Inside Sumter in '61.
James Chester, Captain Third Artillery, U.S.A.
Toward the close of 1860, the national defenses of Charleston Harbor, consisting of Castle Pinckney, Fort Moultrie, and Fort Sumter, were garrisoned by an army of 65 men instead of the 1050 men that were required. Fort Moultrie alone, where the 65 soldiers were stationed, required 300 men for its defense, and Fort Sumter, to which they were ultimately transferred, was designed for a garrison of 650.
Fort Moultrie, at the time of which we write, was considered a rather pleasant station, Sullivan's Island being a favorite summer resort. Many of the wealthy citizens of Charleston had their summer residences there, and indeed some of them lived there all the year round. There was a large summer hotel on the beach half-way up the island, and a horse railway connected the steamboat wharf and the hotel. The military reservation stretched across the island from the front to the back beach, like a waistbelt of moderate width, and the fort looked like a big buckle at the front end. It was a brick structure, or rather an earthen structure revetted with brick. It was bastioned on the land side, and had a scarp wall perhaps fifteen feet high; but the sand had drifted against it at some points so as almost to bury its masonry. With its full complement of men it could hardly have been held against a numerous and enterprising enemy, and with 65 men it was plainly untenable.
This garrison consisted of two skeleton companies and the regimental band of the 1st Artillery. They had occupied the fort since 1857, and were fairly well acquainted in the neighborhood. Indeed, several of the men had been enlisted at the post, and were native Carolinians. As the political pot began to boil toward the close of 1860 and secession was openly discussed, the social position of the garrison became anomalous. Army officers had always been favorites in the South; and as they were discreet and agreeable, it is not surprising, perhaps, that their society continued to be sought after, even by the most outspoken secessionists, up to the actual commencement of hostilities. But enlisted men, even in the South, were social outcasts. It was rather surprising, therefore, to find them receiving attentions from civilians. But the fact is that the soldiers of the army were never before treated with such consideration in the South as on the eve of the rebellion.I The secessionists were determined to have the fort, and they wanted to get it without bloodshed. They had failed with the commissioned officers, and they had no better success with the soldiers: every enlisted man remained faithful to the Union.
The old commander of Fort Moultrie, Colonel John L. Gardner, was removed; the new one, Major Robert Anderson of Kentucky, arrived on November 21st. As a Southern man, he was expected to be reasonable. If he had scruples upon the question of qualified allegiance, he might surrender on demand, on purely professional grounds. No one doubted Major Anderson's professional ability, and of course he could see the hopelessness of his situation at Moultrie. Moreover, he was a humane man, and would be unwilling to shed blood needlessly. But his actions clearly indicated that he would not surrender on demand. He continued defensive preparations with as much energy and zeal as his predecessor, and manifestly meant to fight. This was very discouraging to the preachers of bloodless secession, and when he transferred his command to Sumter their occupation was completely gone. Nothing but war would now get him out. Hence the efforts to get him ordered back again by President Buchanan-efforts which almost succeeded.
The transfer of Major Anderson's command from Moultrie to Sumter was neatly executed early in the evening of December 26th, 1860. It was a few minutes after sunset when the troops left Moultrie; the short twilight was about over when they reached the boats; fifteen or twenty minutes more carried them to Sumter. The workmen had just settled down to an evening's enjoyment when armed men at the door startled them. There was no parleying, no explaining; nothing but stern commands, silent astonishment, and prompt obedience. The workmen were on the wharf, outside the fort, before they were certain whether their captors were secessionists or Yankees.
Meantime the newly arrived troops were busy enough. Guards were posted, embrasures secured, and, as far as practicable, the place was put in a defensible condition against any storming-party which chagrin might drive the guard-boat people to send against it. Such an attempt was perfectly feasible. The night was very dark; the soldiers were on unknown ground and could not find their way about readily; many of the embrasures could not be closed; and there were at least a hundred willing guides and helpers already on the wharf and in a fine frame of mind for such work. But nothing was attempted, and when the soldiers felt themselves in a position to repel any attempt against them that night, two guns were fired as a signal to friends that the occupation had been successfully accomplished, and that they might proceed with their part of the programme. This was the first intimation the guard- boat people had of the transfer; and, indeed, it told them nothing, except that some soldiers must have got into Sumter. But they blew their alarm-whistle all the same, and burned blue-lights; signal- rockets were sent up from various points, and there was great excitement everywhere in the harbor until morning.
