108th Day of the Siege – Enemy Opened Fire : 2nd Major Bombardment of Fort Sumter

On this day in 1863, around 12:30 PM, the Federal batteries on Morris Island along with two monitors in the main ship channel, opened a massive bombardment of Fort Sumter.  As detailed back during the sesquicentennial, that eruption marked the start of the Second Major Bombardment of the fort.  Those “major” and “minor” bombardments, along with “desultory” bombardments, were defined by the Confederates on the receiving end.  Though the periods track well with Federal operational accounts.  And this “major” was indeed a rather substantial bombardment by any measure. Between October 26 and December 6, the Federals fired over 18,000 rounds at Fort Sumter.  That’s not counting shots fired at other points in and around Charleston during the same period, which was no small number.

The following morning, subscribers to the Charleston Courier saw this lead on the second column of the front page:


Notice how this news was titled and categorized.  This was the 108th day, going back to July 10, of the siege of Fort Sumter and for all practical purposes Charleston itself.  This is a point I drive home in presentations about the war around Charleston.  The siege of Fort Sumter was the longest battle of the war, running from the summer of 1863 through February 1865.  And by extension, the campaign against Charleston was the longest of the war, if we take into account the blockade operations beginning in May 1861.  The citizens of Charleston, the Confederates defending Charleston, and the Federals on Morris Island all counted those days.

The full article read:

News from the Islands.

One Hundred and Eighth Day of the Siege – Enemy Opened Fire

The enemy on Morris’ Island having completed his preparations, about half-past 10 o’clock, Monday morning, opened a vigorous fire from Batteries Gregg and Wagner, with seven guns mounted in the former and four in the latter, all of heavy calibre, being mostly two and three hundred pounder Parrotts.  The heaviest fire was directed on Fort Sumter.  Out of one hundred and eighty-eight shots fired from Morris’ Island at Fort Sumter during the day, one hundred and sixty-five struck the fort and twenty-three passed over.  Two of the guns on Battery Gregg devoted their entire attention to Fort Johnson, which also received an occasional shot from Battery Wagner.

Forts Moultrie and Johnson, and batteries Marion, Simkins and Cheves, kept up a spirited reply.  The firing on both sides ceased about dark.  The enemy threw some ten or fifteen shots and shells from a twelve pounder Parrott, mounted on Gregg, at Battery Bee and Fort Moultrie, but did no damage.  Two monitors, which rounded Cummings’ Point, were also engaged, and fired some ten shots at Sumter.  No casualties to the garrisons or injuries to the works are reported at any of the forts or batteries.

The fire from Fort Moultrie and the batteries upon the advanced Monitors and the enemy’s works, was excellent, and it is believed did considerable execution.  It was reported that one of the enemy’s guns burst in Battery Gregg early in the action Monday morning on the third or fourth trial.

The firing is expected to be renewed this morning.  With the exception of the two Monitors engaged there was no change in the position of the fleet.

The newspaper report is noteworthy in the details.  However, Federal sources insist the bombardment began around noon, and not earlier.  And there is not mention of a burst gun on that day from Federal accounts (although, one is recorded as bursting the following day).  Usually, and I doubt this day’s report was any exception, the Courier’s writers blended information obtained from Confederate officers along with what their reporters saw first hand.  After all, the war was happening, day and night, right outside their windows.

On the other side of the battle line, the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery was very active, handling the big guns. From their regimental history:

Please notice the handling of one of those guns.  The piece has just recoiled from the last firing, and is out of battery; it is instantly depressed to a level; up step the spongers; back and forth, with a rolling twist, goes the sponge, and it is withdrawn; up rises the great bag-like cartridge and is entered; quickly the rammers drive it home to the clean, moist, but warm chamber; stout men lift the great conical shell and pass it into the black lips of the monster; and again the rammers bend to their work and drive back the projectile upon the powder; now the gunners heave the piece into battery; the sergeant looks to and adjusts the training, right or left; now he turns to secure again his proper and exact elevation, and makes his allowance for windage; the primer is entered; the lanyard is attached, and the gunner, standing behind the traverse, waits order.  The officer cries: “Ready!  Fire!” Hold your ears.  Note the smoke – an aerial maelstrom and cataract, with voice of an earthquake.  See that black spot traveling on its parabolic journey.  Ha! How smokes and tumbles the rebel wall.  Up go the loyal cheers and the boys pat their gun.

This work would continue, shot after shot, day after day, through the first week of December.  Some days the fire would slack to only a hundred or so rounds, particularly toward the first week of December.  But in those early days of the Second Major Bombardment, the tallies often reached 900 or 1000 rounds a day.

