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.)

“Sustained with mortars and the occasional service of the 300-pounder rifle”: Fort Sumter’s seventh minor bombardment

Throughout the spring of 1864, Federal batteries on Morris Island maintained pressure on Fort Sumter with occasional shots.  These were aimed to prevent Confederate improvements, while at the same time to remind those in Charleston of the ever present threat.  Even one battalion in Fort Sumter was one less in Virginia.  Furthermore, keeping one battalion in the fort required resources that would otherwise be spent elsewhere.

On May 30, the Federals picked up the tempo of bombardment for a few days.  Major-General John Foster, new commander of the Department of the South, began testing the lines, so to speak.  One might say there was a bit of irony at play – in April 1861, Foster was the chief engineer worried about damage from Confederate batteries on Morris Island; now he was commanding Federal batteries on that island pounding Fort Sumter’s rubble.

But these activities were monotonous to say the least, though still very deadly. Chronicler of the siege, Major John Johnson, later wrote of the period starting on May 30:

During the next six or seven days the firing upon Fort Sumter was increased to the extent another minor bombardment – the seventh – being sustained with mortars and the occasional service of the 300-pounder rifle from May 30 to June 5th.  Four casualties occurred, but the fort suffered no damage.

In Fort Sumter, Captain John C. Mitchel recorded the hits and misses:

  • May 30 to June 1 – 55 mortar shells fired, with 41 hits; two Parrott shells, with one hit.
  • June 2 – 39 mortar shells fired, with only 14 hits; four Parrott shells fired, with three hits (one by a 300-pdr which dismounted a howitzer in the fort).
  • June 2 (night) – Eleven Parrott shells fired, with seven hits.
  • June 4 – 23 mortar shells with 13 hits.
  • June 4 (night) – 37 mortar shells, with only 14 hits.

The Federal batteries lay quiet on June 5, but resumed with five Parrott shells on June 6.  Skipping a day, the Federals fired four Parrott shells at the fort on June 8.  This bombardment, with somewhere close to 200 shells of large caliber (the by-day tally above is not complete, unfortunately), was negligible compared to the heavy bombardments of the previous fall.  But the war was still there outside Charleston, every day and every night.

During the bombardment on June 2, one of the Federal 300-pdr shells broke through a casemate and dismounted a 24-pdr flank howitzer in the fort.  A defensive weapon placed to counter Federal landing parties, the howitzer was important to the defense of the fort.  Having no replacement carriage, Mitchel immediately requested one from Fort Moultrie.  The injury, though, was slight. This does, however, run contrary to Johnson’s assessment of no damage to the fort.

The four casualties mentioned by Johnson are worthy of further discussion.  Not a single Confederate solider was injured in this bombardment.  None.  All four casualties – recorded as wounded – were negro workers. The most exposed work in the fort was done by the impressed or contracted laborers.

However, the most significant report from the fort during those days did not involve the bombardment.  On June 6, Mitchel noted, “The Ironsides has moved out over the bar, and lies now about 6 miles off.”  For well over a year, the USS New Ironsides was the nucleus of the ironclad squadron standing in the channel off Morris Island.  Her presence loomed as a mailed fist at the entrance to Charleston harbor.  The Confederate counter-ironclad efforts focused on this capital ship, and included torpedo boat attacks.  But the wear of operations and cumulative effects of combat damage left the ship in need of a refit.  The New Ironsides was heading north to Philadelphia and would be out of service for several months.  Her departure signaled the Confederates that no further naval attacks were planned or contemplated at Charleston.

(Citation from John Johnson, The Defense of Charleston Harbor: Including Fort Sumter and the Adjacent Islands, 1863-1865, Walker, Evans & Cogswell Company, 1890, page 214; Mitchel’s reports are from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, pages 2)

Repairing Monitors at Port Royal

On November 30, 1863, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren provided a status report to the Navy Department covering the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron’s activities at the close of the month.  A substantial portion of that report – two paragraphs out of a total of seven – centered upon repairs to the ironclads of the squadron.In addition, Dahlgren also alluded to repairs needed on the USS New Ironsides.  After five continuous months of activity around Charleston, including several sustained engagements with shore batteries, the ironclads were showing from wear and damage.

