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A Tragic Case of Friendly Fire During the Siege of Charleston, August 1863

Updated: Jul 23, 2020

While conducting some research, I recently came across an instance of what we would today call ‘friendly fire’ during the siege of Charleston in 1863. Because Federal forces maintained a relentless bombardment of Battery Wagner on Morris Island while they besieged it, the Confederate garrison in the battery had to be relieved, on a rotational basis, every week. Usually, this was done by small craft of light draught from Fort Johnson, rowed over the shallows south of Fort Sumter at high tide, to the north end of Morris Island, returning the same via the same route. But on the night of August 30th, things went very, very wrong.

Unable to procure launches from the navy as usual, the quartermaster in charge of the operation, Major Pringle, commandeered the steamer C.S.S. Sumter. Pringle was delayed in leaving Fort Johnson due to the inexperienced troops embarking. Barely making it across the flats during the high tide, the steamer was again delayed while at Cumming’s Point (Morris Island) because of delays with the troops from Wagner arriving and embarking. When the Sumter was finally ready to depart with the garrison from Battery Wagner, the tide was too low to return by the usual route.

Standing at the Cummings Point dock, Major Pringle really only had two choices at that point: (1) he could remain there at the dock until the next high tide and return then, but that would mean running the gauntlet of Federal artillery (some of the heaviest in the world at that time) during the daylight, or (2) leave then while still under cover of darkness heading into the Main Ship Channel and risk steaming past the Fort Moultrie and the Sullivan’s Island batteries. Major Pringle decided upon the latter.

Once the troops had finally loaded, the little steamer forged ahead into the inky darkness of Charleston Harbor. Pringle hoped to slip by the Sullivan’s Island batteries and return safely to Fort Johnson. But in one of those instances where whatever can go wrong did, the steamer fell victim to a ‘perfect storm’ of unfortunate circumstances.

The Federal monitors had attempted to run into the harbor just two nights previous, but the Confederate batteries turned them back. This night the Confederates were ordered to be on ‘high alert’ due to the Confederate high command having received intelligence that another attempt would be made that very night. The gun crews and officers on Sullivan’s Island slept at their guns to be ready in an instant.

Around midnight, a sentry on Sullivan’s Island sounded the alarm – a vessel was trying to make its way up the channel. Within minutes, the big guns were in action. Gunners recalled that as the shots struck the iron monitor, they created sparks that told the gun crews they were right on the mark and kept pouring on the fire.

Still, the vessel coming up the channel. Huge shot struck the vessel in rapid succession. But the vessel wasn’t a Federal monitor. It was the C.S.S. Sumter coming from Morris Island loaded with Confederate infantry. Onboard, all was panic. The steam whistle malfunctioned, and the bullseye lantern evidently couldn’t be seen by the batteries on Sullivan’s Island. The captain and a few others instantly jumped into the launch and rowed feverishly towards the island, the Confederate batteries firing over their heads just as fast as they could.

When the launch finally reached the shore, the Sumter’s crew pleaded with the gunners to cease firing, that they were firing on a Confederate troop transport vessel. The firing quickly stopped, but the damage had been done. When the firing first erupted, the Sumter quickly veered hard to starboard grounding on the east end of “fort reef” shoal almost directly in front of Fort Moultrie. At that point it became a stationary target even in the darkness.

As shots began to find their mark, the soldiers began jumping overboard in the murky dark waters. Those that went over the starboard rail landed on the shoal itself which was awash with about two feet of water. The men that went over the port side fared much worse. They landed in the swift current of the main ship channel itself. After-action reports estimated some twenty troops were swept away and supposed drown. Though the Sumter was riddled, amazingly the casualties from actual cannon fire only numbered five with many wounded and missing. The low casualty rate, considering the firepower aimed at the Sumter, can be attributed to having been at night, the boat grounded on a shoal and the speed with which the captain reached Sullivan’s Island and convinced the gun crews to cease firing.

An investigation into the tragedy was conducted by several members of General Beauregard’s staff. After interviewing everyone involved that could be located the investigators concluded that the tragic incident perhaps could’ve been avoided, but not at the time. It seemed that circumstances conspired to doom the little Sumter.

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