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.)


Beauregard goes modding: Rifling 8-inch Columbiads at Charleston

As chronicled over several posts, General P.G.T. Beauregard had difficulties obtaining heavy ordnance for the defense of Charleston from the time he assumed command of the department.  While Beauregard leaned on the Confederate Ordnance Department, to be fair there just weren’t enough heavy guns to go around.  Beauregard had permission to band and rifle some of the 32-pdr and 42-pdr guns, and smaller weapons, on hand at Charleston. But these were not the ironclad stoppers that Beauregard wanted.

In July 1863, Beauregard turned to larger caliber weapons.  While heavy in terms of weight of shot, the 8-inch columbiads were proven insufficient against the ironclads.  With a large number available around Charleston, those columbiads became the subject of a modification project.  J.M. Eason & Brother received their first such 8-inch columbiads for conversion in July and a second in August.

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Eason charged $1,250 per gun for the modifications. Dates listed are July 20 and August 19, which may be the dates the weapons were transferred or the date the work was completed.  The remarks on the right read:

The guns rifled and banded alluded to in this account were the first done by the Messrs Eason of this caliber and are now in Fort Moultrie where they have been in service for the past seven months.  This [account] was declined at the bureau (?) and paid by us to prevent delay.  The guns were rifled by authority from Headquarters, Dept. S.C., Geo., and Fla. by my directions….

The lower half of the receipt indicates the matter was not resolved until, if I read this correctly, August 1864:

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Some backstory is required here.  Beauregard ordered the modification without authorization from the War Department in Richmond.  In the past, the Ordnance Bureau looked on such conversions with skepticism.  Unlike the smaller weapons, the 8-inch columbiads still had some practical use… in some places that is.  So Eason had to wait for the officers to sort out the question of authority and authorization.

Meanwhile, the 8-inch rifles performed well at Fort Moultrie exchanging shots with the Federals during the fall and winter months.  The guns fired 95 and 122 pound 8-inch Harding shells, along with 90 pound 8-inch hollow shot, of the type recovered in the Charleston area since the war.

One of those guns may still be at Fort Moultrie today (I reserve positive identification only because the receipt includes no particulars for such):

Fort Moultrie 3 May 2010 490

The gun at Fort Moultrie today is an 8-inch “New Columbiad”. It has registry number 89 from West Point Foundry. Cast in 1857, it weighed 8,975 pounds. It was inspected by Benjamin Huger, then an ordnance officer and later Confederate general.

The breech profile shows two layers of banding performed by Eason.

Fort Moultrie 3 May 2010 492

Pardon my sunwashed photo, but you can see the two bands from the breech end a little better.

Fort Moultrie 3 May 2010 491

Notice also the ratchet elevating system.  The cascabel was either removed in the rifling process or broke off during handling.

The muzzle of the columbiad hangs out over the fort’s parapet, so I can’t give you a good view of the rifling.  In the past, when the gun was dismounted, I counted eight grooves.  The modification did little to alter the exterior.  The chase ring and sight blocks remained on the gun.

Fort Moultrie 3 May 2010 493

The gun’s postwar history is rather uneventful.  The Army discarded the gun as a non-standard type.  It sat on Sullivan’s Island for decades. When the National Park Service took over Fort Moultrie, the gun went back to a spot near it’s wartime station.

Fort Moultrie 3 May 2010 496

The success of these 8-inch modifications lead Beauregard to authorize a step up in caliber:

Fort Moultrie 3 May 2010 575

I’ll get to that gun, one of my favorites, in time!

“A demonstration in force on James Island” : Terry’s Division distracts the Confederates

I’ve discussed Brigadier-General Quincy Gillmore’s main attack on Morris Island and the expedition to the Edisto River.  Now to look at Brigadier-General Alfred H. Terry’s division on James Island.


Terry’s division had orders to mount “A demonstration in force on James Island, by way of the Stono River, designed to prevent re-enforcements to the enemy on Morris Island from that quarter, and, if possible, draw a portion of the Morris Island garrison in that direction.”

Terry’s division, which was First Division, Tenth Corps, included three brigades:

  • First brigade – Brigadier-General Thomas Stevenson with the 10th Connecticut, 97th Pennsylvania, 24th Massachusetts, 4th New Hampshire.
  • Second brigade – Colonel William W.H. Davis with the 52nd Pennsylvania and 104th Pennsylvania.*
  • Third brigade – Colonel James Montgomery with the 2nd South Carolina and 54th Massachusetts.

