Federal forces had finally taken Morris Island in Charleston Harbor, but they had not been able to capture the symbolic Fort Sumter, north of the island. The Confederates at Sumter had prevented the Federals from clearing the torpedoes (i.e., mines) and obstructions from the harbor. The Federals positioned mortars and rifled cannon on Morris Island and, coupled with the gunboats blockading the harbor, tried to bombard Sumter into submission.
November opened with the Federals firing 786 rounds into the fort. The next day, President Jefferson Davis arrived at Charleston as part of his southern tour. A delegation of military officers and city officials welcomed Davis as he came off the train. This included General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederate defenses in the city, despite his strained relationship with Davis. It also included Colonel Robert B. Rhett, whose Charleston Mercury had been highly critical of Davis’s policies.
According to a correspondent of the Charleston Courier, as Davis rode from the train station to city hall, “The streets along the line of procession were thronged with people anxious to get a look at the President. The men cheered and the ladies waved their handkerchiefs in token of recognition.”
Davis delivered a speech from the portico of city hall, where he recalled that his last visit to Charleston had been to attend the funeral of legendary statesman John C. Calhoun 13 years ago. Davis announced, “He who would attempt to promote his own personal ends; he who is not willing to take a musket and fight in the ranks, is not worthy of the Confederate liberty for which we are fighting.”
Noting the Federal bombardment that could be heard in Charleston Harbor, Davis said that although the city “was now singled out as a particular point of hatred to the Yankees,” he “did not believe Charleston would ever be taken.” Rather than surrender the city, Davis preferred that the “whole be left one mass of rubbish.” As Davis spoke, the Federals launched another 793 rounds into Fort Sumter.
City officials held a reception for Davis in the council chamber, where attendees noticed that Davis said nothing positive about Beauregard’s efforts to defend Charleston. Beauregard did not attend a dinner held in Davis’s honor at the home of former Governor William Aiken that night, explaining that he had a strictly official relationship with the president.
That night, Lieutenant-Commander Greenleaf Cilley of the U.S.S. Catskill observed Confederate movements in the harbor that indicated a potential Confederate counterattack:
“Two boats under sail were seen moving from Sumter towards Sullivan’s Island. About 11 p.m. a balloon with two lights attached rose from Sumter and floated towards Fort Johnson… At midnight a steamer left Sumter and moved towards Fort Johnson. At sunrise… observed the three rams and the side-wheel steamer anchored in line of battle ahead from Johnson towards Charleston, and each with its torpedo topped up forward of the bows.”
Federal artillerists fired another 661 rounds into Fort Sumter on the 3rd. Rear-Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the Federal naval forces, watched the bombardment from his flagship and said that he “could plainly observe the further effects of the firing; still, this mass of ruin is capable of harboring a number of the enemy, who may retain their hold until expelled by the bayonet…”
Davis left the next day after inspecting the Confederate defenses on James Island and the batteries close to Charleston. The Federal bombardment of Fort Sumter continued, with Dahlgren reporting on the 5th, “The only original feature (of the fort) left is the northeast face, the rest is a pile of rubbish.”
As Davis arrived at Wilmington, North Carolina, on the 6th, Dahlgren began using a new kind of torpedo to remove obstructions from Charleston Harbor. The device, invented by John Ericsson, held 600 pounds of explosives in a cast-iron shell about 23 feet long and 10 inches wide. It was attached to the bow of the U.S.S. Patapsco and suspended by two long booms. The torpedo proved ineffective because it interfered with the ship’s movements, and the explosion sprayed water onto the deck. Dahlgren returned the device to Ericsson for refinement.
By the 10th, Davis was back at Richmond and Dahlgren reported that his squadron had fired 9,036 rounds into Sumter over the past two weeks; in the span between the 7th and the 10th, the Federals hurled 1,753 rounds into the fort. The Confederates, having suffered minimal casualties during the bombardment, still refused to surrender.
The Federals began a new artillery barrage of Sumter on the 12th, launching another 2,328 rounds over the next three days. On the night of the 15th, the Confederate batteries at Fort Moultrie responded by firing on the Federal guns at Cummings Point, on the northern tip of Morris Island. Dahlgren notified his squadron commanders to keep a close watch on Cummings Point in case the Confederates decided to land and attack the Federal batteries there.
The U.S.S. Lehigh ran aground while patrolling Cummings Point, and the Confederates opened fire on her at dawn on the 16th. Crewmen from the U.S.S. Nahant attached a line to the Lehigh under heavy fire to tow her off the bar. The Lehigh was rescued, and Landsmen Frank S. Gile and William Williams, Gunner’s Mate George W. Leland, and Coxswain Thomas Irving were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for their participation in the rescue.
Meanwhile, Beauregard issued a report explaining why the Confederate gunboats in the harbor were no match for the Federal land batteries or ironclads:
“Our gunboats are defective in six respects: First. They have no speed, going only from 3 to 5 miles an hour in smooth water and no current. Second. They are of too great a draft to navigate our inland waters. Third. They are unseaworthy by their shape and construction… Even in the harbor they are at times considered unsafe in a storm. Fourth. They are incapable of resisting the enemy’s XV-inch shots at close quarters… Fifth. They can not fight at long range… Sixth. They are very costly, warm, uncomfortable, and badly ventilated; consequently sickly.”
In the last two weeks of November, the Federals fired nearly another 4,000 rounds into Fort Sumter, which had become little more than rubble. A landing party of 200 Federals tried to capture the fort on the 19th, but they withdrew when the Confederates discovered their approach. Despite these efforts to pound Sumter into submission, the defenders showed no sign of giving up the fort.
- 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.