Charleston at War: Fort Sumter shelled mercilessly by Union
Library of Congress
After months of shelling by Union troops on Morris Island and the blockade fleet, much of Fort Sumter was reduced to rubble. Still, the Confederates would not give up the fort.
A tropical storm blew through the Lowcountry on Monday night, Aug. 24, 1863, forcing a brief cease-fire in the siege of Charleston.
When the sun rose the next morning, locals finally had a chance to survey the damage from the weekend's bombardment -- and it was far worse than anyone imagined.
Fort Sumter had been severely damaged.
The Charleston Mercury reported that 4,000 shots had been fired at Sumter over the weekend, and estimated that three-quarters of them had been direct hits.
"It cannot be denied that the enemy fire with great accuracy," editor Robert Barnwell Rhett Jr. wrote. "The eastern face of the fort is now very seriously damaged, and almost every gun has been disabled."
Sumter had been subjected to a crossfire from Parrott guns on Morris Island and ironclads from the blockade. The fort had taken hundreds of hits from 15-inch shells alone. While the Swamp Angel battery had shelled the city, the Navy guns had focused on Wagner and Sumter.
It was clear from the damage that the men in blue had been busy.
"The south face is now but a heap of ruins," the paper reported, "and the west is cracked from top to bottom with supporting pillars shot away. Arches of the northwest face and terreplein have fallen in. The east face is cracked through and breached, the chief injury begin at the level of the arches and terreplein. Our magazine has been partially penetrated by shell, and a shell room has also been perforated."
The Union resumed the bombardment of Sumter on Tuesday, but could scarcely do any more damage than had already been done. As Wagner took its share of the shells, the casualties were beginning to mount. It might have been worse if the remnants of the storm hadn't kept most of the ironclads from joining in the shelling.
The damage reports from Sumter continued to trickle into the city all week, and The Mercury wrote what was nearly a premature obituary for the once-proud fort.
"Sumter is no longer a double-tiered battery," Rhett wrote. "As a great artillery fortress its proud proportions are reduced to ruins. But the ground is sacred to Southern independence. The site is negatively valuable, and, with even the rifle and bayonet only, it may be held still from the hands of our foes."
The Confederate troops had returned fire as best they could throughout the bombardment, working through exhaustion until they were relieved. But for the moment, there was no relief in sight.
At Battery Wagner, the men had much less defense from the constant firing than the troops at Sumter. When one shell fell in front of an eight-inch gun, it tore away the parapet and exploded in the gun chamber, killing two soldiers and wounding several others. Sgt. Welsh of the 1st S.C. Artillery noticed that the awning had caught on fire, and tore it down. But he quickly realized the flames had ignited an ammunition barrel that had just been filled. Before the barrel could explode, Welsh coolly grabbed a pot of coffee and extinguished the fire.
"Such an act of heroism should not be left unchronicled or unappreciated," The Mercury opined.
The intensity of the attacks grew until the end of the month. Then, on Sept. 1, it appeared the Union fleet was moving in for the kill. The North's batteries on Morris Island fired nearly 400 shots at Sumter, 166 of which struck the outside walls and another 95 fell inside the fort, killing three soldiers.
Sumter took the shelling in silence, but Battery Gregg, Fort Moultrie and the Sullivan's Island guns fought back "with great spirit." The battle raged on into the early hours of Sept. 2. At least 100 Confederate shots hit Union ironclads in a battle that lasted "for five long hours, during which the harbor was filled with one grand diapason of artillery."
But then, to the surprise of the Southerners, the North retreated shortly before 5 a.m., ending the first major bombardment of Sumter. Between Aug. 17 and Sept. 2, the Union had fired about 6,800 rounds at the fort.
The damage had been done, but it appeared Sumter would stand for another day.
A "lamentable accident"
All those Yankee ships.