The value of Port Royal with its secure harbor came into play here.  During operations at Charleston, the squadron established a rotation by which monitors were serviced and repaired at Port Royal.  Dahlgren’s report mentioned ships going through those rotations at the end of November:

The Patapsco and Catskill are not yet finished, but soon will be; the Lehigh has gone down to Port Royal to have some damages by shot repaired, the bottom cleaned, and a new 8-inch rifle, the present one having been expended on Sumter.  It is not yet reported whether the leak that occurred lately was caused by shot or not.

Recall the USS Lehigh suffered damage while aground on November 15 and sitting under the Confederate guns the next day.  The USS Patapsco was a frequent visitor to Port Royal, it would seem.  She’d been in port for servicing through the last half of September.   Then the ironclad returned briefly after her Parrott rifle cracked and fouling had accumulated on her hull.    And now again, she was in Port Royal.  Clearly the barnacles and oysters liked the Patapsco. A report from Patrick Hughes, inspector and supervisor of the operations, described the fouling in response to inquiries in a report dated December 4:

The bottom of the monitors is covered with a thick coating of oyster shells and grass.  The grass grows to a considerable length; I have a sample here of what came off the bottom of the Catskill.  It seems to be grass coralized.  It resembles strong brook corn, and is 12 inches long.

This growth on the hulls slowed the already sedate monitors – in some cases to half the designed speed. One way to clean the accumulated sea-life off the monitors was to beach them. Hughes described that operation in his December 4 response:

The monitors are put broadside on the beach without any shoring.  When the monitors are properly beached there is no danger whatever of straining any part of the vessel or having any injurious effect on machinery or turret.

The flat bottom of the monitors allowed the breaching, in broadside.  But Hughes continued on to state there were risks involved with beaching a monitor.

The Catskill lay on the beach in a very bad position for one tide.  She lay stern on, and there was a difference of 8 feet of water between bow and stern.

While she lay in this position some parts of the machinery had to be unfastened, and there was a perceptible alteration in the fire-room floor plates.  When she floated the parts went back to their places.  The vessel does not appear to have sustained any injury.

A report from Hughes posted on November 29 offers mentions additional hazards of such beaching operations:

In my report of the 22d instant I informed you that the Catskill came off the beach that morning, and I expected she would leave here in a few days.

This vessel went on the beach again that same evening and remained there until the morning of the 28th instant, getting off at 10 o’clock.  In trying to get the vessel off on the morning of the 27th they carried away the anchor gear, breaking one tooth in each of the pinion wheels and bending the shaft. It will take three days to repair.  On the morning of the 28th instant one of the towboats struck the plating on the bow and started the fastenings, breaking some of the blunt boltheads off.  To fasten this plating properly it will take about three days.  I will have all the damages to this vessel repaired by Thursday morning, December 3.

And while beaching allowed workers access to the sides of the ship, particularly to address damage to the armor plating, the position did not allow workers to clean the bottoms.  For that, the Navy employed divers.  And those were best, and safely, used at Port Royal’s quiet waters.

Hughes wanted to apply zinc paint to the undersides of the monitors to prevent the encrustation.  But when applied while beached, tidal actions prevented the paint from drying.  Clearly a proper dry-dock facility was needed.  And Port Royal had none.

Unlike the monitors, the New Ironsides could not be beached at Port Royal.  Normal wear in addition to damage sustained from Confederate guns and the spar torpedo attack had tested seams, planking, and cross beams.  The ship’s carpenter reported, “The spar deck, gun and berth decks leak so badly that it is necessary to calk them fore and aft.” Captain Stephen Rowan estimated the repairs required three weeks attention at Port Royal.  He also forwarded a requisition for 3,000 sand bags, as existing sandbags on deck had to be removed for the calking.

While the refit activities at Port Royal were sufficient to sustain the ironclads, the port lacked the shipyard facilities needed to fully repair and improve the ships.  One does wonder, given the frequency of such refits, if photograph, even grainy, exists somewhere of a monitor laying upon the South Carolina beach.

(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 142-3, 145, and 151-2.)



150 Years Ago: The siege lines reach Battery Wagner

Starting his journal entry for September 6, 1863, Major Thomas Brooks wrote:

The sap is progressing to-day. One branch is to pass to the left and the other to the right of the bastion of the fort, thus enveloping it.

