Fortification Friday: Loopholes and Vents for the blockhouse

Last week, we discussed the layout and arrangements for the blockhouse, when used as part of a keep in the interior of a fortification.  An important requirement, if the keep was to function as intended, was the ability of the defenders to fire out of the blockhouse.  Just as with building the banquette, embrasures, and other arrangements on the parapet, such arrangements within the blockhouse necessitated attention to details. And those details come in the form of loopholes and vents, as Mahan would write:

The loop-holes are three feet apart; their interior dimensions are twelve inches in height; and eight inches in width for sides twelve inches thick; and twelve inches square for sides two feet thick. The width on the exterior, for the same thicknesses, will be two-and-a-half and four inches.  The height of the loop-hole on the exterior will depend on the points being defended; it should admit of the musket being fired under an elevation and depression. The height of the loop-hole above the exterior ground is six feet.

The visual you should have in mind is that of an aperture which is small on the exterior but larger for the interior.  This would allow the defender to train the musket across a wide arc, as well as providing for elevation and declination.  I don’t like mixing field fortifications with permanent fortifications, but in this case the application is along the same lines.  So consider the loop-holes here at Fort Pulaski, to the right of an embrasure:

Ft Pulaski 3 Aug 11 1346

In this case, there was need for the muskets to cover two zones.  So we see two loopholes incorporated as a pair.  Note the placement of stone slab above and below to strengthen the loophole structurally. Something not needed within the wooden blockhouse – simple cut outs within the timbers usually sufficed.

But the major difference between the blockhouse and brick fortification’s loopholes is the height.  Mahan specified only twelve inches for the blockhouse in a field fortification.  Those at Fort Pulaski are two feet or so.

Another aspect to keep in mind is the depth of the wall.  As the wall became thicker, the loophole’s lateral dimensions, particularly interior, increased.  Geometry at play here, as the musket would need more clearance on the interior as depth increased.

Mahan did not directly discuss interior arrangements for the artillery’s embrasures.  Partly, I think, as such an allocation would have pulled valuable cannons off the fort’s primary defensive line to that of the secondary or even tertiary defenses. But, we can deduce such arrangements would match those described for embrasures through the parapet.  In short, a larger loophole… which is what we see to the left of the photo above.

All this is good thinking.  But we also have to keep in mind the by-product of firing any weapon.  In order to push the projectile out of the barrel, firing of the powder creates gasses. That foul air is not an issue out in the open or on the parapet.  But in the enclosed space of the blockhouse, there is need to expel the gasses:

Vents for the escape of the smoke are made over each loop-hole, between the cap-sill and the top pieces.

Moving to another location in Fort Pulaski, we see a vent above one of the other embrasures:

Ft Pulaski 3 Aug 11 1388

See the weathering on the paint?

Mahan does not provide much information on constructing vents for the blockhouse. These could be vents between the ceiling and wall. Or vents incorporated in the wall itself.  To maintain integrity of the structure, in terms of defense, those vents were best created using an interior angle.  That would allow gasses to vent.  But water… or things the enemy might want to push inside… would be restricted.

From there, Mahan gave brief descriptions of the camp bed (which we noted served as the banquette inside the blockhouse), racks, and other storage arrangements.  But with that he left the interior arrangements.  Instead he turned to an external details.  We’ll look at those next week.

(Citations from Dennis Hart Mahan, A Treatise on Field Fortifications, New York: John Wiley, 1852, page 64.)

Aftermath of Hurricane Matthew: Forts survive storm surge; unearthed ordnance

Like many, I have monitored the news from the southeast as Hurricane Matthew over the last few days.  Friends and relatives living in and around the storm’s path all report they are fine and recovering.  The storm left behind a trail of damage and destruction, with over 300 reported deaths in Haiti alone and ten reported in the U.S.

But it could have been much worse.  The eye passed some 20 to 25 miles offshore of Tybee Island.  Later the center of the storm passed thirty miles eastward of Charleston before making landfall further up the coast near Cape Romain, not far from where Hurricane Hugo made landfall in 1989.  While Hugo was rated at category 4 when making landfall, Matthew was falling from category 2 down to 1 before reaching the coast.  Still the track covered a large section of coast from Florida to North Carolina.  As such, we see a lot of familiar place-names in news reports.

