At Fort Sumter, This Bizarre, Floating Contraption Helped Start the Civil War


At 4:30 a.m. April 12, 1861, on James Island in Charleston Harbor, Accomplice Lieutenant Henry Farley pulled the lanyard of a siege mortar. A strong thump rocked the bottom as an enormous 10-inch shell roared from the muzzle with a yellow-white flash. The heavy ball soared in an arc towards a darkish form looming a mile out within the calm waters of the harbor, a five-sided U.S. Military stronghold often known as Fort Sumter. It burst with a searing purple flash over the fort’s ramparts, scattering fragments principally into the water but in addition onto Sumter’s parade grounds.

The Civil Warfare had begun.

Over the following day and a half, a glut of shell and shot struck the ability’s stout brick partitions and rained upon its bastions and filth inside. The Confederates would use 47 cannons, howitzers, and mortars through the relentless 34-hour siege, most positioned inside a collection of forts and batteries that ringed the harbor.

However Sumter’s 85-man Federal garrison additionally needed to control a big, peculiar-looking contraption within the water itself—a tool that begged for a extra spectacular title however as a substitute was identified by the Rebels somewhat informally because the “Floating Battery.”

Fort Sumter was constructed on a man-made island of stone on the coronary heart of Charleston Harbor to defend in opposition to seaward assaults. This wartime map illustrates how susceptible it was to fireside from land batteries. A Fort Johnson cannon fired the conflict’s opening shot. (Naval Historical past and Heritage Command)

Nice Expectations

Geared up with 4 weapons, the battery had been constructed with grandiose expectations two months earlier. It will, nonetheless, change into a rapidly forgotten participant within the drama that started the Civil Warfare.

After seceding from the Union on December 20, 1860—the primary of 11 states to take action finally within the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s election—South Carolina had declared itself a republic. Anticipating a U.S. army response to the secession, state officers moved swiftly to determine an armed drive that might defend the state’s pursuits. When South Carolina joined with six different states to type the Accomplice States of America on February 8, 1861, its state forces grew to become a part of the Accomplice Military.

Development of the Floating Battery started through the six-week interval that adopted South Carolina’s secession—accomplished on a broad slipway in Marsh’s Shipyard close to the Cooper River, in full view of Fort Sumter and its commander, Main Robert Anderson. Designed as a barge with a broad flat deck, the craft was 100 toes lengthy and 25 toes broad. Alongside one lengthy face, a heavy façade of strong straight pine timbers shaped a wall with a sloped glacis and angled roof. It appeared to Anderson, who watched by his discipline glasses with curiosity and mounting trepidation, like “half of a lined bridge.” He additionally famous that black slaves endeavored alongside white staff in assembling the contraption.

american first

What Anderson was watching was the creation of America’s first floating ironclad artillery battery—modeled after a vessel first produced in France in 1855 and used through the Crimean Warfare. Underneath the supervision of Captain James (some sources say John) Randolph Hamilton, who had resigned from the Union Navy to hitch South Carolina’s state forces, the craft was crafted to hold 4 heavy cannons onto the harbor’s waters, which may very well be used to inflict injury to Sumter’s partitions or function a menace to enemy ships. Hamilton was in control of the ambitiously named Navy of South Carolina.

The battery, which the Yankees typically known as “The Raft,” had multilayered sides of palmetto logs and pine timbers one foot sq., every bolted to the others to type a nearly impenetrable barricade of strong wooden. Anderson totally realized the 4 sq. openings he noticed had been gunports, and because the days handed, he watched an outer shell of six layers of heavy iron boilerplate being bolted onto the wooden, then strengthened with railroad iron. The iron encased the complete face, sides, and sloping roof of the casemate.

The substantial reliance on slave labor in the construction of the Floating Battery, commented on by Fort Sumter’s Major Robert Anderson, is seen in this Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper drawing. The group effort at Marsh’s Shipyard proved productive. Construction was completed in a few weeks. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Underneath the 4 gunports, the façade angled backward, giving the phantasm of a ship’s hull. This could make a strong hit from a cannonball unlikely. To the rear, the deck timbers contained magazines for the powder. Above these had been tons of of sandbags, which did double obligation to defend the extremely explosive powder magazines and counterbalance the heavy casemate and cannon. Stable shot was saved in holds straight behind the weapons.

Initially Hamilton had hoped to mount boilers and a steam engine that will drive paddlewheels however relented when that proved impractical. The vessel could be towed by steam launches.

doomed to fail?

