Tag Archives: Rufus Saxton

Emancipation: The lasting legacy of Sherman’s March

Often when historians offer a “wrap-up” of Sherman’s March to the Sea, there is focus, for good reasons, on this letter to President Abraham Lincoln:

ShermTelegram

It is the numbers – 150 guns and 25,000 bales of cotton – which often get some play as representative of the damage to the Confederate war effort.  Facts are, however, both numbers are incorrect.   The number of guns captured at Savannah alone was upwards of 160 (a total of over 200 captured in the campaign).  The am0unt of cotton captured reached 38,000 bales.  Not mentioned in the message, but often brought up in relation to the campaign, are the over 200 miles of railroad destroyed and an estimated $100 million in damage (in 1864 dollars).

These numbers are stark figures easily illustrating how Sherman’s campaign did much to topple the Confederacy (not the whole way, of course, as that would come in 1865, but the “teetering” was made acute).   And while I do not downplay the damage done, truth is that most of it was recoverable.  Within weeks, the railroad were running, somewhat.  Telegraph lines between Mobile and Richmond were working.  The cotton lost was value on the docks, and not cash in hand.  So another year’s crop could resolve the shortfall.  Perhaps the only items not “recuperated” were the cannons, as the Confederacy’s ability to manufacture such was limited.  Indeed, Georgia rebuilt… and faster than we often give credit.

However, there is something that changed forever in the wake of Sherman’s March.  If you study the Civil War, you should be acquainted with this map (and if not, shame on you!):

Looking specifically at Georgia, consider the general route of the march in relation to the density of slave populations:

MarchSlavery

Notice how the line of march (and I’ve included Liberty and McIntosh Counties here as those were affected for weeks after the fall of Savannah) crosses some of the counties with the densest slave populations.  In 1860, Georgia had over 460,000 slaves, constituting 44% of the state’s population.  Sherman estimated some 20,000 escaped slaves joined his column by the time it reached Savannah. That figure does not count those who, heeding Sherman’s advice, stayed at home.

There were, as mentioned, some problems with the followers.  And certainly such brought to the fore attitudes of some officers, as we consider events at Ebenezer Creek and other crossing points.  But on whole, the burden created by those following the columns was accepted by those in command – often utilized to the favor of military operations.  The pioneer corps formed from the freed blacks should be credited as an important force enabling the Federals to cross the low-country swamps with relative ease.   And the escaped slaves turned expert guides where the maps were lacking.

And let us also not steer away from Sherman’s personal opinion about the free slaves and in general their race.  But no matter how pointed that was, Sherman was an instrument of policy and complied with orders.  The excess animals from the march were turned over to Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton for use in the contraband camps setup on the barrier islands.  The “mule” in the “Forty acres and a mule” often came from those herds.  We can debate the failures of that program at another time.  But for the moment consider that any limited success of the project was also a function of Sherman’s march.

Sherman’s march, regardless of what its leader may or may not have desired, brought emancipation to a large swath of Georgia.  That, unlike the material damage brought by the Federals, could not be rolled back.  It is, I contend, the real lasting legacy of the march.

“Obliged to reduce the fire so as to almost entirely stop it”: End of focused bombardments of Fort Sumter

Warren Ripley, historian and newspaper writer who chronicled the history of the Charleston siege concurrent with the Centennial of the Civil War, considered September 18, 1864 as the last day of the last “minor” bombardment of Fort Sumter.  After that time, as Confederate engineer Captain John Johnson described, “No firing upon the fort but such as may be termed desultory occurred.…”

There are several reasons Federal forces ceased their focused bombardments of Fort Sumter.  Some historians have, with notable bias, the Federals simply “gave up” what was a futile effort to reduce the fort.  That was a factor, but not the major factor.  The Federals had demonstrated through three major bombardments the ability to suppress Fort Sumter’s defenders (for offensive or defensive fires).  But at the same time, through three major bombardments the Federals had also demonstrated a great reluctance to press the matter further – that is to actually occupy Fort Sumter.  Major-General John Foster, just as his predecessor Major-General Quincy Gilmore had assessed, believed the fort could be taken.  Recall the original plan, in July 1863, was to silence Fort Sumter so Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren might rush into the harbor with ironclads. That plan stalled as the Navy considered risks associated with torpedoes and obstructions.  So one might argue the major factor at play with Fort Sumter’s defense was the reluctance of the Federals expend the resources that would “damn torpedoes.”

With Fort Sumter, and Charleston for that matter, being lower on the overall list of Federal objectives, Foster received less resources through the summer of 1864.  In particular, with an active siege underway at Petersburg, Virginia, less ammunition could be spared for Charleston.  On September 19, Foster wrote to Brigadier-General George Ramsay, Chief of Ordnance, to complain:

I have the honor to inclose you extracts from a letter received this day from General Saxton, commanding Northern District, which I forward to you for your information. The representations made by General Saxton are confirmed by my personal observation, and I feel satisfied that the ammunition expended in this department is all turned to the best possible account. My object in calling your attention to this matter is to explain my reasons for making what may appear large requisitions for ordnance stores. We are about out of ammunition for the guns in the front batteries of Morris and Folly Islands, and have been obliged to reduce the fire so as to almost entirely stop it, thereby giving the enemy opportunities of repairing Sumter, which they have taken advantage of with great energy.

