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The “swamp Angel.”

by William S. Stryker, Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel, U. S. V., A. D. C. To General Gillmore.
The Confederate attack on Fort Sumter marked the beginning, and the second and third bombardments by the Union guns the middle period of the civil war. Morris Island and Folly Island, two low sand-reefs, constitute the southerly bounds of the outer harbor of the city of Charleston. Morris Island, which is nearly four miles long, contains about four hundred acres of sand dunes and salt marshes; the portion of the island lying toward James Island being formed almost entirely of very soft morasses, and traversed by deep bayous and crooked creeks in every direction.

The Union troops under Major-General Quincy A. Gillmore, the Tenth Army Corps, in the early morning of July 10th, 1863, crossed Light-house Inlet from Folly Island and captured a large portion of Morris Island. [See p. 58.] The Confederate forces still held Cumming's Point Battery and Battery Wagner on that part of Morris Island nearest to Fort Sumter and to Charleston. On the 13th day of July, 1863, General Gillmore directed Lieu tenant Peter S. Michie, United States Corps of Engineers,--now Colonel Michie, a professor in the Military Academy at West Point,--to make an examination of the marshes on the left of our position toward Charleston and ascertain if it were possible to construct a battery from which to fire into that city. In compliance with this order he spent some time in the examination of the swamp district of Morris Island, and then reported the result of his investigations to the commanding general. On the morning of July 16th General Gillmore, while at breakfast, told Colonel Edward W. Serrell, Volunteer Engineers,--now General Serrell, the distinguished civil engineer of New York City,--of the great desirability of securing a position from which fire could be opened upon the city of Charleston, and directed him to inquire into the matter. As soon as breakfast was finished, Colonel Serrell and Lieutenant Nathan M. Edwards, of his own command, started across the marsh, carrying a fourteen-foot plank between them. When the mud would not bear them they sat on the plank and pushed it forward between their legs. When, again, the soil appeared stiffer, they carried the plank until they reached the soft mud once more. And so the first examination was made in open view of three Confederate forts and twelve batteries, and on a day of most intense heat. However, a spot was found where the mud seemed of slight depth and where the city of Charleston could be distinctly seen. A position was selected by Colonel Serrell, as he says in his official report, “at a point bearing from the south-westerly end of the hard ground a course by magnetic compass north 40° west, to a point from which the bearing to Fort Sumter is north 12° east, and to the old beacon-light south 86° east.” This place was about 7900 yards from Charleston. In the evening Colonel Serrell reported to General Gillmore that he believed a battery could be constructed at a place which he indicated on the map, and suggested that it be made of sand-bags with a platform of grillage. He thought a gun weighing not over 10,000 pounds could be placed on skids having a bearing of 100 square feet and taken across the marsh, in the same manner in which Bonaparte took his field-pieces over the Alps on the snow. He estimated that 2300 men could carry, in one night, filled sand-bags sufficient in number to make the battery; that 60 soldiers could carry the platform; that 450 men could put the gun into the battery, and 35 men could carry the magazine.

For several days after the report was prepared careful examinations were made by Colonel Serrell, [73] and various experiments tried under his direction. to ascertain the bearing qualities of the marsh. Many soundings were made at various points with a thirty-foot iron rod, and the mud was found in places to be twenty feet deep, the rod being pushed down to that depth with ease. The swamp was covered with wild grass; but this grass had no sustaining power whatever, and it was quite easy for men on a plank to start waves of mud across the surface of the marsh. A platform was constructed, and piles of sand-bags, regularly laid, were mounted on it. It was found that the platform held 600 pounds to the square foot, uniformly distributed, but at 900 pounds to the foot the platform sank at one corner, and the sand-bags slid off and vanished in the mud. A story was current in the department at the time that a requisition had been sent to Colonel Serrell by some one, more of a wit than an officer, in which a detail was called for of “twenty men eighteen feet long to do duty in fifteen feet of mud.”

On the morning of the 2d of August a general plan for the construction of the marsh battery was submitted by Colonel Serrell to General Gillmore. It received his immediate approval, and preparations were begun for cutting the timber and building a trestle-work roadway across the marsh. This road, some two and a half miles long, was made during the following week, and then the difficult construction of the marsh battery was commenced under the direct fire of Batteries Haskell, Cheves, and Simkins and the other smaller Confederate works on James Island. A very large party of soldiers was detailed to make and fill sand-bags. A mock battery was built under Colonel Serrell's orders to the left of the proposed marsh battery by Lieutenants Edwards and Charles V. Hartman, of the Volunteer Engineers, for the purpose of drawing the Confederate fire from our working parties.

This plan was successful. The foundation for the real battery was commenced under the direction of Colonel Serrell by placing two large platforms on the surface of the marsh. Sheet piling was driven to surround the gun-platform. The piling to be pressed down into the mud, pointed at one end, was fastened crosswise to a long pole by a rope. The shorter end of this pole having been attached to one of the platforms loaded with sand-bags, a party of men on. the other platform, pulling on the long end of the pole, pushed the piling down the twenty feet to the sand. substratum. In this way much of it was done, but it was found most convenient to work about fifteen soldiers at each end, and by the weight of thirty men push the pile down. When this foundation of piling had all been pressed down into place surrounding what was to be the gundeck, a grillage of pine logs was bolted securely together surrounding three sides of it. On this construction of cross-beams 13,000 sand-bags weighing over 800 tons were placed, having been carried from the camp of the Volunteer Engineers across the trestle work, and a parapet with epaulement was built upon it.

