The Christmas Bombardment of Charleston

The Christmas of 1863 will long be remembered by those who passed the day in the City of Charleston….” said the writer at the Charleston Mercury.  Reporting on the Christmas Morning bombardment of the city, the Mercury reporter detailed:

For hours before the eastern sky was streaked with the first grey tints of morning, the cold night air was rent by other sounds than the joyous peals from the belfry and the exploding crackers of exhilarated boys.

At one o’clock, a.m., the enemy opened fire upon the city.  Fast and furiously were the shells rained upon the city from five guns – three at Battery Gregg, one at Cummings’ Point, and one at the Mortar Battery.  The shelling was more severe than upon any former occasion, the enemy generally throwing from three to five shells almost simultaneously.  Our batteries promptly and vigorously replied to the fire, but without their usual effect in checking the bombardment, which was steadily maintained by the Yankees during the remainder of the night and all the following morning, until about half-past twelve o’clock.  Up to that hour no less than 134 shells had been hurled against the city. – There was no more firing until about five o’clock in the afternoon, when one more shell was fired.  On Sunday [December 27] morning about three o’clock, four shells were thrown in quick succession.  There had been no further firing up to a late hour last night.

Remarkably, the Mercury and the Charleston Daily Courier declined to portray the bombardment in sensational… or dare I say horrific, terror-stricken… terms.  While a detestable disturbance on a day designated for peaceful reflection, there was no outright condemnation.  Perhaps that was due to the Confederate ambush of the USS Marblehead occurring the same “peaceful” morning.  Neither side designed a peaceful Christmas that year.

From the Federal side, the regimental history of the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery looked back at the episode years later:

Dec. 24. “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 sever task in subduing the flames.  This loss to the city was a very heavy one.

The Confederate military records don’t record the caliber of projectiles fired at Charleston.  But those records do offer a good tally of the shots fired.  Colonel Alfred Rhett, commanding the 5th Military District, including Charleston, reported 150 shots fired at the city on Christmas Day.  134 of those reached the city.  And 16 fell short.  There is no indication how many or what percentage of those landing in the city were duds.  Other Confederate authorities placed the number of shells failing to explode between 40% and 50%.   Given the number of unexploded shells found in Charleston in the 150 years since the war, those estimates were probably not far off.

Charleston 4 May 10 115

The shell in the photo above was found on Broad Street in Charleston.  The street seemed to be in the “beaten zone” where a majority of Federal projectiles landed.

Charleston was on the receiving end of Federal artillery fire starting the previous August.  After the Swamp Angel burst, Federal fired occasional shots into Charleston through September and October.  More so to test ranges than for any specific objective.  In November a total of 77 shots reached the city, with another ten falling short according to Confederate observers.  Those were spread out between November 16 and 27, with no more than twenty in any one given day.

But in December, the Federals increased the firing on Charleston, with activity almost every day:

  • December 1: 8 shots.
  • December 2: 19 shots.
  • December 3: 32 shots.
  • December 5: 8 shots.
  • December 8: 6 shots.
  • December 11: 8 shots.
  • December 12: 4 shots.
  • December 14: 7 shots.
  • December 15: 10 shots.
  • December 16: 1 shot (with one more missing).
  • December 20: 20 shots reaching and 11 falling short.

Certainly the Federals had found the range.  Keep in context this attention on Charleston came as the Second Major Bombardment came to a close.

Major Henry Bryan, Assistant Inspector-General on General P.G.T. Beauregard’s staff, completed a detailed examination of all bombardments of Charleston through the end of 1863, submitting his findings on January 6, 1864.  In that report, Bryan noted the Christmas Day bombardment was responsible for, “the burning of six buildings and a cotton press…, by a fire originating from the explosion of a shell, and the destruction of some medical stores….”  Bryan added, referring generally to all bombardments of the city up to that time, “It has further caused considerable social distress by obliging thousands of persons in the lower part of the city, in order to avoid danger, to leave their homes and close their hotels, and seek refuge in the upper portion of the city or the interior of the state.”   And those abandoned properties were exposed to vandalism and theft.

