Michelle Isenhoff

Blood Moon: Military Innovations of the Charleston Campaign

This is the final post in a four-part series about writing and researching my upcoming young adult historical fiction novel, Blood Moon, the second book in my Ella Wood trilogy. (Part 1: Women’s Education; Part 2: African American Soldiers. Part 3: Early Photography.)

The Civil War provided the turning point from the old European style of fighting (massed armies standing in a field with inaccurate, bayonetted muskets) to modern warfare. It also marked the origin of many of the weapons and techniques that would be so strongly associated with World War I fifty years later. The sieges of Vicksburg (May – July 1863) and Petersburg (June 1864 – March 1865) are especially noted for their extensive use of trenches, but it would be the Siege of Fort Wagner (July – Sept 1863) outside Charleston harbor, and the harbor itself, that would prove the testing ground for many innovations and improvements.

Barbed Wire

Wagner marked the first time wire entanglements were used on a wide scale. Five wooden stakes were driven deep into the ground and strung tightly with wire. The resulting quincunx made an effective obstacle against advancing Union forces. These were the baby brothers of the barbed wire barriers of WWI.

WWI razor wire obstruction
WWI razor wire obstruction

Rifled Artillery

Rifling had been around for several centuries, and conical ammunition since the early 1800’s, but it was the Civil War that truly tested this combination in high-powered artillery. The Battle of Fort Pulaski in April 1862 in the mouth of the Savannah River proved the effectiveness of rifled cannons at close range against the brick masonry that was the standard in coastal defense works up to that time. During the Siege of Fort Wagner, the strength, range, and accuracy of rifled artillery was further tested when prolonged bombardment reduced Fort Sumter to a pile of rubble. Shells were also accurately fired into the city of Charleston from a range of over four miles. This also marked the first time a city with a present civilian population was specified as a military target.

Two 30-pound Parrott rifles
Two 30-pound Parrott rifles used against Pulaski and Sumter.

Machine Guns

I’m going to quote from Steven R. Wise’s Gate of Hell again in describing the next innovation. Requa batteries “were intended to replace the short-range field guns in defensive positions. They consisted of twenty-five rifle barrels arranged horizontally and attached to a field carriage. Operated by three men who fed in a clip consisting of twenty-five cartridges, the gun was effective up to thirteen hundred yards and a good crew could fire 175 shots per minute. The engineers, impressed by these accurate and efficient weapons, placed them liberally among their trenches” outside Wagner. The Requa gun was, of course, a forerunner of the machine gun.

Requa gun
Requa gun. Note the fellow in the background holding the 25-bullet clip.


Rains Barrel Torpedo (underwater mine)
Rains Barrel Torpedo (underwater mine)

Confederate General Gabriel J. Rains developed the first landmine, a simple barrel filled with gunpowder and fitted with a fuse and detonator. Condemned as unethical by the North, they were used to good effect by the South throughout the war. Underwater mines first appeared in Virginia’s James River but received a far more thorough testing in Charleston harbor. General Beauregard, in charge of the defense of Charleston, was especially keen on exploring the possibilities of these “torpedoes” and used them extensively. In fact, they generated such fear in the Union navy that they almost single-handedly prevented the takeover of Charleston in 1863 after the Union army took Fort Wagner and decimated Fort Sumter in the harbor mouth.

It was also General Beauregard who championed the use of torpedoes as offensive weapons. Ram class warships were steamers fitted with a long underwater spar and used by both sides in the war, but it was the South’s Captain Francis D. Lee who, encouraged by Beauregard, experimented with the placement of torpedoes at the end of the ram. The limited success of these torpedo rams was due, not to lack of effort, enthusiasm, or ingenuity, but to the South’s painful lack of reliable engines. The first tests were conducted with rowboats!  Of all attempts, only the David accomplished anything when it disabled the Union ironclad, New Ironsides. But experiments continued. Beauregard and his engineers eventually fastened a torpedo to the ram of a new submarine prototype, the famous H. L. Hunley, and in 1864, after the loss of several crews during trial runs, the Hunley became the first submarine to sink a ship when it destroyed the Union’s Housatonic. The Hunley disappeared in the attack with all hands lost. It was discovered in 1995 and raised in 2004.

HL Hunley
HL Hunley

Cooperation Between Military Branches

Finally, the Siege of Fort Wagner marked the first major amphibious assault using the combined forces of the army and navy. While the army dug in and battered Wagner from the trenches, the navy’s ironside and fleet of monitors pulled along side the island fort and provided fire cover for the army’s operations and assaults. (Note the role of the battleships in the illustration of the storming of Fort Wagner below.) This proved a template for later cooperation between the armed forces.

The Storming of Fort Wagner, an 1890 painting showing American soldiers attacking the Confederates at the fort.
“The Storming of Fort Wagner”, an 1890 painting showing the charge of the 54th Massachusetts Colored regiment.
Blood Moon: Military Innovations of the Charleston Campaign
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