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.)

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