150 Years Ago: An inspection of the batteries on Sullivan’s Island

One aspect of the operations of Charleston that I like to present is the evolution of fortifications around the harbor (Federal and Confederate).  In my opinion, one should study such to appreciate the tactical aspects. Many authors will write on the subject as if a “battery” or “fort” was static and unchanged through the war, and thus representing a generic “unit” of force.  However, I would offer the level of detail offered in reports and correspondence during the war indicate the participants saw no small importance in the evolution of those defenses.  In other words, if the participants in 1864 thought it important to mention the different caliber of weapons, then 150 years later we should lend that aspect some manner of interpretation.

In the case of Sullivan’s Island, one can easily trace the evolution of the works from the very first days of the war, through improvements prior to the Ironclad Attack on Fort Sumter, changes after the fall of Morris Island, and all the way up to the fall of Charleston in 1864.  A report posted by Major George Upshur Mayo on March 29, 1864 provides one of several “snapshots” describing the works on Sullivan’s Island on that time line.  The entire report, including endorsements, is close to 3,000 words with three pages of tables, including a count of all munitions (the report appears in the ORs, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 383-6).  For brevity, allow me to present portions of the main report with additional annotations where needed.  And for reference, these are the works in review:

Sullivans_Island_Batteries

Starting from the western-most battery:

Battery Bee, upon the western extremity, is not yet quite completed, though a number of laborers are engaged upon it. Its armament is in an effective condition, the guns all working well and protected by merlons. The magazines are dry and kept with neatness. The ammunition in them, as far as could be judged without examining each cartridge, is in good order; the implements new. There are three chambers which have no cannon, which, I presume, will be furnished when necessity or opportunity requires.

Mayo indicated Battery Bee included one 11-inch Dahlgren (salvaged from the USS Keokuk), four 10-inch columbiads, one 10-inch rifled columbiad, and one 8-inch columbiad. In the magazines were 241 11-inch shot, 97 11-inch shell, 671 10-inch shot, 435 10-inch shell, 50 10-inch grapeshot, 25 10-inch canister, 45 10-inch (rifled) bolts, 6 10-inch rifled shells, 338 8-inch shot, 134 8-inch shells, 30 8-inch canister, 124 11-inch cartridges, 626 10-inch cartridges, 180 8-inch cartridges, 2,496 pounds of common powder, 1,587 friction tubes, and 985 paper fuses.  Interesting, though, Mayo rated Battery Bee as incomplete even at this late date with open gun positions.

On to the next battery in the line:

Battery Marion, connected with Battery Bee, is neatly policed. The platform for the 7-inch Brooke gun has settled from its true position; the parapets in one or two places have a disposition to slide on account of the shifting character of the sand. Dampness begins to ooze through one place in the passage, not as yet sufficient to affect the ammunition, which is in good order.

Colonel [William] Butler complains of a defect in the powder sent from the naval ordnance bureau with or for the Brooke gun, saying experience has proven it to be defective in strength. To the eye it appears good; analysis can only disclose the reported defect. The same officer requests that efforts be made to procure for the guns in his command a small quantity of bar steel to repair the eccentrics of the columbiad carriages, which repairs, when necessary, can be made at the island. The battery is connected with Fort Moultrie by a sally-port.

Mayo tallied Battery Marion’s armament as three 10-inch columbiads, one 8-inch columbiad, and five 10-inch seacoast mortars; but he didn’t count the triple-banded 7-inch Brooke which was not mounted at that time.  In the magazines were 318 10-inch shot, 261 10-inch shells, 23 10-inch canister, 256 10-inch mortar shells, 125 7-inch rifle shells, 522 7-inch bolts, 16 7-inch hollow shot, 252 10-inch cartridges, 201 8-inch cartridges, 207 7-inch cartridges, 8,800 pounds of powder, 1,900 friction primers, and 600 paper fuses.

Mayo gave only a brief report on Fort Moultrie:

Fort Moultrie, next in order upon the island, has now no quarters inside, which gives a good parade within its walls. It is well protected by a system of traverses and the guns in effective condition. The magazine is in good order and neatly kept. In the rear of the fort are a number of broken canister, which might be removed for renewal to Charleston. The ammunition in good order.

