Table of Contents The Swamp Angel The Galena Blakely The Gettysburg Gun The Four Apostles The "Opening Gun" at Gettysburg The Widow Blakely The Guns of the Monitor The Dictator The Gun that sank the Alabama
The Swamp Angel
The following text is excerpted from the award winning book, Gate of Hell, Campaign for Charleston Harbour, 1863,
By Stephen R. Wise, University of South Carolina Press, 1994 with the
gracious permission of the author. Wise is the director of the Museum
at Parris Island and a member of the Board of the SC Battleground Preservation Trust, Inc.
The Battery is Constructed
Beside the calcium lights, Gillmore also ordered incendiary shells,
commonly called "Greek Fire." Two types of "Greek Fire" were received.
One was made by Robert Parrott for use in his cannon, while the other was known as Short's Solidified Greek Fire. In both
cases an incendiary material was placed inside a special shell that was
designed to explode over a target and start a fire.
Gillmore planned to use his "Greek Fire" in a battery specifically built to shell Charleston. Shortly after the July 18, 1863 attack, Gillmore instructed Colonel Serrell to explore the possibilities of
constructing a battery in the marsh between James and Morris islands.
By one account, Serrell gave the duty to a young engineer lieutenant
who, after examining the salt marsh, declared the project could not be
done. Serrell informed the doubting engineer that nothing was
impossible and to requisition any necessary materials. A short time
later, Serrell received a request for twenty men eighteen feet tall for
work in the marsh. At the same time another request was sent to the
department's surgeon asking him to splice three six-foot men together
to make the needed eighteen-footers. The requests did not amuse
Serrell, and he soon replaced the young officer.
True or not, Colonel Serrell did take over the project and, with
assistance from Lieutenant Michie, developed a plan for one of the most
unique batteries ever constructed. After seventeen days of personally
trudging through the marsh and carrying out tests, Serrell developed a
design that Gillmore approved, and on the evening of August 10, the
engineers, supported by fatigue parties from the 7th New Hampshire,
The battery was built in two parts. The parapet was constructed
first. For its foundation, sheet pilings were driven into the marsh by
use of a hand, lever-operated driver. On top of the pilings was bolted
a three-sided grillege of logs two layers thick. The grillege
surrounded three sides of a rectangular area where the gun platform was
to be located.
Placed on the grillege were thirteen thousand sandbags,
weighing more than eight hundred tons. The sandbags were carried to the
battery by the men of the 7th New Hampshire over a plank causeway two
to four feet wide and seventeen hundred yards long. The journey took
the men over an hour to complete and many fell off the slippery boards
into the marsh. The men from New Hampshire complained that they felt
"like a church steeple," as they walked over the planks, attracting the
fire of Confederate batteries on James Island.
Once the parapet was completed, work began on the gun platform. Here,
Serrell's careful calculations came into play. The platform had to
support the weight of a 24,000 pound gun and carriage while not disrupting the parapet. To accomplish this, Serrell did
not connect the parapet to the platform. Instead, he designed the
battery so its two parts floated on the marsh in equilibrium. To
construct the gun deck, the engineers packed down marsh grass, canvas,
and sand in the rectangular area formed by the parapet. Then on top of
this base they placed a close-fitting plank platform.
The Confederates, from positions on James Island, dimly
watched the Northerners working nightly in the marsh and on occasion
would lob shells toward the working parties. To confuse the enemy,
Serrell had a mock battery established to the south of the real
battery. At the same time, log-booms were placed in the surrounding
creeks and armed launches watched for any Confederate attacks. During
the day, the working parties went back to their camps and rested while
a squad of soldiers armed with seven-shot Spencer rides garrisoned the
empty battery. Though the guards suffered under long-range bombardments
from Southern artillery, the men remained hidden and made no hostile
motions except to attack their rations.
While operating in the marsh, the Northerners managed to
complete their tasks with little interference from the Confederates.