When the signal-guns were fired, the officer in charge of the two schooners which had carried provisions and ammunition to Fort Johnson (under the pretense that they were subsistence for the women and children, whom he had also carried there as a cloak) cast loose his lines and made all speed for Sumter, and the old sergeant who had been left in Moultrie for the purpose set fire to the combustibles which had been heaped around the gun-carriages, while another man spiked the guns. The garrison from the ramparts of its new nest grimly approved of the destruction of the old one.
At dawn of December 27th the men were up and ready for any emergency; indeed, most of them had been up all night. Captain Foster had been specially busy with his former employees. Among them he found several loyal men, and also some doubtful ones who were willing to share the fortunes of the garrison. These constituted an acceptable addition to our working strength, although those classed as doubtful would have been an element of weakness in case of a fight. However, they did much good work before hostilities began, and the worst ones were weeded out before we were closely invested. Those who remained to the end were excellent men. They endured the hardships of the siege and the dangers of the bombardment without a murmur, and left Sumter with the garrison- one of them, John Swearer, severely wounded-with little besides the clothes they stood in. They were the first volunteers for the Union, but were barred from the benefits secured by legislation for the national soldiers, having never been "mustered in."
Fort Sumter was unfinished, and the interior was filled with building materials, guns, carriages, shot, shell, derricks, timbers, blocks and tackle, and coils of rope in great confusion. Few guns were mounted, and these few were chiefly on the lowest tier. The work was intended for three tiers of guns, but the embrasures of the second tier were incomplete, and guns could be mounted on the first and third tiers only.
The complete armament of the work had not yet arrived, but there were more guns on hand than we could mount or man. The first thing to be considered was immediate defense. The possibility of a sudden dash by the enemy, under cover of darkness and guided by the discharged workmen then in Charleston, demanded instant attention. It was impossible to spread 65 men over ground intended for 650, so some of the embrasures had to be bricked up. Selecting those, therefore, essential to artillery defense, and mounting guns in them, Anderson closed the rest. This was the work of many days; but we were in no immediate danger of an artillery attack. The armament of Moultrie was destroyed; its guns were spiked, and their carriages burned; and it would take a longer time to put them in condition than it would to mount the guns of Sumter.
On the parade were quantities of flag-stones standing on end in masses and columns everywhere. We dared not leave them where they were, even if they had not been in the way, because mortar shells bursting among them would have made the very bomb-proofs untenable. A happy idea occurred to some one in authority, and the flag-stones were arranged two tiers high in front of the casemates, and just under the arches, thus partly closing the casemates and making excellent splinter- proofs. This arrangement, no doubt, saved the garrison from many wounds similar to that inflicted on John Swearer, for it was in passing an opening unprotected by the screen that he was struck by a fragment of shell.
Moving such immense quantities of material, mounting guns, distributing shot, and bricking up embrasures kept us busy for many weeks. But order was coming out of chaos every day, and the soldiers began to feel that they were a match for their adversaries. Still, they could not shut their eyes to the fact that formidable works were growing up around them. The secessionists were busy too, and they had the advantage of unlimited labor and material. Fort Moultrie had its armament again in position, and was receiving the framework of logs which formed the foundation for its sandbag bomb-proofs. The Stevens's Point floating battery was being made impregnable by an overcoat of railroad iron; and batteries on Morris, James, and Sullivan's islands were approaching completion. But our preparations were more advanced than theirs; and if we had been permitted to open on them at this time, the bombardment of Sumter would have had a very different termination. But our hands were tied by policy and instructions.