To-day, as yesterday, men are constantly exposing themselves above the parapets without drawing any fire from the enemy. Indeed, in the extreme front, there is no danger excepting from our own fire. Fragments of our own shell fly back to our trench, in one case inflicting a severe wound. The fort is as silent as a natural sand bank, which, indeed, it much resembles. All the outside revetments of the work, its lines and surfaces, are destroyed by our fire. It looms over the head of the sap, a huge, shapeless sand bluff.

At last, the trench lines traversed the final yards to Battery Wagner.  On the map, those last few trench lines enveloped the sea-side bastion of the battery.


As Brooks described, the left branch of the trenches reached out towards the land face of the bastion.  The other branch ran along the beach.  A photo staged after the siege depicts the final advances of the sap through these last few yards:


And that is Battery Wagner’s bastion in the distance to the right.

To cover the advance trenches the engineers laid out a Billinghurst-Requa position in the boyaux dug the previous day along the beach.  This would be the last of the numerous positions built for those proto-machine guns during the siege.  Another improvement was to widen the forward trenches to allow massing of troops for the planned assault on the battery.

The USS New Ironsides continued to fire on Battery Wagner despite the proximity of the lines.  To give the Navy a marker, the engineers placed a U.S. flag at the head of the sap.  Brooks  offered an up-close description of the fire effects on the fort:

Standing between the fires, and within a few yards of the point of striking, the opportunity to observe the effect, in the sand, of these huge shells from the smooth-bore guns of the navy and the rifles of the army was perfect. The ricochet of the former was uniform, and landed nearly every one in the fort. That of the latter was irregular; most of them exploded when they struck, throwing up a great quantity of sand, which falls back in its place; hence inflicting no injury save what may come from the heavy jar.

Although the trenches had moved past most of the torpedoes, at least one remained to cause harm.  Lieutenant Patrick McGuire reported one engineer killed and three infantry wounded by a torpedo explosion.

As the Federals reached the ditch in front of Battery Wagner, they encountered a new obstacle.  Captain Joseph Walker reported the presence of stakes and boarding-pikes.  The later requisitioned from Charleston’s supply of antiquated weapons at the start of the siege. He cleared a few hundred of these out of the counterscarp of the ditch.  By 10 p.m. Walker was in the ditch, taking observations to aid the storming party scheduled for the early morning hours of September 7.

But, before we get too far ahead, there was a plot twist to this last act in the long play on Morris Island.

Photo credit: Hagley Museum and Library collection of Haas & Peale photographs, ID Number 71MSS918_039.tif.

(Citation from OR Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 300-302.)

Sweeping the ground between Batteries Wagner and Gregg: The Navy off Morris Island

I’ve neglected the Navy’s contribution to the Morris Island Campaign, and it’s time I resolved that! What makes the campaign a great study in joint operations is the high operational tempo shared by both Army and Navy. I’ve posted several thousand words about the Army’s activities on land. And the Navy, blue water navy that is, was no less active at sea.

During the days immediately following the July 18, 1863 assault, the ironclads and gunboats of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, under Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren, provided a shield while the engineers completed the first and second parallels. Through the last weeks of July and into early August, the squadron’s activities were somewhat repetitive – move up the main channel in the morning, fire upon selected targets around the mouth of the harbor but in particular Battery Wagner, retire that evening.

USS New Ironsides

For example, on July 24 the ironclads USS New Ironsides, USS Weehawken, USS Montauk, USS Catskill, USS Nantucket, and USS Patapsco, along with the wooden gunboats USS Paul Jones, USS Seneca, USS Ottawa, and USS Dai Ching sortied up the channel to cover construction on the second parallel. The Weehawken, New Ironsides, Montauk, and Patapsco moved up within 1,500 yards of Battery Wagner by 5:45 a.m., and began firing on the Confederates. The Nantucket and Catskill held a few hundred yards further back. And the wooden gunboats lay further back out of respect for the Sullivan’s Island batteries. The ships exchanged fire with Fort Sumter and Batteries Wagner and Gregg throughout the day, with the occasional shot coming from the Sullivan’s Island side. The bombardment kept pressure on Wagner until dusk, when the Navy retired to their anchorage. Just to give a measure of relation between the Federal parallels, Confederates works, and the positions of the ships, the map below depicts, generally, the stations of the bombarding squadron:


