Confederates Determined to Hold Fort Sumter, Even in Ruins

August 24, 1863 (Monday)

“I have the honor to report the practical demolition of Fort Sumter as the result of our seven days’ bombardment of that work,” wrote Federal commander Quincy Adams Gillmore, “including two days of which a powerful northeasterly storm most seriously diminished the accuracy and effect of our fire.” Gillmore was simply bragging at this point, but he was correct.

Sumter as it looked the previous day (and pretty well how it looked on this date).
Sumter as it looked the previous day (and pretty well how it looked on this date).

The “northeasterly storm” was actually a Category 2 hurricane that cost the lives of eighty people, though it never made actual landfall. It raged north from the Caribbean, coming no closer than 200 miles from Charleston, South Carolina, but still, the winds blew and rains poured before the storm headed northeast, skirting the New England coast. To continue an artillery bombardment through the deluge was indeed something of which to be proud.

“Fort Sumter is today a shapeless and harmless mass of ruins,” continued Gillmore. This was also no lie. But one gun remained fully operational at Sumter on this date.

Rhett: So I don't have any say at all in this?
Rhett: So I don’t have any say at all in this?

Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard could see the sorry state of Fort Sumter from the defenses of Charleston, but still needed a closer look. He had personally visited the fort two days ago, but in that time nearly 1,400 shots had been fired against the crumbling symbol of Rebellion, with well over 1,000 hitting their mark.

Rather than going himself once again, Beauregard sent Col. Jeremy Gilmer, his chief engineer. Together with Col. Alfred Rhett, who commanded Fort Sumter itself, and several other officers, they systematically assessed the damage.

The Federal fire upon Sumter had slacked on this day, but it was still steady. First, they looked to the state of the heavy artillery, which they admitted was “very limited.” One 11-inch gun was still “capable of being fired with advantage,” but two others (both 10-inchers) could only be fired at a “disadvantage, in consequence of shattered condition of parapet.”

Col. Rhett added that “in action it would be impracticable to use but one gun, the 11-inch, and that would soon be disabled. Another officer put it plainly: “The offensive condition of the fort is nearly destroyed.”

Gilmer: Nope, none whatsoever.
Gilmer: Nope, none whatsoever.

Furthermore, they discussed whether or not the three guns that remained in Sumter could be improved by moving them. While the opinions of the officers were mixed, though he “would like to see it carried out,” Col. Rhett considered it “impracticable.” And though nobody had much hope for Sumter in general, all agreed that it could be held with as little as 300 or 400 men, even if the Federals tried to land troops.

The last item they considered was how long the fort might be able to hold under a sustained attack. Some said twelve hours, others thirty-six, yet another simply couldn’t say. Col. Rhett, however, had a lot to say, and none of it was good.

“The eastern wall is much shattered by the fire of 7th of April, and has never been repaired,” began Rhett, referring to the failed Federal Naval bombardment. The same wall, continued Rhett, had “also been seriously damaged by fire from the land batteries on Morris Island,” referring to the most recent and continuing attacks.

In his opinion, the walls of the fort could withstand two, perhaps three hours more of bombardment from the Union ships. Such an assault “would destroy the integrity of the wall, if it did not bring it down.” If, however, both the Navy and the Federal batteries combined their fire in an obvious attempt to reduce the fort, it “would probably bring down a large part of the wall.”

Sumter early on in the bombardment.
Sumter early on in the bombardment.

Other parts of the fort were in no better shape. “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 was even worse, as it could withstand only “a few shots.”

All this bad news, however, did not mean that the Confederate engineers, including Jeremy Gilmer, believed Fort Sumter should be abandoned. “We beg leave to state,” wrote Harris in his report, “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.” Just when the “last extremity” was still up in the air, but Harris believed a “resolute garrison” could hold the fort “for many days.”

Col. Alfred Rhett, however, might have had a different opinion. He would be the officer in charge of calling for the fort to be abandoned. To head off this ever-likely scenario, Col. Gilmer, emphatically stated that it should be General Beauregard who answered the question of its abandonment, “and not left to the discretion of the commander of the fort.”

Beauregard fully agreed. “Fort Sumter must be held to the last extremity,” he wrote two days later, “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.”

That same day, Beauregard wrote to Richmond and President Jefferson Davis that Sumter “even in ruins” would be held, “if necessary, with musket and bayonet.”1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 28, Part 1, p598-599, 648, 651-523; Part 2, p304, 306; Gate of Hell by Stephen R. Wise; Napoleon in Gray by T. Harry Williams. []
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Confederates Determined to Hold Fort Sumter, Even in Ruins by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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