Friday, September 13, 2013

Developments in Charleston Harbor

In the first weeks of September, 1863, the fighting continued as the Federals tried to overcome the Confederate defenses guarding Charleston, South Carolina. In July, the Union troops had landed on Morris Island and attacked Fort Wagner, but several attacks had been disastrously repulsed. They settled into a siege, maintaining a regular bombardment of the works. For two months the fort held out against the Union attacks. But near the end of August the Yankees were able to capture the line of rifle pits outside the fort, and began turning them into a siege lines. Subjected to constant bombardment, with only 400 men left to defend the fort and the Union lines drawing ever closer, P. G. T. Beauregard, Confederate commander in Charleston, ordered the fort abandoned on the night of September 6th. The next day the Federals occupied the works.

Ironclads Bombard Fort Moultrie
That same day the Union designs on Fort Sumter were moved forward. The first battle of the war had been fought there two years before when the Union garrison was forced to surrender after a bombardment. In subsequent fighting the walls had been reduced to a rubble, but still the garrison held firm. Beauregard withdrew the artillery crews from the position, as every gun had been dismounted, and replaced them with 320 infantry. The Union fleet demanded the surrender of the fort on September 7th, but the Confederates refused. The position was virtually useless, but it had great symbolic value.

Fort Sumter
The next night a naval landing party was sent to Fort Sumter. From all that they could tell from the ships, the Union commanders believed that the fort was a rubble and they would just have to brush away a few guards. One officer that attacked the fort wrote of the attack, saying,
As we neared Sumter we were hailed loudly by the enemy, but no answer was returned. Simultaneously a rocket was sent up from the fort, and almost as it exploded the air was filled with hissing, shrieking missiles from the James and Sullivan's Island batteries, which seemed alive with fire, while an iron-clad was pouring grape and canister into the boats and sweeping the approaches to the gorge. The parapets and crown of Sumter were filled with men pouring a murderous fire down on our defenseless party, and heavy missiles and hand grenades helped on the work of destruction. Before this fire had fully developed, two boats from the Powhatan and others had effected a landing. ... Under these conditions but one expedient was left - to effect an early withdrawal. ... We found [our loss] amounted to 124 killed, wounded and missing, out of 400 men.
The landing force had been completely defeated, and some who could not withdraw surrendered. Union bombardments continued, but the fort was held until Sherman advanced into South Carolina in February, 1865.

Union troops digging a trench


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