From Savannah, footage shows flooding at Fort Pulaski.  At first this appears dramatic… particularly from the view of the reporter (… who’s not yet visited the fort):


Yes, the fort is completely isolated, with a significant portion of Cockspur Island under water.  As of this writing, there are no on-site reports.  So we don’t have a full assessment.  But from this view, we can see the interior of the fort was not flooded.  A tree in the interior has fallen and the demilune is wet, but the casemates appear dry.  Relatively that is.  The video didn’t give a close view of the lighthouse further downriver.  Hopefully within a few days the water will drain off… and hopefully any damage is minor.  And this is largely due to the careful placement and construction of the fort. General Joseph Mansfield deserves much credit for the fort’s survival… 170 years after the fact!

Further up the coast, Forts Sumter and Moultrie were also within the storm’s path.  The forts closed and prepared to weather the storm:

No work as of this writing about the status of those forts.  So we are in “wait and see” mode. The storm surge crested to 9.29 feet at Fort Sumter at it’s peak.

However, Fort Sumter is in the news feeds due to a post-storm finding down the coast at Folly Island.  Erosion from the storm unearthed a pile of what appear to be shells:


Later reports added, “Authorities announced Sunday night that a number of the cannonballs were detonated by the Air Force and a small amount of them would be transported to the Naval Base.”

I don’t want to “Monday morning quarterback” here.  As I’ve said in the past, handling explosive ordnance is something we must… MUST … allow the experts to manage.  Some will offer, from a safe distance, these were fully inert.  Maybe so.  Maybe not.  “We” were not there, and don’t know all the details.  The individuals on the scene made a risk assessment and deemed action necessary.  We should accept their decision as the call to make.  All I would offer is that EOD teams, such as those called upon to respond at Folly Island, should have access to as much information on Civil War ordnance as possible to further aid their decisions.  Far better to incorporate what is known about the subject into their (EOD) policies and procedures than to openly criticize them for being cautious.  This hurricane killed at least ten here in the US.  And over 600,000 died in the Civil War.  We should not rush to add more to either grim tallies.

The value of this find was not with the actual shells themselves, but rather the context of the location. This site appears to be on the northern end of Folly Beach. Several Federal batteries stood in that area, guarding Lighthouse Inlet (and in July 1863, were used to support landings on Morris Island).  Archaeological surveys of the area have documented well some of the battery locations (as the gentleman in the video notes, the location was known by locals as a place where fortifications stood).  Hopefully this find will add to that knowledge.  Given the location, on eroded beach, it appears sufficient effort was made to document that context.  Perhaps this will spur further archaeological examinations in the area.

“There seems no necessity of keeping them…”: Foster requests permission to return the “Immortal 600”

For just over a month, Major-General John Foster held 600 Confederate officer prisoners on Morris Island in retaliation for a like number of Federal prisoners held in Charleston.   In mid-October, Foster moved those prisoners to Fort Pulaski. Through the late fall and into the early weeks of winter, the prisoners remained at Fort Pulaski while exchanges took place and Savannah changed hands.

Despite not being under fire, the Confederate prisoners suffered during their stay at Fort Pulaski.  The weather and poor rations sapped the health of the men.  Yet, for what it is worth, Colonel Philip P. Brown, 157th New York and commander at Fort Pulaski, received a reprimand for not reducing the food issued to “retaliation rations” in December.  (If you are following along as Fort Pulaski National Monument as they post diary entries from Henry Clay Dickinson, you might have noticed the change in rations to “sour meal and pickles.” That change was a result of Brown receiving firm orders for these “retaliation rations.”)

But into January 1865, the prisoners became more of a hindrance to Foster and the Federals.  On January 8, 1865, Foster wrote Major-General Henry Halleck, Army Chief of Staff, on the matter:

General: In order to be able to garrison all the posts in this department I find it necessary to make available every soldier I have. For this purpose I would respectfully ask permission to send North the rebel officers, prisoners of war, that were sent to this department for retaliation. These now number about 500, about 100 of them having been exchanged by Colonel Mulford as being sick and unfit for service.

As the rebel authorities have since removed our prisoners from under fire in the city of Charleston, and these rebel officers being accordingly removed from Morris Island to this post and Fort Pulaski, there seems no necessity of keeping them for the original purpose for which they were sent, as General Hardee has stated that it was not the intention to expose our prisoners to the fire on Charleston. The granting of the above request will liberate one of my best regiments from guard duty and make it available for service in the field or garrison. I respectfully request to be informed, if you see fit to grant this request, to what point they are to be shipped.

