The Swamp Angel Terrorizes Charleston

By August 21, the Federal guns on Morris Island, South Carolina, and the Federal gunboats offshore had been bombarding Fort Sumter and Batteries Wagner and Gregg for four days. Large portions of Sumter, in Charleston Harbor north of Morris Island, had been reduced to rubble, but the defenders showed no signs of giving up. Confederate defenses remained strong at Wagner and Gregg, on the northern section of Morris Island, as well.

As the bombardment entered its fifth day, construction of a new Federal battery was completed in the marshes between Morris and James islands. This featured the “Swamp Angel,” an eight-inch Parrott rifle launching 200-pound incendiary shells capable of reaching Charleston itself, about four and a half miles away. Placement of this destructive new weapon took nearly three weeks.

Before unleashing the Swamp Angel, Major-General Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding the Federal Department of the South, sent a message to General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Charleston defenses, demanding “the immediate evacuation of Morris Island and Fort Sumter.” Gillmore warned that “all my heaviest guns have not yet opened,” even though Sumter was already almost completely destroyed.

If Beauregard refused, “I shall open fire on the city of Charleston from batteries already established within easy and effective range of the heart of the city.” Gillmore concluded, “Should you refuse compliance, or should I receive no reply within four hours, I shall open fire on the city of Charleston.”

Generals P.G.T. Beauregard and Q.A. Gillmore | Image Credit: Wikipedia

Gillmore’s demand arrived at Beauregard’s Charleston headquarters at 10:45 p.m. Beauregard was inspecting the damage at Fort Sumter and did not receive the message before the four-hour deadline expired. Gillmore directed the Swamp Angel to open fire at 1:30 a.m. on the 22nd.

The first round landed in the city, prompting the ringing of church bells and alarm whistles. Federal gunners fired another 15 rounds, 12 of which were filled with “Greek fire,” an unstable explosive which ignited the shells upon impact. The Federals used St. Michael’s Church as their principal target, but the steeple withstood several direct hits. The Swamp Angel caused little damage other than burning one house and sending residents fleeing out of range. However, it quickly became an effective weapon of terror.

At dawn, Beauregard rejected Gillmore’s surrender demand and protested the firing of “a number of heavy rifled shells into the city, the inhabitants of which, of course, were asleep and unarmed.” Beauregard condemned Gillmore for waging war against innocent civilians:

“Among nations not barbarous the usages of war prescribe that when a city is about to be attacked timely notice shall be given by the attacking commander, in order that non-combatants may have an opportunity for withdrawing beyond its limits. Generally the time allowed is from one to three days; that is, time for a withdrawal, in good faith, of at least the women and children. You, sir, give only four hours, knowing that your notice, under existing circumstances, could not reach me in less than two hours, and that not less than the same time would be required for an answer to be conveyed from this city to Battery Wagner. With this knowledge, you threaten to open fire on the city, not to oblige its surrender, but to force me to evacuate these works, which you, assisted by great naval force, have been attacking in vain for more than 40 days.

“It would appear, sir, that, despairing of reducing these works, you now resort to the novel measure of turning your guns against the old men, the women and children, and the hospitals of a sleeping city; an act of inexcusable barbarity from your own confessed point of sight, inasmuch as you allege that the complete demolition of Fort Sumter within a few hours by your guns seems to you a matter of certainty; and your omission to attach your signature to such a grave paper must show the recklessness of the course upon which you have adventured, while the fact that you knowingly fixed a limit for receiving an answer to your demand, which made it almost beyond the possibility of receiving any reply within that time, and that you actually did open fire and threw a number of the most destructive missiles ever used in war into the midst of a city taken unawares, and filled with sleeping women and children, will give you a bad eminence in history–even in the history of this war.”

On the morning of the 23rd, the British consul in Charleston went to Gillmore’s headquarters to officially protest the use of such a harsh weapon on a civilian population. Gillmore refused to meet him. The Spanish consul protested as well, but the bombardment continued as the war entered a new, more brutal phase, with civilians now becoming legitimate targets.

The issue resolved itself later that night, when the Swamp Angel exploded after firing its 36th round, “blowing out the entire breach in rear of the vent.” Six shells had exploded in the gun before being fired, which weakened its tubing. Federals buried the Swamp Angel in sandbags, and the bombardment of Charleston ended for the time being. Gillmore reported, “No military results of great value were ever expected from this firing. As an experiment … the results were not only highly interesting and novel, but very instructive.”

Nevertheless, five days of bombarding Fort Sumter, Batteries Wagner and Gregg, and Charleston produced three innovations in warfare: the heaviest rifled shells ever used, employment of calcium lights to conduct nighttime operations, and the Swamp Angel.


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