The fort’s armament at that time consisted of four 10-inch columbiads, two 8-inch rifled columbiads, one 32-pdr banded and rifled, two 24-pdr smoothbore guns, and one 10-inch seacoast mortar.  Munitions in the fort included 660 10-inch shot, 269 10-inch shells, 36 10-inch canister, 33 10-inch spherical case, 90 8-inch shot, 53 8-inch shells, 190 8-inch rifled bolts, 274 32-pdr shells, 120 32-pdr rifled bolts, 553 24-pdr shot, 83 24-pdr grapeshot, 89 24-pdr canister, 450 10-inch cartridges, 255 8-inch cartridges, 485 32-pdr cartridges, 168 24-pdr cartridges, 18,275 pounds of common powder, 130 pounds of rifle powder, and 4,510 friction tubes.

Continuing, Mayo reached Battery Rutledge:

Battery Rutledge in good order, with its ammunition dry and well cared for. The batteries from Bee to this one constitute one continuous parapet, well protected with traverses and spacious, well arranged bomb-proofs, and in some instances with amputating rooms for the medical bureau; these of course were not visited.

Battery Rutledge contained three 10-inch columbiads, one 10-inch columbiad rifle, and three 10-inch seacoast mortars.  The magazines contained 396 10-inch shot, 125 10-inch shell, 7 10-inch grapeshot, 26 10-inch canister, 11 10-inch caseshot, 58 10-inch rifled bolts, 22 10-inch rifled shells, 40 10-inch mortar shells, 126 6-pdr canister (fixed), 29 6-pdr (fixed) shot, 236 10-inch cartridges, 4,000 pounds of common powder, and 2,300 pounds of damaged powder.

Mayo did not include a narrative assessment of Fort Beauregard, but listed the armament as one 10-inch columbiad, one 8-inch rifled and banded columbiad, one 8-inch smoothbore columbiad, two 32-pdr banded and rifled guns, one 32-pdr smoothbore gun, two 24-pdr smoothbore guns, and three 8-inch seacoast howitzers.  In Fort Beauregard’s magazine were 106 10-inch shot, 3 10-inch canister, 416 8-inch shot, 111 8-inch shell, 79 8-inch grapeshot, 113 8-inch canister, 169 8-inch shell, 69 8-inch rifled bolts, 101 32-pdr shot, 12 32-pdr shells, 80 32-pdr grapeshot, 69 32-pdr canister, 166 32-pdr rifled bolts, 7 32-pdr conical rifled shot, 156 32-pdr rifled shells, 229 24-pdr shot, 156 24-pdr grapeshot, 2 24-pdr conical smoothbore shell, 130 24-pdr canister, 749 unfixed cartridges of various sizes,  1,800 pounds of common powder, 1,150 pounds of “Rodman” powder (presumably “Mammoth” powder), 200 pounds of damaged powder, and 1,529 friction tubes.

Mayo turned next to the four numbered, and unnamed, batteries between Forts Beauregard and Marshall.

Nos. 1, 2, 3, and 4, two-gun batteries extending along the south beach at an average distance of about 500 yards apart, covering the space between Forts Beauregard and Marshall and intended seemingly as a protection against boat assaults, are small open works with no traverses. There being no magazine in this cordon of works, the ammunition is kept in chests, exposed to the weather. Some of the chests need repairs and tarpaulins as a protection.

Mayo suggested improvements to the parapet of No. 1; mentioned a carriage in No. 3 that required repair; and damages to the parapet of No. 4. Mayo also suggested these works needed iron traverse circles to replace wood circles then in place.  Colonel Ambrosio Gonzales overruled, saying the 24-pdr guns should be mounted on siege carriages to allow redeployment where needed on the island.  Mayo noted the “disparity” in the ammunition for each of these batteries:

  • No. 1:  Two 32-pdr smoothbore guns, 104 32-pdr shot, 15 32-pdr shells, 77 32-pdr grapeshot, 78 32-pdr canister, 93 32-pdr cartridges, and 176 friction tubes.
  • No. 2: two 24-pdr smoothbores, 84 24-pdr shot, 100 24-pdr grape, 32 24-pdr canister, 69 24-pdr cartridges, 140 friction tubes, and 5 signal rockets.
  • No. 3: Two 32-pdr smoothbores, 34 32-pdr shot, 9 32-pdr shells, 48 32-pdr grape, 50 32-pdr canister, 46 32-pdr cartridges, and 49 friction tubes.
  • No. 4: Two 24-pdr smootbores, 88 24-pdr shot, 14 24-pdr shells, 111 24-pdr grape, 99 24-pdr canister, 29 24-pdr cartridges, and 41 friction tubes.

