of Appendix O of the report, the Army has determined at least one anomaly within the channel deserves attention.  As a precaution, the Army will have “an archaeologist onboard the dredge when operating in the vicinity of the anomaly.”  Furthermore, “Remote sensing surveys will be conducted in all areas proposed for widening to ensure that incidental damage to any such resources will be avoided. It is anticipated that no cultural or historic resources would be affected by the project.”

Some other points of reference, since we are out looking at those waters.  Notice Rattlesnake Shoals remains a hazard to navigation out on the northeast approaches.  Walk down to the lower left of that shoal and you see a box outlined on the chart:


The chart indicates, in Note A, that we should refer to Chapter 2, US Coastal Plot 4, specifically part 165.714.  There we find the coordinates for a trapezoid and the following warning:

In accordance with the general regulations in §165.23 of this part, all vessels and persons are prohibited from anchoring, diving, laying cable or conducting salvage operations in this zone except as authorized by the Captain of the Port.

And what prompted such regulation?  Just off from lighted buoy #16 is where the H.L. Hunley was found.

One more bit of history comes by way of the notes on this chart.  Track to  “Danger Area (see note B)” just below the Hunley‘s box.  Note B states:

Area is open to unrestricted surface navigation but all vessels are cautioned neither to anchor, dredge, trawl, lay cables, bottom, nor conduct any similar type of operation because of residual danger from mines on the bottom. Anchorage in the designated area is at your own risk.

Minefields in that area (and others marked on the chart) date to the World Wars. So more than just Civil War history to consider.

And that history has me reflecting on changes… changes to the harbor entrance that we can document.  Often our thoughts about changing battlefields remains above the surface as we look at topology.  Things like new roads and development tend to obliterate what was heavily contested ground in the 1860s (as Phil recently wrote about).  But for some battlefields, there is another dimension to consider.  The waves on the surface of the ocean off Charleston still rise and fall just in 1863…


But what is beneath those waves has changed drastically.

“Foster… was frustrated in his grand stab at Charleston.” – Separating supposition from reliable fact

Over the holiday break, I took to reading H. David Stone’s Vital Rails: The Charleston & Savannah Railroad and the Civil War in Coastal South Carolina.  I’d picked up the book shortly after publication.  But until last month had confined my use of the work to select passages as I “blogged” through the 150ths of the war.  It is a good study of the vital railroad link, which I’ve mentioned on no small number of occasions.  I’d recommend Stone’s book for anyone serious about study of the South Carolina-Georgia Coast theater.

While I think Stone’s study of the railroad is outstanding, as with any historical study there is always some passage or paragraph that a discerning reader will take exception.  Criticism, that is, taken to examination of the logical presentation, consideration of source material cited in support, and thence analysis of the conclusion.  I call it good critical thought… you know, critical as in the sense of “an analysis of the merits and faults” and not the street connotation of being dismissive.

The passage that raised my attention came within a chapter discussing the operations in front of Charleston in the summer of 1864.  As I’ve blogged those activities to length in earlier posts, I’ll cut to the chase here. Major-General John Foster arrived to assume command in the Department of the South in June 1864.  After assessing the situation and considering his orders from Washington, Foster promptly organized an offensive.  Before detailing Foster’s plan, Stone writes:

Well aware of the city’s vulnerability, Foster decided on a decisive assault on Charleston.  He expected at the very least to destroy the railroad connection between the Broad River and Charleston, and he hoped to find a weak point in the line of defense through which he could penetrate and gain the city itself.

That is a loose, but fair, interpretation of Foster’s intent.  A paragraph before, Stone alluded to Foster’s orders from Washington.  Those being “… to tie up any Confederate reserves that might potentially be sent to aid Lee or Johnston.”  And Foster was to remain defensive in stance, with offensive operations limited to raids.   At the end of the chapter, Stone summarizes the operation:

Foster had begun his tenure with high aspirations but was frustrated in his grand stab at Charleston. Coastal topography, oppressive midsummer heat, and inefficient subordinates had doomed the operation; however, the ability of the Confederate troops to concentrate troops from remote areas by rail could not be discounted. Toward the end of the campaign Foster unleashed what became a protracted bombardment of Fort Sumter, but it did not change the fact that his superior force failed to meet its goal….