In addition, Terry had a detachment of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry and the 1st Connecticut Artillery assigned.  All told, Terry’s force, at the start of operations, numbered around 3,200 men (and would later grow to 3,600).

The Navy supported this effort with the USS Pawnee, USS Nantucket, USS Commodore McDonough, and USS C.P. Williams (a mortar schooner).  Commander George Balch, of the Pawnee and a veteran of many trips on the Stono, led the naval forces.  Balch’s gunboats escorted several Army steamers carrying troops upriver, provided artillery support, and protected the left flank of Terry’s force.

Under the original plans, Terry’s force was to start on July 9, 1863.  Although operations at Morris Island were delayed another day, Terry began the demonstration.  Only a year earlier Federals landed a division of troops in that vicinity in an operation that lead up to the battle of James Island (or Secessionville if you prefer).  Federal reports refereed to “Stevens’ Landing” and “Wright’s Landing” alluding to that earlier operation.


Davis’s Second Brigade landed at  “Stevens’ Landing”, near the west end of Sol Legare Island on the evening of July 9.  While the Army landed, Balch engaged Confederate batteries at Secessionville, targeting the Confederate observation tower there, with long range fire at around 7 p.m.  Davis deployed quickly and secured the causeway leading to Sol Legare.

The next day, while fighting commenced at Light House Inlet, Davis’ brigade moved onto Sol Legare and proceeded to secure Grimball’s and Rivers’ Causeways leading to the main part of James Island.  Other than shots exchanged with the retreating Confederate pickets, the Federals met no resistance.  That evening Stevenson’s brigade moved up to replace Davis in the lead.  Davis then moved his two regiments back to Sol Legare Island, joining Montgomery’s third brigade.  Commander Balch moved his gunboats upriver to support Terry’s troops, anchoring at “Wright’s Landing” or Grimball’s Landing.  As night fell on July 10, the Federals had a lodgement of sorts on James Island, in addition to possessing tw0-thirds of Morris Island.

Confederate reaction was quick.  On July 9, General P.G.T. Beauregard ordered the siege train “in readiness to move at a moment’s notice.”  Likewise, reserve troops across South Carolina were alerted for quick movement to Charleston.  All actions made before the attacks at Light House Inlet.  Gillmore’s demonstration was bearing fruit.  Beauregard also requested Brigadier-General Thomas Clingman’s brigade from Wilmington.  However that request was formally made on July 10, and one might debate if made in response to the demonstration or the main effort.  Regardless, Clingman’s troops first went to James Island.

A Federal force of over 3,500 men, supported by gunboats, on the southwest corner of James Island represented a significant threat to Charleston.  While Terry was not about to pull a “Benham,” and instead was content to keep a strong picket line, the Confederates had to juggle forces between James and Morris Islands.  Unfortunate for Terry’s troops, Beauregard could get at them easier than those on the barrier island. The Confederate counter-attack would thus fall on James Island instead of Morris.

* Davis’s Second Brigade amounted to 600 men at the start of this operation.  Three companies of the 52nd Pennsylvania and four companies of the 140th Pennsylvania were detailed on picket duty around Folly Island.  The 56th New York did not arrive from Hilton Head until July 13.  And the 100th New York was detached to support the landings on Morris Island.

150 years ago: Wilmington needs a Columbiad

At this time 150 years ago, General P.G.T. Beauregard commanded a large geographic area including South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.  His “front line” was the coastline, under threat at several points from Federal blockaders and landings.  Several footholds – notably Fort Pulaski and Hilton Head – offered bases from which the Yankees might expand their purchase.

But in the middle of December 1862, Beauregard’s focus turned away from his own command, north to Wilmington, North Carolina. As Major General John G. Foster’s raid towards Goldsborough developed, fears mounted the Federals would turn on Wilmington to close that important port.  Beauregard sent 5,000 infantry and three batteries from his command to reinforce Brigadier General W.H.C. Whiting, in command in Wilmington. The “hero of Fort Sumter” even offered to go forward himself, if needed.

Even as Foster returned to New Bern, Beauregard remained convinced Wilmington was the object of Federal designs.  On December 21, he forwarded a message to General Samuel Cooper in Richmond, saying ,”General Whiting calls urgently for one 10-inch gun.  Send him first one intended for this place.”  Rather generous of Beauregard, especially considering observers at Charleston (which was “this place” referenced in the message) could see increased activity off shore.