The last work on the line inspected by Mayo was Fort (or Battery) Marshall, at Breach Inlet:

Battery Marshall, at Beach Inlet, is as yet in an incomplete condition, though the guns are all in working order. A large bomb-proof, in addition to those already complete, has been commenced, upon which a force is now at work. One of the 12-pounders has wheels of different sizes, and in another the cheeks of the carriage are not upon a level. These two defects in these two carriages should be remedied. The magazines are in good order, and dry, as well as the ammunition, but roaches, by which they are infested, cut the cartridge-bags. It would therefore be as well to keep the powder in the boxes and barrels until a necessity arises for use, so that the bags may be preserved. I noticed the passage-way to one of the magazines much encumbered with shell. A room constructed for such projectiles is decidedly to be preferred.

Fort Marshall, at this time, included one 8-inch columbiad, one 8-inch shell gun, one 7-inch Brooke rifle, one 32-pdr rifle, two 12-pdr rifled guns, two 12-pdr smoothbores, one 4-inch Blakely on naval carriage, and three 8-inch seacoast howitzers.  The magazines, improper as they were, contained 95 8-inch shot, 225 8-inch shell, 71 8-inch grapeshot, 90 8-inch canister, 156 7-inch conical rifled bolts, 19 32-pdr shells, 12 32-pdr grapeshot, 16 32-pdr canister, 32 32-pdr rifled shot, 100 32-pdr rifled shells, 292 12-pdr shot, 124 12-pdr grapeshot, 124 12-pdr canister, 25 12-pdr conical rifled shot, 62 12-pdr conical rifled shells, 32 4-inch Blakely shells, 28 4-inch Blakely grapeshot, 21 4-inch Blakely canister,  866 cartridges of various sizes, 2,800 pounds of common powder, 500 friction tubes, 35 paper fuses, 190 Girardey fuses, and 92 McAvoy igniters.

Mayo went on to discuss Batteries Gary, Kinloch and Palmetto on the mainland. But to serve brevity in a post already beyond my preferred word count, I will save those for later.

Mayo expressed concerns about unmounted and unassigned guns on the island.  “A 32-pounder banded rifle not mounted is laying upon the beach,” he noted.  He also mentioned several 6-pdr field pieces not under any direct control of the battery commanders.  In general, Mayo felt the guns needed “lacquer and paint” to improve appearances and protect against the elements.  Lastly, he noted the presence of bedding in the magazines, but left that matter to the discretion of local commanders.

I plan, as part of my documentation of each individual work, to examine these batteries in detail.  So please check back for follow up posts in regard to specific arrangements in each fortification.

“A volley of at least eight mortars” to put out the calcium light on Morris Island

After all the activity of Christmas Day at Charleston, both sides remained idle.  Both sides considered plans to remove the 8-inch howitzers left at Legareville.  Otherwise December 26th with little activity.  The Federals resumed the bombardment of Charleston starting around 3 a.m. on the 27th with five shells.  The Confederates responded with nine shots at the offending guns, without success.  Firing from Cumming’s Point resumed around 9 a.m. on the 28th with five more shots aimed at Charleston.  But the Confederates let this barrage pass.

Our batteries did not, as usual, respond.  They remained silent the entire day, and it was not until 9.30 p.m. that a gun was fired on our side.  At this time the enemy’s calcium light at [Battery] Gregg being reflected on the channel, Batteries Bee, Marion, Rutledge, the Brook gun battery, Moultrie, Cheves, and Simkins opened a brisk fire with a view to extinguish it.  At 10.40, the light being no longer visible, our batteries ceased.

The following is a summary of the shots fired by us in the last twenty-four hours: Moultrie, 35; Bee, 17; Brooke gun battery, 22; Rutledge, 10; Cheves, 28, and Simkins, 34.

Out on picket duty in the Main Ship Channel, Lieutenant-Commander John L. Davis on the USS Montauk observed:

… the enemy opened fire on Cumming’s Point with mortars and rifle guns from Sullivan’s and James Island batteries at about 9:30 o’clock.  The firing from Sullivan’s Island commenced with a volley of at least eight mortars.  The enemy continued their fire until about 10:30.  At intervals during the night rockets were sent up from Moultrie.

Just another day of heavy artillery exchanging fire at Charleston, continuing the pattern from before Christmas.  With some spikes along the way, this skirmishing with heavy caliber weapons continued into the new year.

