August: This Month In South Carolina History – “Swamp Angel Takes Aim At Charleston

Upon surrendering Fort Sumter on April 15, 1861, the United States military developed a methodical campaign designed to regain control of Charleston harbor. In 1863 an attack by Union ironclad ships failed to retake Ft. Sumter, so Union General Quincy Gillmore approved a plan to reduce Charleston with artillery fire. For that purpose, he ordered the construction of a battery in the marsh between Morris and James Islands.

Swamp Angel

Swamp Angel

Swamp Angel

Swamp Angel

During the summer pilings were driven into the marsh to create a parapet, a grillege (crisscrossed logs) laid on top and covered with 13,000 sandbags weighing more than 800 tons. A platform was built on top of the sand bags to support a 16,500-pound gun – an 8-inch Parrot nicknamed the “Swamp Angel.” The Angel was capable of firing 200 pound incendiary shells (authorized by President Lincoln) four to five miles into the city. The shells were filled with “Greek fire,” a mixture used first in 450 BC which included sulphur, petroleum, quicklime, phosphorus, and saltpeter. It was hoped that the “greek fire” would ignite upon explosion and turn Charleston into a “raging inferno.”  The gun was mounted on August 17.

On the evening of August 21-22, 1863, Captain Nathaniel Edwards took compass readings on St Michael’s church steeple in Charleston for nighttime firing.  For the people of the North, Charleston was a legitimate military target, as well as an emotional target. Charleston was the symbol of the Southern rebellion, where secession and the first military action of the War took place. Charleston’s destruction was considered fair retribution.

 On August 21, 1863, Union General Quincy Gillmore wrote a letter to Confederate Gen. P.G.T Beauregard:

“The United States government demands the immediate evacuation of Morris Island and Fort Sumter within four hours of this delivery or I shall open fire upon the city of Charleston.” The note reached Beauregard’s headquarters at 10:45 P.M. Beauregard was not at the headquarters, and since the message was unsigned, it was returned to Gillmore for verification.

At 1:30 A.M the first shot from the Swamp Angel was fired into the city, its shell landed near the present day intersection of Church and Pinckney streets. British war correspondent and illustrator Frank Vizetelly was staying at the Charleston Hotel on Meeting Street. He described the first shot “like the whirr of a phantom brigade of cavalry galloping in mid-air over the hotel and then a deafening explosion in the street. At first I thought a meteor had fallen, but a moment later … there was another whirr and another explosion. The city was being shelled. There were terrified citizens rushing about in the scantiest of costumes.”

The explosion caused panic and pandemonium among the hotel’s guests, whom Vizetelly described as “shady speculators attracted to the auctions of goods recently run through the blockade by unscrupulous characters from whom the Confederacy expects nothing.”

Over the next hour, sixteen shots landed in the city. One of the guests wrote that “We could hear the whiz of shells before they passed over our heads, and I bet the Englishman [Vizetelly] a thousand to one that the next shell would not hit us.”  The resulting flames of the bombardment could be seen by the Union soldiers and the fire alarm bells rang throughout the night.

The next morning Gillmore’s note, now signed, was re-delivered to Beauregard’s headquarters. Beauregard immediately sent back an enraged reply in which he demanded time to evacuate the city’s civilian population. Gillmore gave Beauregard twenty-four hours. 

On August 23 the Swamp Angel resumed firing, shooting dozens of rounds into the city. On the thirty-sixth shot, the Swamp Angel exploded and fell silent forever, but history had been made. The firing of the Swamp Angel was the first documented firing of an artillery piece using a compass reading, and the distance covered by the shells launched into the city was farther than any previous military bombardment. Even without the Angel, the Federal bombardment of Charleston nevertheless continued until February 1865 when Union troops occupied the city. The siege lasted 587 days, the longest suffered by any American city. Charleston was under Federal occupation for the next twelve years.


After the War, the remains of the Swamp Angel were transported to Trenton, New Jersey, where they were used as part of a Civil War Monument. The gun was restored in 1994 where it remains on display in Cadwalader Park. 

