Federals Testing Fire Upon Fort Sumter

August 12, 1863 (Wednesday)

Bit by bit, the Federal troops on Morris Island crept ever closer to Battery Wagner, guarding Charleston Harbor. Since the failed attacks of August 11th and 18th, both sides had been actively improving their defenses.

Watch your head, General Gillmore!
Watch your head, General Gillmore!

Federal General Quincy Adams Gillmore, had pleaded for more troops, and soon 5,000 were to arrive, including veterans of Gettysburg. Already, three brigades that had been stationed in North Carolina had arrived, as well as the 3rd Regiment United States Colored Troops.

The 3rd USCT wasn’t the only black regiment on the island, of course. There was also the much depleted 54th Massachusetts, as well as a brigade consisting of the 55th Massachusetts and the 2nd and 3rd North Carolina Colored Volunteers, commanded by the abolitionist Edward Wild. Even though the 54th had become national heroes, they too were lumped in with the other “colored troops” and placed on fatigue duty.

In the case of Morris Island, fatigue duty consisted of digging deep trenches in the face of galling enemy fire and in the sweltering summer 100-degree heat. For a time, white regiments were shuffled in and out of the trenches, but due to complaints of being treated like common laborers, it was mostly the black regiments that did the digging.

The first trench line, called a parallel, was some 1,300 yards away from Confederate Battery Wagner. In late July, a second parallel was established, 480 yard closer. The trench was ten feet thick and 175 yards long. It’s understandable why it wasn’t merely called a trench. It held a battery of six howitzers, was defended by palisades and wires, and had a large bombproof. This was no trench, it was a long fort. On the parallel’s right flank, the Federals built what they dubbed a “surf battery,” that became at high tide, a small island with a couple of howitzers planted upon it.

A week later, General Gillmore ordered that a third parallel be constructed 330 yards in front of the second. When completed, it would be only 540 yards before Battery Wagner, and a frightening 60 yards distant from Confederate rifle pits.

By this date, only the 3rd parallel was finished (if that).
By this date, only the 3rd parallel was finished (if that).

Under the devilish sun they labored, as the Rebel shells thrown from not only Battery Wagner, but nearby James Island and Fort Sumter, burst here and there, and even among the camps. Along with the artillery fire, the Confederates had sharpshooters ready to put a bullet in the head of any man who might poke it over a trench.

To counter this, the Federals did the needful. Major Thomas Brooks, commanding the Engineers designing the parallels, easily convinced General Gillmore that the best shots should be plucked from their regiments to form a company of sharpshooters. Soon, under the direction of Captain Richard Ela, sixty riflemen, including some from the 54th Massachusetts, were deployed to ply their trade. This made Ela’s company one of the first integrated units in the army. Before too long, the sharpshooters of each side engaged in day-long duels, which allowed the men in the trenches a bit of comparative respite.

On this date, the digging had been delayed due to heavy fire from Battery Wagner and its sharpshooters. To protect the workers in the trenches, Union artillery got started early. Before dawn, the Rebels in Wagner were under considerable fire until the guns of Battery Gregg, just to the north of Wagner, joined the match. There was more running than digging, and the officer in charge blamed it upon the black troops and a lack of good (white) officers.

The firing grew more intense when Battery Wagner finally opened up. There had been a change of garrison troops, which prevented the Confederate fort from defending itself until near nightfall. But the darkness would not stop them, and the firing would continue through till the next morning. Soon, the Federals would decide not to advance any closer to Wagner until the bombardment of Fort Sumter.

The whole point of these operations wasn’t merely to take Battery Wagner, but to reduce Fort Sumter and take Charleston itself, harbor, city and all. As the infantry entrenched on Morris Island, the artillery and Navy were, on this day, set to test the range of their guns.

Frankly, Alfred Rhett gave a damn Fort Sumter. He gave a lot of damns.
Frankly, Alfred Rhett gave a damn Fort Sumter. He gave a lot of damns.

The first shot upon Fort Sumter came from Federal Battery Hays, on the southern end of Morris Island. It was merely a test shot, but it marked an important beginning.

Confederate Col. Alfred Rhett, in charge of Fort Sumter, also marked this day as the start of operations against his command. He noted that a 200lbs Parrott shell, lobbed by Federal artillery, hit a ship in the fort’s wharf, injuring seven slaves. Other Union fire took out the oven in the bakery, exploded in the barracks, and caused him to relocate the commissary to a safer location. One artillery carriage was destroyed when a shot hit its muzzle. Surprisingly, the gun itself was still operable.

Col. Rhett spent much of the day shifting artillery to meet the growing threat from Federal fire. In all, he counted seventeen of those 200lbs Parrott shots to strike Fort Sumter. Six hit the outside walls, knocking a three foot hole in the northwest portion of the fort. Eleven shots fell inside, wounding two and killing one, a slave.

Rhett’s counting was a bit off, which is understandable. According to his later records, only twelve shots were fired at Sumter. Five hit the fort, three fell inside it, and four missed completely. The damage he reported, however, was accurate. The bombardment had not yet begun, and both sides were still preparing, but everyone knew that something was stirring and soon hell would be unleashed.1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 28, Part 1, p267, 275, 285, 494, 495, 579, 608, 648; Gates of Hell by Stephen R. Wise; The Siege of Charleston by E. Milby Burton. []
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