But consider the practice of fire from the Confederates.  The batteries on Sullivan’s Island fired mortars in volley.  As seen during earlier attempts to extinguish the Federal lights, the gunners were given azimuths and distance  information based on triangulation.  The use of volley fire from the mortars implies coordination to achieve the maximum effect of those weapons.  This is the practice of fire associated with early 20th century wars.  So for those building up the old “Civil War was the first modern war” argument, here’s another brick for you.   However, the counter-argument here is that mortar volley failed to hit the intended target.  Seems the technology was not up to the practice of fire in this case.  After all, these were smoothbore, black-powder 10-inch mortars.

Davis continued in his report to note that “At 2:30 out batteries commenced firing rifle guns; fifteen projectiles were thought to have been fired at the city, also a small number in reply to batteries on James Island.”   The Confederate journal recorded, “As usual, Batteries Cheves, Simkins, Marion, and Rutledge responded to the fire of the enemy, and closed shortly after the enemy ceased firing.”

No rattling of musketry in the night at Charleston.  Rather the booming of heavy guns with their shrieking projectiles seeking landfall.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 186-7; ORN, Series I, Volume 15, page 211.)

‘Twas the night before Chiristmas and shells were flying at Charleston

” ‘Twas the night before Christmas,” but all in the house was stirring as lively as a cat for a mouse.  We were hurling shell and our Yankee sort of Greek fire into the city of Charleston.  We sent a shell every five minutes from our 200-pounder Parrotts in Fort Chatfield.  This music kept up an animated dance among the rebels, and they answered us to the best of their ability.  About midnight we could see three fires in the city; two of them quite close together, and within the range of our pieces. We inferred, what we afterwards learned, that our shells had occasioned the conflagration, at least in part, and the Charlestonians had a severe task in subduing the flames.  This loss to the city was a very heavy one.

That report is from the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery’s diarist.

According to Confederate journals, the Federals waited to open fire until 1 a.m. on Christmas morning.  One of those early shells started a fire in Charleston:

Captain [T.S.] Hale remained at his post of observation (Saint Michael’s steeple) during the entire bombardment, and recorded each shot.  He reports that the second shell thrown into the city struck and set fire a building on Broad near Church street; that he called to the police at the guard-house, directing their attention to the matter (the watchman in the belfry had left when the first shell struck the city); that the alarm was not given for twenty minutes, and the first engine did not arrive on the ground until an hour after the alarm.  In the meantime the flames had spread to other buildings, and before they were extinguished several houses were destroyed.

Hale believed that prompt response might have contained the fires.  However, in addition to the Federal shells, Hale claimed to have seen “a man with a torch, who set fire to a building known as Turner’s Hall.”  Troops from Colonel Alfred Rhett’s Fifth Military District worked alongside the firefighters to bring the blaze under control.

Within a few hours, the Federal guns in Fort Putnam joined in.  The Confederates opened counter-battery fires against the bombardment.   “Batteries Simkins, Cheves, Rutledge, Moultrie, Marion, and the Brooke gun battery opened on Cumming’s Point with vigor, but did not, as usual, succeed in checking the fire of the enemy.”  The firing from both sides continued for over twelve hours, ending in the early afternoon.  As the sun set on Christmas Day, the Federals on Morris Island lowered their flags for the night.  Instead of the normal ceremonial salute, the heavy Parrotts fired one more barrage into Charleston.

All told, the Confederate observers recorded 134 shells landing in the city and sixteen falling sort or wide.  In response, Battery Simkins fired 111 shots of all types; Battery Cheves fired 40 shells; Battery Rutledge added 58 shells; guns in Fort Moultrie fired 49 times; Battery Marion fired 48 times; and gunners in the Brooke Gun Battery fired 39 times.    So against a total of 150 Federal shots at Charleston, the Confederates returned 345 that day.  And the totals do not count for the Federal counter-counter-battery fire against Confederates on James and Sullivan’s Islands.

On the day after Christmas, General P.G.T. Beauregard reported, in a message to authorities in Richmond, “Six houses burned by fire of yesterday and 7 persons wounded by it and enemy’s firing on the city.”  Yes Christmas Day passed with much noise around Charleston in 1863.  And not all of it was from the harbor.  The Confederates initiated their activities on the Stono River around daylight that Christmas morning.

(Citations from 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 206-7;  OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 184-5; Part II, Serial 47, page 581.)