July 18, 1863 – Federal forces suffered a severe repulse in a second attack on Morris Island south of Charleston, despite a heroic effort by the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry.
About 1,200 Confederates defended Battery Wagner, an open embrasure on the northern section of Morris Island. They had repulsed a Federal assault a week earlier, but this time, Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding the Federal Department of the South, planned a much stronger attack. Unlike the first attempt, Gillmore would employ artillery support from both land and water.
The assault had been postponed a day due to rain, and the artillery bombardment that was supposed to begin at 9 a.m. on the 18th was delayed due to damp powder. The naval bombardment began after noon, when the tides allowed the Federal warships to get within range. Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren’s ironclad flotilla (the U.S.S. Catskill, Montauk, Nantucket, New Ironsides, Patapsco, and Weehawken) heavily shelled Battery Wagner, producing what Dahlgren wrote called, “Such a crashing of shells and thunder of cannon and flying of sand and earth into the air.”
The ships moved to within 300 yards as the tides rose, with the New Ironsides staying back and firing over the rest of the flotilla. Dahlgren wrote, “The gunnery was very fine, the shells of the ‘Ironsides’ going right over the ‘Montauk,’ so we had it all our own way.” The Federal guns scored hits at a rate of one every two seconds. They silenced the Confederate cannon after seven hours, which signaled the Federal infantry to begin its advance.
Gillmore watched the bombardment and believed Battery Wagner had been reduced to rubble. The Federals had done extensive damage, piling shells in passageways and exposing the magazine, which put the Confederates at risk of being “blown in the marsh.” But Gillmore was unaware that the sandy walls had absorbed most of the shells, and the defenders remained hidden within their strong bombproofs.
Gillmore ordered Brigadier General Truman Seymour to launch a night attack. Seymour’s force consisted of 6,000 Federals in two brigades gathered on the southern end of Morris Island. Seymour planned to send three attack waves against Battery Wagner to the north, with Brigadier General George C. Strong commanding the first wave.
The 54th Massachusetts, a black regiment, would lead the first wave. Colonel Robert G. Shaw, the son of Boston abolitionists who commanded the 54th, had lobbied Strong for a chance to prove what his men could do in combat. This would be one of the first times in which a black regiment led Federal troops into battle, and their performance would influence future decisions on how best to deploy black troops.
Despite the politics behind the decision to place the 54th in the lead, Seymour later explained that “the 54th was in every respect as efficient as any body of men; it was the strongest (with 650 troops) and best officered, there seemed no good reason why it should not be selected for this advance.”
As the Federals began advancing at 7:45 p.m., it instantly became clear that the bombardment had not subdued the Confederates, who had quietly withstood the barrage from the safety of their bombproofs. They suddenly came out to the parapets and opened heavy fire on the attackers moving along the narrow 200-yard beach. The Federal ships offshore stopped their shelling because, as Dahlgren wrote, “There could be no more help from us, for it was dark and we might kill friend as well as foe.”
The black troops valiantly fought their way to a small angle of the fort’s wall and began scaling the parapet. As Shaw reached the top ahead of his troops, he shouted, “Onward, Fifty-fourth!” He was shot in the chest and killed, but his men held the parapets for nearly an hour as they waited for reinforcements that never came. Strong was wounded in the leg; he later developed tetanus and died.
As the 54th fell back in disarray, the Confederates repelled the rest of the first wave. Colonel Haldimand S. Putnam, commanding the second wave, held his men back, ostensibly under orders from Gillmore not to advance because he had been certain only one wave would be needed to take the works. Putnam finally put his men in motion after being ordered twice by Seymour to attack.
The lag between the first and second waves resulted in two separate, piecemeal attacks that the Confederates easily thwarted. Seymour then ordered his reserve brigade, under Brigadier General Thomas G. Stevenson, to advance, but Gillmore overrode Seymour and directed Stevenson to wait until Putnam’s men made headway. Some Federals got into the fort on the sea-facing side, but the Confederates counterattacked and drove them out, killing Putnam in the process.
Distraught over the heavy losses, Gillmore refused to commit the third wave under Stevenson. The Federals sustained 1,515 casualties (246 killed, 880 wounded, and 389 missing), including five regimental commanders. The 54th lost 272 of its men, or 41 percent. 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.
The Confederates lost just 174 men (36 killed, 133 wounded, and five missing). A witness described the scene when the Confederates came out of their works to tend to the dead and wounded the next day:
“Blood, must, water, brains and human hair matted together; men lying in every possible attitude, with every conceivable expression on their countenances; their limbs bent into unnatural shapes by the fall of 20 or more feet, the fingers rigid and outstretched as if they had clutched at the earth to save themselves; pale, beseeching faces looking out from among the ghastly corpses, with moans and cries for help and water and dying gasps and death struggles.”
The Confederates treated the black and white casualties the same, sending the wounded off together and burying the dead together in mass graves. But General Johnson Hagood, commanding the burial detail, refused to send Colonel Shaw’s body back to his family in accordance with the traditional treatment of officers. Instead, he directed Shaw to be buried with his troops in the ditch. Shaw’s father later said that burying his son with his men was the highest honor the Confederates could have bestowed upon him.
Gillmore lost a third of his men in 10 days of operations on Morris Island, with Battery Wagner still in Confederate hands. He realized that Morris Island and Charleston could not be taken by a joint army-navy force without first besieging Wagner. Despite the setback, this effort earned fame for the 54th and legitimized the role of blacks as Federal combat soldiers.
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