The request certainly made sense.  With pressing needs to garrison Savannah and provide support for operations into South Carolina, Foster needed every able hand.  But when Halleck received this request on January 15, he deferred the matter to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who was at that time visiting Savannah by way of Hilton Head.  Halleck presumed he had “decided all questions asked in your communications.”  A month later, Foster’s successor would pose the same inquiry, for the same reasons.  The story, and suffering, of the Immortal 600 (though by that time diminished to 500) would continue through the winter.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, pages 27 and 57.)

“I have up to the present time received over 3,000 of our men”: Prisoner exchanges in November 1864 upriver from Fort Pulaski

One of the long standing myths associated with the Civil War is that Lieutenant-General U.S. Grant stopped exchanges mid-way through the war.  This normally offered as a blanket statement.  And the lack of exchanges is then cited as causing the swelling prison population.  As I’ve discussed at length during the sesquicentennial, the Federals curtailed exchanges mostly due to the Confederates not affording POW status to captured US Colored Troops.  Such was a policy Grant inherited as commander, and one he stuck to.  But to say there were no exchanges is not a true statement.  The exchange of fifty senior officers at Charleston is one example.  Generals Sherman and Hood exchanged prisoners at the close of the Atlanta Campaign.  There were also non-combatant and smaller exchanges that took place during the summer and fall of 1864.

Well into the fall, efforts by both sides were thawing the cold stance made by both sides in regard to prisoners. Lieutenant-Colonel John E. Mulford (Federal) and Judge Robert Ould (Confederate) opened a dialog that led to an exchange of supplies to reduce the suffering of prisoners.  The particulars are too lengthy to replete here, but included the trade of cotton in order to secure blankets for Confederate prisoners.  Shortly after that agreement, an idea floated by several authorities finally took hold – an exchange of invalid prisoners.

LTC (later COL and BG) John E. Mulford

On October 31, Mulford received a very lengthy order from Major-General Benjamin Butler, assigning the task of overseeing just such an exchange:

Having, in obedience to orders by telegraph, received on board the fleet of vessels which Colonel Webster, chief quartermaster, has been ordered to place at your disposal all invalid Confederate prisoners of war, as certified to me by Colonel Hoffman, in the Eastern camps held by us, you will proceed to Fort Pulaski with your prisoners and there tender them for exchange according to the agreement made between the commissioner of exchange on the part of the United States and the agent of exchange for the Confederate authorities, and there receive on board all the prisoners belonging to the United States which shall be given you by the Confederate authorities. You will also inform the Confederate authorities that there are from 2,500 to 3,000 invalid prisoners within the agreement ready for delivery on the Mississippi River as soon as the point shall be designated. These are in the Western camps. As this matter of the exchange of prisoners is managed in behalf of the military authorities of the Confederates through the agent of exchange and the commissioner of exchange on the part of this Government, you will take no directions upon the subject except from the commissioner of exchange or the Secretary of War. This direction is given you because, as your business at Fort Pulaski will bring you within the department of General Foster, it is desirable to save all possible conflict of authority.

The orders went on for several pages to detail logistical and administrative matters that needed attention. But the gist of this was simple – Mulford would proceed to Hilton Head, where he would coordinate an exchange of prisoners at a point up river from Fort Pulaski.  Mulford departed on November 6.  And on November 11, Major-General John Foster gave notice to Lieutenant-General William Hardee:

I have the honor to inform you that several large steamers, bearing between 3,000 and 4,000 sick and wounded Confederate soldiers, have arrived in this harbor. Others are to follow, bringing, in all, 10,000 men.

Lieutenant-Colonel Mulfold, agent for exchange, is here and is prepared to enter upon an exchange of these prisoners for our own sick and wounded in your hands at once. He will ascend the Savannah River to-day, and meeting your flag-of-truce boat will make proper arrangements with Colonel Ould, or such agent of exchange as may be designated, to facilitate the exchange.

On the Confederate side, prisoners shifted from Andersonville to Camp Lawton, outside Millen, Georgia to facilitate this exchange.  There was even some rumor among the Immortal 600 that they would also be exchanged during the process.