Serrell and the engineers pushed the project toward completion as
quickly as possible. The soldiers providing the labor found the work
hard, and since they did not understand the reason for the work, they
often contemptuously referred to the project as the Marsh Croaker, Mud
Lark, and Serrell's Folly.
By August 17 the battery was ready for its armament. First the
8,000-pound iron carriage was ferried out to the site, then the huge,
16,300-pound, 8 inch Parrott was taken from the wharf at the south end of Morris Island and placed on a specially prepared boat. Positioned over the keel,
the Parrott weighed the vessel down so that it floated with only five
inches of freeboard. The trip to the battery was slow, with water
constantly being pumped from the boat, but before daylight, the Parrott
was successfully landed and placed on the platform.
Four days later,
the gun was mounted. Serrell's calculations had been accurate. The
downward pressure from the mounted gun did not disturb the parapet, and
soon the battery was readied for action.
The battery's garrison was a detachment of the 11 th Maine
Infantry under Lieutenant Charles Sellmer, who had served nine years in
the regular artillery and had attended the artillery school at Fort
Monroe before the war. Sellmer's detachment had been called up from
Fernandina, Florida, on July 22 for service in the siege lines and,
after a few weeks operating mortar batteries, they were assigned to
take over Gillmore's marsh battery.
On August 21, Sellmer and his men
took charge of the work, which was now referred to as the "Swamp
Angel," a name given the battery by a member of the 31-0 Rhode Island
Artillery. The next evening, Sellmer supervised the unloading of
shells, powder cartridges, primers, and other needed implements. While
Sellmer readied his gun, engineer Captain Nathaniel Edwards took
compass readings on St. Michael's church steeple in downtown Charleston for night firing. Whenever Gillmore was ready, the Swamp Angel was prepared to fire into Charleston.
Why (Gen.) Gillmore erected and used this battery has never
been fully explained. In his official report, Gilhnore states that the
battery was built to drive shipping away from the city's wharves, and
at other times, the whole episode seems to take on the atmosphere of a
giant experiment in engineering and artillery firing.
By existing rules of warfare, Charleston was a legitimate
target. It was an armed camp. There were fortifications in the city. It
was home to a number of munition plants, and its wharves served
blockade runners who carried war supplies.
But the reasons ran even deeper. To Northerners, Charleston
was the symbol of rebellion. It was there that South Carolina officials
voted for secession and started the inevitable march toward war. The
firing on Fort Sumpter,
which started the conflict, only increased the North's belief that
Charleston was a city of fire-eaters who deserved punishment. For most
Northerners, Charleston's destruction seemed just retribution.
The Northern military also wanted redemption. Their impotence
during the 1861 Fort Sumter crisis had deeply wounded the pride of many
officers. If they could reduce Charleston like the Romans had reduced
Carthage, so much the better.
Gilhnore was well aware of these attitudes and shared them. He
also had a personal motive for firing on the city. His well-laid-out
plan had gone awry. He had seen his army shattered on the sands of
Morris Island and his own physical condition reduced as the campaign
sapped his confidence and energy. Revenge, for the blood of his
soldiers, his countrymen, and himself, was also an important factor in
his construetion and use of the Swamp Angel.
The Swamp Angel Fires into Charleston
On August 21, in the midst of the firing on Fort Sumter, Gilhnore received word that the marsh battery, located seventy-nine hundred yards from Charleston, was completed and ready to fire. While the soldiers from the Ilth Maine,
who made up the gun crew for the marsh battery's 8-inch Pasrott,
completed their final preparations, Gillmore sent a message by way of
Wagner to Charleston, demanding that General Beauregard (left) immediately evacuate Morris Island and Fort Sumter or Charleston would
be fired upon. The note reached Confederate headquarters at 10:45 P.M.
Beauregard was not present and since the message was unsigned, it was
returned for verification.
