Maine soldiers stationed on Folly and Morris islands listened on Christmas 1863 as, to paraphrase a familiar Christmas song, “it came upon the midnight clear, that glorious old cannon blast of old …”
Like Ebeneezer Scrooge, Brig. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore had little use for Christmas, at least for Charleston, South Carolina, still defying his months-long edict to “surrender or else.” Since June he had shed blood (always someone else’s) and expended iron, lead, and gunpowder to pound Fort Sumter to smithereens and capture the city.
By Dec. 24, 1863, Confederates still occupied Sumter (little more than heaped rubble), and Southern flags still waved at Charleston.
Among the Union regiments stationed on Folly and Morris were the 9th Maine Infantry and the 11th Maine Infantry. The 9th Maine had landed under fire on Morris on July 10 and then participated in the disastrous July 11 and July 18 attacks on Fort Wagner. Planned by Gillmore and executed by brave men, the attacks resulted in some 2,000 Union casualties and accomplished nothing.
Obsessed with Charleston, Gillmore ordered up the Swamp Angel, the 200-pounder Parrott rifle crewed by 11th Maine gunners. The gun fired 35 shells into Charleston before blowing up on its 36th shot. You can read the Angel’s tale at part 1 and part 2.
Confederate troops finally evacuated Fort Wagner and Morris Island, and Union troops built artillery batteries at Cumming’s Point, pointed at Charleston like a dagger. Union artillery then pounded away at Sumter and the city.
With Christmas approaching, Grinch Gillmore decided to steal the Charlestonians’ holiday spirit. The Maine boys certainly heard and the New York Herald’s “Folly Island correspondent” apparently watched as Gillmore played Nasty Santa via his Cumming’s Point gunners.
About 1 a.m. Christmas morning, “our rifles on Cumming’s Point [on Morris Island] opened on the city … rudely disturbing the slumbers of its virtuous citizens, and doubtless giving rise to the belief that brave old Santa Claus had paid them a midnight visit, with a battalion of aids, bearing all sorts of suspicious gifts …
“The firing was quite rapid, and, as it soon proved, exceedingly effective,” the reporter observed. Santa “distributed [his presents] rapidly but not noiselessly in private residences, among warehouses and about the silent and deserted streets, kicking up such a rumpus as has not before been witnessed in that beleaguered town.”
The Yankees got off “scarcely … half a dozen shots” before Confederate guns around Charleston Harbor and “on James and Sullivan’s Islands” opened up and concentrated their fire on the Union guns. “The night being clear and [the air] comparatively still, the roar of the cannonade shook the islands … and awoke every one by its terrific thunder,” the reporter wrote.
Watching Yankees suddenly noticed “buildings on fire” in Charleston about 3 a.m. Grinch Gillmore had not only ruined Christmas; he was destroying property and hurting people, too.
The reporter claimed “the flames were first apparent in a block of buildings to the south of St. Michael’s steeple—probably in Bell or Elliott street.” Fire “speedily increased, throwing a light over the harbor, and bringing out in bold relief the spires of the churches and the wooded front of the battery.”
Hearkening to a promise in an August 21 letter that he would shell Charleston if the Confederates did not vacate Sumter and the city, there oozes from Gillmore’s Charleston-related correspondence a sadistic stench. He willingly endangered civilians with the Swamp Angel’s August 22-23 bombardment.
Now, in the early Christmas darkness, Gillmore targeted anyone on the ground in the city’s sections nearest the harbor. Many civilians had fled Charleston in late August, but others remained.
“The conflagration spread,” and “our fire became more sharp and active,” the reporter noticed. “Our rifle shells dropped in and about the fire so accurately and regularly that the firemen … must have battled with the element with less boldness than they ordinarily do.”
Gillmore would have known that Charleston deployed black and white firefighters, usually in separate companies. Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation 359 days earlier, and Gillmore apparently felt comfortable killing blacks as well as whites.
As the shells hit, “any working of fire engines near” the flames “was out of the question,” the reporter stated. “The fire gained headway,” and “two other fires were started” elsewhere. Those fires went out; the initial fire destroyed “one entire block of buildings, and two independent houses.”
The shelling eased off at Christmas dawn. The Herald correspondent, whose presence Gillmore would not have tolerated unless the press accounts were friendly to the Hater of All Things Charlestonian, wrote, “We are satisfied that the city was a sufferer from … our Christmas entertainment.”
Source: News from Charleston Harbor, The City Shelled on Christmas Day, Rockland Gazette, Saturday, January 9, 1864
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 email@example.com. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.