Federal army and navy forces had been unable to capture Fort Sumter, the prime symbol of defiance in the South and of rebellion in the North. Federal gunners on Morris Island, south of the fort, concluded a six-day bombardment on October 3 after firing 560 rounds at their target. The Federal guns fell relatively silent for the next two weeks as the commanders pondered their next move.
Rear-Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the Federal South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, reported to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles that since his operations against Charleston had begun in July, his naval vessels had fired over 8,000 rounds and sustained over 900 hits. Dahlgren also told Welles that naval support to the Federal army force on Morris Island ensured that “its supplies were entirely covered; provisions, arms, cannon, ammunition… were landed as freely as if an enemy were not in sight, while by the same means the enemy was restricted to the least space and action…”
Despite this, the Federal high command continued to push for Dahlgren to lead his naval force into Charleston Harbor and capture the city. But the Confederates at Fort Sumter and other batteries, along with the vast number of obstructions and torpedoes in the harbor, prevented Dahlgren from doing so. Also, several ironclads needed repairs. Frustrated, Dahlgren told Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox that “the public demand for instantly proceeding into Charleston is so persistent that I would rather go in at all risks than stand the incessant abuse lavished on me.”
On the 22nd, Dahlgren met with his eight ironclad captains and two staff officers in a council of war. Dahlgren asked whether they should invade the harbor as soon as the ironclads were repaired or wait until new ironclads arrived in the winter. The officers voted six-to-four in favor of waiting. Welles indicated that he did not oppose waiting, telling Dahlgren, “While there is an intense feeling pervading the country in regard to the fate of Charleston, the Department is disinclined to have its only ironclad squadron incur extreme risks when the substantial advantages have already been gained.”
But Major-General Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding the Federal army forces on Morris Island, would not sit idle while waiting for Dahlgren’s help. From Cummings Point on the island’s northern tip, Gillmore opened a massive bombardment on Fort Sumter on the 26th, which would continue almost non-stop for the next 41 days. The bombardment did little damage since the fort’s walls were already almost completely crumbled.
Federal gunners hurled 625 rounds into Sumter on the 26th. The captain of the U.S.S. Patapsco reported that the fire was “hardly describable, throwing bricks and mortar, gun carriages and timber in every direction and high into the air.” By the end of October, the Federals had fired 2,961 rounds in the heaviest bombardment of the war. The Confederates held firm for the time being, but the artillery barrage continued into November.
- Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press (Kindle Edition), 1988.