Lieutenant George Walker, Confederate Engineers, assisted Bryan in the report and produced a map showing where each shell had landed in Charleston, “designated roughly by specks of red paint the locality where each shell fell, the extreme points where shells struck being connected by straight red-ink lines.”  Unfortunately, I’ve never seen a copy of that map in any archives or other collections.  If it is out there, I’d love to examine those “specks of red paint.”  However, even without seeing Walker’s map, we can surmise the captain’s work was good, given the level of detail and precision of Bryan’s reporting.

There are several threads to follow in regard to the bombardment of Charleston.  First off, Bryan’s report deserves a close look.  And I intend to give it due space in follow up blog posts.

Another thread to follow is how the effects of these bombardments were reported in Confederate papers.  In correspondence to authorities in Richmond, Beauregard clearly reports fires, damage, and causalities due to Federal bombardments.  Though he shrugs them off.  To the public, however, the newspapers arranged the news to keep the Federal bombardment separate from the fires caused.  Censorship?  Perhaps, as the Federals were seeking out Charleston papers for intelligence.  Spin control?  Very likely….

We should also consider how these bombardments, including Christmas Day, were justified and accepted from the military side.  Beauregard wasted no time protesting the bombardments.  And Gillmore rested his actions on justifications agreed upon in earlier correspondence.  It seems both sides agreed, mutually, that Charleston was a fair target.  After the fact, 150 years later, many will cry the bombardment broke the rules of war… and might even level allegations of war crimes.  But at the time, such talk was not in the air.  How did that come about?  It’s a long line of logic, deserving fuller discussion.

Lastly, as this is “To the Sound of the Guns” and we talk about what wonderful things artillery can do on the battlefield, we should also discuss how these Parrott rifles were able to fire on targets 8000 to 9000 yards distant.

So more to follow.

(Citations from Charleston Mercury, December 28, 1863, page 2 column 1; 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, pages 206-7;  and OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 682-3.)

October 27, 1864: “Thursday morning the bombardment of the city was renewed.” Charleston remained under siege

Reporting on Thursday, October 27, 1864, the Charleston Mercury ran this account of operations around the city:

Siege of Charleston.

Four Hundred and Seventy-sixth Day.

Forty shots were fired at the city Tuesday night.  The firing on the city ceased about daylight Wednesday morning. The firing on Wednesday was confined to a few scattering shots at the wreck of the Flora and at James Island. The enemy were engaged Wednesday mounting a new gun at Battery Wagner.

Wednesday morning a fatal explosion of a two hundred pounder Parrott shell took place, resulting in the melancholy death of Lieut. L.P. Mays, Lieut. John Dardon and Private Smannon, of Company E, 32d Georgia Regiment, and severely wounding Lieut. David E. Willis, of the same company and regiment.  Captain Moblay had a very narrow escape, being in the same room but remaining untouched.

Their remains were forwarded Wednesday to their friends in Georgia.

There was no change of importance in the fleet.

The paper also carried news from other fronts.  With respect to operations nearer Atlanta, “The army movements in Georgia are puzzling many readers…” owing to a lack of information.  And the puzzle would remain for a few weeks.  From Richmond came news that President Jefferson Davis called for November 16 as a day of prayer for “deliverance and peace.”  And form elsewhere in Virginia, General Jubal Early provided an assessment of the recent defeat at Cedar Creek, “attributing their recent defeat to a disgraceful propensity to plunder and panic….”

The paper also mentioned the sale act auction, by Mr. James L. Gantt, of some 10 slaves.  “A woman – cook and washer, 22 years old, with a child 4 years old, $8000…. Man, 19 years old, field hand, $6000….”  In the wartime economy, the price of slaves had increased considerably – something on the order of a ten-fold increase.  And slavery continued to thrive in spite of that inflation.