On the 12th day of August a careful picketing of all the streams and inlets thereabout was made by boats armed with naval howitzers, so that the soldiers at work in the marsh should not be surprised, and on the 17th an 8-inch 200-pounder Parrott rifle gun was successfully transported over the marsh and mounted in the battery.1 It was immediately christened the “Swamp Angel” by the soldiers in the camp.

On the morning of August 21st General Gillmore sent a communication to General Beauregard, who was in command of the Confederate troops in the military district of Charleston, with the demand for the immediate evacuation of Morris Island and Fort Sumter, and stating that unless this was done the city itself would be shelled from “batteries already established within easy and effective range of the heart of the city.” No attention was paid to this notice, and that night General Gillmore ordered Lieutenant Charles Sellmer, 11th Regiment Maine Volunteers, who had been a sergeant of artillery in the old army before the war, and is now a captain in the 3d Regiment United States Artillery, to take a detachment of his command to the battery and sight the gun just to the left of the steeple of St. Michael's Church in Charleston. Colonel Serrell, assisted by Lieutenant Edwards, had laid the line of fire in the afternoon. They were kept in the battery for over three hours under a tremendous fire from the enemy while putting in range stakes to fire by in the night, as no part of the city could then be seen. The gun was given an elevation of 31° 30°, Colonel Serrell having had the top carriage altered to enable this to be done; and it was charged, by special instructions, with twenty pounds of powder, being four pounds greater than the ordinary service charge.

At half-past 1 on the morning of August 22d the first shell with percussion-fuse was fired from the “Swamp Angel.” The noise made by bells and whistles in the middle of the night told the Union soldiers that the shell had fallen into the city. Sixteen shells were fired that early morning hour. Twelve of the shells fired were of Mr. R. P. Parrott's own construction at the West Point foundry, and filled with a fluid composition, and the other four shells were filled with “Short's Solidified Greek fire.” General Beauregard wrote General Gillmore on the morning of August 22d, saying, “Your firing a number of the most destructive missiles ever used in war into the midst of a city taken unawares and filled with sleeping women and children will give you a bad eminence in history.” The general replied, and on August 23d twenty more shells, filled with “Greek fire,” were fired from the gun in the marsh. Six of these shells exploded in the gun, doubtless shortening the life of the piece to some extent. On the thirty-sixth discharge of the “Swamp Angel,” the breech of the gun just behind the vent blew out of its jacket and the gun was thrown forward on the [74] parapet. The gun as it appeared on the parapet seemed to the Confederates as if in position for firing, and a large amount of ammunition was needlessly expended upon it.

From the hour of 1 o'clock on the afternoon of August 21st, when Lieutenant Sellmer's detachment started for the battery, thirteen guns and mortars, among which were two 10-inch Columbiads

The “swamp Angel” mounted as a monument, in Trenton, New Jersey.

and two 10-inch sea-coast mortars, were trying to prevent the manning of the gun, and, after it had commenced firing, to silence it. But they did little damage to the battery and none to the men. The mortar shells, with long-time fuses, did not explode until they had stuck in the mud, and the shells from the Columbiads burst in front of the parapet and did no damage.

No other guns were mounted in the marsh battery until September 7th, when Battery Wagner surrendered to the Union troops.2 Then two 10-inch sea-coast mortars were placed there to draw off the fire of the batteries on James Island.

Colonel Serrell says that the distinctive features of the marsh battery as a work of engineering were “that the gun-platform was placed upon a gun-deck resting upon vertical sheet piling, outside and around which there was a grillage of logs. If the gun and the other weights upon the gun-deck were heavy enough to tend to sink in the mud, the weight upon the grillage, in the form of sand in bags, which formed the parapet and epaulement of the battery, by being increased, counterpoised the gun-deck. It was simply a force meeting another force of a like amount in an opposite direction.” The English journal, “Engineering,” in its review of the operations of the Federal and Confederate armies at the close of the war, speaks of the construction of this battery as one of the most important engineering works done by either army. It was a successful piece of difficult engineering, and a practical method of inflicting damage on a city nearly five miles distant, regardless of its army, its cannon, and its great fortifications, which were within close sight and easy range.

The “Swamp Angel” was purchased after the war with some condemned metal and sent to Trenton, New Jersey, to be melted, but, having been identified, was set up on a granite monument in that city on the corner of Perry and Clinton streets.

1 This gun never was used in breaching the walls of Fort Sumter, and the great 300-pounder rifle gun which did such execution on that fort never fired into Charleston.--editors.

2 After the capture of Batteries Wagner and Gregg, guns were mounted on the latter fortification. General Gillmore, in his exhaustive work on “Engineer and Artillery Operations against the Defenses of Charleston in 1863” (New York, Van Nostrand, 1865), gives the record of one 30-pounder Parrott that sent 4253 shells to-ward the city of Charleston, many of them reaching it, others falling short.--W. S. S.

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