The exchanges began on or about November 15 and continued through out the remainder of the month.  The place of exchange was a point on the Savannah River just above Fort Pulaski named Venus Point (location of a battery used to isolate Fort Pulaski in 1862). But there was some delay due to the method by which the two sides conducted truces in the Department of the South, as Mulford related in a report to Butler on November 21:

I have the honor to inform you that I have up to the present time received over 3,000 of our men. Their physical condition is rather better than I expected, but their personal is worse than anything I have ever seen–filth and rags. It is a great labor to cleanse and clothe them, but I am fairly at work and will progress as rapidly as possible. I have much to say, but have little time for writing now. I have got off two vessels to-day and will try and get off two to-morrow, and so on. Matters have been rather queerly managed here in the mode of conducting truce business. I have nothing whatever to do with the old matters, or the business of this department.

By the second of December, Federal troops had overrun Millen (finding the prisoners evacuated). And the siege of Savannah eventually put an end to the exchanges there.  On December 7, Mulford reported he had coordinated to move the exchanges to Charleston.  Though Mulford did not provide a total number of men exchanged at Venus Point, the last figure offered on November 29 was 4,000.

One of those 4,000 was a Private W.D. Baker of the 48th Alabama.

Page 11

Here’s a close up of the paragraph at the bottom:

WDBakerPage 11

Baker was among 3,023 Confederate soldiers exchanged for at least 4,000 Federals there.  You might recall my interest in Baker is from a home town connection.  Prior to looking into Baker’s military records, I had but a passing notation about the prisoner exchanges at Venus Point, relating to some of the lesser known activity associated with Fort Pulaski.  I’d probably not even rated it worth a blog post.  And likely none of you would be reading of the 150th anniversary of those exchanges.  Funny, the trails research can take us.

(Citations from OR, Series II, Volume 7, Serial 120, pages 1070, 1120, and 1149.)

Diary of Henry Clay Dickinson: Fort Pulaski NM continues the story of the Immortal 600

Indeed, the story of the Immortal 600 did not end when the prisoners left Morris Island.  I’m glad to see Fort Pulaski National Monument is continuing to mark the sesquicentennial of the events by posting excerpts from the diary of Henry Clay Dickinson, Captain of the 2nd Virginia Cavalry and one of the Immortal 600:

This, and more, are posted to the park’s Facebook page.

And a reminder, if you visit the park in person, Fort Pulaski is flying the 35-star US flag of the pattern used at the fort 150 years ago.  A small sesquicentennial gesture, but a strong one.

Removed to Fort Pulaski: The Immortal 600 depart Morris Island

On October 20, 1864, Major-General John Foster reported a change with the 600 prisoners held on Morris Island:

I have the honor to report that since my communication of the 13th instant nothing of note has transpired in this department except the removal of the rebel prisoners of war from Morris Island, S.C., to Fort Pulaski, Ga., of which I have given full particulars in another communication.

Removed from the open stockade on Morris Island, the “Immortal 600” would spend the winter in the casemates of Fort Pulaski.  Recall this was long planned by Foster, but he held off implementation to make a point to the Confederate command.

Fort Pulaski 5 May 10 224

Concurrent with the move, the Federals lifted the “Andersonville rations” imposed on the Confederates.  However several logistical issues meant the food provided would improve very little.  By early December the prisoners exhibited symptoms of scurvy.  Arguably, the open air of Morris Island was healthier – even if the things flying through the air made life dangerous – than the stuffy casemates of Fort Pulaski.  Although only three died on Morris Island, thirteen would die at Fort Pulaski through March 1865.  Another 25 died after the prisoners returned north to Fort Delaware.  Such figures point to a gradual breakdown in the health of the prisoners, more so than the relative danger of each locality.

I wouldn’t say we should “close” the story of the Immortal 600 at Fort Pulaski.  Indeed, not until the end of the war did their story come full circle.  And, as I said in a presentation given on the subject last week for a Roundtable, the story the Immortal 600 is in many ways just the “well known” episode representing several similar incidents during the war.  For instance, around this same time, Major-General Benjamin Butler was holding Confederate prisoners at Dutch Gap for reasons similar to Foster’s.

Beyond just the “tit-for-tat” retaliations that used prisoners as pawns, the story of the 600 prisoners is also representative of the overall problems with prisoner handling in the Civil War.  To really come to grips with the issues, we have to step beyond our 21st and 20th century opinions about how prisoners are handled to examine the 19th century conventions… or lack thereof.  And at the same time, we have to look closely at the decisions which lead to a breakdown with the exchange system.  In that light, I content the prisoner issues of 1864 are partly, if not completely, a by-product of the Emancipation Proclamation.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, page 26.)

