Everybody knows what happened at Charleston in April 1861, but the war was nearly started a month earlier—by mistake.
Long jets of flame and billows of smoke erupted from two 8-inch Columbiads on Cummings Point, at the tip of Morris Island, S.C. The crash of heavy artillery from the Confederate “Iron-clad Battery” rolled across the mouth of Charleston Harbor like spring thunder and echoed off the red brick ramparts of Fort Sumter.
Just more than 1,300 yards away and well within range of the Confederate guns, U.S. Army Maj. Robert Anderson, commander of the Federal stronghold, watched the cannon fire with his fellow officers. They calmly studied the scene through spyglasses and noted the caliber and positions of the enemy guns. There was nothing to fear. The Confederate cannons were firing blanks.
It was early morning March 8, 1861. Whether the festering disputes between the United States and the nascent Confederacy would erupt into open warfare remained to be seen. Rebel forces encircling the fort routinely conducted artillery practice. In fact, both sides had frequently engaged in such drills. The barking guns shattered the silence and rattled windows in Charleston, but nothing more.
Until this morning, that is.
Anderson and his junior officers trained their glasses on the unique Iron-clad Battery. Fashioned from heavy timbers and railroad iron, the battery’s thick, sloping walls sheltered a total of three 8-inch Columbiads. Two cannons had just been fired, so the bluecoats were not surprised when Columbiad No. 3 thundered.
They were very surprised, however, to see a cannonball shoot from the gun’s muzzle and arc over the still waters on a shallow trajectory to the fort. In moments, 50 pounds of solid iron skipped twice off the water and slammed against the granite wharf near the Gorge, the fort’s main gate. Was this the opening shot of war?
The sudden impact of the projectile triggered a well-rehearsed response from the garrison inside the fort. Virtual hostages in their stronghold for more than two months, suffering shortages of food and supplies of all kinds, wide-eyed bluecoats scrambled to secure the gate and man their own big guns. “One and all,” wrote Capt. Abner Doubleday, “desired to fight it out as soon as possible.”
From his perch in the fort, Anderson continued to scrutinize Southern soldiers and laborers on shore. They appeared just as startled as he was, scattering in all directions until the beach looked empty. Other enemy cannons around the harbor remained silent. Anderson and his men soon relaxed. Apparently the shot was an accident caused by amateur enemy artillerymen.
Later that morning Anderson penned a blunt message “demanding an explanation” to the Rebel commander at Cummings Point, Maj. Peter F. Stevens—who was also superintendent of Charleston’s South Carolina Military Academy, the Citadel. Citadel cadets had helped to erect batteries on Morris Island and elsewhere around the harbor. They also helped train militiamen and civilian volunteers to operate the cannons.
But before Anderson could send his demand, a red-faced Stevens was rowed out to the fort under a white flag, bearing an “ample apology” for the errant missile. The Southerner didn’t suspect that the cannonball “was put in by any man intentionally.”
“It appears that in practicing at drill, the fact of one of the guns being shotted was forgotten,” wrote Capt. John G. Foster, Sumter’s chief engineer, “and hence the occurrence.”
Anderson admonished Stevens. The incident could have triggered war. Stevens acknowledged Anderson’s patience and forbearance in not returning fire. After their meeting, the uneasy standoff between opposing forces resumed.
On March 9, Brig. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, overall commander of Confederate troops in Charleston, ordered a thorough investigation of the affair. “[H]ereafter,” he instructed, “no gun should be practiced with without first ascertaining whether it be loaded or not.”
Military leaders within the fledgling Confederate army that encircled Fort Sumter had freely expressed concerns about their neophyte gunners and the potential for trouble. One Southern officer—a Mexican War veteran—announced that among the volunteers with whom he was saddled were “290 indifferent artillerymen.” Stevens himself admitted that outside of officers and cadets from the Citadel, the men who served his cannons “had never undertaken to manage artillery.”
On the other hand, Stevens may not have been well served by some of his own protégés. For example, C. Irvine Walker, a 19-year-old cadet, may even have indirectly contributed to the lack of proficiency and discipline exhibited by some of the volunteer gunners that he was supposed to be instructing.
