The Civil War Swamp Angel of Charleston Harbor

Fort SumterFort Sumter fell to the Confederates on April 13, 1861. By the summer of 1863, Fort Sumter had been bombarded by Federal artillery for two years, but it still stood and guarded Charleston, South Carolina. 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’s surrender, thus bypassing troublesome Fort Sumter and other forts in the harbor.
A big gun with the range to reach Charleston would allow General Gillmore to get to the meat of the matter, which was to force the Rebel stronghold of Charleston to surrender. The Swamp Angel is exactly what Gillmore needed.

This gun was huge. It was made at New York’s West Point Foundry 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 big gun 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 began on August 2, 1863 and 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 “Greek Fire” an incendiary fluid, that would set Charleston ablaze. On August 17, it arrived at Morris Island. An awesome weapon of war was about to go to work.

Gillmore sent a message on August 21, to Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, the commander at Charleston, 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 in the morning on August 22, the Swamp Angel began to roar 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 big gun, 12 of the shots filled with Greek Fire.

Charleston was receiving the wrath of the Union in the form of horrible huge shells filled with fire, shot from a huge monster of a cannon 7,900 yards away. On August 23, the Swamp Angel belched out 20 more shells into Charleston. It looked like the Confederacy would lose Charleston to surrender as the terrible gun rained its hellish shells full of fire down on the city.

But when the Swamp Angel fired its 36th shell on August 23rd, it did something cast-iron Parrott guns were known for, despite their distinctive wrought iron reinforcing bands placed around their breeches. On the 36th 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 big gun was dead. No further huge guns like the Swamp Angel were placed on the Union’s Morris Island battery.

The Swamp Angel’s military career was over, the fate of the great gun was for it 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, you may rest easy because the Swamp Angel is no longer a threat to you.

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