Tag Archives: Department of the South

Charleston: Morris Island Abandoned

September 6, 1863 – Confederate forces finally abandoned Morris Island in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, after enduring relentless pressure for nearly two months. The Federals then looked to capture Fort Sumter.

Maj Gen Q.A. Gillmore | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding the Federal Department of the South, had aborted two planned assaults on Battery Gregg, on the northern tip of Morris Island, earlier this month. But now Gillmore was ready to launch a full-scale attack on the more formidable Battery Wagner. In preparation, Federal gunners had pounded both Wagner and Gregg, as well as Fort Sumter in the harbor, relentlessly.

Colonel Lawrence Keitt, commanding the Confederates on Morris Island, asked the overall commander, General P.G.T. Beauregard, if he should surrender the batteries. Beauregard sent two officers to assess the situation, and they quickly recommended abandoning Morris Island. Beauregard reported to Richmond, “Terrible bombardment of Wagner and Gregg for nearly 36 hours… nearly all guns disabled… Sumter being silenced. Evacuation of Morris Island becomes indispensable to save garrison; it will be attempted tonight.”

As Keitt waited for a rescue force to take his men off the island, he wrote Beauregard, “Will boats be here tonight for garrison? If so, at what time? And if our sacrifice be of benefit, I am ready. Let it be said so, and I will storm the enemy’s works at once, or lose every man here.” That night, crewmen from the C.S.S. Chicora and Palmetto State manned rowboats to collect the Confederate defenders at Cummings Point and bring them to James Island to the west.

The next morning, Gillmore postponed his attack to make final preparations. During that time, Confederate deserters came into the Federal lines and reported that the batteries had been evacuated and the guns spiked. Gillmore ordered his troops to advance, and they soon learned that the deserters had told the truth.

The Confederates defending Wagner and Gregg had been under almost constant bombardment for 58 days, during which they held off an enemy force twice their size, inflicted 2,318 casualties, and lost just 641 men. The capture of Morris Island gave the Federals control of the southern entrance to Charleston Harbor. It also gave them access to many channels within the harbor, making the port too risky for most blockade runners to enter. The Confederacy’s main shipping port soon became Wilmington, North Carolina, as a result.

Gillmore informed Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, that army forces had taken Morris Island, and both men quickly turned their attention to capturing Fort Sumter. The Confederates in the fort defiantly held out, despite having sustained such punishment that, according to Dahlgren, Sumter now “from seaward was rather that of a steep, sandy island than that of a fort.”

Beauregard assigned Major Stephen Elliott, Jr. to lead 320 Confederate infantrymen to bolster the fort’s defenses. Beauregard told him:

“You are to be sent to a fort deprived of all offensive capacity, and having but one gun–a 32-pounder–with which to salute the flag. But that fort is Fort Sumter, the key to the entrance of this harbor. It must be held to the bitter end, not with artillery, but with infantry alone; and there can be no hope of reinforcements.”

Rear Adm J.A.B. Dahlgren – Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Dahlgren needed to capture the fort, not only because of its symbolic value, but also because the Confederates there prevented him from clearing the torpedoes and other obstructions from the harbor entrance. If the Federals had any hope of capturing Charleston, Fort Sumter needed to be taken first. When Dahlgren demanded the fort’s immediate surrender, Beauregard replied, “Inform Admiral Dahlgren that he may have Fort Sumter when he can take it and hold it.”

Dahlgren dispatched a naval reconnaissance in force on the night of the 7th. The Confederate batteries at Fort Moultrie and on James and Sullivan’s islands opened fire as the ships entered the harbor. The U.S.S. Weehawken grounded on a sandbar between Cummings Point and Fort Sumter. The other vessels, led by the U.S.S. New Ironsides, drew the Confederate fire while tugs tried pulling the Weehawken out; the New Ironsides took 50 hits. The tugs finally freed the Weehawken early next morning, and the fleet withdrew.

Gillmore planned a surprise attack on Fort Sumter by landing two infantry regiments on the island fortification on the night of the 8th. Coincidentally, Dahlgren planned a similar operation that same night with sailors and marines. The two commanders did not learn of each other’s plan until just hours before the attacks were supposed to start.

Gillmore proposed combining their efforts and placing them under army command. Dahlgren replied, “I have assembled 500 men and I can not consent that the commander shall be other than a naval officer.” Gillmore said that “why this should be so in assaulting a fortification, I can not see.” The commanders finally agreed to launch their separate attacks at different points on the island, with both commands using a password to identify each other.

Commander Thomas Stevens, assigned to command the navy part of the operation, expressed doubt that such a plan would work. But Dahlgren assured him, “You have only to go in and take possession. You will find nothing but a corporal’s guard.” The Confederates, having confiscated the signal book of the U.S.S. Keokuk in April, intercepted the Federal signals and knew an attack was coming.