At 1:30 A.M., August 22, Lieutenant Charles Sellmer, aiming his
gun by the compass reading taken on St. Michael's steeple, fired the
first round into the city. Before dawn, the Swamp Angel would send
sixteen shells into Charleston, with ten containing either Short's or
Parrott's "Greek Fire." The resulting flames were clearly seen, and
some sharp eared soldiers heard the bells and whistles of Charleston's
The Shells Land in Charleston
Since the Confederates had ignored Gillmore's note, not believing
it was official, no forewarning was given, and the first explosion
caused everything from pandemonium to disdainful disgust. At the Charleston Hotel,
the British illustrator and journalist Frank Vizetelly was reading a
description of the battle of Waterloo when the first shell crashed into
the city. Vizetelly quickly moved into the hallway where he found the
corridors filled with terrified patrons who were rushing about in the
scantiest costumes. As he described the scene: "One perspiring
individual of portly dimensions was trotting to and fro with one boot
on and the other in his hand, and this was all the dress he could boast
of." When another shell exploded, Vizetelly gleefully commented that
the entire crowd went "down on their faces every man of them in tobacco
juice and cigar ends and clattering among the spitoons.''
He joined two Austrian military observers at the Mills House Bar. Here, he spent the rest of the evening making bets where the next
shell would land. As one of the Austrians described the game: "We could
hear the whiz of the shells before they passed over our heads, and I
bet the Englishman [Vizetellyl a thousand to one that the next shell
would not hit us. He took the odds, forgetting that if he won he would
be unable to collect his wager, and of course I won my dollar."
Farther down the peninsula from Vizetelly and the Mills House
Bar, Williams Middleton was also reacting to the enemy shelling.
Middleton, an extremely wealthy plantation owner and avowed
Yankee-hater, lived in a large home on the city's Battery where he constantly observed the action on Morris Island from his
veranda. When the first shells came into the city, Middleton was in
bed, ignoring the enemy fire, then just before he was about to drop off
to sleep a neighbor woke him to tell him that the "Yanks were shelling
the city." As he described the scene to his wife, Middleton wrote: "As
if I did not know it! Can you conceive of anything more absurd? I told
him that I felt much obliged to him for taking so much trouble, but
that I thought that all we could do was to let them shell and be
damned." He then went on to assure his wife that he was perfectly safe.
"Little or no damage has been done and not a soul hurt. As soon as they
begin our batteries all open upon them and soon make it too hot for
them to continue their deviling which is intended I expect for effect
in the Yankee news market. "
The next morning at 9 A.M., Gillmore's note, now signed, again
reached General Beauregard's headquarters. This time the general was
present and an enraged Beauregard sent an immediate reply. The
Confederate general considered the firing on the city an act of
desperation and barbarity. He wrote: "I am surprised, sir, at the
limits you have set to your demand. If, in order to attain the
bombardment of Morris Island and Fort Sumter, you feel authorized to
fire on this city, why did you not also include the works on Sullivan's
and James Islands, nay, even the city of Charleston, in the same
demand?" The evacuation of Morris Island and Fort Sumter was refused.
The Confederate commander finished by indicating that unless he were
given time to evacuate the city's noncombatants, he would use the
"strongest means of retaliation. . . ."
Beauregard's demand to allow citizens to leave was backed up
by similar requests from foreign consuls. In his answer to Beauregard,
Gillmore gave the Confederates one day to clear the city. At the same
time, the Federal commander took the opportunity to lecture the
Confederates on Charleston's role as an armed camp and munition site,
pointing out that it was a legitimate military target and, since the
campaign had been going on for forty days, the civilians and military
should have known that a bombardment was inevitable.
Throughout the next night, the Swamp Angel remained silent.
The gun had slid out of position and had to be moved back into place.
During this time, the Union battery came under constant shelling from
Confederate mortars, and although the Southerners' aim was accurate,
their fuses were too long and the shells would land and bury themselves
in the mud before harmlessly exploding.
