Monday, August 19, 2013

War News: Bombardment at Charleston Essentially Closes Port to Blockade Runners

Pacific Coast newspapers had much to say about the course of the Civil War, based on dispatches sent on October 19, 1863. In The Oregonian, a report said, “The Weehawken and the Patapsco are in position to keep Wagner and Gregg quiet. … Gen. Gilmore [sic] announces that the work thus far has been entirely satisfactory, and that Sumter has been damaged greatly.”

“Wagner” and “Gregg” refer to Fort Wagner and Battery Gregg, built at the entrance to the harbor for Charleston, South Carolina. Major General Quincy Adams Gillmore commanded the Army forces besieging Wagner, with support from a considerable fleet under Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren. These two smaller fortifications were meant to relieve pressure on Fort Sumter, located inside the harbor.

Over a month of ferocious bombardment had badly crippled all three bastions. On the 19th, “Gregg was entirely silenced.” But Union artillery, naval and shore-based, sent their heaviest volleys against Fort Sumter itself. A dispatch the day before said, “The parapets are crushed and ragged and the north-west wall is gapped and cracked down almost to the waters’ edge.”
General Quincy Gillmore. Library of Congress.

Just four days later, the barrage would reduce Sumter to rubble and force the Confederate commander to remove most of its guns. Wagner would hold out for another couple weeks before it too had to be abandoned. The loss would end Charleston’s role as a port for blockade runners.

That served to further increase the importance of Wilmington, North Carolina, already a vital link to the outside. The San Francisco Evening Bulletin for August 19 printed a report showing just how important.

An observer claimed that “within the past four days 17 large steamers have arrived at that port, having run the blockade, loaded with stores for the rebel army, among which are 96,000 English rifles, 16,000 army blankets, 130,000 ready-made uniforms, 23,000 cases of shoes, 11 locomotives, 6 rifled cannon of heavy calibre, 5 cargoes of railroad iron, and skillful men accompanying them.”

Very impressive … but analysis shows that the blockade reduced the South’s seaborne trade to less than a third of normal. As a result, the Confederacy suffered ruinous inflation, crucial shortages in the army, and a general lack of everything on the “home front.”

References: James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, Oxford University Press, USA, New York (1988).
“By Overland Telegraph: News from Charleston,” The Oregonian, Portland (August 29, 1863).
“The Eastern News: Supplies of Munitions,” Evening Bulletin, San Francisco (August 19, 1863).

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