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The Confederate defense of Fort Sumter.

by Major John Johnson, C. S. Engineers.
My first recollections of Fort Sumter date back to my boyhood, about 1844, when the walls had not yet been begun, and the structure was only a few feet above high-water mark. Captain A. H. Bowman, of the Corps of Engineers of the United States Army, was in charge of works in Charleston harbor, and it was my fortune to visit the fort very frequently in his company.

A year and three months of my life were afterward spent in the fort, as engineer-in-charge, during the arduous and protracted defense by the Confederate forces in the years 1863 and 1864.

In the beginning of 1863 the fort was garrisoned by the greater part of the 1st South Carolina regiment of artillery, enlisted as regulars, and commanded by Colonel Alfred Rhett, Lieut.-Colonel Joseph A. Yates, and Major Ormsby Blanding. The drill, discipline, and efficiency of the garrison were maintained at the height of excellence. A spirit of emulation existed between this garrison and that of Fort Moultrie, on the opposite side of the channel, consisting of the 1st South Carolina Infantry (regulars), commanded by Colonel William Butler. The people of the State and city were proud of the two regiments; and the Charlestonians thought of no greater pleasure for their visitors than to give them an afternoon trip down the harbor to see the dress-parade and hear the band play at Fort Sumter. The fine record of this garrison, beginning with the 7th of April, 1863, when Rear-Admiral [24]

Captain Thomas A. Huguenin in the headquarters-room, Fort Sumter, December 7, 1864. from a War-time sketch.

Du Pont's attack with nine iron-clad vessels was repulsed, continued until September of the same year, when the fort, silenced by Major-General Gillmore's breaching batteries, had no further use for artillerists, and was thenceforth defended mostly by infantry. One or two companies of artillerists would serve their turns of duty, but the new garrison was made up of detachments from infantry regiments of Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, relieving one another every fortnight.

The walls of the fort rose, on all its five sides, to a height of forty feet above high-water in the harbor; but they varied in material and thickness. The materials used were the best Carolina gray brick, laid with mortar, a concrete of pounded oyster-shells and cement, and another and harder sort of concrete known as beton, and used only for the embrasures.

The scarp wall was five feet in thickness, but as it was backed by the piers and arches of the case-mates, “the walls of Fort Sumter,” as they are popularly called, varied from five to ten feet in thickness.

The damage done to Fort Sumter by Du Pont's naval attack was severe in a few places. [See p. 19.] The combined effect of two shells, 11-inch and 15-inch, respectively, striking near together on the outer eastern wall, or sea-front, was to make a complete breach on the interior of the upper case-mates, and to show a crater six feet in height and eight feet in width, on the exterior of the wall. In another place the parapet was loosened for twenty-five feet of its length, some of the bricks falling out and exposing the gun-carriage behind it.

The magazines of the fort naturally gave the defenders special concern. There were four, situated at the extremities of the gorge, nearest to Morris Island, and in pairs, one over the other. The stonework built for their protection externally had been carried up only to the tops of the lower magazines. All were used in the naval fight of April 7th, forthey were not then so imperiled by a naval fire as later when the eastern wall became reduced in height, and the monitors could look into the arches of the western casemates. Before Gillmore's guns opened, on the 17th of August, his operations on Morris Island caused the upper magazines to be abandoned and partly filled with sand to protect the lower ones. Only the eastern magazine then became endangered by his fire, and that so gradually as to allow ample time for the removal of its contents. It was my duty to examine and report the condition of these magazines almost hourly, and I well remember how, by the aid of a little bull's-eye lantern hanging from my finger, and casting fantastic shadows on the piled — up kegs of cannon powder, I would enter the chamber, apply my ear close to the surface of the massive wall, and await the coming of the next rifle-shell, to hear how much more it shook the fort than the last, and to estimate its gain of penetration. Then, at night, when the firing slackened, I would take a rod and tape-line and inspect the damage from the outside. The time came at length when it appeared prudent to remove the 11,000 pounds of powder from the eastern lower magazine, but it was never breached, and was even used as a store-room to the last.

The western magazine was less exposed to the direct fire from Morris Island; and on only two [25] occasions was it in any great danger from the fleet. The fort had been nearly silenced by the land-batteries, when there occurred two night attacks on the part of the iron-clad squadron, and shells were thrown over the sea-wall into the vicinity of the only remaining magazine. One shell, well aimed, was stopped by sand-bags in the gallery opening on the parade; one exploded near the closed copper doors of the outer chamber; another sent its smoke down the ventilator, and one set fire to some combustibles in the adjacent room used for charging shells. After that night of the 1st and 2d of September, the magazine was emptied of all but small-arms ammunition, the last of some 70,000 pounds of cannon-powder being removed from the fort under fire without accident.

