The Battle of Fort Wagner

July 18, 1863 – Federals suffered a severe repulse in an attack on Charleston Harbor defenses led by the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry.

On June 12, General Quincy Adams Gillmore became the commander of the Federal Department of the South. An experienced engineer, Gillmore’s objective was to conquer Confederate forts and seize control of Charleston, South Carolina. A prime obstacle was Battery or Fort Wagner, one of the harbor’s main defenses, on the south end of Morris Island. After spending nearly a month situating heavy guns on Morris Island’s northern end, Gillmore prepared to attack with his 3,000 infantry.[1]

Federal troops supported by naval vessels and artillery from Folly Island attacked on July 10 and seized the first two Confederate defense lines. By noon, the Federals held the lower three-fourths of Morris Island with only Batteries Wagner and Gregg left to conquer. But Gillmore, unaware that the attack had demoralized the Confederates, called a halt for his exhausted men to rest and renew the assault the next day.[2]

The Federals quietly advanced at daybreak. The first wave of troops reached Wagner’s parapets, but Confederates cut them down with grape and canister. Gillmore lost 339 men (49 killed, 123 wounded, and 167 captured or missing) in an hour while the Confederates lost just 12. Unwilling to admit that frontal assaults could not capture Wagner, Gillmore began gathering reinforcements and ordered a naval bombardment to pound the fort into submission.[3]

Gillmore’s second attempt to take the fort with infantry took place on July 18. At noon, Federals began shelling Wagner with 11 naval vessels and 41 guns. When the defenders fell silent seven hours later, Gillmore ordered Brigadier General Truman Seymour to direct a night attack. Seymour planned to launch three attack waves, with Brigadier General George C. Strong heading the first wave. Strong selected the 54th Massachusetts, one of the first black regiments to see combat, to lead the charge against the 1,000-man Confederate garrison.[4]

At 7:30 p.m., some 6,000 Federals charged along a narrow 200-yard front. It instantly became clear that the bombardment had not subdued the Confederates, as they opened heavy fire into the attackers. The black troops valiantly fought their way to a small angle of the fort’s parapet, but the Confederates repulsed them. Among the killed was the 54th’s commander, Colonel Robert G. Shaw. The regiment lost 40 percent in killed, wounded, or missing. Sergeant William H. Carney brought the U.S. flag back to Federal lines despite suffering four wounds; he later became the first black man awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.[5]

54th Massachusetts charging Battery Wagner | Image Credit: Bing Public Domain

54th Massachusetts charging Battery Wagner | Image Credit: Bing Public Domain

As the 54th fell back in disarray, the Confederates repelled the first and second waves, wounding Seymour. Distraught over the heavy losses, Gillmore refused to commit the third wave. Federals lost a total of 1,515 killed, wounded, or missing, while the Confederates lost just 174. Confederates burying the Federal dead sought to discredit Shaw, a white officer, by throwing his body into a ditch with his black troops. But Shaw’s father, a prominent Boston abolitionist, considered this the highest honor to his son.[6]

This defeat proved to Gillmore that Charleston could not be taken by a joint army-navy force without first conducting a siege. Despite the setback, this effort earned fame for the 54th and legitimized the role of blacks as U.S. soldiers.[7]

—–

[1] Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 120; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 696; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 364-65, 382-83

[2] Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 121-24; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 696; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 382-83

[3] Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 124; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 696-97; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 383

[4] Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 124-28; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 697; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 387-88

[5] Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 124-28; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 697; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 248

[6] Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 124-28; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 697; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 387-88; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 248

[7] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 697; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 387-88

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