Enclosed with the letter, Foster added a statement from Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton, commanding the effort against Charleston, in which he demonstrated what the ammunition shortage meant to the front lines:

The shelling from the enemy’s mortars was severe this morning [September 16?] in our front works, and having but little mortar powder, we were unable to reply effectually. The mortars were very much needed to-day. I regret that our ordnance supplies are so scanty that I cannot make a decent defense of this important post. No powder for the mortars; no suitable fuses for the fire on Charleston; no shells for the 30-pounder Parrotts, a most useful gun for silencing the enemy’s fire; no material for making cartridge bags, or grease for lubricating the projectiles. I shall do all in my power with what I have, but these deficiencies in material, which are of such vital importance to successful operations, I deem it my duty to call your attention to the subject in the hope that they may be soon supplied. More ammunition for the 300-pounder, the most useful guns in these works, is also very much needed.

For perhaps the first time since the Federals landed on Morris Island, they could not dominate the surrounding area with the their heavy artillery.  Not because the Confederates had better weapons, but because they had to husband their fires.

Foster also mentioned the growing importance of long range musket fire in the “skirmishing” against Fort Sumter:

I also inclose you extracts from General Saxton’s letter concerning telescopic rifles. I think there is no place where from ten to fifty of these rifles could be used to better advantage than in the front works of Morris Island. I would respectfully suggest that from ten to fifty of these rifles be sent here.

Foster added a statement from Saxton, mentioning how Confederate sharpshooters delayed employment of the naval battery on Morris Island.

Desultory fires were, from then until February 1865, the extent of Federal efforts.  The war was still out there at the mouth of Charleston Harbor 150 years ago.  Just a lot less noisy than previous months.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 295-6.)

 

“The Yankees have done no work to-day… because of our sharpshooters”: A real skirmish at Fort Sumter

Most of the time, when I discuss the fighting around Charleston harbor during the Civil War, the actions involved very large caliber artillery – indeed the largest weapons of the war.  I have referred to it as skirmishing with Parrotts, columbiads, and mortars.  But on September 17, 1864, the “skirmishing” involved weapons most often seen on other battlefields – rifled muskets.

Two reports from Captain Thomas Huguenin point to the musketry exchanged between the opposing forces at the mouth of Charleston harbor that day.  The first came that morning:

Enemy keeps up a brisk fire with small-arms in answer to ours.

Then later at 6:40 p.m.:

The Yankees have done no work to-day at Gregg because of our sharpshooters.  Forty-four shots fired to-day at fort (18 missed), mostly from small rifle guns. No casualties.

On the Federal side, Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton reported:

Within the last two days the work on this battery (naval battery) has been greatly interfered with by a corps of sharpshooters which the enemy has stationed on Fort Sumter. The bullets came in very thick when I was at the front this morning.  I hope if there are any telescopic rifles in the department or any can be procured they may be sent to me at once. I think I can use them to great advantage.

Keep in mind the situation here. The heavy guns of Fort Sumter no longer faced Morris Island.  Two three gun batteries were built and partially armed.  But those were setup to fire on the channel and not Morris Island.  The only other artillery in the fort were mountain howitzers for defense against landing parties and the saluting gun.  So the Confederates had nothing at Sumter to contest the construction of new batteries.  And the long range fires from James and Sullivan’s Islands were not sufficiently accurate to seriously interfere with such work.  So the most important weapons in Fort Sumter at that time were small arms.  Recall the range from Fort Sumter to Morris Island was around 1400 to 1500 yards.  Long range indeed for small arms, but within the ballistic limits for such weapons – certainly for those equipped with telescopic sights.

On the Federal side, the biggest problem was a shortage of powder and shells.  One of the reasons for the naval battery was to employ guns for which the department could obtain more projectiles (from the Navy’s stocks).  But to get those XI-inch Dahlgrens in place, the work crews needed a break from those sharpshooters.

Consider the nature of the Federal fires, as reported by Huguenin.  The shells fired that day were mostly light Parrotts – 20-pdr or 30-pdr.  Those weapons were favored to counter Confederate fires.  Imagine them as large caliber “snipers” used by the Federal artillerists.  From many long months of firing on Fort Sumter, the Federal gunners had refined calculations so as to put their rounds on specific parts of the rubble pile – for instance where they’d seen evidence of a Confederate sharpshooter.

But those sharpshooters would often select positions on the flanks of the rubble pile so as to get a good angle against the Federal positions.  For the Parrott gunners firing at them, this posed a “point” target.  Such shots were at the mercy of winds or variations in powder.  That might explain why over a third of the shots missed.

For all the heavy guns at Charleston firing on a daily basis, the siege could and did fall down to a simple exchange of small arms fires.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, page 242; Part II, Serial 66, page 296.)