This is where I turn on the critical eye.  Foster’s goal… what was it?

To answer that, we have to keep in context where Foster fit into the military command structure.  He was a department commander in an Army in the “big army” sense.  So he was a subordinate to Lieutenant-General U.S. Grant.  And as Grant was removed from Washington at the time in question… you know… pressing Bobby Lee in Virginia, the official correspondence between Washington and Foster came from Major-General Henry Halleck. There is a letter written on June 29 by Halleck which summarizes what Grant wanted Foster to do (and in context here, Halleck is responding to Foster’s appeal for more troops and boats to make a push on Fort Sumter and other objectives):

What I understand General Grant wishes you to do is precisely what in one of your former dispatches you proposed doing, i.e., make raids on the enemy’s lines of communication, destroy as much of them as possible, and keep as many of his troops occupied at the south as you can.  He has given no special instructions, but leaves the matter entirely to your judgement and discretion. In a recent dispatch he remarked that in your present condition of the Southern coast, stripped as it was of rebel troops, your forces might effect an important diversion.

Clearly Halleck, and Grant for good measure, did not consider Charleston to be Foster’s main objective.  The date of this letter is important, but more so is the length of time taken for this message to get into Foster’s hands.  Halleck’s letter would have arrived at Hilton Head sometime after the first week of July.   And that was after Foster had launched his offensive.  So did Foster place Charleston as an objective above those given by his superiors?  Did Foster extend the “judgement and discretion” to assume an objective beyond what Grant directed?

Evidence points to “no.”  Throughout June, Foster wrote at length to Halleck in regard to operations.  Though he did pester for more resources (particularly light-draft ships), these must be considered in context – a commander asking for additions in order to accomplish just that little bit more than possible with the existing resources.  Without those, Foster appeared content to remain within Grant’s wishes.  On June 23, Foster provided an update on planned operations, discussing his intent… and how that fit within the context of Grant’s wishes:

I shall be ready to commence operations in about one week, with a force of 5,000 men, which is all that can be collected of the reliable men.  I propose, first, to destroy the Charleston and Savannah Railroad, and then to make a sudden attack, either upon some of the defenses of Charleston or of Savannah.  If I fail in one I will try the other….

No where in that message does Foster seem fixated on Charleston.  It was an objective, to be sure.  But it was an objective reserved for follow through, after the primary goals were met.  Furthermore, Foster gave it as much importance as he did Savannah. This was further underscored in a dispatch to Halleck written on June 30 (and thus crossing, in transit, the Halleck letter of June 29).  I quoted that dispatch extensively in an earlier post, but for emphasis would mention this passage:

My definite object is to destroy the railroad, and this, I think, we shall accomplish. But, in addition, we shall worry the enemy, and may possibly find a weak spot by which we may penetrate. If so, we shall not fail to profit by it. If none are found on the west side, I may, possibly, before retiring, attempt to take Fort Johnson by boats.

Again, Foster’s focus was not specifically Charleston, rather was in line with Grant’s instructions – demonstrate and annoy with the aim to fix Confederate forces.   Foster did leave open the hope the situation might deliver some great prize.  But he confined that hope, at least in writing.

We might liken Foster’s hope to that of a quarterback throwing a pass on third down and long yardage.  The objective might be to secure a first down.  But if a touchdown was the result, he’d take that gladly.   Everyone looking from Morris Island had eyes on the prize that was Charleston.  But that is not to say Foster or anyone else in June 1864 were engineering an offensive with a focused, deliberate objective of Charleston.  What we have is Foster’s words to Halleck that confine his goals to those suggested by Grant’s guidance.  To presume more, one would need get into Foster’s head and to his personal thoughts.  Nobody has cited any of Foster’s personal papers or letters home in evidence on this particular subject, for what it is worth.

So where does this notion about Foster’s goal (of capturing Charleston in July 1864) come from?  Stone does not offer footnotes linking sources for the passages quoted above.  To be fair, the first passage is fully supported by the content mentioned earlier in the paragraph, which is sourced.  The second passage, which is his conclusion, need not be directly sourced.  Being a conclusion, it is more so the duty of the writer to lead the reader to agree with a supposition.