Today In Charleston History: July 19

1863-Civil War. Battery Wagner

The morning after the assault of 54th Massachusetts, Gen. Beauregard instructed General Ripley to hold “Morris Island at all costs for the present.” General Gillmore (U.S. Army) resumed bombardment of Fort Wagner.


Fort Wagner, the day after the assault by the 54th Massachusetts

Map of Morris Island

Map of Morris Island

Today In Charleston History: June 15

Rebecca Brewton Motte

Rebecca Brewton Motte

Rebecca Brewton, daughter of Robert Brewton, was born at her father’s house, 21 Church Street. She married Jacob Motte and later lived in her brother’s house at 27 King Street and live there with the British occupying force in 1780. 

1786-Natural Disasters

Fire swept down Broad Street, destroying fourteen buildings, including the state house.

1818-Slavery. Religion. Denmark Vesey Rebellion

In direct defiance of the City Council, Rev. Richard Allen (of Philadelpha) conducted a Sunday service in a private home for a blacks-only congregation. The city guard once again disrupted the service. Allen and his Philadelphia delegation were arrested and sentenced to “one month’s imprisonment, or to give security and leave the state.”

Allen and his group returned to Philadelphia under the threat of his arrest, but black religious services continued to be conducted in private homes at night, often conducted by Denmark Vesey.  Gullah Jack, however, was angered by what he called “the desecration of sacred ground” (the disruption of religious services), and claimed he “wanted to begin” to organize against the whites. 

1822-Denmark Vesey Rebellion

Watching the increased militia activity on the streets, and hearing of the arrests, Denmark Vesey and Monday Gell destroyed all incriminating letters and documents they had in their possession. Gullah Jack buried a small cache of gunpowder and weapons on the Buckley farm in the Charleston Neck. All three men then went into hiding.

Thomas_Bennett_JrGov. Bennett signed a General Order calling out Col. Croft’s 16th Regiment, the Washington Light Infantry, the Republican Artillery and the Charleston Neck Rangers. Bennett also requested the assistance of the federal government. He wrote to Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, a South Carolina native, about his “State of alarm and his inability to defend his city.” Bennett wrote that a show of federal force:

would tend not only to tranquilize the public mind, but produce the happiest effects upon that class of persons who have caused the present excitement.

1864-Bombardment of Charleston   

Gen. Foster notified General Henry Halleck, Army Chief of Staff, that:

The fire upon the city of Charleston had been somewhat increased, and had been continued night and day, at irregular intervals, the number of shots varying from 30 to 60 in ordinary firing.

Today In Charleston History: April 15

1715 – Yemassee War

At this point, many of the Lowcountry Indian tribes were deeply indebted to the English. Unscrupulous traders in London and Charles Town overextended credit to the Indians, hoping to force them to pay in land concessions.  The Yemassee were also unhappy with the town of Beaufort being settled in the middle of their territory. As the pressure to collect the debt increased, the Indian agents often resorted to cruel practices – cheating, beatings, and the raping of their women.

On April 14 a Charles Town delegation was arrived to negotiate with the Yemassee tribe. After the first day’s negotiations the delegation retired for the night. Before dawn the next morning the Yemassee attacked the sleeping colonists who were then ritually tortured and murdered. The Indians then divided themselves into two war parties. One attacked Beaufort. About 300 whites were able to take refuge on a ship in the Port Royal River while the Yemassee burned most of the town. 

Yemassee War

Yemassee War

The other Yemassee party marched through St. Bartholomew’s Parish, burning houses on the way, killing 100 people.

Governor Craven declared martial law, laid an embargo on all vessels, impressed men and property into service for defense and appointed Robert Daniel deputy governor to administer the colony while Craven was at the front.

Terrified of being attacked, the Assembly took an unprecedented action – they armed 400 black slaves to join a force of 500 white men. The site of armed Negros marching through Charles Town frightened them as much as the possibility of Indian attack.