For the next day, the Charleston Mercury related the actions which took place 150 years ago today (October 27, 1864):

 Siege of Charleston

Four Hundred and Seventy-seventh Day.

There was no firing Wednesday night, the enemy batteries remaining silent. Thursday morning the bombardment of the city was renewed, and towards evening became quite brisk, the enemy firing from three guns in rapid succession. Up to six o’clock P.M., thirty-nine shots had been fired.

The enemy were again busily employed hauling ammunition during the day to Battery Gregg and the Middle Battery.

A monitor was towed from inside the bar Thursday forenoon and went South.

There was no other change of importance.

The monitor seen going south was likely the USS Nantucket, headed for Hilton Head for repairs.  Such details, which match well with operational records, indicate how closely the newspaper, and thus the civilian population, followed the military situation at Charleston.  And, as the headline read, the people of Charleston felt themselves under the guns for over a year by that time.  Count back 477 days from October 28, 1864 and the product is July 10, 1863, when the Federals assaulted Morris Island. By the fall of 1864, canons were background noise in many places throughout the South.  No more so than Charleston.


“I desire to call your attention to the following points”: Foster’s instructions to Scammon, October 1864

When he first took command of the Department of the South in the spring of 1864, Major-General John Foster inherited the veteran Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig in command of Federal forces on Folly and Morris Islands – officially the Northern District, but the Charleston Front, if I may.  When Schimmelfenning departed on leave, for health reasons, Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton filled in for the month of September.  On October 3, 1864, Brigadier-General Eliakim P. Scammon received orders to replace Saxton in command of the Northern District.  Previous to this assignment, Scammon had served mostly in West Virginia, but had led a brigade at Antietam in 1862 as part of the Ninth Corps.  He fell into Confederate hands in February 1864 and was was among the fifty officers held in Charleston later that year. After his exchange and brief leave, he was assigned to the Department of the South.

On the day he assigned Scammon to command, Foster provided a set of detailed instructions in regard to operations against Charleston.  Those  instructions offer insight into Foster’s intent for operations in the theater.  Prefacing the message, Foster asked Scammon to visit each battery in the Federal defenses and consult with the officers then serving in the sector.  Scammon was “to obtain a perfect knowledge of their condition and position.”  After that, he was to follow Foster’s instructions, arranged in six points:

 First. To build a new palisading all around Fort Putnam, including the recent addition of the six-gun naval battery; to complete this battery and to provide proper flanking defense for its face, bomb-proofs, &c. The reverse of this battery is to have a stockade with loop-holes for infantry. As many more 200-pounders as room can be found for will also be placed in this battery, for the treble object of firing on the city, Fort Sumter, and Sullivan’s Island.

Attention to the palisading was with the aim to improve defenses against Confederates raids.  And the 200-pdr (8-inch) Parrotts were the preferred weapons for work against Fort Sumter or Charleston.  As a refresher, to support the details of this “point” and those that follow, recall the locations of these Federal batteries:


Second. To renew or repair the palisading around Batteries Chatfield and Seymour so as to connect the two. More guns and mortars are also to be placed in these batteries where room can be found by connecting the two. The most important part in regard to these batteries at present is to have the palisading around them made so strong and perfect as to prevent the possibility of the enemy taking these batteries by a surprise or boat attack. The objects of the fire of these batteries at the front are, generally, Fort Sumter, the channel, or rather such blockade-runners which may attempt to run hi or out, and the city. Occasionally a few shots will be fired at the enemy’s batteries on Sullivan’s Island, when the fire of the enemy’s batteries becomes too annoying. Generally, however, these batteries at the extreme front are to be husbanded for future work, and therefore placed and maintained in perfect repair and efficiency. Generally, Fort Strong will return the fire from the enemy, gun for gun, from 100-pounder Parrotts.

Third. Fort Strong. This is regarded as the citadel of the works on the upper end of Morris Island. It is strongly armed and will be so maintained and also strongly manned. Care must always be taken that its palisading round it is kept in perfect repair, and that its garrison is good, well instructed, and vigilant.

