Ethics & Armaments

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For an example of the way an incident of the distant past can put a revealing light on a problem of today, you might care to spend a moment considering the case of the Swamp Angel.

The Swamp Angel was a rifled cannon in a sandbag battery built in a South Carolina swamp in the summer of 1863 when the United States Army was trying to batter its way into Charleston. To enter Charleston from the sea, which was the only possible way to do it, the army must first destroy Fort Sumter at the entrance to the harbor. To destroy Fort Sumter, it developed, it would be necessary to mount numerous guns in the surrounding swamps to supplement the naval bombardment. After a great deal of labor the army managed to build a number of batteries; among them, the Swamp Angel.

This one was different. Instead of being designed to attack Fort Sumter, it was pointed off to the northwest, where the only possible target was Charleston, a little more than four miles away. The gun was an eight-inch Parrott rifle firing a 200-pound shell, but some special ammunition had been devised for this occasionregular shell casings with a small bursting charge and a large quantity of the best substitute the Ordnance Department could invent for old-fashioned Greek fire. They were incendiary bombs, in other words, designed to shell a part of Charleston that contained numerous homes in which, to be sure, slept a great many women and children.

With everything in place, the Union authorities demanded that the Confederates immediately evacuate Fort Sumter and some supporting works on Morris Island. If the request was refused they would bombard the city.

According to the Unionists, the Confederates ignored the demand; according to the Confederates, the Unionists did not give them time to make an answer; and in any case, shortly after midnight on August 22,1863, the bombardment began. That night the Swamp Angel dropped sixteen shells into Charleston. The next night it dropped twenty more. Then, unfortunately, the gun exploded and the party was over. It turned out, in addition, that the Greek fire that had been prepared just did not work very well, and no important conflagration was started.

A fizzle, not worth the money and labor it had cost. But the whole business is worth thinking about.

For sheer viciousness the basic idea of raining incendiary bombs on a sleeping city full of noncombatants was up to anything the twentieth century could think of. Americans in 1863 could not make incendiaries that would go off properly, and their ideas about long-range bombardment were hard to translate into action, but the will was there. Once the technical capacity was improved, the human race would lie at the mercy of its own darkest impulses, which go deep into primal pits somewhere beneath the Stone Age.

The thing that makes mankind so uneasy today is not the murderous quality of the weapons that lie to hand, but the notion that when you are at war absolutely anything goes. You hurt the other side in any way you can. So you live always on the edge of the abyss. You become infected by your own terror.

Americans did not invent all of this, of course. There is blame enough to go all the way around. But we do need to remember what the trouble really is. It will not do to blame the weapons. We are going to have to begin by blaming ourselves. Then maybe we can start applying a corrective.