Anderson and his officers considered the creation with combined emotions. The consensus was that whereas the iron might shield it from Fort Sumter’s hearth, it might virtually definitely capsize or break aside throughout a battle. Captain John Foster, Anderson’s engineering officer, mentioned with confidence: “I don’t suppose this floating battery will show very formidable as it may be destroyed by our hearth earlier than it may do a lot injury.”

Anderson, whose expertise with artillery was top-drawer, was not as optimistic. He knew what a giant gun resembling a Dahlgren might do to a fort’s partitions, particularly when positioned—as this new menace undoubtedly could be—in shut proximity to Sumter. His biggest worry was that it might be aimed on the fort’s susceptible rear wall containing the wood gate and sally port.

The Floating Battery was moored near Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, as shown in this photo taken the evening before the Confederates opened fire on Sumter. (Heritage Image Partnership/Alamy Stock Photo)
The Floating Battery was moored close to Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, as proven on this picture taken the night earlier than the Confederates opened hearth on Sumter. (Heritage Picture Partnership/Alamy Inventory Picture)

Uncertain of what to do if the battery had been moved shut sufficient to be a severe menace, Anderson wrote the Warfare Division in Washington for orders: “What course would it not be correct to take, if with out a declaration of conflict, I ought to see them approaching my fort with that battery? They could try putting it inside long way with out a declaration of hostile intentions.”

buchanan blunders

Lame duck President James Buchanan prevaricated, nonetheless, issuing orders that had been each complicated and contradictory. At a February Cupboard assembly, he blared, “Crack away at them!” He rapidly modified his thoughts, nonetheless, in favor of passing the buck, clearly eager to keep away from any impulsive actions and subsequently dumping the scorching powder keg into the incoming president’s lap.

“In case you are satisfied by adequate proof that the raft of which you communicate is advancing for the aim of constructing an assault upon the fort, then you definately could be justified on the precept of self protection in not awaiting its precise arrival there, however in repelling drive by drive on its strategy,” Buchanan, in line with historian Richard Snow’s 2016 e book Iron Daybreak, equivocated. “If alternatively you could have purpose to consider that it’s approaching merely to take up a place at a long way, ought to the pending query not be amicably settled, then, until your security is so clearly endangered as to render resistance an act of needed self-defense and safety, you’ll act with the forbearance that has distinguished you heretofore.”

“I don’t suppose this floating battery will show very formidable as it may be destroyed by our hearth earlier than it may do a lot injury.” —Union Captain John Foster (Library of Congress)

Buchanan’s response left Anderson with much less confidence than earlier than. In the long run, the most important decided to attend to see what would occur.

On a day in late February, shortly after 8 a.m., greater than 5,000 Charlestonians had been readily available to witness the Floating Battery’s launch. The vessel slid down the shallow methods into the water with a surge of waves till it was introduced up brief by heavy ropes. To the amazement of some and the aid of others, the large craft did certainly float. It was then towed by steam launches to a cove at Sullivan’s Island close to Fort Moultrie and anchored a mile from Sumter’s northeast wall.

The battery’s armament, which was mounted after the launch, consisted of two 32-pounder and two 42-pounder naval smoothbores—primarily anti-ship weapons. Not like rifled weapons, they weren’t dependable sufficient for siege operations in opposition to a stone-and-brick fort, missing the wanted penetration energy. Anderson was relieved to be taught that the Confederates had not mounted at the least one Dahlgren, as he had feared.

One other incongruity was the choice to connect a floating hospital to the battery’s stern, fitted with a number of beds and two working tables—to be towed alongside in case of want in battle.

vacationer sight, not terror

Though the vessel was a direct sensation within the metropolis, attracting crowds of residents and vacationers, these assigned to sail and battle it had been lower than sanguine. The lads in Firm D of the South Carolina Artillery Battalion, often known as the Richardson Guards, had been satisfied that it was a demise entice and could be sunk or shattered in battle. They derisively known as it the “slaughter pen.”

Opined a reporter for The New York Instances: “[I]f the tide ought to flip round, and current her unprotected aspect to Main Anderson’s demise sellers at solely 600 yards, Captain Hamilton’s boys will discover a bloody grave.”

As Lincoln assumed the presidency on March 4, 1861, he realized that Anderson’s Fort Sumter garrison had solely sufficient meals to final till about April 15. In the meantime, Common P.G.T. Beauregard, commander of the Southern forces in Charleston, cabled the brand new Accomplice authorities in Montgomery, Ala., for directions. He was instructed in no unsure phrases to “challenge an order” for the Union forces to evacuate and give up the fort. However by the night of April 11, Anderson and his garrison continued to carry out.

