The Huge Swamp Angel Bombards Charleston

The “Swamp Angel” – A Union 200-Pounder Parrott Gun.

August 22-23, 1863

The “Swamp Angel” was a Union 200-pounder Parrott Gun used on August 22-23, 1863, at Morris Island in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina to shell nearby Charleston.

Quincy A. Gillmore

Quincy A. Gillmore

On April 12, 1861, Fort Sumter was fired upon by the Confederate batteries located around the Charleston Harbor. Within thirty-four hours the fort had surrendered and a bloody Civil War was underway. From the moment of its surrender, the recapturing of Fort Sumter became one of the Union’s most important objectives. Nearly four years elapsed before Union forces were successful at retaking Fort Sumter.

By the summer of 1863, Fort Sumter had been bombarded by Federal artillery for two years, but the fort still stood and guarded Charleston. At the entrance to Charleston Harbor is Morris Island, and Union General Quincy A. Gillmore and his troops were stationed there. Gillmore wanted to construct a battery on Morris Island so he could bombard Charleston directly and force the city to surrender. Gillmore’s plan would bypass troublesome Fort Sumter and other forts in the Charleston Harbor.

A big gun with the range to reach Charleston would allow Gillmore to get to the meat of the matter… to force the rebel stronghold of Charleston to surrender. The Swamp Angel is what General Gillmore needed.

This Swamp Angel was huge. It was cast of iron at the West Point Foundry in New York, and it weighed 16,700 pounds. With an 8-inch bore, its barrel had an 11-foot bore depth. Even the construction of the battery and parapet needed for the Swamp Angel was impressive, merely getting this gun into place on the swampy, mushy, ground of Morris Island (with mud sometimes twenty-feet deep) in Charleston Harbor was a challenging engineering job. Construction of the battery and parapet began on August 2, and it included:

  • 13,000 sandbags weighing greater than 800 tons total
  • 123 pine timbers, 45-55 feet in length and 15-18 inches in diameter
  • 5,000 feet of 1-inch thick board
  • 9,500 feet of 3-inch thick planking
  • The spikes, nails, and iron required to hold it all together weighed 1,200 pounds
  • 75 fathoms (450 feet) of rope, 3 inches thick

All this would allow the Swamp Angel to use a 17-pound powder charge to fire a 200-pound projectile 7,900 yards into the heart of Charleston. To top it all off, the projectiles could be filled with an incendiary fluid called “Greek Fire” that would set Charleston ablaze. On August 17, the Swamp Angel arrived at Morris Island. An awesome weapon of war was about to go to work.

A Huge Monster Cannon

Gillmore sent a message on August 21, to General P. G. T. Beauregard demanding the evacuation of Confederate posts on Morris Island and Fort Sumter, or else shelling of Charleston would start. The Yankees had sighted the Swamp Angel in on the steeple of St. Michael’s Church. Beauregard gave no reply to Gillmore’s demands.

At 1:30 A.M. on August 22, the Swamp Angel belched and roared with its first shot at Charleston. Following the first shot, bells, whistles, and alarms from Charleston could be heard on Morris Island. Before daylight came, fifteen more shots rained down on Charleston from the Swamp Angel, twelve of these shots filled with Greek Fire.

Charleston was receiving the wrath of the Union in the form of horrible huge shells filled with fire, and shot from a huge monster of a cannon 7,900 yards away. On August 23, the Swamp Angel threw out twenty more shells onto Charleston. It looked like the Confederacy would lose Charleston to surrender as the Swamp Angel rained its hellish shells full of fire down on the city.

As the Swamp Angel fired its thirty-sixth shell on August 23, it did something cast-iron Parrott guns were known for, despite their distinctive wrought iron reinforcing bands placed around their breeches. On the thirty-sixth shot the Swamp Angel’s breech blew out and the gun’s barrel flew on top of the sandbag parapet.

Although it had suffered some damage and a few fires were set by the Swamp Angel, Charleston was now safe. The great Swamp Angel was dead. No further huge guns like the Swamp Angel were placed on the Union’s Morris Island battery.

The Swamp Angel

The Swamp Angel

The Swamp Angel

The Swamp Angel’s military career was over. The great gun was to be sold as scrap iron. However, instead of being used as scrap iron and physically lost to history, the citizens of Trenton, New Jersey bought the Swamp Angel and made it into a monument.

If you visit Trenton today, you will find the Swamp Angel at Perry and Clinton streets. Even if it could still fire and despite its might, the Civil War Swamp Angel could not reach Charleston from Trenton. People of Charleston, rest easy.

The Swamp Angel picture is courtesy of:

Learn More About Civil War Artillery…

Acoustic Shadow In The Civil War

Civil War Mortar

Civil War Mortar

Acoustic Shadow (sometimes called Silent Battle) is a strange thing. It is a circumstance where sound is unheard close to the cause of the sound, but the same sound is heard a far distance away from its source.

With a unique combination of factors such as wind, weather, temperature, land topography, elevation, forest or other vegetation, battle sounds are not heard at a distance they normally would be heard clearly.

Acoustic Shadow Can Hurt Battle Communication

The distance the sound of battle is heard may be great, even hundreds of miles, yet nearby and sometimes only mere miles away the sounds are not heard. Battles where Acoustic Shadow occurred in the Civil War are Gettysburg, Seven Pines, Iuka, Fort Donelson, Five Forks, Perryville, and Chancellorsville.

The Battle of Gettysburg

The Battle of Gettysburg

Acoustic Shadow could have a profound effect on a battle. During the Civil War it was common for armies to be spread out over large distances and timely communication between the split parts of an army was crucial to battlefield success.

Army commanders must make decisions based on current knowledge of the situation before them. The sounds of a battle would be a form of communication, signaling to a Civil War commander and his staff where a battle is taking place, and what troops (including the enemy) may be involved.

If Acoustic Shadow hides battle action from being heard by a commander, then communication has been lost and dire consequences may follow as the commander does not respond as needed to the battlefield situation.

Acoustic Shadow During Civil War Battles

3 Inch Ordnance Rifle at Gettysburg

3 Inch Ordnance Rifle at Gettysburg

  • The Battle of Gettysburg – The battle sounds from Gettysburg could be heard over one hundred miles away in Pittsburgh, but were not heard only ten miles from the battlefield.
  • Battle of Gaines’s Mill – More than 91,000 men were engaged in battle at Gaines’s Mill, Virginia on June 27, 1862. Confederate commanders and troops were less than two miles from the battlefield and could plainly see the smoke and flashes from the guns and artillery, but not a sound could be heard of the battle for two hours. Strangely, the battle sounds from the Battle of Gaines’s Mill were easily heard in Staunton, Virginia over one hundred miles away.
  • Five Forks – Fives Forks was part of the Appomattox Campaign and fought from March 30 to April 1, 1865. Confederate Generals George Pickett and Fitzhugh Lee were enjoying a shad bake with other generals north of Hatcher’s Run when the battle of Five Forks began a short distance away. Because of Acoustic Shadow, Pickett and Fitzhugh Lee were unaware a fight was under way. Pickett finally responded, but arrived late for the battle. Pickett and Fitzhugh Lee have been criticized by Civil War historians (please see Lee’s Lieutenants, III, 665-670) for not acting on “the dread immediacy of the crisis” (ibid., 665) at Five Forks.