The short Confederate siege of Fort Sumter, Charleston, is one of the most famous incidents of the American Civil War. Far less well known is the much longer Union siege of Fort Sumter, which was part of an unsuccessful attempt to capture Charleston. In 1861 the fort was only able to hold out for a few days, but between 1863 and 1865 the fort successfully resisted a near constant Union attack, including a series of heavy bombardments that inflicted massive damage on the fort. However the only attempt to actually capture the fort was easily repulsed, and after that the Union commanders found a series of reasons not to risk another attack.
There are a number of interesting features to this siege. Perhaps the most notable is how few casualties the massive Union bombardment actually caused. It took thousands of shells to kill a single Confederate soldier, and the Union forces almost certainly suffered higher losses during the siege. This siege predates the appearance of high explosive shells, and it is clear that even the ruined fortifications were capable of protecting the defenders from solid shells or shrapnel. The biggest danger was that a shot would hit one of the gunpowder stores, triggering an explosion. However it is rather telling that the Confederates didn't bother recording how many of their slave labourers were killed during the siege.
We also see the perils of a split command. The Union naval and army forces outside Charleston each had their own commander, and neither was placed in overall charge. As a result, each commander was able to use the other as an excuse for their inaction. The naval command was also hampered by the habit of calling councils of war amongst the ship' captains, which as always voted not to fight. This was also a key moment in the development of the ironclad warship, which began the Union siege as a wonder weapon, and ended it with a rather less impressive reputation, having failed to achieve much outside Charleston. On the Confederate side there were disputes within the high command, but there was at least always a clear line of command, making it easier to organise the defence.
Overall this is an interesting look at the longest siege of the American Civil War, one that only ended after Sherman's advancing armies forced the Confederates to evacuate Charleston. We get to follow both sides during the siege, so we can match the progress of the Union bombardment with the attitude of the Confederate defenders.
1 - 'I Have Possession of Sumter'
2 - Duelling Blue Bloods and Whispers of Mutiny - 1862
3 - A Gathering of Leviathans - 1863
4 - Du Pont's Attack - 'A Grand and Imposing Spectacle'
5 - 'He May Knock Fort Sumter to Pieces'
6 - 'I Could Scarcely Restrain My Tears'
7 - 'Hold the Fort to the Last'
8 - 'I Will Assault Sumter Tonight'
9 - 'Sumter…Laughs at Her Enemy'
10 - 'Fort Sumter Can Be Taken at Any Time' - 1864
11 - 'They Have Killed Me, Captain'
12 - 'God Has Laid Us Very Low' - 1865
Epilogue - The Postwar Years
Author: Derek Smith