The navy forces began rowing out to Sumter before moonrise, using muffled oars. Confederate lookouts expecting their arrival signaled the alarm, and the batteries on James and Sullivan’s island opened fire. Almost as soon as the first sailors and marines landed, Confederate rifle fire and hand grenades pinned them against the works.

The C.S.S. Chicora soon opened a deadly enfilade fire, and the guns at Fort Moultrie joined in as well. Dahlgren later reported, “Moultrie fired like the devil, the shells breaking around us and screaming in chorus.” The Federals could see nothing in the darkness, but the Confederates were well familiar with their surroundings.

The remaining navy boats turned back. The army boats were delayed by low tide, and when Gillmore learned of the navy’s failure, he canceled his part of the operation. The Confederates captured five boats and inflicted 124 casualties, most of which were prisoners taken. Beauregard reported, “Nobody hurt on our side.”

Dahlgren requested more ironclad monitors from the Navy Department. When Navy Secretary Gideon Welles refused, Dahlgren suspended bombardment operations, and his fleet resumed general blockading duties. Although the Federals had finally captured Morris Island, Fort Sumter and Charleston remained in Confederate hands.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 131-33; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 323-24; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 699-700; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 347, 349; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 405-07; 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), p. 176-78; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 88

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Charleston: The Bombardment Continues

September 1, 1863 – Federal forces continued bombarding the fortifications in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, in preparation for another infantry attack.

As September began, Confederate defenders still held Batteries Wagner and Gregg on the northern end of Morris Island, and Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Federal troops, having failed twice to capture Wagner, remained poised on the southern end of Morris Island to capture both Wagner and Gregg once they were pounded into submission. Federal shells had crumbled the brick walls of Fort Sumter, but the garrison would not surrender.

Setting the stage for a naval attack on Sumter, Federal gunners poured another 627 artillery rounds into the defenses. On the night of the 1st, six ironclad monitors, led by the U.S.S. Weehawken, came to within 500 yards and then opened a blistering five-hour bombardment.

The Confederates in the fort did not respond, but Confederate batteries at Fort Moultrie scored 70 hits on the enemy ships. Captain Oscar C. Badger of the Weehawken was badly wounded when a shot hit the turret and sent iron into his leg. The Federals withdrew at dawn with the fort still in Confederate hands.

Gen P.G.T. Beauregard | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

The intense Federal bombardment forced General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Charleston Harbor defenses, to rotate the Confederate defenders on and off Morris Island every three days. Beauregard also relied on slave labor to repair the damages; he asked Charleston slaveholders “to send 100 negroes, with competent managers, to Morris Island as soon as practicable (if not already done), to relieve those sent there this morning.”

Beauregard sent his aide, John McDaniel, to the plantations outside Charleston to ask planters to donate a quarter of their slave labor for strengthening harbor fortifications. McDaniel reported that most planters refused. Beauregard responded:

“I regret that you have found planters so ready with excuses for not furnishing labor to defend Charleston. May God grant that, in seeking to avoid furnishing a fourth of their labor, at this momentous junction, they do not materially contribute to the loss of the whole.”

Beauregard directed McDaniel to change his request to an order, and “call on the planters to give you, in good faith, a list of their able-bodied male negroes between the ages of 18 and 45… every man in the district must be required to send one-fourth” of his slaves. McDaniel was to also round up any fugitive slaves (i.e., “refugees”) he could find, as they “of course must fare the same as others. Send back all negroes who have run away from the works.”

Beauregard then wrote to General W.H.C. Whiting, headquartered in North Carolina, “Can you spare me, say, 500 small-arms” to defend the harbor works; he pledged that they would “be returned in 20 days.” Beauregard also asked, “Can you not hurry up the second Blakely gun? Its position on White Point Battery will soon be ready.” He then told Whiting, “Sumter and Wagner still gallantly held.”

By the 2nd, the Confederates huddled in Battery Wagner prepared to evacuate, as Federal troops had inched to within 80 yards. Beauregard started pulling men and guns out of both Wagner and Gregg to minimize his losses in case the batteries fell. Confederate Major General Jeremy F. Gilmer requested that Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory send as many sailors as possible to Charleston to operate the rowboats moving troops and supplies to and from Morris Island.

The Federals in front of Wagner alleged that the Confederate defenders used grenades to hold them off. But Confederate Brigadier General Gabriel J. Rains, who had organized the system of torpedoes and mines protecting the harbor, reported that the devices were really subterra shells. These were eight to 10-inch Columbiad shells buried in the sand that exploded when stepped on. Rains had invented these types of land mines, which both sides considered unethical weapons.

Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding the Federal Department of the South, resolved to launch another infantry attack on Batteries Wagner and Gregg. But he needed support from Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren’s South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. Dahlgren refused to help because he would have to move his ships close to shore, where they would be vulnerable to counterfire from the batteries. Therefore, Gillmore changed his plan to target just Gregg instead.

Prior to the attack, the Federals unleashed a terrible 42-hour bombardment, during which they fired some 3,000 rounds at Wagner, Gregg, and Fort Sumter. Gillmore loaded troops onto boats and planned to land them on the northern end of Morris Island, where they could assault Battery Gregg. However, the Federals traded fire with a nearby Confederate boat, alarming Gregg’s defenders and compelling Gillmore to call off the attack. Gillmore then planned a night attack, but with the Confederates now on full alert, he aborted this mission as well.

Colonel Lawrence Keitt, commanding the Confederates on Morris Island, received a dispatch intercepted from Gillmore stating that he planned to launch an all-out attack on Battery Wagner on the 7th. Keitt wrote Beauregard, “The whole fort is much weakened. A repetition tomorrow of today’s fire will make the fort almost a ruin. Is it desirable to sacrifice the garrison? To continue to hold it is to do so.”

Keitt had not yet been notified that Beauregard already decided to abandon Morris Island.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 321-23; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 699; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 345-46; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 403; 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), p. 176

Charleston: The Bombardment Winds Down

August 23, 1863 – 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 bombardment. 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).

Rear Adm J.A.B. Dahlgren – Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

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 the 21st, 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. However, a heavy fog rendered the Federals unable to cite their targets, and the ships withdrew.

The Federal bombardment halted for the time being. Artillerists 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.”

Gen P.G.T. Beauregard | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

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.”

Maj Gen Q.A. Gillmore | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

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.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 130-31; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 315-20; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 340, 342-45; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 400-01; 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), p. 175-76

Charleston: The Swamp Angel Debuts

August 22, 1863 – Federals unleashed the destructive cannon nicknamed the “Swamp Angel” on the people of Charleston, South Carolina.

A Parrott rifle used to bombard the harbor | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

By the 21st, the Federal guns on Morris Island and the Federal gunboats offshore had been bombarding Fort Sumter and Batteries Wagner and Gregg for four days. Large portions of Fort 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.

Maj Gen Q.A. Gillmore | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

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.”

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 artillerists 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.

Gen P.G.T. Beauregard | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

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.”

Beauregard declared that this “mode of warfare, which I confidently declare to be atrocious and unworthy of any soldier… 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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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 136-37, 139; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 317-18; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 322, 738; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), p. 698-99; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 342-43; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 399-400

Charleston: The Federal Bombardment Begins

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.

Maj Gen Q.A. Gillmore | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

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.”

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References

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

Federals Regroup on Morris Island

July 31, 1863 – President Abraham Lincoln approved reinforcing the Department of the South to bolster the Federals on Morris Island who were trying to capture not only the island but the city of Charleston, South Carolina.

Federal forces remained on the southern part of Morris Island after sustaining another defeat at Battery Wagner on the 18th. With his force reduced to 6,000 men due to combat and illness, Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding the department, wrote General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck requesting reinforcements. Gillmore asked for 8,000 veterans that he assumed would be freed up after the victories at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Port Hudson, and Tullahoma.

While waiting for Halleck’s response, Gillmore worked with Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, on a new plan of attack. The two commanders agreed that reinforcements were needed before any offensive operations could be resumed, but Dahlgren had none to offer.

Rear Adm J.A.B. Dahlgren – Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Dahlgren contacted Navy Secretary Gideon Welles and suggested that 20,000 reinforcements could take Morris Island and put the Federals in position to attack Charleston. When Welles received Dahlgren’s message, he sent Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox to discuss the matter with Halleck. Halleck claimed that he had received no request for reinforcements from Gillmore; that message would not reach him until the 28th. When Halleck read it, he immediately replied:

“You were distinctly informed that you could not have any additional troops, and it was only on the understanding that none would be required that I consented to your undertaking operations on Morris Island. Had it been supposed that you would require more troops, the operations would not have been attempted with my consent or that of the Secretary of War.”

Halleck explained that “every man that we could possibly rake and scrape together is in the field in face of the enemy… And now, at this critical junction, comes your urgent but unexpected application for 8,000 additional troops for Morris Island. It is, to say the least, seriously embarrassing.” Halleck ultimately dispatched 2,000 black troops from North Carolina, but they were untested and too few for Gillmore to proceed.

Lincoln and Welles then met with Halleck and agreed that since Major General George G. Meade would not be launching another offensive in northern Virginia any time soon, troops could be pulled from the Army of the Potomac to reinforce Gillmore. Lincoln directed the War Department to send 5,000 additional troops from XI Corps to Morris Island.