Reporting to Washington, Dahlgren summed up the action:

Yesterday I went up with the ironclads and opened a heavy fire on Fort Wagner, in order to prevent a sortie upon some new works which General Gillmore had pushed within 600 yards of the fort. The [wooden] gunboats assisted at long range; the firing was good and frequently excellent. The firing of Fort Wagner was soon silenced, and the garrison driven to shelter, so that in the course of the morning our new batteries were partially armed. The fire was interrupted by a flag of truce, borne by a steamer having on board some of our wounded who had been taken prisoners at various times. General Gillmore tells me that his advanced position is now secured.

All told, the Navy fired nearly 1000 projectiles that day. The logs recorded six hits by the Confederate guns. I would say the details recorded for this and other bombardments during the campaign were not up to the standard set for the April 7 attack. I suppose when thousands of rounds per day are raining down, neither side has time for meticulous score-keeping. And bombardment sorties, like that of July 24, were daily occurrences through the middle of August. Although that of July 24 was one of the larger in terms of ships involved.

USS Paul Jones

In a report to the Navy Department, on July 30, Dahlgren elaborated on the somewhat static state of affairs, and alluded to additional support provided by the navy:

The position of affairs is not materially changed since the date of my last dispatch (July 25), except that our advanced batteries (600 yards from Wagner) are in operation and will receive frequent additions to its armament. I have contributed four rifle cannon with a detachment of seamen (say 120), under Captain Parker, and will land more when I have the men to spare.

Every day two or three of the ironclads join in and sweep the ground between Wagner and Cumming’s Point, or else fire directly into Wagner, the only objection to which is that it is drawing largely on the endurance of our cannon. However, I have no doubt the Bureau of Ordnance will enable me to meet this difficulty.

I will detail the Naval Battery in the second parallel in a future post. That work contained two 70-pdr Whitworth and two 8-inch Parrott rifles.

Dahlgren continued with mention of the need to retain ships picketing the Stono River. Additionally, rumors that an ironclad might break out of Savannah forced him to retain two monitors and supporting gunboats on that station. Dahlgren went on to assure authorities in Washington the ironclads were holding their own in the face of enemy fire:

The turrets received a shot occasionally with the usual result, and the Ironsides has been struck repeatedly with X-inch shot (1,200 to 1,400 yards) without material impression. A shot from Fort Sumter in passing the spar deck glanced from the edge of it and by the concussion damaged the beam below, with knees connecting. If the dept of water would only permit her to approach, I would sweep the ground clean with her powerful broadside.

Before closing, Dahlgren requested support in the form of a rather high-tech non-lethal device:

There are many little things that would aid me here. For instance, the electric light which Professor Way exhibited here, and which Professor Henry (Smithsonian Institution) knows of; it would either illuminate at night, if needed, or would serve to signal, the eclipse of its flame being perfect…

The spotlight would not pan out as planned, but the suggestion foreshadowed the use of such powerful lights on the battlefield in the 20th century.

Dahlgren also requested iron boats for scouting at night. Not mentioned in the report, he had already used ships boats to picket offshore Morris Island in response to rumors about Confederate assaults on the parallels. On July 25, he detailed six boats, armed with howitzers, to stand ready offshore. As operations continued, similarly armed boats were picketed in the channel at night.

Federal activities around Morris Island through the first week of August was properly an Army-Navy operation.

(Citations from Naval OR, Series I, Volume 14, pages 391 and 409-10. Details of the July 24 bombardment from abstract of logs pages 393-5.)

150 Years Ago: The Ironclads Attack! The war returns to Fort Sumter

In April 1861, a bombardment of Fort Sumter ignited the Civil War.  The Confederates fired several thousand rounds, but only achieved a two foot deep penetration of the walls – far from a breech.  Fires set off inside the fort ultimately did more damage.

In April 1862, the Federals bombarded Fort Pulaski, along the Savannah River in Georgia, sending over three thousand rounds at that fort. Concentrated and accurate fires – thanks to the use of rifled breeching batteries – breeched the fort at a vulnerable salient.  Masonry fortifications were vulnerable.