Nothing really exciting about Whiting’s request or Beauregard’s referral.  I could find maybe a dozen similar calls for heavy ordnance from the commanders along the coast during the war, if not more.  What I do find of interest is how long it took the Confederate Ordnance Department to fill this request.   At that time only two vendors produced such heavy seacoast guns for the Confederacy – Tredegar and Bellona.  Since Tredegar did much of the boring, finishing, and shipping for Bellona, J.R. Anderson & Company’s files are the best place to look for action on this request.  As best I can determine, the most likely action filling this request was on March 3, 1863.  In a summary of receipts (No. 15 if you are counting) posted on April 8, 1863 lists a 10-inch Columbiad forwarded to Wilmington.

Page 697b

Tredegar records indicate the foundry cast #1766 on February 16 that year.  Tredegar had cast at least five other 10-inch Columbiads between the date of request and the time of casting.  The foundry cast four more before #1766 shipped.   Those “sisters” of #1766 were likewise dispatched to other beleaguered positions around the Confederacy.

So three months after the tactical threat, Whiting at Wilmington received the requested gun.  Sure, it is possible one of the other pieces could have gone to Wilmington sooner, had there been a serious threat.  But then what would the commanders at Vicksburg, Mobile, or other garrisons say to that?  Supply could not meet demand. Here again limited resources impaired the tactical flexibility of the Confederate forces.  Priorities were constantly changing. The Confederate War machine simply could not keep pace.

But as for Wilmington, perhaps Whiting had time to burn.  The Federals were not yet ready to assail Cape Fear.  Not yet ….

Cannons for the Private Market: John Clark

Many surviving Civil War cannons that I encounter have some markings or symbols by which a pedigree is established.  Rarer, but often enough to make such research worthwhile, documentation exists to match the cannon to a production order.  In some cases, particularly with some Tredegar invoices, one might trace an individual cannon from the casting date, through delivery, to payment. Likewise for most Federal orders one can trace the contracts, inspections, and credits.

But those are cannons for government orders.  The trail for cannons produced on militia or state orders offers a less defined path.  Particularly in the early war period, orders by southern citizens opting to equip batteries out of pocket, there’s a story with limited documentation, lots of circumstantial evidence, and unmarked cannons.  Take for instance this note found in the Confederate Citizens File:

Dated about a month before the Battle of Shiloh, someone at John Clark & Co. wrote to General P.G.T. Beauregard touting the company’s ability to produce cannons for the Confederate cause.

Referring to your proclamation in regard to the want of cannon, we beg leave to advise you that we are prepared to turn out six guns per week complete, provided we have the material.  We want copper, block tin, or bells.  We have already furnished over one hundred guns to various corps and respectfully refer you to the Washington Artillery, Watson & New Orleans Guard Batteries as specimens of our workmanship.

In the modern contracting world, we’d call this an unsolicited proposal.  John Clark’s estimated rate of production, six guns per week, sounds unrealistic.  Tredegar, an established gun-maker, could sustain such rates.  But in John Clark’s defense, the firm did have the right equipment and space to perform such work.  As the letter indicates, with respect to experienced gunfounders the test might be the quality of work then in the field.

The figure of 100 guns, supplied at that point, is also worth examination.  Assuming six gun batteries, that would indicate over sixteen batteries equipped with Clark cannon.  The note mentions three (I would assume the “Washington Battery” refers only to the fifth battery which served in the west).  Beyond those, I could speculate about two or three more batteries.  But clearly the majority of John Clark’s customers were not only private, but also not associated with actual field formations.

In order to sustain that production rate of six guns per week, John Clark & Company needed metal.  Recall, as I mentioned in the discussion of the Leeds & Company guns, when the Federals occupied New Orleans they noted large numbers of bells earmarked for gun production.   So perhaps John Clark’s letter to the general was aimed at securing an allotment of those bells.

Regardless, John Clark’s estimate of six guns a week fell far short.  The problem was not securing sufficient metal, facilities or labor, but the occupation of New Orleans in April 1862.  Again, I am left contemplating the quantity of guns delivered by the various gunmakers in New Orleans, setting aside for the moment quality of the products.  If John Clark’s letter is accurate and the firm produced 100 guns in just over a year, how much would the Confederacy have benefited had the “Big Easy” remained in their hands for another campaign season?