Such was the start of a loud phase in a long battle.

(Citations from Charleston Courier, October 27, 1863, page 1, column 2; 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 195.)


Fortification Friday: Some Landscaping for the fort- Revetments of Sod

Over the last few weeks, we’ve moved beyond just planning an earthwork into the practical aspects of actually constructing those works to the specifications, derived from the plan.  Assuming your digging project worked out as expected, the fortification would now have bare earth frowning upon any potential attacker.  While achieving the defensive needs, bare earth is hard to maintain.  Readers are likely aware of the natural forces that act here.  To reduce the wear and thus reduce the maintenance needs, Mahan prescribed revetments:

A revetment consists of a facing of stone, wood, sods, or any other material to sustain an embankment, when it receives a slope steeper than the natural slope.

In field works revetments are used only for the interior slop of the parapet and for the scarp; for the first sods, pisa, fascines, hurdles, gabions, and plank, are chiefly used; and for the last, timber.

Keep in mind here the specification of “natural slope” being at or shallower than a 45° grade, the natural slope at which loose dirt will pile.  Loosely speaking, we might assert that any slope might need revetments if use extends beyond a short time.  But let us for now focus on the notion of temporary fortifications and, thus, temporary arrangements.  Anything steeper than that natural angle is going to start falling down over night.  So we put up a revetment to avoid a morning chore.

Notice also the list of material we might use.  It is built, somewhat, in descending order of preference.  So let us take a look at sods:

Revetments of Sods. Sod work forms a strong and durable revetment. The sods should be cut from a well-clothed sward, with the grass of a fine short blade, and thickly matted roots. If the grass is long, it should be mowed before the sod is cut.

Sods are of two sizes, one termed stretchers, are twelve inches square, and four-and-a-half inches thick; the others, termed headers, are eighteen inches long, twelve inches broad, and four-and-a-half inches thick.

And we have a diagram depicting these stretchers and headers:


Mahan continued:

The sod revetment is commenced as soon as the parapet is raised to the level of the head of the banquette.  A course of sods is then laid, either horizontal or a little inclined from the banquette; the course consists of two stretchers and one header alternating, the end of the header laid to the front.  The grass side is laid downward; and the sods should protrude a little beyond the line of the interior slope, for the purpose of trimming the course even at the top, before laying another, and to make the interior slope regular.  The course is firmly settled, by tapping each sod as it is laid with a spade or a wooden mallet; and the earth of the parapet is packed closely behind the course.

So a matrix of sorts with these blocks of sod.  Notice the arrangement in Figure 21, below:


A second course is laid on the first, so as to cover the joints, or, as it is termed, to break joints with it; using otherwise the same precautions as with the first.  The top course is laid with the grass up; and in some cases pegs are driven through the sods of the two courses to connect the whole more firmly, which is, however, by no means necessary to form a strong sodding.

As with all things, there are some fine points to consider … which the experienced instructor was willing to impart to his students:

When cut from a wet soil, the sods should not be lain until they are partially dried, otherwise they will shrink, and the revetment will crack in drying.  In hot weather the revetment should be watered frequently, until the grass puts forth. The sods are cut rather larger than required for use; and are trimmed to a proper size from a model sod.

While I am not much of an expert on landscaping, and cannot provide some analysis of the sod and soil properties, I do dabble a bit with old photos.  Particularly old photos of old, sometimes no longer existing, forts that were in some hot climates.  Recall this photo from our tour of Fort Johnson, circa 1865?


We see lots of sod “bricks” on the face of Fort Johnson.  Particularly on the exterior slope (and do keep in mind this was a “permanent” fortification of sorts, so the rule above need not directly apply to the use of sod only on the interior).  In some sections, it appears stretchers and headers were used:


In other faces, there seems no pattern:


Perhaps we see here where the grass has grown so well as to “break” over the joins of the sod courses.

On other views of the fort, it appears only twelve-inch square stretchers were used:


If we go over to the other side of the harbor, Battery Marshall’s sod appeared much worse for the exposure to the ocean breezes:


Just does not look like those are 4½ inches thick.  Mahan might have called these out as an example of what not to do.

Next week, we will look at some other forms of revetments.

(Citation from Dennis Hart Mahan, A Treatise on Field Fortifications, New York: John Wiley, 1852, page 36-37.)


Fortification Friday: What is a profile?