But on the morning of the 11th of December, 1863, this small-arms magazine was blown up with disastrous effects. There had been quite a lull in the bombardment, and no firing on the fort for several days. The cause of the explosion was never discovered. A lower casemate on the western or city front, near the south-western angle, where the magazine lay, was occupied by Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Elliott (who had succeeded Colonel Rhett in command) and myself. As duty required night to be turned into day, we had not long turned day into night, but were fast asleep, when we were aroused by the noise of a great explosion, the dull sound of heavy falling masses, and the rush of sulphurous smoke into our quarters. I jumped out of bed and made for the embrasure, closed in wintry weather with a heavy oaken shutter. The casemates were so dark in winter mornings as to require lighting; and now every light had been extinguished by the explosion. We were well-nigh suffocated, but, quickly raising and propping up the heavy shutter, jumped out through the opening upon the rocky foundation of the fort, all awash with a high tide that chilled our bare feet. On reaching the new sally-port, on the city front, near the north-western angle, we found the smoke decreasing, but as no entrance into the magazine through those casemates could yet be effected, we were obliged to work our way around the outside of the fort nearly half of its entire circuit, and enter by another embrasure on t:he front opposite Sullivan's Island. Hastening into the parade of the fort, we found that the shelling had been resumed by the enemy as soon as they perceived the explosion; and, in crossing the parade diagonally to the point where the magazine-gallery had its entrance, the commander was slightly wounded on the head. Entering the narrow gallery, that grew darker as we penetrated into it, we met scorched men jostling us as they hurried to the light and the air. Nearing the magazine, before we were aware of it we trod in the darkness on the dead bodies of others tumbled together in the narrow gang-way. When the last body had been removed, and the passage once more was regained, it was seen that a fire was burning fiercely in the outer chamber of the magazine, used for provisions. Here Captain Edward D. Frost, then serving as post-commissary, must have been engaged at the moment of the explosion, issuing rations. He was instantly killed, and others with him; their bodies were never recovered.

The gathering smoke and flames soon drove us back again to the parade. Efforts were made to confine the flames to the magazine, by erecting some barricades; but no good came of it; and the only success that I remember at this juncture was achieved by the telegraph operator, Mr. W. R. Cathcart, who gathered up his wires, rescued his apparatus, and remounted it within another quarter of the fort. The fire, now beyond all control, spread rapidly upward, by the stairway, into the soldiers' quarters of the upper casemates, and swept destructively through the lower ones. Many were scorched in their bunks, and some were cut off from the stairway and had to be rescued through an opening in the wall, by a long ladder. By this accident 11 men were killed and 41 injured.

For several nights, everything — provisions, water, even the reliefs of fresh troops — had to be brought in by ladders from the wharf to the upper casemates; then it was necessary, after this level was gained, to ascend yet higher, to the top of the massive embankment of sand and debris that closed and protected these high-arched casemates from the fire of the fleet and batteries. Thence, from the crown of those arches, and through. a small opening, men, boxes, and barrels had to be brought by ladder, down fully thirty feet to the interior of the fort. It was weeks before the burnt quarters could be reoccupied.

The use of the calcium light was resorted to by Major-General Gillmore in his siege of Fort Wagner, and again from Cumming's Point. Considering the distance, three-quarters of a mile, the illuminating power at Fort Sumter was very great. The first night the light was displayed, in the winter of 1863, I read by it the largest type of a newspaper. Our sentinels on the wall were dazzled and annoyed by it. The darkness of the night and of the waters around the fort was seemingly increased tenfold by the contrast. The appearance of this light, thrown upon the battered walls and arches of Fort Sumter, was always striking and beautiful.

In the days of Fort Sumter's prime, a conspicuous object was the great flag-staff in the northern angle. Rising to a height of 80 or 100 feet above the harbor, it received the bolts and shells of Gillmore's first bombardment, until, splintered to a stump, it ceased to be used, and a smaller flag was displayed on the walls. Before that, the large garrison flag had been cut away seven times, and replaced by climbing. This I saw done repeatedly by Private John Drury, and once by Sergeant Schaffer, both of the 1st South Carolina Artillery. Afterward, when the flag was flown from the south-eastern angle, and again from the center of the gorgewall, I witnessed feats of replacing it under fire.1 [26]

It is a great mistake to suppose that Fort Sumter owed its protection mainly to the accumulation of its own debris. The bursting of a single large shell on the exterior slopes would often be attended with the absolute loss to the fort of a ton's weight of material. The waste of material from the combined effects of battering missiles, bursting shells, scattering winds, and boisterous waves was simply enormous. The excavation of the parade, carried down four or five feet, at first furnished the material needed for the precautionary filling of passages and casemates. But it soon became necessary to supply the fort almost nightly with large quantities of sand in bags, ready to be placed wherever it was needed. And whenever this source failed, resort was had to scraping up sand and gathering debris from the water's edge on the exterior.