March Haynes: Freed slave and scout for the Federals

While this story does not fit neatly in a sesquicentennial time line, it is mentioned in the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery’s regimental history alongside events from 150 years ago this month.  So now’s a good time to bring it up!  It involves this man:

In 1861, March Haynes was a thirty-five year old slave.  Born in Pocataligo, South Carolina, he had spent some time in the Savannah, Georgia, area.  He was hired out by his master as a boat pilot and stevedore.  Deeply religious, Haynes served as a Deacon in one church (before having to relocate) and maintained membership in the First African Baptist Church of Savannah before the war.  By October 1861 he was working as a carpenter at Fort Pulaski. … and he did appear in Confederate records:

Haynes CS Record Page 2

I suspect he was still there when the Federals bombarded the fort, but can’t prove that.  Haynes was among the slaves freed under Major-General David Hunter’s orders after the fall of Fort Pulaski (either being at the fort at the time, or escaping to the fort later).  From that point forward, as many former slaves chose to do, Haynes became active in the war effort.  He’d volunteered for some special duties:

Of course, in the Tenth Army Corps, there were a few daring spirits who volunteered to brave the hazards of secret service.  Among those who made these solitary and perilous advances there was one whose name appears on no roll [Um… see below!], but whose services are worthy of honorable mention.  We allude to March Haynes, a large, well-proportioned, sagacious negro, formerly a slave in Savannah, where, hiring his time of his master, he engaged as a stevedore and a pilot on the river.  Comprehending the spirit and scope of the war, he was ready, on the capture of Fort Pulaski, to aid the Union and assist his fellow slaves in securing their freedom.  By means of a suitable boat, that he kept secreted in a creek among the marshes, below Savannah, he brought into our lines, at different times, a large number of fugitives.  Finally fearing detection, he came in himself, and brought his wife.  Still he was intent on serving the Union cause.

He often made reconnoissances in the night, up the creeks along the Savannah, gathering information and bringing away boat-loads of negroes.  General Gillmore furnished him with whatever he needed in his perilous missions.  He ordered a stanch, swift boat, painted a drab color, like the hue of the Savannah River.  He might select such negroes to assist him as he thought proper.  Often he landed in the marshes below Savannah, and, entering the city in the night, sheltered and supplied by the negroes, he spent days in examining the forts, batteries, and camps of the rebels, bringing away exact and valuable information.  On one of his expeditions, being delayed till after daylight, as he and his party were coming down a creek, they encountered six rebels on picket.  Both parties fired.  Three rebels were shot by Marsh, and fell dead; but Marsh himself received a bullet in his thigh.  He, however, escaped capture.

In August 1864, Haynes formally enlisted in the 21st USCT.

Haynes 21USCT Page 11a

Notice his mark.

Shortly afterwards, Haynes went north on recruiting duties according to his records.  There was a period of confusion in regard to his status, but that was later cleared up.  By the end of the war he was back in South Carolina with the regiment.

As his took on a four year enlistment, he remained in uniform after the war.  However, he was discharged in March 1866, due to injuries, described as:

… greatly impaired use of right lower extremity from a gunshot wound received on a scouting expedition on the coast of South Carolina, on the 24th day of August 1864.

Haynes 21USCT Page 18

Haynes retired to Savannah, returned to his church, and became a Deacon.

Haynes is but one example of the experience of former slaves, contrabands, freedmen along the coasts during the Civil War.  Specifically to the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia, Haynes is an example of the scouts who operated in support of Federal operations.  While some uniformed personnel worked in this capacity, from the ranks of both white regiments and USCT, a number, like Haynes, were not military personnel in the strict sense of the word.  Some were organized by Harriet Tubman.  Their story has largely fallen by the wayside, not being as dashing or glamorous as as cavaliers and feathered caps.  And worse, in recent years, some have even claimed they didn’t exist at all!

Clearly March Haynes existed.

(Frederic Denison, Shot and Shell: The Third Rhode Island Heavy Artillery Regiment in the Rebellion, 1861-1865, Providence, R.I.: Third Rhode Island Artillery Veterans Association, 1879, page 261.)