“The whole result has so far been utterly inadequate” : Assessing the bombardment of Charleston

The timing and weight of the Christmas Day bombardment caught Confederate authorities in Charleston off guard.  The city had been “under the guns” since the previous summer.  Though after the Swamp Angel initiated the bombardment, the number of Federal shots aimed at Charleston were small in number and little more than an annoyance.  Timed with the end of the Second Major Bombardment of Fort Sumter, December saw an up-tick in the frequency, and weight, of Federal fires into the city.  As mentioned before, this shift of emphasis on Charleston had much to do with the failure to achieve the objective of completely reducing Fort Sumter.  To some degree, yes, to assuage the sting of failure.  But as the weeks progressed into the new year, the shells hurled at Charleston were demonstrations and distractions to mask Federal movements toward Florida.

All told, Confederate observers counted 283 Federal shots reaching the city in December, the most of which (134) were grotesque Christmas Day presents.  The weight and temp increased through January, with 990 reaching the city.  And sustained through February, when Confederates tailed 964 shots into Charleston.  This bombardment would continue through the remainder of winter and into spring.  Federals maintained such pressure on Charleston through the summer.  By the fall of 1864, one might have set a watch based on the timing of Federal fires.  So this was not a temporary problem for the Confederates.

How does the military handle a problem?  Well, the officers in charge order an assessment.  The “stuckee” for that assessment was Major Henry Bryan, Assistant Inspector-General on General P.G.T. Beauregard’s staff.  On January 6, 1864, Bryan completed his report, covering the bombardments of the city up to that date.  As cited in the earlier post, Bryan first drew attention the impact on civilians and destruction of private property.  In aggregate, the cumulative damage (again from August to December) was:

The general result has been the injury of a large number of dwellings and stores, and many banks, public halls, churches, &c., by the percussion and explosion of the shells thrown; the burning of six buildings and a cotton press December 25, 1863, by a fire originating from the explosion of a shell, and the destruction of some medical stores, August 21,1863, by a shell bursting in the medical purveyor’s office and setting fire to it. 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 in the interior of the State. This will expose valuable property to theft, and to injury from the elements.

Further down in the report, Bryan provided details of this damage:

The immediate damage from the shells cannot be considered large in proportion to the area within the enemy’s range. From Saint Michael’s steeple, which commands a full view, there is but a small appearance of destruction visible. By a rough inspection of the city yesterday with an intelligent local editor, who had already been taking accounts of the effects of the shelling, I learned that 126 buildings (including kitchens) had been struck by shells, about 85 being much injured and 41 only slightly. I presume that three-fourths of the houses struck can be repaired without pulling down any main wall; but a portion have rafters, joists, or corners very badly shattered–the South Carolina Hall (near Saint Michael’s Church), for instance, having been struck three times through the roof.

Keep in mind the area in view as also savaged by fires in December 1861.  (There is a well prepared map of that area on Low Country Walking Tour’s website.  Also, a good account from the Post and Courier, for further reading.  Point being, we have to consider other events in context here, particularly when reviewing photos from 1865.)

But how much did this shelling impact military operations?

The effect upon military operations here has been comparatively unimportant, and has occasioned no loss of matériel, excepting the medical stores, worth about $1,500. As a matter of prudence, all military headquarters, offices, and hospitals have been moved out of range to the upper portions of the city, the signal corps remaining at its post, which is out of the line of fire. As equally good buildings have been found in the upper part of the city for these offices, hospitals, &c., their removal cannot be considered an injury to the army. The movements of harbor transportation have been much inconvenienced, but not practically impeded by this bombardment.

So in Bryan’s analysis, the impact was inconsequential.  And keep in mind the Federal justification for calling downtown Charleston a legitimate target was based on the activities, which in this case Bryan was saying were least impacted.

In terms of casualties, Bryan noted those were few, but almost always civilian:

Five deaths have resulted from the bombardment, viz, Mrs. Hawthorne, No. 70 Church street, wounded by shell in right side, and died six weeks after; Miss Plane, corner Meeting and Market, left foot crushed by shell, and died in six days; Mr. William Knighton, corner Meeting and Market, right leg taken off, and died in four days; Mr. John Doscher, of German Fire Company, wounded at fire of December 25, and since died; Rebecca, slave of Mr. Lindsay, No. 5 Beaufain street, killed instantly by shell. At the fire of December 25, there were 1 fireman, 1 policeman, and 4 soldiers slightly wounded.

