August 17, 1863 – Federal heavy artillery opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, while Federal naval vessels began bombarding Battery Wagner on Morris Island to the south.
Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding the Federal Department of the South, had failed twice to capture Battery Wagner on Morris Island. He insisted that he needed more men to try again. Since no reinforcements were forthcoming, Gillmore instead resolved to bombard Wagner and the other Confederate embrasure on the island, Battery Gregg, as well as the symbol of the rebellion, Fort Sumter.
Gillmore had spent nearly a week positioning 11 heavy-caliber Parrott rifled guns on the southern part of Morris Island and test firing them. Once in place, Gillmore announced to his superiors, “I shall open on Sumter at daylight” on the 17th. The guns were ready to launch a bombardment on Fort Sumter, to the north, that was unprecedented in warfare.
The bombardment would be supported by Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren’s naval fleet, which consisted of the ironclads U.S.S. Catskill, Montauk, Nahant, New Ironsides, Passaic, Patapsco, and Weehawken; as well as the wooden gunboats U.S.S. Canandaigua, Cimarron, Dai Ching, Lodona, Mahaska, Ottawa, Seneca, and Wissahocken. Dahlgren’s gunboats would silence the Confederate guns at Batteries Wagner and Gregg.
A Parrott rifle fired a round at 5 a.m. on the 17th, signaling the start of the barrage. Soon every cannon joined in, with each battery targeting a different section of Fort Sumter. The artillerists mainly focused on the fort’s south-facing “gorge wall.”
Dahlgren moved his warships as close to shore as the tide could bring him to fire on Wagner and Gregg, using canister and shrapnel. All the ironclads joined in a concentrated fire at 8:30 a.m., forcing the Confederates into their bombproofs until the ships fell back around noon.
The Confederate defenders answered with sporadic fire that usually missed its targets. However, one shot from Fort Sumter struck the pilothouse of the Catskill and killed the ship’s paymaster and Dahlgren’s chief of staff, Captain George W. Rodgers.
Gillmore, who could not see the bombardment’s effect on Sumter from his vantage point, sent a message to Dahlgren at 1 p.m., “What do you think of this morning’s work?” Dahlgren responded, “Sumter seems greatly damaged.” Also, Wagner had been silenced, and if the Confederates returned to their guns, “the monitors will run up and silence her again.” The ironclads sporadically fired on Wagner throughout the rest of the day, but they did relatively little damage to the embrasure.
The Federal guns on Morris Island crumbled sections of Fort Sumter’s walls and disabled seven Confederate cannon. The Federals had fired 948 rounds at the fort, of which 445 struck the outer walls, 233 landed inside, and 270 missed. Remarkably, the Confederates sustained only 18 casualties (one killed and 17 wounded).
Despite such heavy punishment, the rubble and sand that the barrage produced at Fort Sumter actually formed a newer, stronger layer of protection for the defenders. Gillmore notified Dahlgren, “I propose the same programme for tomorrow that we had today.”
The bombardment of Fort Sumter and Batteries Wagner and Gregg continued for the next three days. On the 20th, the mayor of Charleston asked the Davis administration to transfer all South Carolina troops from the Army of Northern Virginia to “defend their native soil.” To most Confederates, states’ rights still took precedence over the central government, and things seemed desperate at Charleston.
As the bombardment entered its fifth day, the Federals had fired 4,500 rounds at the fort, with over 2,000 hitting the walls and another 1,350 landing inside. Colonel Alfred Rhett, commanding the Fort Sumter garrison, stated, “The gorge face has been much battered, and the greater portion of it has fallen.”
Rhett reported the “northwest scarp wall penetrated at seven upper and five lowered casemates; breaches 8 by 10 (feet) and 6 by 8 through two of them. Stairway at salient demolished; only two traverse circles of barbette battery, northeast face, in good condition; east barracks badly damaged.”
General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederate defenses at Charleston, inspected Fort Sumter that day. He informed Richmond that the Federal bombardment was “still progressing rapidly from land batteries. Fort will ere long become ineffective.” However, he added that Sumter “will be held… as long as practicable.”
Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 191; Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 130; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 317; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 340-41; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 398