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.)


Christmas Eve, 1863, and Charleston was quiet… relatively

On the day before Christmas, 1863, the Charleston Daily Courier lead with their customary account of fighting around the city:

Siege of Charleston

One-hundred and sixty-eight day.

There was no firing from the enemy during Tuesday night or Wednesday.  The quiet of Fort Sumter remained undisturbed.  The enemy were hard at work making some changes on Battery Gregg, the nature of which has not transpired.  Fort Moultrie directed a brisk fire at the working parties which was renewed at intervals through the day.

The firing heard so plainly in the city Wednesday morning and which some believed to be the enemy shelling the city, was from one of our gunboats practicing up Cooper river.  The fleet remained in its usual position, not firing a gun.

So nothing was stirring, not even an ironclad?  As frame of reference, this was posted in the December 24 paper, reaching the streets on a Thursday morning.  All through the day the newspaper men at the Courier and their rival, the Charleston Mercury, prepared a Christimas edition, that would go out Friday morning.  Both papers posted notices they would be closed on Friday, thus making it a long weekend.  So subscribers would not expect to see newspapers until Monday morning, December 28.

The Christmas Day edition of the Courier, arriving that Friday morning, featured an opinion piece on the importance of the holiday:


The Christian world celebrates to-day, the anniversary of the advent of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Savior of Man.  It is the oldest as well as the most important of all the Church festivals.  …

Well into the piece, a somber warning which might be served even in our own times:

There are many children of larger growth, woe, lost to the higher significance of this ancient feast, pervert it to fleshly delights, and derive their happiness in its avent from social reunions, good cheer, and the manful ports and games that have come down from the far distant past.  Too large a number of those who keep the day by generous fare and noisy mirth desecrate it by excessive indulgence in sensual pleasures, and forgetting the nature of the occasion and the obligations it enjoins, burden their stomachs with food, and drink deep of the Wassail Bowl.  How often is the injurious gluttony and indiscreet revelry of the half barbarous days of the Boar’s Head practice at the board in the present day, when through the blessing of Heaven is implored upon the meat and drink, the Giver is altogether forgotten and lost to all sense of gratitude, propriety and dignity, blasphemy, obscenity and drunkenness mark the wild carousal.

There you have it… a War on Christmas… in 1863.

But the piece turned from there to a frank assessment of the situation and the real war occurring right outside the city:

The Christmas of 1863 brings no gifts for the boys and girls. The sounds of battle have frightened away from our bleeding Southern land the bearer of painted toys, and candies and plums, and their parents and elders will have to be content with the wholesome food of simple quality, seeing that hams and turkeys, mince pies and plum puddings are things the contest we are engaged in compels them to do without. Many will dine on the scanty fare of every day.  Many will celebrate it afar from their homes, and the memory of the manner in which they have passed this day for a long series of years will aggravate their present ills and add grief to their sorrow.  Of those not a few have been driven from their homes by the ruthless enemy, who has burned their homesteads, took their slaves, and desolated their plantations [Emphasis mine]– How many mourn the untimely death of noble sons and husbands, and brothers, at the hands of the cruel invader, and how many thousands will hardly be aware that it is Christmas, for they will have to endure the same privations and hardships, and neither the food they eat nor the weapons they carry will remind them that the day they used to look forward to with such impatient desire, has once more dawned upon our earth.  The golden light of this morning will stream through the windows of many a home, but those generous rays will not dispel the darkness that enshrouds the hearts of the inmates. The light of those homes has been extinguished.  The beloved of their hearts, their joy and pride, lie sleeping in their gory garments on the field of carnage, where they fell with their faces to the foe. …

But, as with any stern sermon, the writer closed by encouraging the reader to be emboldened by faith:

Let us all keep this day in a penitent, thankful, truthful, reverent spirit, not forgetting the claims of the poor, and especially meeting the obligations we are under to our soldiers and their families, and praying with all fervor and faith that God would vouchsafe His blessing on our cause, and grant us speedy and honorable and enduring peace.

Below this, the Courier ran a notice that the Wayside Home would offer Christmas Dinner to all soldiers, “with or without furloughs or passes” from noon to three that afternoon, free of charge.  With the same notice, the Mercury urged donations to the Wayside Home as to replace items recently lost when a blockade runner came to grief.

On other columns that day, the Mercury lauded a seasonal serenade by the Eutaw Band, formerly the Charleston Brass Band, and now part of the 25th South Carolina Infantry.   The state of Georgia, as reported by the Mercury, was only $15 million in debt despite war situation, but had $9 million in public property to back that. Besides, it was reported the taxable property amounted to almost $800 million.  So the bills, from the war, could be met… at least those measured in dollar figures. However, the Mercury gave a less favorable estimate for the Federals that Christmas:

Expensive undertakings. – The New York Daily News, of the 16th instant, in an editorial says that powder, ball and shell alone, which have been used in the attempt to take Charleston, cost the United States Government seven millions of dollars, and the whole cost of the various expeditions fitted out against the city has amounted to upward of thirty millions of dollars.  The cost will probably be doubled, adds the News, and the undertaking will be abandoned.

It further adds, that enough has been expended in attempts to take Richmond to build half a dozen cities of the size, and almost as many lives lost as would populate the whole of them.

Thus, for those Charlestonians making the best of Christmas, there was a ray of hope, sought for in the Courier‘s message.  While Southern states might scrape up the financial reserves to see through the war, the Yankees were about to cave in…. at least that’s how it looked from the hopeful writers in Charleston.

As for the news around Charleston on Christmas Day, the Courier would lead with more reports indicating firing on Federal work parties.  Sumarizing, “… no particular movements of the enemy on Morris Island….” and “The fleet maintained the usual position.”  The number of Federal blockaders inside the Charleston bar was twenty-eight (including four monitors and the USS New Ironsides), supported by an equal number in Lighthouse Inlet and four blockaders outside the bar.

But one additional sentence, seemingly a late inclusion, placed an ominous pale on Christmas Day:

The enemy opened on the city between twelve and one o’clock.  Our batteries replied as usual, with spirit.

Confederate officers place the start of this bombardment at 12:30 AM Christmas morning.  And that shelling continued through the day until 1 PM.  All told, 134 shots reached the city that day, with another sixteen falling short.  Occurring the same morning, a large fire broke out in Charleston resulting in the loss of $150,000 in property and several injuries to firefighters.

And while Charleston was receiving the bombardment and fighting a fire, over on the Stono River Confederates staged an ambush of the USS Marblehead.  Thus neither side was interested in Christmas Day truces.  On Monday, December 28, the Mercury would begin their report of these activities, “The Christmas of 1863 will long be remembered by those who passed the day in the City of Charleston….”

[While I’ve detailed the ambush of the Marblehead in earlier posts, I’ve only given the bombardment and fire passing mention.  I shall resolve that shortcoming in a post to follow.]

(Citation from Charleston Daily Courier, Thursday, December 24, 1863, page 1, column 1 and Friday, December 25, 1863, page 1 columns 1-3; Charleston Mercury, Friday, December 25, 1863, page 2, column 1, and December 28, 1863, page 2 column 1.)