1864-Bombardment of Charleston
Gus Smythe

Gus Smythe

Gus Smythe discussed the looting in the abandoned houses in Charleston, south of Broad Street:

Our own soldiers are doing us more damage than the shells. I should much prefer a shell to go thro’ the house than to let them do so. They just roam at will now through the whole lower portion of the city. Our house and Mr. Middleton’s [1 Meeting Street] below Broad are the only two in Meeting Street below Broad which have not been entered. Our stores on the wharf have not been seriously injured, but soldiers have been in there also. They have done three times the damage to the city that the shells have done.

Today In Charleston History: April 7

1780 – The Seige of Charlestown

A group of 700 battle-tested veteran Virginia Continentals sent by Gen. George Washington arrived in Charlestown. They crossed the Wando River and landed at Christopher Gadsden’s wharf. They marched through town to the lines to the pealing of church bells. At the lines they were greeted with cheers and a firing of thirteen cannons, one for each of the independent states.

1805 – Francis Pickens Born

Francis Pickens

Francis Wilkinson Pickens was born in Togadoo, St Paul’s Parish, Colleton County, South Carolina. His father was former Gov. Andrew Pickens and his grandfather was Gen. Andrew Pickens, an American Revolutionary soldier at the Battle of Cowpens and later U.S. Congressman.

A cousin of Senator John C. Calhoun, Pickens was born into the culture of States Rights, and became an ardent supporter of nullification (refusal to pay federal import tariffs) when he served in the South Carolina house of representatives, before being elected to Congress and then the state senate.

Pickens served in Congress  from South Carolina from 1834 until 1843 and was a member of the South Carolina state senate from 1844 until 1846.  Under President James Buchanan, Pickens was Minister to Russia from 1858–1860, where he and his wife were befriended by Czar Alexander II. He was Governor when South Carolina became the first state to secede from the U.S.A.

As state governor during the Fort Sumter crisis, he sanctioned the firing on the ship bringing supplies to the beleaguered Union garrison, and to the bombardment of the fort. After the war,  Pickens introduced the motion to repeal South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession, a short speech that was received in silence, in notable contrast with the rejoicing that had first greeted the Ordinance.

 1863 – Battle of Charleston

The First Battle of Charleston Harbor began at noon. Shortly after 3 p.m., they came within range of Fort Moultrie and Fort Sumter; and the battle began. Southern obstructions and a strong flood tide made the ironclads virtually unmanageable, while accurate fire from the forts played upon them at will. With the Union formation scrambled, Keokuk was compelled to run ahead of crippled USS Nahant to avoid her in the narrow channel after Nahant ’​s pilot was killed and helmsman wounded by a Confederate shot striking the pilothouse. This brought her less than 600 yards (550 m) from Fort Sumter, where she remained for half an hour receiving the undivided attention of the Confederate guns.


USS Keokuk

USS Keokuk

Robert Smalls, former slave, piloted ironclad USS Keokuk. The attack failed, and Keokuk was badly damaged, struck by about ninety projectiles, many of which hit at or below her waterline. Commander Rhind reported his ship as being hit by a combination of solid shot, bolts, and possibly hot shot. However, she was able to withdraw under her own power and anchor out of range, thanks in part to the skills of Robert Smalls, Her crew kept her afloat through the night, but when a breeze came up on the morning of 8 April 1863, Keokuk began taking on more water, filled rapidly, and sank off Morris Island. She had given one month of commissioned service. One of Keokuk’s sailors, Quartermaster Robert Anderson, was awarded the Medal of Honor in part for his actions during the battle. In all, 14 of Keokuk ’​s crew were injured in the battle, including Captain Rhind with a contusion to his leg. Acting Ensign Mackintosh, one of the gun captains, later died from his wounds.

Guns from the USS Keokuk

Guns from the USS Keokuk

Cannons from the Keokuk are now on display at White Point Garden along South Battery.

1864 – Bombardment of Charleston

In a letter to him mother, Gus Smythe wrote:

You must not feel anxious about me up here, & never fear my falling down the stairs, tho’ there are 170 of them. Oh my, there goes that bell & such a cracking and shaking as this old steeple does get up whenever they ring … the first time you experience it you feel certain that it is going to fall immediately. It seems God’s providence was specially directed toward this vernerable – but shaky – old spire.