That was the difference in the fight, Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard knew. With the New Ironsides and all the Monitor-class ironclads constantly shelling Sumter and Morris Island, the Confederates were outgunned. The Union had an excellent battle plan. The ships came in, unloaded a barrage of shells on the forts and then retreated beyond the range of Southern guns.
It was the Confederacy's greatest weakness. The South had gone to war without a Navy, and there was no realistic way to catch up. The Palmetto State and Chicora -- and a new sister ship, the Charleston -- were of little use against the U.S. fleet. They were cumbersome and slow, and the Palmetto State's used engine had proven unreliable on occasion.
Beauregard needed an edge and, earlier that summer, thought he'd found it.
A New Orleans engineer named James McClintock had been in Mobile for more than a year, where he was at work on a new kind of stealth boat. This machine could allegedly travel beneath the water and deliver a killing blow to ships without ever being seen. Beauregard knew he must have this weapon -- its talents were wasted in Mobile, which was too far up the bay to be in immediate danger.
He sent word to load the boat on a rail car and ship it to Charleston immediately, and ordered troops along the way to do nothing to slow its progress.
"It is much needed," Beauregard wrote.
The boat arrived in Charleston on Aug. 15 and it could not have inspired much confidence. It was a narrow iron tube, tapered at the ends, only 40 feet long and barely five feet tall. The most distinguishing features on this strange contraption was two hatches on its top and two fins on its side.
It was explained to the general that the boat could tow a contact mine behind it on a 100-foot rope. When it passed under a ship, the boat would pull the mine into its target's hull, where it would detonate -- creating a hole large enough to sink any ship within minutes.
McClintock, who had traveled with the boat, was told he would be paid $100,000 for sinking the New Ironsides with his privateer. But he claimed more testing was needed before it could be sent to sea. For more than a week, the little boat traveled back and forth across the harbor, between Forts Moultrie and Johnson.
At The Mercury, Rhett knew about the machine, but wrote nothing of it -- the newspaper was often complicit in war censorship. It was most helpful to the Confederate military, as Union soldiers sometimes managed to get copies of the paper. Beauregard meant for this new weapon to be a surprise, and certainly didn't want the blockade fleet reading about it in the Charleston papers.
After a week of tests, Beauregard grew weary of waiting. The New Ironsides and the rest of the fleet continued to bombard the harbor forts and, at the same time, he received word from Gen. T.L. Clingman on Sullivan's Island that the boat would not "render any service under its present management." McClintock was timid, Clingman said.
Within days, Beauregard seized the ship.
Lt. John Payne of the Chicora took over the fish-boat project. He recruited the crew from his own ironclad and the Palmetto State. The men were briefed on the fish-boat's operations and made plans to take it out on Saturday, Aug. 29.
The ship was moored at the Fort Johnson dock that evening when the men began to squeeze through the small hatches. Seven of them were onboard and Payne was about to climb into the forward hatch when the Etiwan steamed by. Later, witnesses would say that water from the ship's wake swamped the fish-boat's hatches, and that little bit of water was enough to set off a chain reaction that sent the submarine boat to the bottom of the harbor.
Payne managed to jump clear and the two men closest to each hatch somehow climbed out of the boat as it sank.
But five others were trapped inside. They would not survive.
The Mercury, careful not to release details of the secret weapon, made only scant mention of the incident on Monday, Aug. 31 under the headline "Lamentable Accident."
"On Saturday last, Lieutenants Payne and Hasker were proceeding to make some experiments in the harbor. The boat, which contained a crew of nine men, unfortunately parted from its moorings and sank. Five of the crew were drowned."
The little boat McClintock had called the Hunley was lost, and Beauregard was no closer to ridding himself of the troublesome New Ironsides.
It was an accident that would carry a great cost for Charleston.
Ordered to retreat
As bad as Fort Sumter had been damaged, Battery Wagner was in even worse shape.
The Morris Island fort had been shelled for weeks. Inside Battery Wagner, the men were running low on provisions and drinking water. What little freshwater Morris held had been contaminated by the decomposing bodies that littered the island.