Undeterred by the enemy guns, Sellmer and his men resumed
firing on the evening of August 23, again using shells filled with
Parrott's or Short's Greek fire. On this night many of the shells
exploded in the gun, and after the sixth round, Sellmer found the
cannon barrel to be moving in the breech-band. Sellmer had been warned
that the Parrott was not a new gun and the exploding shells obviously
shortened its life. Afraid that the piece would soon burst, Sellmer
tied two lanyards together and positioned his men outside the battery,
so if the gun exploded its crew would be shielded from the blast.
With the extended lanyard, Sellmer continued to operate the
cannon. After each shot the gun crew would reenter the battery, load
the gun, set the primer, and attach it to the lanyard. The men then
took cover as Sellmer, pulling on the lanyard, fired the gun. After
thirteen more rounds, Sellmer, thinking that the Swamp Angel was still
safe, decided to ignore his precautions and stood by the gun to check
the time on his watch by the flash of the discharge. On this shot, the
breech of the Swamp Angel exploded, throwing the gun onto the parapet.
Lieutenant Sellmer and three others were injured, but not seriously,
and the Swamp Angel's final shot, the thirty-sixth fired at Charleston,
continued on to its target."
The Impact of the Swamp Angel
The Swamp Angel was not replaced during the Morris Island
operations, though later a siege gun was located in the Marsh Battery,
which was eventually replaced with two mortars. Gillmore later explained that he expected no battlefield victory
from the shelling, but felt that valuable artillery techniques were
learned. The Swamp Angel accomplished a number of things. It was the
first known firing of an artillery piece using a compass reading, and
the distance covered by the Swamp Angel's shells was farther than any
previous military bombardment.
Gillmore also gained the dubious distinction of being one of
the first generals to bombard a civilian center in the hope of
achieving a military end. As happened in later years, the shelling of
Charleston fueled the defender's hatred for their enemies and provided
them an even greater determination. Many civilians had already left the
city before the campaign had begun and those that remained merely moved
from the city's lower regions to areas out of range of the Federal
guns. The city's manufacturing and industrial work continued, and all
maritime activity was shifted up river.
In some ways, the Swamp Angel reflected Gillnore's
frustration. Though he took satisfaction in shelling the birthplace of
the war, Gillnore realized that it was an empty attempt to hurt an
enemy who was proving far more resourceful than he had expected.
After the Civil War the remains of the Swamp Angel were transported to
Trenton New Jersey, where they were put on display as part of a Civil
War Monument which still stands today and had been recently restored.
The Galena Blakely
We have a remarkable rifled cannon, 12-pdr., superior to any
other here. . . The piece was a gift to the people of South Carolina
from Charles K. Prioleau of Frazer & Co. of London and is said to have
born a plaque inscribed. . . "Presented to the State of South Carolina
by a citizen resident abroad in commemoration of the 20th December,
1860. . ." General P. G. T. Beauregard to Confederate Secretary
of War L. P. Walker, quoted in Ripley, Artillery and Ammunition of the
Civil War, New York: Promontory Press, 1970. Chapter 8,
British Captain Theophilus Alexander Blakely was a prolific designer
of rifled cannon, in a variety of
models. Since his own government did not adopt his designs, he sold
his weapons overseas; several of his guns were purchased by the Confederacy and
used during the Civil War. This particular Blakely, a 12-pounder, had the
distinction of being the only rifled cannon used on April 12, 1861, to
bombard the Union garrison inside Fort Sumter. One of the projectiles
fired from this gun was picked up by a member of Major Robert
Anderson's command and later donated to the U.S. Military Academy,
where it remains on display.
The rifle drew some attention in the northern press, with an article
and picture in Harpers Weekly, from which the following picture
and its caption are taken:
The rifled gun which did so much execution on Fort Sumter, Charleston, South Carolina
After its participation in the opening salvo of the War, the Blakely
disappears from the pages of history until nearly the closing days of
the conflict. South Carolina, whose interior was until 1865 nearly
untouched by Union forces, was suddenly center stage for the invasion
of troops led by William Tecumseh Sherman. In skirmishing outside
Cheraw, the Blakely, along with a several other pieces of ordnance,
was captured by Union troops.