To this I will add a couple of civilian causalities due to mishandling of unexploded ordinance…. a fine story deserving full treatment in a follow up post.

In terms of the number of shots fired, Bryan noted that from August 21, 1863 to January 5, 1864, a total of 472 shots were fired at the city.  Setting aside 27 from the Swamp Angel in August and a handful in October, Bryan considered, “The regular bombardment may be said to have begun on November 17.”  Of the 472 shots fired, 28 were observed as “falling short.”  Of the remaining 444, Bryan could only account for 225:

  • Shells striking houses: 145
  • Shells striking yards: 19
  • Shells striking streets or in burned district (from the 1861 fire): 61

Just in the raw numbers, 127 houses “somewhat confirmed” were hit by 145 “known” shells.  Though keep in mind that Bryan admitted to gaps in the analysis. “There were certainly a considerable number which had struck in the burned district, and probably in deserted yards, of which I could get no account.”  This is where Lieutenant George Walker’s map, referenced by Bryan, would be of great help reconstructing what was known at the time.

Of course shells have a nasty habit of not performing as designed or intended.  Bryan cited observers who claimed 39% of the shells did not explode.  Not an insignificant number.  In part, that factors into Confederate evaluations – less explosions mean less damage.  But this also meant a lot of potential damage lay sitting and waiting in the rubble.

Bryan described the area most frequently struck (again mentioning Walker’s map):

It is nearly bounded north by Market street from East Bay to Meeting, down Meeting to Horlbeck’s alley, and along Horlbeck’s alley to King street; west by King street from Horlbeck’s alley to Tradd street; south by Tradd street from corner of King to Church street; down Church street to Longitude lane, and along that lane to East Bay, and east by East Bay street. Mr. [T. S.] Hale, the observer at Saint Michael’s, reports that “the enemy’s principal line of fire upon the city has been Saint Michael’s Church steeple, radiating to the northeastward as far as Saint Philip’s Church,” and generally limited westwardly in its range to Archdale street. “Since January 1 the enemy appears to have made Saint Philip’s Church steeple their line of fire, hence the shells striking higher up in the city.”

Again, I don’t know that Walker’s map has survived.  In lieu of that, allow me to offer this substitute:


Adapted from the 1855 Coleton’s map of Charleston, I’ve shaded, approximately, the “Burnt District” in dark grey.  The area cited by Bryan as “Frequently Struck” is in red.  And the location of reported Christmas Day fires is marked by yellow stars.  Note the call out to Saint Michael’s Church, which Confederates figured was the “aiming point” for the Federal gunners.

We might, from Bryan’s statements and the location of those fires, conclude the Federal shells fell mostly in the blocks bound by King, Queen, East Bay, and Tradd Streets.  From a technical standpoint, that’s a rather close shot disbursement, given the practice and equipment of the time.   Within that “Frequently Struck” area, only the relatively new battery with the large Blakely Gun was at risk.

And speaking of equipment, Bryan noted the Federals had shifted to 100-pdr Parrotts for this duty by the time of the Christmas bombardments.  Later the Federals would employ lighter caliber Parrotts and even Wiard guns on occasion.

In Bryan’s overall assessment, he drew this conclusion,

The whole result has so far been utterly inadequate to the labors and the boasts of the besieging forces.  That they should attempt to intimidate the people of Charleston into a surrender of their city is not to be wondered at; but having plainly seen that the destruction of property did not shake their determination, it is difficult to imagine what usage of civilization would justify them in continuing it.

Such reminds me of statements made in regard to bombing offensives during World War II.  And that in mind, I also find Bryan’s closing remark rings with some familiarity along those lines:

People are occasionally found living in the lower part of the city apparently indifferent to the danger of the enemy’s fire.

Londoners of 1940 might sympathize:


(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46. pages 682-4.)