The heaviest guns in Sumter were three ten-inch columbiads-considered very big guns in those days. They weighed fifteen thousand pounds each, and were intended for the gorge and salient angles of the work. We found them skidded on the parade ground. Besides these there was a large number of eight-inch columbiads-more than we could mount or man- and a full supply of 42, 32, and 24-pounders, and some eight-inch sea- coast howitzers. There was an ample supply of shot and shell, and plenty of powder in the magazines, but friction primers were not abundant and cartridge-bags were scarce. The scarcity of cartridge- bags drove us to some strange makeshifts. During the bombardment several tailors were kept busy making cartridge-bags out of soldiers' flannel shirts, and we fired away several dozen pairs of woolen socks belonging to Major Anderson. In the matter of friction primers strict economy had to be observed, as we had no means of improvising a substitute.
Our first efforts in preparation were directed toward mounting the necessary guns on the lowest tier. These consisted of 42 and 32- pounders, and as the necessary trucks, gins, and tackle were on hand, the work went on rapidly. The men were in fine condition and as yet well fed; besides, they had the assistance of the engineer workmen, who soon became experts at this kind of work. Meantime a party of mechanics were making the main gate secure. This was situated at the middle of the gorge or base of the pentagon (the trace of the work was pentagonal), which was also the south-west side. It was closed by two heavy iron-studded gates, the outer a folding pair, and the inner arranged on pulleys, so that it could be raised or lowered at will. It was clear that the enemy, if he meant to bombard us, would erect batteries on Morris Island, and thus would be able to deliver an oblique fire on the gate sufficient to demolish it in a very few minutes. The gate once demolished, a night assault would become practicable.
To meet this possible emergency the main entrance was closed by a substantial brick wall, with a man-hole in the middle two feet wide and opposite to the man-hole in the gate. This wall was about six feet high, and to increase the security and sweep the wharf, an eight-inch sea-coast howitzer was mounted on its upper carriage without any chassis, so as to fire through the man-hole. The howitzer was kept loaded with double canister. To induce the belief that the folding gates were our sole dependence at this point, their outer surface was covered with iron.
The lower tier of guns being mounted, the more difficult operation of sending guns up to the third tier began. The terre-plein of the work was about fifty feet above parade level,-a considerable hoist,-but a pair of shears being already in position, and our tackle equal to the weight of eight-inch columbiads, the work went on amidst much good humor until all the guns of that caliber were in position.
We had now reached a problem more difficult to solve, namely, sending up our ten-inch columbiads. We were extremely desirous to have them-or at least two of them-on the upper tier. They were more powerful guns than any the enemy had at that time, and the only ones in our possession capable of smashing the iron-clad defenses which might be constructed against us. We had rumors that an iron-clad floating battery was being built in Charleston, which the enemy proposed to anchor in some convenient position so as to breach Sumter at his leisure. We had no faith in the penetrating power of the eight-inch guns, and if we wished to demolish this floating adversary, it was necessary that the ten-inch guns should be mounted. Besides, an iron- clad battery was well on the road to completion at Cumming's Point (twelve hundred yards from the weakest side of Sumter), which, from what we could see of it, would be impervious to any less powerful gun.
There was in the fort a large coil of very heavy rope, new, and strong enough to sustain fifteen thousand pounds, but some of the doubtful workmen had cut several strands of it at various points on the outside of the coil; at least we could account in no other way for the damage. Besides, we had no blocks large enough to receive the rope even if it had been uninjured. The rope was uncoiled and examined. The portion on the inner side of the coil was found uninjured, and a few splices gave rope enough for a triple tackle sixty feet long. The improvisation of blocks of sufficient size and strength now became the sole remaining difficulty, and it was overcome in this way: the gun-carriages of those days were made of well-seasoned oak, and one of them was cut up and the material used for the construction of blocks. When the blocks were finished the iron-clad battery was shorn of half of its terrors.
Excerpted from Hearts Touched by Fire by Edited and with an Introduction by Harold Holzer. Copyright © 2011 by Harold Holzer. Excerpted by permission of Modern Library, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.