August 22, 1863 (Saturday)
Over the course of five long days, Federal batteries upon Morris Island, just south of Charleston Harbor, bombarded the crumbling symbol of secession, Fort Sumter. Since the Federal guns opened, nearly 4,500 shots had been fired at Fort Sumter, with over 2,200 hitting the outside walls, and 1,350 falling inside the fort itself. Though one day was nearly the same at the next, Sumter was quickly disintegrating.
“The gorge face [of the fort] has been much battered,” reported Col. Alfred Rhett, commanding at Sumter, on the 21st “and the greater portion of it has fallen.” Later that day, he recorded that 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.”
In the midst of this, Confederate commander at Charleston, General P.G.T Beauregard, personally inspected the fort. Seeing the destruction for himself, he wired Richmond that the dismantling of Sumter was “still progressing rapidly from [Federal] land batteries. Fort will ere long become ineffective.” He promised, however, that Sumter “will be held… as long as practicable.”
The same day [August 21st], Union commander, General Quincy Adams Gillmore, sent a message to General Beauregard, demanding “the immediate evacuation of Morris Island and Fort Sumter.” While the Federal batteries were firing from Morris, two Confederate batteries, Wagner and Gregg, remained occupied and more or less active on the northern tip of the island.
After noting that Sumter was being utterly destroyed, he warned that “all my heaviest guns have not yet opened.” Gillmore, however, was not through. If Beauregard refused to surrender Batteries Wagner and Gregg, and Fort Sumter, “I shall open fire on the city of Charleston from batteries already established within easy and effective range of the heart of the city.”
When the Confederates received the threat at 10:45pm (on the 21st), Beauregard was inspecting Sumter. The staff officer left in charge noticed that General Gillmore had not signed it, and sent it back through Federal lines, “returned for the signature of the writer.” The returned message would not arrive until 9am of this date. By then, it would be too late.
What Gillmore meant by his “heaviest guns have not yet opened,” was a nod to the Marsh Battery, which housed an 8-inch Parrott dubbed the Swamp Angel. While this wasn’t actually his heaviest gun, his plan was indeed to “open fire on the city of Charleston” with the Swamp Angel that was very much “within easy and effective range of the heart of the city.”
The Marsh Battery was located four and a half miles from the city and could lob its 150lbs shells without much counter-battery responses from the Confederates. The battery itself was about a mile away from the other guns, which were mostly along the water. The reason for its construction was never fully explained. Perhaps it was intended to disrupt shipping, or maybe Gillmore just wanted to fire on Charleston. Though Charleston was inhabited, the residents had been warned and ordered to leave by General Beauregard for weeks now.
To the Federals, Charleston was a legitimate target. It contained fortifications, munition plants and garrisons. More importantly, however, the city was the birthplace of secession. It was where the first shots of the war were fired. Its capture wouldn’t, of course, end the war, but it would be a great symbolic victory.
The Marsh Battery and Swamp Angel had not been completed until the 21st. Gillmore was notified and immediately sent the threatening message to the absent Beauregard. He had given the Confederates four hours from its receipt to vacate Sumter and the Morris Island batteries. Those four hours began as soon as the Confederates took the message into their hands at Battery Wagner. It took time for the message to make its way to Charleston, and by the time those four hours had elapsed, around 1am on this date, Gillmore was prepared to fire.
At 1:30, the Swamp Angel fired her first shot at Charleston. The first shell exploded within the streets, sending the shocked residents scrambling for cover. With the next, and then the next, the civilians quickly understood that these were not errant shots. This was a deliberate bombardment.
The typical Parrott Rifle fired either solid shot or exploding shells. The Swamp Angel, however, was not typical, as she was also firing incendiary shells, “Greek fire,” as it was called. Prepared special at West Point, these shells wouldn’t simply explode, they would disperse fire to anything near and flammable. Only nine shots were fired from the Marsh Battery through the very early morning of this date.
During the morning (of this date), Gillmore received his returned message, signed it and sent it again. In response, General Beauregard took Gillmore to task for throwing “a number of heavy rifled shells into the city, the inhabitants of which, of course, were asleep and unarmed.”
After seeing that the threat was in fact signed by Gillmore, Beauregard opened a salvo of his own:
“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 forty days.”
Before closing his letter, Beauregard accused that since Gillmore could not take Sumter on his own, he resorted “to the novel measure of turning your guns against the old men, the women, and children, and the hospitals of a sleep city, an act of inexcusable barbarity….”
Beauregard’s letter went on with much the same, as did Gillmore’s response. With the intervention of the Spanish and British consuls, it quickly devolved into an international incident.
But it was all rendered somewhat pointless. The Swamp Angel resumed her fire in the late evening of this date. As she was about to lob her thirty-sixth shell into the streets of a burning Charleston, the gun burst, “blowing out the entire breach in rear of the vent.”
Thus the Swamp Angel burned out quickly. Gillmore admitted in his report that not much was expected of the Marsh Battery. “No military results of great value were ever expected from this firing,” he later wrote. “As an experiment … the results were not only highly interesting and novel, but very instructive.”1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 28, Part 1, p23, 30, 424, 528, 613, 615, 648; Part 2, p58-60; Gate of Hell by Stephen R. Wise; Napoleon in Gray by T. Harry Williams. [↩]