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Saturday, February 14, 2009

AVENGING ANGEL

I would suggest that Quincy Gillmore (double L’s) was simply frustrated. His logical and precise mind recognized that by any logical application of the rules he had won. But the rebels simply refused to admit his victory and surrender Charleston. Perhaps Gillmore (above) should have remembered the Massachusetts newspaper writer who described secession minded South Carolina as “…too small for a nation and too large for an insane asylum.” Gillmore had proven the power of his logic at Fort Pulaski (above), whose massive brick walls guarded the outskirts of Savannah, Georgia. Gillmore’s advantage at Fort Pulaski was the Parrot Gun, the invention of the precise and logical mind of Robert Parker Parrott, who ran the West Point Foundry in Cold Spring, New York.

Mr. Parrott’s invention was to rotate a cast-iron cannon barrel while applying a band of hot wrought-iron around the breech (or base end), which would clamp solid as it cooled. This band offered additional strength, allowing for larger powder charges and thus increased range. Parrott guns tended to explode with overuse, but as the sad faced Mr. Parrott (above) explained, “I do not profess to think they are the best gun in the world, but I think they were the best practical thing that could be got at the time.”

Gillmore carefully arraigned his 36 Parrott guns against the rebel fortress and opened a long range fire on April 10th 1863. The fort surrendered at 2:00 pm on April 11th. Savannah itself still held out, but rebel supply ships and blockade runners could no longer get in. With that success Gillmore had been promoted to Major-General of Volunteers, and was ordered to do to Charleston what he had done to Savannah.On the southern shoulder of Charleston’s inner harbor loomed the battered remnants of Fort Sumter, where the Civil War had begun in April of 1861. The Washington Republican newspaper waxed poetic when describing Gillmore's technical attack upon this birthplace of the rebellion. “From well-known mechanical laws, ...the penetration of the 24 pound shot at 3,500 yards…in brickwork, is six inches. The penetration of the 10 inch projectile will therefore be between six and seven feet of the same material…equal to the united blows of 200 sledge hammers weighing 100 lbs each, falling from a height of ten feet and acting upon a drill ten inches in diameter.” It could have been lifted from General Gillmore’s notebooks, and probably was.By midsummer Gillmore’s Parrott guns had reduced Fort Sumter to “a shapeless and harmless mass of ruin.” Yet Charleston still held out, because defending the outer harbor on Morris Island was Fort Wagner, situated directly astride the channel ships used to approach Charleston. Fort Wagner’s low packed sand and timber walls simply swallowed whole the explosive shells from Gillmore’s Parrotts, and punished the 54th regiment when they tried a direct ground assault (above - from the movie "Glory"). In his frustration Gillmore came to the logical conclusion that the Confederates would surrender when faced with the correct application of the power of his guns.On the morning of July 16, 1863, Gillmore ordered Colonel Edward W. Serrell of the engineers to find a spot for a new battery within range of Charleston itself. Col Serrell and an aide spent the day wandering across the slat marshes “…carrying a fourteen foot plank…Where the inundation would not bear them they sat on the plank and pushed it forward between their legs. When the soil appeared stiffer, they carried the plank until they reached the soft mud once more.” (Battles & Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. 4, Underwood et al, The Century Co. 1884) By evening this method had located a rectangle of more or less solid ground (in the low brush in the background, above) 8,000 yards from Charleston, at the maximum range of the Parrotts.It took a month to build a battery (above) amongst the muck, and on August 21st Gillmore sent a note to General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, the rebel commander, warning that if he did not at once surrender both forts Wagner and Sumter, Charleston would be bombarded with “Greek fire”. However, the note did not arrive until 10:45 p.m., and General Beauregard had gone to bed. And in any case the note bore no signature. The offended gentlemen of the Confederate headquarters returned the offensive note for signing. The 19th century industrial revolution and just run up against 18th century social graces.

While this farce was being played out, at 1:30 a.m. on August 22nd, the “Swamp Angel”, as the big 8 inch Parrott had been christened, opened fire. The exploding shells were loud and frightening, but no one was killed and the “Greek Fire” failed to start any fires. As the brilliant writer Bruce Catton noted, “This had very little to do with winning the war. It was simply an exorcise in the application of violence.” (Never Call Retreat, p. 215 Washing Square Press, 1965)The amended note re-arrived at Beauregard’s headquarters at 9:00a.m the morning of August 23rd, and Gustave Toutant responded in his best Southern aristocratic outrage. “It would appear, sir, that despairing of reducing these works you now resort to the novel measure of turning your guns against the old men, the women and children, and the hospitals of a sleeping city.” In response Gillmore gave the Confederates a truce of 24 hours to evacuate Charleston before the Swamp Angel would continue its bombardment. In fact the Parrott had slid out of position after 16 shots and it would take hours of work to move the 8 ton cannon back into place.As darkness fell the Angel opened fire again. But this time, as the barrel heated up the shells began to show a nasty tendency to explode in the barrel, and the breech band expanded so that it started to slide around on the breech. Col. Serrell wisely had a second lanyard tied to the first, to give his men some distance when they fired the darn thing, and after another 13 shots, as the Swamp Angel let go her 38th attempt at burning Charleston to the ground, the gun exploded, blowing off the breech band, cracking the breech itself, blowing three feet off the end of the barrel, and landing the cannon atop her own battery (below). This exercise in the application of violence was finished, for the moment.Not that Gillmore was about to give up. The relentless bombardment of Fort Wagner had converted that post into an open wound through which the defenders were slowly bleeding to death. Two weeks after the Swamp Angel blew up, on September 7, 1863, Beauregard pulled his troops out.

So Fort Wagner was finally captured. The Parrott guns had reduced Sumter to harmless rubble. And still Charleston resisted. And the frustration that drove General Gillmore’s precise and logical mind to accept such violence was shared by much of the nation, who cheered the wonder and the power of Gillmore’s Parrott guns and their punishment of the birthplace of the war.In far off New York, Herman Melville, a man who knew something about the dark effects of obsession on the human heart, was inspired to put pen to paper; “There is a coal black Angel, With a thick African lip, And he dwells (like the hunted and harried), In a swamp where the green frogs dip. But his face is against a City, Which is over a bay of the sea, And he breathes with the breath that is blastment, and dooms by a far degree…Who weeps for the woeful City, Let him weep for our guilty kind; Who joys at her wild despairing – Christ, the Forgiver, convert his mind.”

And a century later, Bruce Catton, in his centennial work on the American Civil War, reviewed the entire bloody affair and wrote, “It would hardly be worth mentioning except that it showed how war had hardened men’s emotions, so that things that would have been horrifying in ordinary times horrified no longer…Good men even rejoiced in it…When good men could talk so they consented to terror.” (ibid. p 217-217) You can see that terror now, in Cadwallader Park in the city of Trenton, New Jersey, preserved as a memento of one of humanities’ early attempts at a logical application of terror. And, no, it didn't work; terror rarely works, and never for long.

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1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed your article about the Swamp Angel and the bombardment of Charleston! Colonel E.W. Serrell was my Great-great-great-grandfather, and helped "engineer" many innovations during the Civil War, including the development of a steam-powered "Flying Machine" which, of course, never got off the ground! Still, interesting era for the development of technology, although it is always unfortunate that such "advances" are accelerated primarily in the time of War! Thanks!

    Jonathan Cahill

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