Mainers meet the Swamp Angel, part 2

Intended to fire directly on Charleston, S.C., the 200-pounder Parrott rifle called the Swamp Angel was “below the horizon” from the city. The gun’s commander took bearings on a Charleston church steeple with a compass to aim the gun and fire blindly into the South Carolina darkness. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

After arriving on Morris Island and before meeting the Swamp Angel, S.C., 2nd Lt. Charles H. Foster and 40 enlisted men from the 11th Maine Infantry Regiment trained on the 10-inch siege mortars manned by the 3rd Rhode Island Artillery at Battery Reynolds on Morris Island.

The Mainers “coolly and unhesitatingly … went into action” and “carelessly … took their first introduction to artillery work under a heavy artillery fire,” commented their commander, 1st Lt. Charles D. Sellmer. “Rapidly and thoroughly they learned to use their new kind of weapon.”

Their first night at the mortars, the 11th Maine boys got about 30 minutes’ training and then targeted Wagner “with telling effect,” the exploding mortar shells raising “clouds of dust and sand” at the fort, Sellmer reported.

On August 21, 1863, Union artillery chief Brig. John W. Turner assigned the 11th Maine boys to the Marsh Battery, not yet operational. Sellmer checked out his new post that morning.

So that shells fired by the Swamp Angel could reach Charleston, the Parrott rifle was elevated at 35-37 degrees. The Angel was served by 11th Maine Infantry soldiers trained as artillerists. (Library of Congress)

Throwing a 200-pound shell, the Parrott rifle weighed “16,300 pounds” and had an 8-inch bore. Noticing the sentries protecting the gun, Sellmer started east cross the plank walk crossing the marsh to more solid footing on Morris Island. Stopping somewhere en route — probably close to the battery — he used “a pocket compass” to take “the bearings of St. Michael’s steeple” in Charleston.

With church and city not visible from Battery Marsh, Sellmer could deliver indirect fire on the city by aiming at the steeple. The Parrott must be elevated 35 to 37 degrees for a shell to reach Charleston.

The incoming tide brought to the Marsh Battery small boats hauling “shells, powder cartridges, Greek fire, primers, implements, and equipments” from “the Ordnance Depot,” Sellmer said. Supplies arrived after dark on Friday, and soldiers carefully lifted the individual “cartridges — twenty pounds of powder in a woolen bag” over their shoulders and carried them “over the plank walk” to the battery.

Although he sought to pound Confederate-held Fort Sumter to pieces before capturing it, Union Brig. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore did not hesitate to indiscriminately shell Charleston civilians. (BFS)

In an August 21 letter, Union commander Brig. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore had warned Gen. Pierre G. T. Beauregard, commanding the Charleston defenses, what was coming. If Beauregard did not evacuate “Morris Island and Fort Sumter” and did not reply to the letter within four hours of its being sent through the lines at Fort Wagner, “I shall open fire on the city of Charleston from batteries … established with easy and effective range of the heart of the city.”

The letter reached Beauregard too late, and he defied Gillmore anyways.

The 11th Maine gunners loaded a 200-pound shell into the Parrott rifle at Battery Marsh, and Sellmer opened fire at 1:30 a.m., Saturday, August 22. “The … shell sped over the rebel batteries on James Island into the city,” he noted.

In Charleston, Illustrated London News’ artist Frank Vizetelly lay “on my bed in the Charleston Hotel.” Reading Les Miserables by candlelight, “I was startled” by “a crash, succeeded by a deafening explosion.”

From his window Vizetelly “saw smoke and fire issuing from a Pinckney Street house” containing “the drugs of the medical purveyor.” Thinking “a meteor had fallen,” he heard “another awful rush and whir right over the hotel.”

Leaving the hotel and going “to the Battery promenade,” he gazed through the darkness “towards the Federal position.”

Soon, “beyond James Island, across the marsh that separates it from Morris Island, came a flash, then a dull report, and, after an interval of some seconds, a frightful rushing sound above me told the path the had taken; its flight must have been five miles!”

Three Union soldiers (possibly from the 11th Maine Infantry) guard the Marsh Battery and the dismounted Swamp Angel, visible lying on the sand-bag parapet. Exploding on its 36th shot, the Parrott rifle hurled itself atop the sand bags. (LOC)

The 11th Mainers kept firing. With every shot the gun platform “swayed to and fro” like “a vessel afloat,” Sellmer said, and the steady recoil moved “the pintle block holding the gun-carriage in place … back nearly three feet.” The Mainers stopped after their 16th shot.

In a letter, Beauregard excoriated Gillmore for committing “an act of inexcusable barbarity” by “turning your guns against the old men, the women and children, and the hospitals of a sleeping city.”

The Mainers resumed firing the Swamp Angel about 10 p.m. on August 23. “As if enraged,” Southern batteries “redoubled their efforts” to destroy the Marsh Battery, Sellmer said.

The Maine boys kept firing, and the Parrott rifle gradually deteriorated, possibly caused as shells “containing the much-vaunted composition of Greek fire” exploded inside the tube, Sellmer noticed.

He soon discovered “that the gun had moved in its jacket—the wrought-iron band shrunk around the breech of a Parrott gun!” Realizing “the gun … might burst at any discharge,” Sellmer kept shooting, with his men ordered to cover before each shot.

Operational only two days before “dying” gloriously on Morris Island, the Swamp Angel was celebrated in song by composer Frank Wilder. (LOC)

They had fired 19 times when Sellmer placed himself, “watch in hand,” on the Parrott’s left side and waited for the 20th flash so he could check the time.

Fire!” he shouted.

Instantly the whole was one sheet of flame,” he later wrote. “The Parrott gun had burst.”

The explosion blew out Sellmer’s left ear drum, singed his head and facial hair, and wounded privates Moses M. Burse, Charles H. Ham, and John D. Walton.

Its breech blown into the mud, “the gun itself died like a soldier, face to the foe,” Sellmer praised the fallen Parrott rifle. “It had pitched itself forward … clear out of the carriage.”

That last shot “went smoothly to the city, as if nothing had happened to the gun,” he said.

Dubbed the Swamp Angel, the shattered Parrott rifle was replaced with a seacoast mortar. Sellmer and his 11th Maine lads went to a four-gun battery on Black Island and fired only four shots before the Confederates evacuated Morris Island.

The remaining 11th Maine Infantry reached Morris and absorbed Sellmer’s little contingent. For them Sellmer had “the highest praise,” citing the gunners for their “soldierly qualities, intelligence, bravery, coolness under fire, and prompt obedience under all circumstances.

They, their relatives and descendants, may well feel proud of their records, and … that their duty was faithfully, honestly, and willingly performed,” he wrote.

Sources: Sources: Col. Edward W. Serrell, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, Vol. 28, part 1, No. 4, pp. 230-236; Robert Brady Jr. and Albert Maxfield, The Story of One Regiment: The Eleventh Maine Infantry Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion, J.J. Little & Co., New York, NY, 1896, pp. 139-143; Portland Daily Press, Wednesday, July 22, 1863; rank Vizetelly, When Charleston Was Under Fire, New Age Magazine, Vol. XV, from July to December 1911, pp. 344-346; Gen. Pierre G. T. Beauregard, OR, Vol. 28, part 2, pp. 58-59


If you enjoy reading the adventures of Mainers caught up in the Civil War, be sure to like Maine at War on Facebook and get a copy of the new Maine at War Volume 1: Bladensburg to Sharpsburg, available online at Amazon and all major book retailers, including Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble. —————————————————————————————————————–

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.