One-hundred and fifty years ago today (April 7, 1863), the U.S. Navy pitted ironclads with heavy caliber guns (and a few rifles) against Fort Sumter.   War had returned to Fort Sumter.  And for the third year in a row, advanced technology tested masonry fortifications.

Today I am going to try something new for my blogging experience.  The focus for today is simply to account for the actions – an embellished timeline if you will.  Analysis to follow over the next few days (weeks?).  But I’m going to span a rather broad story over two blog posts on two blogs.  I’ve posted the naval side of the story on the Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial site (and also invite you to read Andy’s posting of a first hand account of the battle at his site).  I’ll host that of the Confederate army here.

General P.G.T. Beauregard received reports of the ironclads’ presence on April 5.  Immediately, he alerted Savannah to have its mobile column to move by way of railroad to reinforce Charleston.  Beauregard also issued General Orders No. 53 – a lengthy order that was both inspirational and directive.  Anxiously the Confederates watched the much anticipated attack unfold.  Reports of troops landing on Folly Island and gunboats probing the Stono River and Lighthouse Inlet seemed to confirm what Beauregard predicted months earlier.  Observers’ reports indicated April 7 dawned with a heavy haze, which cleared as the day went on.  Among the flurry of dispatches, Beauregard mentioned last minute preparations.   He expressed concern about the “alligator” attached to the Federal ironclads which was clearly intended to clear the harbor obstructions.  He also urged commanders to conceal the buoys used to mark the range of guns.

At around 2 p.m. on April 7, observers on Morris Island, Fort Sumter, and Sullivan’s Island reported the advance of the ironclad fleet up the main ship channel.


As the ironclads slowly worked up the channel, the Confederates called the long roll and manned the guns.  The first “shots” of the battle were actually at 2:35 p.m. when the garrison of Fort Sumter fired a thirteen gun salute.

Recall again that on Morris Island, only Battery Wagner and the Cummings Point Battery contained heavy guns.  Due to the range to the ship channel, weak armament, and other factors, it was Fort Moultrie which would open the action.  At around 2:50 p.m. (near abouts),   Colonel William Butler received permission to open fire at the extreme range of his guns. The shots were inaccurate, and the decision was made to suspend firing until the range closed.  Shortly after 3 p.m., gunners at Fort Sumter joined in at a range of 1,400 yards.  Fort Moultrie resumed firing at that point.  And at ten after the hour, Battery Bee added the weight of its guns.  Battery Beauregard and Cummings Point Battery soon joined the fray, completing the cross-fire that covered the entrance to Charleston Harbor.  Seventy-six guns now focused on the Federal ironclads.

The Confederate accounts of action stress that firing was “by battery.”  So instead of an intermittent rain of projectiles, the gunners aimed and timed fires to focus on specific targets.  Brigadier General J.H. Trapier reported:

It soon became obvious that the enemy’s intention was to fight and not to run by, and orders were given to “train” on vessels nearest in and to fire by battery.  Volley after volley was delivered in this way, but although it was plain that our shot repeatedly took effect – their impact against the iron casing of the enemy being distinctly heard and seen – yet we could not discover but that the foe was indeed invulnerable.

At Fort Sumter, Colonel Alfred Rhett’s gunners were similarly concentrating on targets:

At three minutes past 3 p.m. the leading vessel having approached to within about 1,400 yards of the fort she fired two shots simultaneously, one a 15-inch shrapnel, which burst; both passed over the fort. The batteries were opened upon her two minutes later, the firing being by battery. The action now became general, and the four leading monitors taking position from 1,300 to 1,400 yards distant, the fire was changed from fire by battery to fire by piece, as being more accurate. The fire by battery was again resumed as occasion offered. The Ironsides did not approach nearer than 1,700 yards. The whole fire of the batteries engaged was concentrated on the Passaic for thirty minutes, when she withdrew from the engagement, apparently injured. The other ships each in its turn received our attention. The fire of both Fort Moultrie and this fort being now directed against the Ironsides she immediately withdrew out of effective range.

However, Major C.K. Huger at Battery Wagner lamented his guns lacked the range to exert much influence on the battle.  “The guns of this battery were of too light a caliber to be of much service, but those at Cummings Point, under the immediate command of Lieutenant Lesesne, of First [South Carolina Heavy] Artillery, were much heavier, and the firing was particularly good.

