August 17, 1863 (Monday)
“I shall open on Sumter at daylight,” wrote Quincy Adams Gillmore, Federal commander of the forces outside Charleston Harbor. Of Admiral John Dahlgren, he asked whether or not his fleet could commence upon Battery Wagner soon after. Dahlgren would like nothing more, and even offered to move earlier.
General Gillmore had fully established his troops and heavy artillery upon Morris Island, just south of Fort Sumter. Two Confederate batteries remained planted on the thin strip of land, Battery Wagner being the nearest. Since the second failed assault, Gillmore’s men had crept closer, burrowing trenches and parallels to within 540 yards of the Rebel works.
To attack Battery Wagner once more, Gillmore was convinced he needed more men. To reduce Fort Sumter, long the symbol of Southern Rebellion, however, he would not. For weeks, his troops and engineers dragged thirty-eight guns through the sand and swamps until finally were ready. Each piece was to perform a specific duty. For most, Fort Sumter’s southerly-facing “gorge wall” was their target.
Arrayed against this thick masonry were twelve batteries consisting of all rifles and mortars. No longer was there call for smoothbores. Their range and accuracy were as obsolete as anything Charles Cornwallis might have used so many years before. Apart from the two mortars set to hurl their iron high over the walls of Sumter, Gillmore would batter the fort with an array of armaments. From the two smaller 5-inch Whitworths, originally intended for Confederate use, to the 10-inch Parrott, which, with each shot, could throw a projectile weighing nearly 250lbs at the Rebel bastion.
Against Battery Wagner and his sister, Battery Gregg, eight mortars and ten smaller rifles were employed, though Gillmore had other plans for the Rebels on Morris Island. This is where Admiral Dahlgren’s fleet of six ironclads and seven wooden gunboats would ply their deathly trade.
Though there were six 8-inch Parrotts, the famed “Swamp Angel” was not yet among them. Not for another five days would she be ready, and when she was, Fort Sumter would not be her quarry.
And as it was conceived, it began with mechanized precision. At 5am, a shell from an 8-inch Parrott curved from Morris Island, arching red through the dim morning towards Fort Sumter. This was the signal and soon every gun was worked. For about an hour, the Rebel artillerists held their own, firing two 10-inch Columbiads and a 32-pounder rifle. For a time, the Union firing upon Wagner ceased. But soon it began anew from Admiral Dahlgren’s ironclads. Flowing closer with the tide, they launched cannister and shrapnel at the Rebel gunners of Battery Wagner.
For the Confederates, it was no use. Their own firing was inaccurate, hitting but once for every three shots fired, and that single hit doing little, if any damage. So close came the Federal ironclads – some to within 500 yards, that the Rebel guns could not be depressed enough to fire effectively.
For over two hours, the Confederates in Wagner and Gregg dueled with Admiral Dahgren’s fleet. For the better of those hours, the Rebels had to contend with only one ironclad at a time, as well as the New Ironsides a bit farther off. But just after 8:30am, six ironclads pulled together, firing at once.
This sent the Confederate artillerists along the sea wall into their bomb-proofs. Sporadic to heavy fire peppered them the rest of the morning. Just after noon, the Federal ships pulled back.
All the while, General Gillmore’s artillery was pulverizing Fort Sumter’s gorge wall with hundreds of solid shots and percussion shells. At such a distance, however, Gillmore could hardly see the results.
“What do you think of this morning’s work?” he messaged to Dalhgren after 1pm. Soon came the reply: “Sumter seems greatly damaged.”
Greatly pleased, Gillmore wondered if Dahlgren was through for the day. For the while, Wagner had fallen completely silent. If it stirred, Dahlgren said, “the monitors will run up and silence her again.”
Though Wagner stirred, it did only slightly. At several times through the afternoon, one or two of Dahlgrens ironclad monitors steamed close, fired a few shots, and fell back. The Rebels returned fire when they could, but with each Federal shot, it seemed like more of their own artillery was damaged. Finally, before 5pm, the Rebel battery fell to complete silence. It was another hour until the ironclads followed suit.
At Fort Sumter, things were much worse. The concentrated Federal fire had torn apart the buildings inside the walls, killing and wounded several. The guns from Sumter opened upon the ironclads attacking Battery Wagner, but did hardly any damage at all. The Rebels inside the fort did what they could to minimize the effects of Federal fire, pilling bags of sand against the magazines and hospital, hoping they might aid in the protection.
Though the Federals were concentrated upon the southern-facing gorge wall, guns on the northwest flank and face were suffering badly. Seven guns in all, including one large rifle, were disabled by the Union artillery. In all, one man was killed and seventeen wounded – a wonder, all things taken into account.
General Gillmore’s guns fired 948 shots at Fort Sumter. 445 hit the outside walls, 233 landed inside and 270 missed completely.
At the end of the day, Gillmore was very satisfied, but thought that the Rebels at Wagner would try some kind of counterattack the next morning. Though they would not, he was prepared, writing to Admiral Dahlgren: “I propose the same programme for tomorrow that we had today.”
For the next several days, Gillmore and Dahlgren would be unstoppable and relentless. Still, the Rebels would hold on.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 28, Part 1, p84, 470-472, 596, 610-611, 648, 650; Gate of Hell by Stephen R. Wise. [↩]