In his book, The Siege of Charleston 1861-1865, E. Milby Burton opens the discussion of Foster’s offensive with a quote from the 11th Maine regimental history.  “To capture Richmond would be grand, but to capture Charleston would be glorious….”   A vivid quote, but unfortunately taken out of context, as it comes from a section detailing the regiment’s initial assignment to the Department of the South in January 1863.  From that misdirected opening, Burton proceeded to explain Foster’s offensive as one aimed at Charleston, with a secondary directive, “if possible, destroy the Charleston and Savannah Railroad….”  That said, Burton concluded the Confederate defenders had rallied in the face of superior forces to save Charleston in a near-run affair.

Burton drew from several sources to support this conclusion.  Some were Federal accounts – the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery regimental history, quotes from Admiral John Dahlgren, and northern newspapers for the most part.  None of which were able to definitively pin Foster to a goal.  Not even Dahlgren who, for all his close work with the General, did not fully measure the intent from Washington in his assessment.

Burton relied heavily upon the Confederate engineer John Johnson.  We might turn to The Defense of Charleston Harbor as the furthest point back in the history of the history … er… historiography… in which we hear Foster’s goal that July was Charleston:

With abundant transportation and the powerful support of the navy, Major-General Foster had at length resolved on a very serious attempt on Charleston itself.

Later, summarizing the operations, Johnson wrote:

The land and naval forces of the attack were strong enough, but they were not pushed with the vigor that characterized the fighting on Morris Island. Had they been, they might have achieved in one week what the toilsome and bloody campaign of Morris Island failed to accomplish after twelve months – viz. the capture of Charleston. …

Thus in the progress of the war Charleston had twice driven back the forces of the Federal navy under DuPont and Dahlgren in 1863, and twice the forces of the Federal army under Benham in 1862 and Foster in 1864.

Over the years, I’ve come to rely upon Johnson’s narrative to fill in many of the particulars missing in official accounts.  In particular he provided a wealth of first-hand details about operations.  However, I think in this case, while he made a very astute observation from his own experience, it was lacking in perspective. In short, Johnson did not know, could not know, and would not know (even later) that Foster’s orders limited him to demonstrations.  With that, we really cannot use Johnson as a source to pin Charleston as Foster’s goal.  And thus we find Burton’s, and to some degree Stone’s, suppositions somewhat shaky.

Again, please don’t take this critical essay as detracting from Stone’s good work.  I just think this is a salient point in the narrative of history where historians have generally not explored with the diligence that the subject requires.  We’ve long accepted what distant observers to the event (Johnson or newspapers or regimental histories) have to say.  We’ve not wrangled properly with the direct sources.  To say that Foster, for his July 1864 operations, intended to march into Charleston, one has to discredit what he wrote to Halleck.  I’ve yet to see that done.  (And before we toss this small point of history into the “It was a backwater of the war” dust-bin, remember that in the 1864 campaigns everything was related.  Foster’s operations were a part of a larger, complicated, and inter-dependent Federal operations that season.)

In the end, I’m left with an oft-repeated lesson from the study of history.  Never accept a premise or supposition without the strength of sources – no matter how small or obvious the point might be.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 146, 156, and 157; H. David Stone, Jr. Vital Rails: The Charleston & Savannah Railroad and the Civil War in Coastal South Carolina, Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2008, pages 191-2 and 199; The Story of One Regiment: The Eleventh Maine Infantry Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion, New York: J.J. Little & Co, 1896, page 109; E. Milby Burton, The Siege of Charleston 1861-1865, Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1970, pages 284-5;  John Johnson, The Defense of Charleston Harbor: Including Fort Sumter and the Adjacent Islands, 1863-1865, Walker, Evans & Cogswell Company, 1890, pages 215 and 223 ).


For the holidays, lets each rehabilitate some Civil War general… I call Schimmelfennig!

This being the season of giving, I ask what have we given back to the Civil War field of study?  We all “take” from our studies – reading primary and secondary sources, walking the battlefields, and receiving knowledge all around.   But what do we give back in return?  How this season we “clean up” some corner of Civil War study that need be straightened or otherwise put in order?