When first assigned to handle a battery of light artillery on Sullivan’s Island, Walker admitted, “I was non-plussed. They were to be fired with friction primers, which I had never seen.” Later on Morris Island, Walker shared a small room with 20 other men. “It was about a foot deep in straw,” he confided. “Our friends in town kept us supplied with food etc. Among which was a two gallon Demijohn of the ‘Oh be joyful’ which was carefully hidden under the straw.”
Elsewhere around the harbor, Confederate Lt. Col. Roswell Ripley, a West Pointer and seasoned artilleryman, had begged his superiors to have his men spend less time laboring on defenses and more time drilling on the big guns. “Any failure in that branch of the service, I fear, may result in disaster,” he had written on March 5.
Beauregard’s probe into the cause of the near-disastrous cannon shot failed to uncover a guilty party. Little more than a month later, on April 12, 1861, another shot from a Confederate cannon struck Fort Sumter. It was one among more than 3,000 other rounds fired at the fort that day, signaling the start of civil war between North and South. The accidental shot was all but forgotten.
Who was responsible for the loaded cannon on March 8 remained a mystery for more than three decades after the war ended. Finally, in a Charleston News and Courier article on August 25, 1893, the culprit’s name surfaced: Edwin Lindsley Halsey.
In March 1861, Halsey, then 24 and employed at a Charleston publishing house, served with the Washington Artillery Volunteers stationed at the Iron-clad Battery. Day after day “every morning and evening” Halsey drilled with other volunteers on the three Columbiads. “[W]e went through all of the movements required in artillery practice,” wrote a companion, “even to firing blank cartridges.” His battery mate recalled that on March 7, 1861, “…while marching from the battery to camp after a drill, Halsey said he was tired of this nonsense, and that there would be some fun in the harbor the next morning.”
After the “fun” roared toward Fort Sumter, Halsey’s lips were sealed. He never commented publicly about the episode. “Possibly, he realized what a breach of discipline his prank represented,” one of his grandsons speculated a century later, noting his grandfather “was not the patient type. The explosive gesture seemed entirely representative of his feelings.”
Halsey served with distinction in South Carolina artillery units throughout the war. The Washington Artillery Volunteers, also known as Hampton’s Legion Artillery, mustered into the Confederate Army on June 13, 1861, for service in Virginia. Transferred to Jeb Stuart’s Horse Artillery Battalion, Halsey was 1st sergeant and later elected 1st lieutenant in Hart’s Battery in April 1862. He rose to captain and commanded the battery after Captain James Hart lost a leg during the Battle of Boydton Plank Road, Va., in October 1864. A comrade remembered that Halsey “was cool, calm, fearless and as firm as a rock in battle.”
Early in 1865, Halsey and his battery, with several South Carolina cavalry regiments, accompanied Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton back to the Carolinas to fight with the Army of Tennessee under Gen. Joseph E. Johnston. Halsey’s Battery was part of the rear guard when Johnston surrendered his troops to Union Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman near Durham, N.C., on April 26, 1865.
Unreconciled, Halsey devised a plan to elude Union forces and lead a section of his battery to fight on, west of the Mississippi. But Hampton put a stop to it. The renowned cavalry leader told the troops they “had been good and brave soldiers, that they had done their whole duty…and that it was their duty to remain where they were and obey commands.” The veteran gunners tearfully parted with their weapons.
Halsey “broke his saber and kept his revolver” before returning to Charleston, where he became a successful lumber and timber merchant. (His business was near present-day Halsey Boulevard.) He also married, fathering seven sons and five daughters. His business thrived and made Halsey wealthy from selling building materials to help rebuild the war-torn South.
Edwin Lindsley Halsey died on October 12, 1903, at the age of 66, and is buried in Charleston’s Magnolia Cemetery. A family member recalled that Halsey “lived out his days totally unreconstructed.”
Schooled in history, geography and graphic arts, Ohio-based George Skoch has contributed prose and artwork to publications for more than three decades.
Originally published in the March 2015 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.