I often incorporate accurate terminology to describe the fortifications.  But some of those terms have either fallen into dis-use, carry new meanings today, or simply may not be clear to all readers. And why would an artillery guy be worried about fortifications?  Well I look at it this way – on the battlefield the antithesis of artillery is fortification.  Artillery came into being as a means of destroying fortifications.  Fortifications evolved further as a means to counter the use of advanced artillery.  So we have a yin-yang relation going on with artillery and fortifications.   Anyone seriously considering one must take into account the other (keep that in mind when considering “tactics” books out there today).

Back during the sesquicentennial, I dabbled with the idea of a recurring series focused on this fortification terminology.  But sesqui being sesqui, there was always too many “on this day” stuff to write about and little room for general studies.  That said, the 150ths of the war are over and I am revisiting that premise.  So let me re-launch “Fortification Friday.”

One more point of order before “launching” into this “vocabulistics” study.  Years ago a great site existed which did just what I’m embarking upon.  The web site is dark now, but the “Civil War Field Fortifications Website” held a “Dictionary of Fortification” that provided “A lexicon of significant and arcane terminology applicable to the study of the art and science of fortification as it was practiced during the middle period of the nineteenth century.”  A fabulous resource that got right down to the details.  Sadly, the webmaster (PE McDuffie) stopped updating in about 2007, and the last time the site rendered was in 2010.  While I am not going to resurrect that body of knowledge, I would offer that up, by way of the Internet Archive, for readers to continue exploring this subject.

OK, introduction aside, let me offer up a term I’ve used often before – PROFILE.

McDuffie’s web-dictionary define profile as:

… a cross section of the parapet and ditch taken along a line perpendicular to the general direction of the interior crest of the parapet or from the interior side of the parapet exterior side of the work. It shows, basically, a vertical slice of the work and graphically describes the elevation, thickness and general arrangement of the various elements of the work. Profiles of all major field works included two basic elements: the parapet and the ditch.

From an American-centric point of view that is, Dennis Hart Mahan is “the source” for both theory and practice of fortification.   Mahan also explained profiles in context with the parapet and ditch:

To enable troops to fight with advantage, the intrenchements should shelter them from the enemy’s fire; be an obstacle in themselves to the enemy’s progress; and afford the assailed the means of using their weapons with effect.  To satisfy these essential conditions, the component parts of every intrenchement should consist of a covering mass, or embankment, denominated the parapet, to intercept the enemy’s missiles, to enable the assailed to use their weapons with effect, and to present an obstacle to the enemy’s progress, and of a ditch, which, from its position and proximity to the parapet, subserves the double purpose of increasing the obstacle which the enemy must surmount before reaching the assailed, and of furnishing the earth to form the parapet….

The general form of a parapet and ditch, to fulfil the above conditions, will be best understood by an examination of the profile, which is a section of the intrenchment made, by a vertical plane, perpendicular to the general direction of the intrenchment.

Mahan offered this figure to illustrate a profile showing the “textbook” layout of the parapet and ditch.


This would be the profile of a “classic” fortification. Mahan’s annotation pointed out the parapet defined as points A-B-C-D-E-F.  The ditch was from G-H-I-K.  Beyond that, the glacis was points L-M-N.  There are a dozen other terms called out within this profile – banquette slope, interior slope, superior slope, exterior slope, scarp, and counterscarp, to name a few.  But the basic element was, as Mahan pointed out, the parapet and ditch.

The profile, along with the line of the works, defines the fortification itself and allows the engineer to depict the three dimensional nature of the fortification onto a two dimensional diagram. Engineers had to depict the arrangement of parapet and ditch, in the vertical plane, in order to relate the details of their plan.  You know, the old “measure twice, cut once” rule?  Or in this case, draw it out before you start shoveling. Every fortification, permanent or field, has a profile, even if the elements of the parapet and ditch don’t match up with the “classic” form.  When discussing the photos of Fort Johnson, I cited these profiles drawn by Federal engineers as they surveyed the Confederate works:


We really don’t see a “ditch” in these profiles, do we?  Well that’s because the “ditch” of Fort Johnson was for all practical purposes the waters of Charleston Harbor.  And I argue that Fort Johnson’s ditch served the purpose very well from April 1861 to February 1865.   We also see a lot of details within the parapet beyond just slopes and scarps.  Earthworks were not just simple forms.  Each was tailored, by the plan, to fit the situation.  Each plan factored the needs and resources on hand.  In that light, consider the “profile” as a component of the language in which the engineer related the plan.

(Citations from Dennis Hart Mahan, A Treatise on Field Fortifications, New York: John Wiley, 1852, pages 1-2; And Civil War Field Fortifications Website, linked above.)