That was the ultimate straw. All night time, Beauregard’s batteries and troops ready for the second of fact. An ultimatum had been delivered to Anderson that he give up and evacuate the fort. Anderson flatly refused. By 3 a.m. April 12, the die had been solid.

the First shot

Powder and shells, cartridges and balls, primers and lanyards had been readied. Then the fateful order got here from Beauregard to open hearth at 4:30 a.m. The 21-year-old Farley, famous for being the primary cadet to resign from the U.S. Navy Academy after his native South Carolina seceded, was given the glory of firing the primary shot. That will be the sign for the opposite weapons across the harbor to start firing on Sumter.

Desirous to preserve his ammunition, Beauregard had ordered that the batteries hearth in a predetermined sequence, going counterclockwise across the harbor, firing solely each two minutes. However quickly the gunners had been firing at will, maintaining a gradual cannonade.

Anderson saved his garrison in protected casemates till full daylight. Most accounts of the Federals’ response to the barrage report that the commander that morning ordered his weapons to open hearth on the enemy batteries that offered the best menace, however selected to not use the cannons on the higher parapet since they had been uncovered to enemy hearth.

This photo of remains from the Floating Battery was taken in Charleston Harbor after the vessel was devastated during a storm in 1863. Fort Sumter was in Union hands by then. (Library of Congress)
This picture of stays from the Floating Battery was taken in Charleston Harbor after the vessel was devastated throughout a storm in 1863. Fort Sumter was in Union palms by then. (Library of Congress)

In actuality, the Federals fired solely six pictures all through the siege, in line with Civil Warfare historian Craig Swain. What lastly compelled Anderson to comply with give up the citadel after 34 hours was the Accomplice use of “scorching shot,” which brought about fires within the fort—fires that threatened Anderson’s plentiful gunpowder provides. Regardless of the extent of Accomplice artillery hearth, pictures taken of the fort after the engagement present little injury to the aspect going through Sullivan’s Island and the Floating Battery. The one important injury was to the opposite aspect of the fort—the gorge wall—by the batteries at Cummings Level on Morris Island—and even that was not substantial.

By the point Anderson surrendered and lowered the scorched, torn U.S. flag, Beauregard’s gunners had loosed greater than 3,000 shells and shot on the fort. Hamilton and the Floating Battery remained engaged all through.

No official tally, nonetheless, was ever given for the variety of pictures it fired, with counts starting from as little as 100 to as many as 490.

the floating battery vindicated

The Charleston Mercury labeled the siege a “splendid pyrotechnics exhibition, [and] most of the weapons on the parapet had been dismounted and a part of the parapet swept away.” It additionally said proudly that the creators of the Floating Battery “have totally vindicated the correctness of their conception. Shot after shot fell upon them and glanced harmlessly away. [From] their favorable place their pictures fell with impact upon Fort Sumter.”

Whether or not the Floating Battery ever fired one other shot in anger after the siege of Fort Sumter is unsubstantiated. There may be proof it was positioned simply off Fort Johnson on James Island. Fort Johnson, the positioning the place Farley fired the primary shot in April 1861, was thought-about “Center Floor” within the harbor, and it’s probably, although unverified, that the Floating Battery fired on Federal ironclads on April 7, 1863. These supposed targets had been properly out of vary, nonetheless.

Locals gather in the Charleston Battery to watch Union siege opera-tions against Sumter on February 7, 1863. That day, the Floating Battery reportedly fired in vain at enemy ironclads. (NPS Photo)
Locals collect within the Charleston Battery to observe Union siege opera-tions in opposition to Sumter on February 7, 1863. That day, the Floating Battery reportedly fired in useless at enemy ironclads. (NPS Picture)

The Confederates had been compelled to desert Fort Sumter in the summertime of 1863, the identical 12 months the Floating Battery was reportedly broken in a storm and its weapons and the iron sheathing had been eliminated. The construction quickly got here aside, and by 1865 solely a part of its casemate remained above the ever-shifting sandy waters off Sullivan’s Island.

Anderson was eerily prescient commenting on the battery to the U.S. Warfare Division after returning to Washington: “If somebody conceived the thought, and it wouldn’t take a lot creativeness on the a part of these new enemies, of mounting a steam engine contained in the battery, the outcomes may very well be dire for the wood warships that make up everything of the U.S. Navy.” 

An avid scholar of Civil Warfare, naval, and army historical past, Mark Carlson additionally spent eight years as a reenactor. He’s a member of the Navy Writers Society of America, has contributed materials to greater than 20 nationwide magazines, and is the writer of The Marines’ Misplaced Squadron—The Odyssey of VMF-422. He lives in San Marcos, Calif.

Share:

Leave a Reply

GIPHY App Key not set. Please check settings