Consider… Throughout the Sesquicentennial discussions we heard about some major figures from the Civil War being “rehabilitated” by historians.  Most notable is George B. McClellan.  We even heard mention of Joe Hooker.  Though I still lean towards strict twelve step process for Little Mac… someone skipped a few steps with McClellan in my opinion.  This is not a new notion for historians.  During the Centennial, US Grant was “rehabilitated” to some degree, mostly by that magical prose from Bruce Catton.  William T. Sherman was moved but a few shades to the good side of Lucifer himself.  Though we really should recognize the work of British admirers decades earlier, who sort of threw a mirror in our American faces.  However of late Grant is being “un-rehabilitated” back to a mere mortal.

What I have in mind is straight forward and altruistic – pick a figure due “historical rehabilitation.”  Name any figure from the Civil War – general, politician, or other.  Pick a poor figure.  Someone you think has not gotten a fair shake through the historians’ collective pens. Then offer up a few paragraphs explaining why this figure is worth a second look.  Think about it… are there any persons who are completely nonredeemable?  Totally incompetent? Without any merit?  Well… maybe there are some.  But I’d submit that to be a small number within the larger sample set.  Besides, even H. Judson Kilpatrick, Alfred Pleasonton, and Franz Sigel had good days to speak of!

I’ll make the first offering.  This is my target for rehabilitation:

Alexander Schimmelfennig.  Like most, my introduction to Schimmelfennig was the butt end of many jokes about “hiding with the hogs” at Gettysburg.  Schimmelfennig’s stay at the Henry Garlach house has come to epitomize the failings and faults of the Eleventh Corps in the battle.

Over the years, I’ve learned not to add an extra n, making his name an active present tense verb, to Schimmelfennig. Though you might find more than a few cases where I’ve slipped and not corrected.  Furthermore, I’ve come to recognize my characterization of Schimmelfennig’s actions were but one of many collective misunderstandings (being kind… maybe collective ignorance?) about the actions at Gettysburg.  Indeed, our myopic view of that battle has caused no short list of misconceptions.  Schimmelfennig is one of many receiving short treatment, and outright insult, due to the intellectual white elephant, named Gettysburg, stuck to history’s charge.

Let us first be fair about Schimmelfennig at Gettysburg.  Certainly his July 1, 1863 on the field is not fodder for any great story about military prowess and proficiency.  Though it was not an example of bumbling incompetence.  Why was he in the Garlach back yard to start with?  Well it was because, unlike many of his peers and superiors, he was not emulating General Gates’ flight from Camden in search of “high ground” south of town.

And in the two years that followed that stay in the shed, Schimmelfennig demonstrated he was indeed a very capable field commander… in the oft overlooked Department of the South.  I’ve chronicled those activities during the Sesquicentennial… and will mention a few key points here.   Schimmelfennig first went to the department as part of Brigadier-General George Gordon’s 1st Division, Eleventh Corps, sent as reinforcements in late July 1863. The Brigadier-General led a successful demonstration in February 1864 on John’s Island; assumed responsibility for the front against Charleston through the spring and early summer 1864, directing several bombardments of Fort Sumter, and mounting demonstrations to aid the main operations elsewhere;  And played an important role in Foster’s July 1864 “demonstration” that nearly broke through to Charleston.   After returning from leave (recovering from malaria), Schimmelfennig was in command of the forces that captured Charleston on February 18, 1865.

Schimmelfennig readily adapted to situations and was innovative.  He successfully used of Hales rockets in an assault role and urged the troops to use rudimentary camouflage to disguise their activities.  To the many USCT regiments in his command, he offered fair and complementary leadership, advocating for pay equality.  The naval officers working with him, particularly Rear Admiral John Dahlgren, considered Schimmelfennig the better of the Army generals to work with at Charleston.

And we should remember, as if a name like Schimmelfennig would allow us to forget, that the general was not American-born.  Thus he faced much of the institutional bias within the Federal officer corps.  Schimmelfennig, a Prussian, was a veteran of the revolutions and wars of 1848.  Pulling on our historian sensibilities, Schimmelfennig was a bit of a military historian himself, providing context to the conflicts between Russia and Turkey in the years leading up to the Crimean War.