Again, Foster placed emphasis on physical security of the batteries and attention to the palisading around the works. The batteries mentioned here, those behind Fort Putnam, were a reserve of sort.  But were to be maintained and ready for action.  Fort Strong, formerly Confederate Battery Wagner, occupied a key position on the island and thus received due attention in Foster’s instructions.

As to the other batteries:

Fourth. The remaining batteries on Morris Island and the other islands have all peculiar duties, but do not require general directions except the general one that the garrisons must be kept in good condition and well instructed. The forts at Light-House Inlet have orders to return the fire from the forts of Secessionville gun for gun. Here it is necessary to make a general remark. The forts and batteries must have as experienced artillerists as it is possible to obtain, but as the artillery force proper is very small and diminishing very fast by the expiration of the term of enlistments of the men it is necessary to use infantry for this duty. Great care must be taken to select the best regiments and best men and officers for this duty, and when infantry thus selected become good artillerists they must be continued on that duty as long as their conduct is satisfactory.

Vigilance and proficiency were needed in those batteries.

Scammon, having spent time as a prisoner in Charleston, had a personal knowledge of the prisoner issue as it related to the command.  Perhaps Foster felt that was sufficient in regard to care of the 600 Confederate prisoners, so he focused his instructions on one particular concern:

Fifth. The rebel prisoners of war in the palisades will require the utmost care and attention as regards their security; the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteers are now guarding them and I recommend that they be retained on that duty so long as their conduct is satisfactory. I have written General Saxton full instructions as to the necessity of having detailed instructions given as to the duties of each regiment and detachment in case an attempt be made by the enemy to escape, or by their friends to rescue them. I believe General Saxton has given all the orders necessary for the present, but constant vigilance will be necessary on your part to see that they are obeyed. Modifications will be necessary from time to time in accordance with the circumstances. In order to give all opportunity to have the camps searched from time to time two schooners are anchored in Light-House Inlet, to which the prisoners may be moved when necessary. While upon these schooners increased vigilance should be used to prevent the escape of the men by their jumping overboard and swimming to the shore. For this purpose, in addition to the guards on board, boats well armed must row guard all night long around the vessels. A vigilant guard will be kept on each shore near the vessels, and a good watch kept from the fort on each side the anchorage, and the guns kept charged with grape. A cable must be kept on each vessel, and all the steamers in the inlet must have a sufficient guard on board to prevent any possibility of their being captured by a boat attack by the enemy having for its object the rescue of the prisoners. All row-boats not needed by the boat infantry for night service as picket-boats or ferriage across the inlet must be taken to the lower end of Folly Island and placed in a secure position, if it has not already been done. In fine, every means must be taken to provide for every emergency and to insure perfect safety.

Yes, more than half of this paragraph related details about handling prisoners between the camp and temporary holding on schooners.

In his last point of instruction, Foster turned at last to the offensive operations:

Sixth. As to the rate of firing, that upon the city is usually on an average of I every fifteen minutes, but this maybe varied according to circumstances. The firing on Fort Sumter is very slow at present, owing to a want of ammunition, but when a sufficient supply arrives, a slow fire, principally shells from mortars, will be kept up whenever there is an appearance of working parties being engaged. The Marsh Angel will fire dark nights all night long at irregular intervals, and upon light nights sufficiently to prevent their landing supplies on the dock on the left flank. All details connected with your command will be obtained from the file of orders from these headquarters in the adjutant-general’s office of the Northern District. Soon as you send a list of maps in the office the duplicates of those we have will be sent you to complete your list. The commanding general, having great confidence in your judgment and ability, leaves much to your discretion, feeling confident that everything will receive your prompt and careful consideration.

The ammunition shortage continued to restrain Foster’s operations.  But the City of Charleston was not spared.

Scammon went about his duties that October.  But he was not long for the post.  By the end of the month he was ill and replaced.  Yes, it seemed disease loomed as the greater threat around Charleston than those large caliber cannons in the fall of 1864.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 308-10.)