The Practical Demolition of Fort Sumter

The Federal bombardment of Fort Sumter and Batteries Wagner and Gregg in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, temporarily halted. The Confederates still held their defenses despite enduring an unprecedented artillery barrage. The garrisons at Forts Sumter, Moultrie, Ripley, and Johnson held firm, and the Confederate vessels C.S.S. Charleston, Chicora, and Palmetto State remained intact. Federal ships still could not enter Charleston Harbor, which was filled with obstructions such as piles, ropes, chains, and anchored torpedoes (i.e., mines).

By this time, the South Carolina summer began taking its toll on Federals unaccustomed to the draining heat and humidity. The most prominent officer to fall ill was Rear-Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. He wrote in his diary, “My debility increases, so that to-day it is an exertion to sit in a chair. I feel like lying down. My head is light. How strange–no pain, but it feels like gliding away to death.”

In the Stono River, several torpedoes exploded and barely missed destroying the U.S.S. Pawnee. Dahlgren responded by directing men to string nets across Stono Inlet to prevent torpedoes from floating downriver and threatening Federal vessels.

At Charleston, a Confederate officer announced that John Fraser & Company would offer a $100,000 reward to anyone who destroyed the ironclad U.S.S. New Ironsides or the wooden gunboat U.S.S. Wabash. On August 21, a Confederate torpedo boat led by Pilot James Carlin attempted to collect the purse by targeting the New Ironsides near Morris Island.

As Carlin approached, he turned his engines off so he could quietly drift up and detonate his torpedo beside the ship. However, the current placed his vessel alongside the New Ironsides instead. Carlin had trouble restarting the boat, and the Federals could not depress their guns low enough to fire on him. He finally got the boat started and hurried away, avoiding two Federal shots as he escaped.

On the 22nd, Dahlgren, believing the bombardment left Fort Sumter vulnerable, ordered a pre-dawn attack. However, the U.S.S. Passaic ran aground, and by the time she was freed, the sun had come up and the attack was called off. Dahlgren resumed his attack the next day, targeting both Forts Sumter and Moultrie. But a heavy fog rendered the Federals unable to cite their targets, and the ships withdrew.

By the time the Federals called a halt to their bombardment, they had fired 5,909 rounds at Fort Sumter, leaving it in ruins. Even a hurricane sweeping through Charleston in late August could not stop the Federal fire. Major-General Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding the Federal Department of the South, announced, “I have the honor to report the practical demolition of Fort Sumter as the result of our seven days’ bombardment of that work, including two days of which a powerful northeasterly storm most seriously diminished the accuracy and effect of our fire. Fort Sumter is today a shapeless and harmless mass of ruins.”

Fort Sumter in Ruins | Image Credit: Wikipedia

Ironically, in some ways the bombardment actually made Fort Sumter stronger. The destruction of parts of the fort’s upper tier left piles of rubble that gave the bottom tier even greater protection. General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Charleston defenses, sent his chief engineer, Colonel Jeremy Gilmer, to inspect the damage at Sumter and confer with the garrison commander, Colonel Alfred Rhett. Gilmer concluded that of the “very limited” heavy artillery, one gun was “capable of being fired with advantage,” while others were at a “disadvantage, in consequence of shattered condition of parapet.”

Rhett recommended only using the one effective gun, while another officer reported, “The offensive condition of the fort is nearly destroyed.” Rhett stated, “The eastern wall is much shattered by the fire of 7th of April, and has never been repaired.” It had “also been seriously damaged by fire from the land batteries on Morris Island.” Rhett guessed that any more than another three hours of bombardment “would destroy the integrity of the wall, if it did not bring it down.” Moreover, “The fort wall adjoining the pier of the upper magazine has been completely shot away, and I think a concentrated fire of two hours on the junction of the upper and lower magazines would render the magazine unsafe.” The north wall could sustain only “a few shots.”

Nevertheless, the Confederates reported, “We beg leave to state, that, in our opinion, it is not advisable to abandon the fort at this time. On the contrary, we think it should be held to the last extremity.” Beauregard reported, “Not a single gun remained in barbette, and but a single smooth-bore 32-pounder in the west face could be fired.” Beauregard removed all the functioning guns except one, but the defenders refused to surrender.

Two days later, Beauregard wrote, “Fort Sumter must be held to the last extremity, not surrendered until it becomes impossible to hold it longer without an unnecessary sacrifice of human life. Evacuation of the fort must not be contemplated one instant without positive orders from these headquarters.” He told President Jefferson Davis that Sumter, “even in ruins,” would be held, “if necessary, with musket and bayonet.” Davis approved, writing in response, “By using debris of fort, assisted by sand-bags, it is hoped effective guns can be maintained in position.”

By late August, Gillmore was satisfied with the damage he caused, but he was frustrated that he had not compelled any of the Confederate defenders at Fort Sumter or Batteries Wagner or Gregg to surrender. He needed Dahlgren’s help to capture Fort Sumter, but Dahlgren’s vessels could not navigate past the torpedoes in the harbor. Gillmore contemplated landing an infantry force to take Sumter, but this would do no good while Batteries Wagner and Gregg remained in Confederate hands.

Federal troops had slowly inched up Morris Island toward Wagner, but they had to be careful not to advance too far or else they would be vulnerable to Confederate cannon on James Island to the west. By the 25th, the closest Federal entrenchments were within 150 yards of Wagner’s outer rifle pits. Major Thomas Brooks directed an artillery barrage, followed by an infantry charge on the pits, but the infantry never got moving. Brooks later reported that the men “do not yet take much interest in the operations against Wagner.”

Gillmore planned another assault on the rifle pits the next day, with the troops strapping spades to their backs to dig stronger defenses after taking the Confederate embrasure. At 6 p.m., Federal artillery preceded the advance. The troops surged forward, quickly overtaking the 100 Confederates in the outer pits. This line of rifle pits became the Federals’ fifth trench line on Morris Island, putting them within 250 yards of Battery Wagner itself.

However, both sides were stalemated once more. The Federals on Morris Island could advance no further without severe losses, Wagner was impervious to bombardment, Confederates at Fort Sumter refused to surrender, and Dahlgren’s ships could not approach Sumter without removing the harbor torpedoes.

Near the end of August, Dahlgren finally directed his men to begin removing the torpedoes, but near-hurricane storms impeded their progress. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles asked Dahlgren to send him weekly reports and sketches of the damage Confederate artillery was doing to the Federal ironclads: “These reports and sketches are important to the Bureau and others concerned to enable them to understand correctly and provide promptly for repairing the damages; and frequently measures for improving the ironclads are suggested by them.”

By month’s end, Federal batteries on Morris Island continued their bombardment of Fort Sumter as Confederates at the fort began transferring their cannon to Charleston. Elsewhere in the harbor, Confederate batteries at Fort Moultrie accidentally sank the steamer C.S.S. Sumter after mistaking it for a Federal vessel.


  • Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
  • McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865. Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press (Kindle Edition), 2012.
  • Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.

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