By month’s end, Gillmore had begun preparing to besiege Batteries Wagner and Gregg on Morris Island, as well as Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

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References

Official Naval Records (Series 1, Vol. 14), p. 380-82, 401; Official Records (Series 1, Vol. 28, Part 2), p. 23-24, 26, 29, 30, 39; Official Records (Series 1, Vol 53), p. 293-94; Welles, Gideon, Diary (Vol. 1); Wise, Stephen R., Gate of Hell

The Growing Clamor for Black Military Recruitment

August 4, 1862 – President Abraham Lincoln ordered the drafting of militia into the Federal armies but remained reluctant to allow blacks to serve as combatants.

President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Lincoln invoked the terms of the newly enacted Militia Act by calling for 300,000 state militiamen to serve nine months. This was on top of the 300,000 three-year volunteers that Lincoln had called for last month. Lincoln decreed that states unable to meet their three-year volunteer quota had to make up for it with more nine-month enlistments, and if any state would not or could not raise their militias, the War Department would take control of the process. This was never effectively carried out.

That same day, two congressmen and a group of “Western gentlemen” presented two Indiana regiments of black men to Lincoln. Congressional Republicans, primarily the Radicals, had long supported freeing slaves and sending them into the military, both to deprive the Confederacy of labor and to increase Federal military strength. Also, the newly passed Confiscation Act authorized the president to arm slaves for combat duty. However, most northerners opposed such a move.

Lincoln upheld popular opinion by declining the offer for the black regiments to serve as armed units. He explained that “to arm the negroes would turn 50,000 bayonets against us that were for us,” meaning that the loyal slave states of Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri could join the Confederacy. Lincoln said he was not ready to allow the men to serve in any capacity other than army laborers, for which they would be paid. Major General Ulysses S. Grant used this policy to make laborers out of fugitive slaves in his military department.

The disappointed men and their sponsors were unaware that Lincoln was in the process of modifying his position on this issue. In a recent cabinet meeting, Lincoln had officially opposed arming blacks for military service, but, according to Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, “he was not unwilling that commanders should, at their discretion, arm, for purely defensive purposes, slaves coming into their lines.”

In fact, the 1st South Carolina (African descent) was already armed and trained in Major General David Hunter’s Department of the South. They were even dispatched by Brigadier General Rufus Saxton, military governor of the South Carolina Sea Islands, to St. Simons Island in Georgia to fight local Confederates.

Saxton wrote Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton requesting authority to organize another “5,000 able-bodied men from among the contrabands in this department… to be uniformed, armed, and officered by men detailed from the Army.” They would be paid $8 to $10 per month and given full rations.

Saxton explained that such a move was necessary because the slaves “suffer greatly from fear of attack by their rebel masters, in the event of which they expect no mercy at their hands.” Saxton also predicted that “the rebellion would be very greatly weakened by the escape of thousands of slaves with their families from active rebel masters if they had such additional security against recapture as these men, judiciously posted, would afford them.” He concluded:

“Thus organized, disciplined, and constantly employed, the men would escape demoralization among themselves, and working with and for the soldiers whenever their health or efficiency demanded it, a happy reciprocal influence upon the soldiers and these earnest and ready helpers would almost necessarily be the result.”

Saxton’s letter was delivered to Washington by Robert Smalls, a boat pilot and escaped slave who had delivered the C.S.S. Planter to Federal blockaders. While in transit, Major General Benjamin F. Butler, commanding Federal occupation forces in New Orleans, authorized the recruitment of free blacks as soldiers. Butler argued that such an order did not defy administration policy, which only prohibited the recruitment of slaves.

On August 25, Stanton issued a reply to Saxton that changed the nature of the war:

“In view of the small force under your command and the inability of the Government at the present time to increase it, in order to guard the plantations and settlements occupied by the United States from invasion and protect the inhabitants thereof from captivity and murder by the enemy, you are also authorized to arm, uniform, equip, and receive into the service of the United States such number of volunteers of African descent as you may deem expedient, not exceeding 5,000, and may detail officers to instruct them in military drill, discipline, and duty, and to command them. The persons so received into service and their officers to be entitled to and receive the same pay and rations as are allowed by law to volunteers in the service.”

This was the first official Federal authorization to recruit blacks into the military for combat service, and while it was issued only due to the unique needs within Saxton’s jurisdiction, the order would ultimately be expanded throughout all military departments. This deprived the Confederacy of labor, increased Federal military strength, appeased Radical Republicans, and most importantly, empowered former slaves to fight for their own freedom.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 202; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 188, 191, 195-96; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 247, 250, 254-55; 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), p. 492, 564