Oh, and I should add, Schimmelfennig “pioneered” the use of petrochemicals to ward off mosquitoes…. Um… by smearing kerosene over his exposed skin while on duty at Folly and Morris Islands.  Not exactly DEET, but you know.  Fine… he was a bit far short of a renaissance man.

At any rate, you get my point – Schimmelfennig’s service is done a dis-service by overly emphasizing those three days in July 1863… or even after weighing in his (and the Eleventh Corps) performance at Chancellorsville months before.  Maybe he was not among Grant’s Generals depicted in Balling’s painting, but Schimmelfennig served with distinction during the war.  He is at least deserving of more consideration than “a brigade commander at Gettysburg.”

That’s my proposed target for rehabilitation.  What’s yours?  And why?

Fort Johnston Photo Analysis, final installment: Landscape lost… and found?

Let me wrap up the “tour” of Fort Johnson by bringing you forward 150 years.  I closed yesterday’s post with a satellite view of the fort as it appears today:

Yes, nothing stands out in the overhead view that would indicate there was once a massive complex of earthworks around that point jutting into the harbor.   The 20th century improvements to the site have apparently swept away those of previous centuries.  But on the ground there are a couple of structures that indicate some of the 18th and 19th century activity at Fort Johnson.   Visible from the satellite view are a couple of round structures that used to be cisterns:

Charleston 4 May 10 283

While it would be nice to think one of these is the same seen in photo FJ8, I don’t believe that to be the case.  I believe these are post-war.  These cisterns are too far inside the fort’s interior.

On the other hand, there is one structure that was definitely part of the Confederate Fort Johnson still standing today:

Charleston 4 May 10 273

This is the old powder magazine.  According to the National Register of Historic Places nomination documents, this structure dates back to 1765.  Yes… 1765, not 1865… making this of Colonial, Revolutionary War, War of 1812, and Civil War interest.

And, we have a “sestercentennial” anniversary of sorts to observe here.  The fort itself was named for Sir Nathaniel Johnson, one of the colonial governors of South Carolina.  In the same year attributed for the magazine’s construction, the British stored stamps brought from England in Fort Johnson, much to the ire of the colonists.  In 1775, South Carolinians took over the fort and, in an act to be repeated some decades later, raised the state flag (for the first time according to the nomination).  The fort remained in caretaker status through the early 19th century.  During the War of 1812, state militia placed two batteries at the fort.  But not until the 1820s did the US Army begin work at the fort, as part of the overall improvement of Charleston’s defenses.  And, of course, readers are well aware of the fort’s role in the secession crisis of 1860 and the bombardment of Fort Sumter in 1861.

Now the magazine itself is important to “fixing” the location of wartime (as in Civil War-time) Fort Johnson.  When the Confederates took over Fort Johnson, one of the improvements made was to incorporate the magazine into a bombproof.  The magazine remained buried until the 1960s.  At that time, the last major parts of the Confederate Fort Johnson was removed to reveal the Colonial-era magazine.

Knowing the history of that structure and using the magic of Google Earth, let me overlay one of the wartime surveys on the view today:


Let me stress, this is my “best guess.”  As such it is a work in progress to be improved and refined.  So please please take it as such… and a grain of salt.

The magazine’s location is not depicted with any annotation on the wartime survey.  But it should have been (logically) in the large bombproof on the interior of Fort Johnson.  The water battery stood on the north side of the Grice Marine Laboratory building.  The drive up to the point is roughly on line with the wartime road to Secessionville.  And from that I think the wharf’s location is at the circle at the end of the drive.

With that, let me be bold and throw in the diagram showing the photo perspectives:


Looking closer:


Again, take it with a grain of salt.

While Fort Johnson has faded, with the exception of the old magazine, with time, the placename and history remain.  We might stand there today and look across the harbor to replicate some of the wartime views.  But the earthworks and massive artillery pieces are not there today (though some of those guns sit across the harbor at other locations).  Though we can use the photos and surveys from the end of the Civil War to “paint” in our minds what Fort Johnson did look like in 1865.

Hope you enjoyed the tour!