Private James G. Birney Palmer, Company A, 32nd Wisconsin Infantry,
referred to this capture in a letter written from his camp near
Goldsborough, North Carolina, on March 27th:
These stores had been removed from Charleston previous to the
evacuation. The most valuable pieces of artillery were brought
along. The 3rd Michigan Battery has two pieces, English made, one of
them with the following inscription upon it. "Presented to the
Sovereign State of South Carolina, by one of her citizens residing
abroad in commemoration of her noble conduct on the 20th of Dec. 1860"
The cannon was again featured in Harper's Weekly, which
published, on April 1, 1865, a sketch of Federal troops firing a
captured Blakely across the Peedee River during the invasion of South
These guns were sent north after the War as trophies. In 1892, for
the dedication of Grant Park, in Galena, Illinois, the gun was
requested from the Rock Island Arsenal. The plaque on its breech has
been lost, probably to vandals, but the marks of its placement leave
no doubt that this is the Blakely that fired on Fort Sumter and
finished the War fighting for the Union in the service of the Third
Battery, First Michigan Light Artillery. Its location was forgotten
for many years, until it was "found" by the authors of Field
Artillery Weapons of the Civil War,
James C. Hazlett, Edwin Olmstead, and M. Hume Parks.
As the rebels fled across the river, Maj. Gen. Mower sent after them a few shells from a Blakely gun which he had captured and which had been presented to the state of South Carolina by citizens residing abroad.
The bore diameter of the piece has been identified as 3.75 inchjes by Edwin
Olmstead and Wayne Stark, although the piece was at first identified as a
3.5-inch rifle. This mystery is furthered by the projectile pictured
at left, identified in the West Point Museum catalog as the "first
artillery projectile fired by the Confederates at Fort Sumter".
This projectile was almost certainly fired from a 3.5-inch rifle.
Britten bolt, 3.43 inches West Point Museum Photograph
courtesy Jack Melton
John Hughes with this famous projectile in hand.
The Gettysburg Gun
Courtesy of Battery B, 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery
The Four Apostles
These four "cadet" 6-pounders had been ordered especially for the use
of the students at the Virginia Military Institute. They were
slightly lighter than the regulation M1841 6-pounder and were mounted
on smaller carriages. Christened
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John "because they spoke a powerful language",
the guns were turned over the the Rockbridge Artillery (then under the
command of William Nelson Pendleton) at the start of the War.
Stonewall and the Apostles
Replaced with heavier pieces as the War progressed, these cannon were
sent to the defenses of Richmond, where they were captured at the
fall of the capital. After being returned to VMI, the cadets
continued to train on them until the pieces were retired in 1913, and
placed at the foot of the Jackson monument on the parade ground.
It is an odd quirk of fate that these guns, among the prized mementoes
of VMI, were not present at Battle of Newmarket.
The Apostles hub to hub
The "Opening Gun" at Gettysburg
The four 3-inch ordnance rifles of Calef's Battery A, 2nd
U.S. Artillery, stand today at the base of the Buford monument at
Gettysburg, on the spot where they fired the opening salvo of that
pivotal battle. Lt. John Haskell Calef, a 1858 graduate of West
Point, won a brevet for his gallantry at Gettysburg.
Buford monument with the guns of
Battery A, 2nd U.S. Artillery
claimed to have been the first unit to use the bugle call "Taps" at a
military funeral, over the grave of one of its cannoneers killed on
the Peninsula. The Battery's Regulars passed on their esprit de
corps to the volunteers detailed to serve the pieces, taking an
especial pride in having been the first assignment of Henry Jackson
Hunt, by then commander of artillery for the Army of the Potomac.