The Confederates at Wagner realized they could not hold out much longer.
The first sign that the end was near came on Friday, Sept. 4. At dawn, sentries at Battery Wagner spotted a United States flag -- "the hated flag of stars and stripes," The Mercury called it -- flying from a new Union earthwork barely 150 yards from the fort. Within a few minutes, Union Parrott guns began shelling Wagner.
Fifteen minutes later the New Ironsides moved into position about 1,500 yards offshore and joined in the firing. For two and a half hours, the ship bombarded the fort, killing at least two-dozen men of the 25th S.C. Volunteers. By the end of the day, the land forces had moved even closer to Wagner's walls. On Saturday afternoon, the combined might of the Union's land and sea forces concentrated all their firepower on the battery, and they did not stop until the next morning.
It was, The Mercury reported, "beyond all doubt the most fierce and long continued which has taken place against Wagner since the beginning of the siege."
Several Confederate batteries on James Island tried to fend off the attacking Yankees, but they could not stop the onslaught.
"It is almost impossible to describe the terrible beauty of the scene in Charleston harbor as witnessed on Saturday night from the city," Rhett wrote. "From Moultrie almost to Secessionville, a whole semi-circle of the horizon was lit up by incessant flashes from cannon and shell. As peal on peal of artillery rolled across the waters, one could scarcely resist the belief that not less than a thousand great guns were in action.
"It was a grand chorus of hell," The Mercury editor said.
By Sunday, more than 150 Confederates on Morris Island were dead. And still the Union was not finished. The shelling resumed again that evening.
Around 6 p.m., Col. Keitt -- who commanded the Southern forces on the island -- received orders to abandon Battery Wagner and Gregg. While taking incoming fire, the remaining Confederates in the fort buried their dead. By nightfall, they were carrying the wounded to barges that would ferry them to Fort Johnson. It took 40 barge loads to evacuate all the casualties.
While those men were moved, the fort's guns were spiked, their carriages burned -- much as Maj. Robert Anderson had sabotaged Moultrie before his move to Sumter. By 1 a.m., Keitt and his officers boarded the last barge and abandoned Battery Wagner.
As they sailed away, ceding Morris Island to U.S. forces, they must have remembered the prediction made so long ago: If Wagner falls, Sumter falls. And if Sumter falls, Charleston falls.
Sumter strikes back
Emboldened by their capture of Battery Wagner, the Union quickly made plans to "take and hold" the beleaguered Fort Sumter.
For several nights, Union troops sent scout barges close to the fort on reconnaissance missions. They did not realize that the Confederates were watching their every move.
The Union had made a fatal mistake, allowing orders sent by Admiral John Dahlgren to fall into Southern hands. These notes, which were ultimately published in The Mercury, called for volunteers of 200 men for "special service" aboard barges that would sail inside the Charleston bar.
The men at Sumter only had to wait for them to come into range.
About 1:30 a.m. on Sept. 9, sentries at Sumter spotted a convoy of barges half a mile long, each boat carrying 50 or so men, speeding toward the fort. The barges were aiming for the rocks at the seaward face of the fort.
"As soon as the barges were seen by our vigilant sentries on the parapet, three rockets were thrown up to notify their comrades at the other batteries of the danger at hand," The Mercury later reported.
Fort Johnson, Battery Simkins, Fort Moultrie and the nearby Chicora immediately opened fire on the barges. The closest boats reached the rocks, however, and the troops aboard sprang ashore.
And there they were met by Maj. Blake's Charleston Battalion.
The Northern troops put up a brief fight but were quickly overpowered. The barges at the rear of the line had already turned to flee and escaped. But those closest to the fort were stopped. Within minutes, the Confederates took 115 prisoners. The battle was over.
Dahlgren had overplayed his hand and made a serious miscalculation.
Fort Sumter was not yet finished.
Next: The David vs. the goliath