As the USS Weehawken, leading the column of ironclads, reached the mouth of the harbor, it slowed both to direct fire at Fort Sumter and to allow an assessment of the obstructions ahead.  The Confederate engineers then triggered one of many torpedoes set in the channel.  Although throwing up lots of water, the monitor was unaffected.  (I’ve noted the general location of that torpedo on the map above, though I must confess that is more a guess than specific.)

Although receiving much attention from the Confederate gunners, the USS New Ironsides did not close the range.  The deep draft ironclad did not handle well in the ship channel and anchored to best utilize its heavy broadside upon Fort Sumter.  However, the selected spot just happened to be over this “infernal machine”:


Days before the attack, Confederates laid a “big torpedo” in the main ship channel.  This consisted of 3,000 pounds of powder in a boiler.  Attached to a frame and anchored at four corners, the total weight of the weapon was 20,000 pounds. This torpedo lay “about a mile off Fort Sumter and half a mile opposite Fort Wagner.”   (The location is depicted on the map above.)


Confederate engineers frantically tried to trigger the torpedo.  But it didn’t fire.  They watched in vain as the New Ironsides drifted away from the torpedo, all the while oblivious to the danger.  The reason for the misfire was discovered later – the cables to the torpedo were too long and thus the electricity attenuated as noted in a survey report from May:

The torpedo was successfully sunk on the spot located by General Ripley, but while running the cable the steamer (Chesterfield) ran out of steam, and, unable to hold against the tide and wind, went aground near Fort Sumter. On the increase of the flood we had to run back a long circuit reach Cummings Point and land the cable. It resulted from this accident that we played out 2 miles of cable, instead of 1, as expected.

But if the New Ironsides escaped the torpedo, the USS Keokuk was fated for calamity.  As the ironclad line shook out to avoid the New Ironsides, the Keokuk pulled up from the rear of the line.  From Fort Sumter, Colonel Rhett observed,

At five minutes past 4 p.m. the Keokuk left her consorts and advanced bow on gallantly to within 900 yards of our batteries. She received our undivided attention, and the effect of our fire was soon apparent. The wrought-iron bolts from 7-inch Brooke gun were plainly seen to penetrate her turret and hull, and she retired in forty minutes, riddled and apparently almost disabled.

The proximity of the Keokuk to Fort Sumter also drew fire from Sullivan’s Island.  Gunners at Fort Moultrie and Batteries Bee and Beauregard joined in.  Observers witnessed 10-inch shot from the columbiads and 7-inch bolts from the Brookes crash through the armor.

From the Confederate perspective, the Federals disengaged at 5:25 p.m. and worked back out the channel.  The crippled Keokuk came aground off Morris Island, and the crew rescued (The location is annotated on the map above).  On the Confederate side, there were three killed and eleven wounded.  The deaths and five wounded were result of an accidental ammunition explosion at Battery Wagner, and not from Federal fire.  The defenders of Charleston fired 2,229 projectiles, using 21,093 pounds of powder during the tw0 hour and thirty minute engagement.  In return, the Confederates counted fifty-five hits on Fort Sumter.

The defenders of Charleston had repelled the ironclads.  But the threat still loomed over the channels. The other half of Beauregard’s prediction – Federal landings on Morris Island – had not occurred.  Worse yet, the expenditure of ammunition left the defenders in a precarious position should the ironclads return.  The months to follow would see what neither side wanted – a protracted siege outside Charleston tying down resources at a critical juncture in the war.

There’s much to analyze about the ironclad attack.  It is one of the few engagements in which we have practically a “shot by shot” accounting.  Reports on both sides are rich with details.  But to avoid lengthening this already long post into a book length survey, I’ll save discussion of those details for the next few days and weeks.



OR, Series I, Volume 14, Serial 20 – Official Confederate reports of the action are in pages 240-78.  Dispatches and correspondence appear in pages 880-90.  Report of the torpedoes is on pages 948-52.

ORN, Series I, Volume 14, pages 3-112.

Browning, Robert M. Success is All That Was Expected. Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s Inc., 2002.

Burton, E. Milby. The Siege of Charleston, 1861-1865. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1970.