The "Opening Gun" plaque
The Widow Blakely
This 7.5-inch rifle was called the Widow Blakely because
it was the only specimen of British
Captain Theophilus Alexander Blakely's design in the works at
Vicksburg. While firing on Federal gunboats during the Siege of
Vicksburg, a shell exploded prematurely in the tube. The broken end
was trimmed off, and the Widow was used as a mortar for the remainder
of its service.
Taken to West Point as a trophy, the Widow was
misidentified as "Whistling Dick", another famous Confederate cannon,
which Ripley has identified as an 18-pounder rifle. When her true
identity was recognized, the Widow was sent back to Vicksburg, and
placed on the bluffs about a mile south of her original position.
Photo courtesy of Dave Smith
The Guns of the Monitor
The battle in Hampton Roads between the Monitor and the
Merrimack (AKA CSS Virginia)
on March 8, 1862, was considered a tactical draw,
but the entire world recognized it as the death-knell of the days
when "the ships were of wood and the men were of iron".
Swedish-American engineer John Ericsson's famous "cheesebox on a
raft" design featured a revolving turret with only two guns: XI-inch
Dahlgren shell-guns of sufficient durability to be used to fire solid
shot as well.
A turret gun of the Monitor,
an XI-inch Dahlgren
The 168-pound solid shot of the Monitor's turret guns might have
done more damage if the pieces had been used as designed, with charges of
20 or even 30 pounds of gunpowder. However, the pressure of the
situation made Dahlgren cautious, and he decreed a maximum charge of 15
pounds. The two guns are
Nos. 27 & 28 made by West Point Foundry in 1859. They currently lie in
the turret of the Monitor, wrecked in a storm in late 1862, and
are visible in videotapes made of the wreck.
For another view of Dahlgren's work, this photograph shows Admiral Dahlgren posing with another gun of his
design, a 4.4-inch rifle, aboard the USS Pawnee.
The 13-inch seacoast mortar weighed over 17,000 pounds and, as its
common name implies, was intended for seige and fortifications and not field
work. This monster was made portable during the Seige of Petersburg by
being mounted on a railroad car, specially strengthened with extra
beams and iron rods to withstand the strain of firing.
Since this mortar
threw a 218 pound shell about two and one-half miles with a charge of 20
pounds of powder, this strain was considerable.
The mortar was placed on the car and run up the tracks from City Point
toward the Union cordon around Petersburg, where a curve in the tracks
allowed the Dictator's gunners to adjust the plane of fire. The power of
this weapon was enough to shatter most field magazines and bomb-proofs,
and it is credited with causing the Confederate gunners to withdraw their
attempts at enfilade fire along the right of the Union line.
Cast at the Fort Pitt Foundry in 1862, the whereabouts of the Dictator
are now unknown, and this famous weapon may no longer survive. Its
oft-repeated identification with No. 95, at
Hartford, Connecticut, is untrue, as that piece does not match the
recorded weight of the Dictator.
The meeting of the Monitor and the Merrimack was
certainly the most far-reaching naval action of the Civil War, but it
could not match the gripping drama played out on the high seas off of
Cherbourg, France, when the USS Kearsarge finally brought the
Confederate raider Alabama to task after almost two years in
which she had laid waste the merchant marine of the United States.
The forward pivot on the Kearsarge,
an XI-inch Dahlgren shell gun
Although the entire armament of the Kearsarge contributed its
fire to the sinking of the Alabama, this is the gun celebrated
in song for accomplishing that feat:
A ball from the forward pivot that day Roll, Alabama,
Blew the Alabama's stern away. Oh roll, Alabama, roll
This gun is an XI-inch Dahlgren shell gun, shown here with Master
J. R. Wheeler and Engineer S. L. Smith. The Kearsarge had two
of these guns on board; both have been transferred from the Mare Island
to the Chatham Annex in Williamsburg, Virginia,
where they will eventually be installed in a museum to be built there.