Today In Charleston History: October 16

1651 – English Roots of Charles Town

Charles II and James, sons of the Charles I, fled England to escape Cromwell’s army. Landing in Normandy, France they would live in exile for nine years.

1864 – Bombardment of Charleston 

Gus Smythe wrote to his sister Sarah Annie:

I am sorry to tell you that St. Michael’s steeple has been struck as last, this morning at 10 o’c., a shell entering and bursting in it. Fortunately it came in just by a window, so the wall is little injured, not at all of any account. The just before that one, entered the church, going through the south east corner of the roof, but not bursting. This church … has had now two shells in it, besides one in the steeple, & has been hit several times by fragments.

St. Michael's Church

St. Michael’s Church

1876 – Reconstruction

A joint political meeting took place near Cainhoy, South Carolina, a small town located approximately nine miles northeast of Charleston.  A group of about one-hundred and fifty Democrats traveled to the site by steamboat “Pocosin” and met their political opponents at “Brick Church.”  The leadership from both sides had agreed beforehand that participants would not bear arms at the meeting, but many of the Republicans, mindful of the sort of violence that had occurred previously in places like Hamburg, arrived to the meeting with their personal firearms.  Other black Republicans had hidden weapons in the surrounding woods and swamps.  

brick church

Brick Church at Cainhoy.

During a speech by Republican W.J. McKinlay,  the hidden weapons were discovered. A riot broke out when the black Republicans heard that the whites had seized their weapons and that a white man had drawn a pistol in self-defense. The blacks rushed from the swamps with their guns and pursued the Democrats into the church., where they were held at bay, with a gun battle between the Democrats and Republicans lasting several hours.  Members of Democratic controlled rifle clubs from Charleston quickly organized and arrived on the scene in force within a few hours, Tensions remained high, but no more organized fighting took place.

The “Pocosin” was quickly loaded with the wounded and returned from Charleston with 100 armed men of the Palmetto Guard to provide protection for the white citizens of Cainhoy.  A small detachment of U.S. military forces arrived a few days later in order to maintain the tenuous peace.  

The massacre at Cainhoy resulted in the deaths of six white men and wounding sixteen while only one black man was killed.

Today In Charleston History: August 21


1687 – Piracy.

A small fleet of ships, commanded by Rear-Admiral Sir John Narborough, was dispatched “for suppressing pirates in the West Indies.” It was England’s first serious attempt at restraining the ever-growing threat from buccaneers. Pirates coming into any of the ports of the province [English controlled] were “to be seized and imprisoned, and their ships’ good and plunder were to be taken and kept in custody until his Majesty’s Royal pleasure should be known.”

One observer remarked “only the poor Pyrats were hanged; rich ones appear’d publicly and were not molested in the least.”

1863 –  Bombardment of Charleston.  

Gen. Gillmore wrote a note to General P.G. T. Beauregar, which was delivered to Gen. Johnson Hagood, commander of the Confederate Battery Wagner on Morris Island at 11:15 a.m. Gillmore demanded that Morris Island and Fort Sumter be evacuated or the city would be shelled. He wrote that should Beauregard:

refuse compliance with this demand, or should I receive no reply thereto within four hours after it was delivered into the hands of your subordinate at Ft. Wagner for transmission, I shall open fire on the city of Charleston from batteries already established within easy and effective range at the heart of the city.

Later than night, Lt. Nathan Edwards took a compass reading of the white steeple of St. Michael’s Church from the “Swamp Angel” battery, in order to properly aim the gun at Charleston.


P.G. T. Beauregard

Beauregard was out inspecting the city’s fortifications and not present when the Gillman’s note was delivered to Beauregard’s chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Thomas Jordan. Gillmore forgot to sign the note (whether by accident or by design has never been ascertained) so Jordan returned it to Gillmore’s headquarters for verification. By the time the note was signed and returned to Confederate headquarters it was 9:00 a.m. the following morning and sixteen Union shells had already hit Charleston.