To keep the fort from going to pieces under its terrible bombardments was not the only concern of its defenders. They had nightly to take every precaution against attack by small boats landing columns on the two fronts most exposed to assault. This mode of attack, tried by Rear-Admiral Dahlgren on the night of September 8th, 1863, failed in twenty minutes, with loss of life and the capture of 10 officers and 92 men. [See p. 50.] Afterward, when the walls were battered down much lower, and the task of climbing the exterior slopes was made much easier, it became necessary to anchor a boom of heavy logs off the exposed slopes, to spread wire entanglements near the base of them., and to place a bristling array of fraises--sharpened wooden pikes, set in frames, all along the crest. These obstructions had to be removed in daytime, or they would have been destroyed. The exposure of the men assigned to this duty was very great; they were always personally directed by Lieutenant John H. Houston, of the Engineer troops. It was while engaged inspecting these obstructions that Captain Frank Huger Harleston, of the 1st Artillery, was mortally wounded on the night of November 24th, 1863.

A complete system of interior defense was perfected as early as December, 1863, consisting of barricades and blindages of sand-bags or logs as the case required, loop-holed for infantry and pierced for howitzer fire, searching every part of the interior of the fort. The garrison, in event of being driven to take refuge in the casemates and bomb-proofs, could thus protect itself, while all the Confederate batteries around the harbor could be signaled to open on the fort.

The successor of Lieutenant-Colonel Elliott in command of the fort was Captain John C. Mitchel, of the old garrison, viz., the 1st South Carolina Artillery. Few young Confederate officers impressed me more favorably. He was a born soldier, a man of nerve, finely tempered as steel, with habits of order, quick perception, and decision, and he had been earnestly recommended for promotion. A little after noon on the 20th of July, 1864, he took with him up to the highest point in the fort, the south-western angle, his favorite telescope, which he was using to observe the enemy's works on Morris Island, when he was mortally wounded.

When demolished by land-batteries of unprecedented range, the fort endured for more than eighteen months their almost constant fire, and for a hundred days and nights their utmost power, until it could with truth be said that it at last tired out, and in this way silenced, the great guns that once had silenced it.2 From having been a desolate ruin, a shapeless pile of shattered walls and casemates, showing here and there the guns disabled and half-buried in splintered wrecks of carriages, its mounds of rubbish fairly reeking with the smoke and smell of powder, Fort Sumter under fire was transformed within a year into a powerful earth-work, impregnable to assault, and even supporting the other works at the entrance of Charleston harbor with six guns of the heaviest caliber.

Thus it was not until February, 1865, a few months only before the war came to an end, that General Sherman's march through the interior of South Carolina obliged the withdrawal of Confederate garrisons and troops from Charleston and its vicinity. I had been sent elsewhere on duty, and was glad to be spared the leave-taking that fell to others. On the night of the 17th of February, 1865, the commander, Captain Thomas A. Huguenin, silently and without interruption effected the complete evacuation. He has often told me of the particulars, and I have involuntarily accompanied him in thought and feeling as, for the last time, he went the rounds of the deserted fort. The ordered casemates with their massive guns were there, but in the stillness of that hour his own footfall alone gave an echo from the arches overhead. The labyrinthine galleries, as he traversed them, were lighted for a moment by his lantern; he passed out from the shadows to step aboard the little boat awaiting him at the wharf, and the four years defense of Fort Sumter was at an end. [27]

The Union tug “Plato” (with torpedo Rake at the bow) in the Stono River, near Charleston. From a War-time sketch.

1 November 27th, 1863, the shot-marker at the lookout on the western extremity of the gorge, Private James Tupper, Jr., of the Charleston Battalion, seeing the flag shot away, walked, exposed the whole length of the crest, to the point where he was met by three others of the same command, C. B. Foster, W. C. Buck-heister, and A. J. Bluett, who had clambered up by the ladders. But his comrades were ready, and with their assistance he managed to display the flag in about twelve minutes. They were all exposed to great danger. One shell struck the flag-staff out of their hands.

January 29th, 1864, the flag was shot away at the same locality, and replaced by Privates Shafer and Banks, assisted by Corporal Brassingham, all of Lucas's Battalion of Artillery, and greatly aided by the acting adjutant of the post, H. Bentivoglio Middleton of the Signal Corps.

Later in the same year, the flag of the post was moved to the center of the gorge-wall, at a point on the crest, accessible by a short ladder from the top of the bombproof quarters. The practice with two 30-pounder Parrott rifles, at Cumming's Point, distant three-quarters of a mile, was so fine that more than three shots were seldom required for cutting down the staff; sometimes a single shot sufficed. June 20th, 1864, the flag was reported shot away. The larger part of the staff remained fast in the crest of the gorge, while the splintered spar, bearing the flag, was thrown inwardly to the ground. But some slight delay arising in the planting, Lieutenant Charles H. Claibourne, of the 1st South Carolina Infantry (regulars), mounted the wall with the colors, and in full view of the enemy, and under a rapid fire, lashed the two parts of the staff together with the halyard ropes, assisted by two brave, spirited men of the Engineer Department, Sergeant Nicholas F. Devereux and Corporal B. Brannon.--J. J.

2 Fifty-one heavy rifle cannon were expended on Morris Island by the Union batteries.--J. J.

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