September 6, 1863 – Confederate forces finally abandoned Morris Island in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, after enduring relentless pressure for nearly two months. The Federals then looked to capture Fort Sumter.
Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding the Federal Department of the South, had aborted two planned assaults on Battery Gregg, on the northern tip of Morris Island, earlier this month. But now Gillmore was ready to launch a full-scale attack on the more formidable Battery Wagner. In preparation, Federal gunners had pounded both Wagner and Gregg, as well as Fort Sumter in the harbor, relentlessly.
Colonel Lawrence Keitt, commanding the Confederates on Morris Island, asked the overall commander, General P.G.T. Beauregard, if he should surrender the batteries. Beauregard sent two officers to assess the situation, and they quickly recommended abandoning Morris Island. Beauregard reported to Richmond, “Terrible bombardment of Wagner and Gregg for nearly 36 hours… nearly all guns disabled… Sumter being silenced. Evacuation of Morris Island becomes indispensable to save garrison; it will be attempted tonight.”
As Keitt waited for a rescue force to take his men off the island, he wrote Beauregard, “Will boats be here tonight for garrison? If so, at what time? And if our sacrifice be of benefit, I am ready. Let it be said so, and I will storm the enemy’s works at once, or lose every man here.” That night, crewmen from the C.S.S. Chicora and Palmetto State manned rowboats to collect the Confederate defenders at Cummings Point and bring them to James Island to the west.
The next morning, Gillmore postponed his attack to make final preparations. During that time, Confederate deserters came into the Federal lines and reported that the batteries had been evacuated and the guns spiked. Gillmore ordered his troops to advance, and they soon learned that the deserters had told the truth.
The Confederates defending Wagner and Gregg had been under almost constant bombardment for 58 days, during which they held off an enemy force twice their size, inflicted 2,318 casualties, and lost just 641 men. The capture of Morris Island gave the Federals control of the southern entrance to Charleston Harbor. It also gave them access to many channels within the harbor, making the port too risky for most blockade runners to enter. The Confederacy’s main shipping port soon became Wilmington, North Carolina, as a result.
Gillmore informed Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, that army forces had taken Morris Island, and both men quickly turned their attention to capturing Fort Sumter. The Confederates in the fort defiantly held out, despite having sustained such punishment that, according to Dahlgren, Sumter now “from seaward was rather that of a steep, sandy island than that of a fort.”
Beauregard assigned Major Stephen Elliott, Jr. to lead 320 Confederate infantrymen to bolster the fort’s defenses. Beauregard told him:
“You are to be sent to a fort deprived of all offensive capacity, and having but one gun–a 32-pounder–with which to salute the flag. But that fort is Fort Sumter, the key to the entrance of this harbor. It must be held to the bitter end, not with artillery, but with infantry alone; and there can be no hope of reinforcements.”
Dahlgren needed to capture the fort, not only because of its symbolic value, but also because the Confederates there prevented him from clearing the torpedoes and other obstructions from the harbor entrance. If the Federals had any hope of capturing Charleston, Fort Sumter needed to be taken first. When Dahlgren demanded the fort’s immediate surrender, Beauregard replied, “Inform Admiral Dahlgren that he may have Fort Sumter when he can take it and hold it.”
Dahlgren dispatched a naval reconnaissance in force on the night of the 7th. The Confederate batteries at Fort Moultrie and on James and Sullivan’s islands opened fire as the ships entered the harbor. The U.S.S. Weehawken grounded on a sandbar between Cummings Point and Fort Sumter. The other vessels, led by the U.S.S. New Ironsides, drew the Confederate fire while tugs tried pulling the Weehawken out; the New Ironsides took 50 hits. The tugs finally freed the Weehawken early next morning, and the fleet withdrew.
Gillmore planned a surprise attack on Fort Sumter by landing two infantry regiments on the island fortification on the night of the 8th. Coincidentally, Dahlgren planned a similar operation that same night with sailors and marines. The two commanders did not learn of each other’s plan until just hours before the attacks were supposed to start.
Gillmore proposed combining their efforts and placing them under army command. Dahlgren replied, “I have assembled 500 men and I can not consent that the commander shall be other than a naval officer.” Gillmore said that “why this should be so in assaulting a fortification, I can not see.” The commanders finally agreed to launch their separate attacks at different points on the island, with both commands using a password to identify each other.
Commander Thomas Stevens, assigned to command the navy part of the operation, expressed doubt that such a plan would work. But Dahlgren assured him, “You have only to go in and take possession. You will find nothing but a corporal’s guard.” The Confederates, having confiscated the signal book of the U.S.S. Keokuk in April, intercepted the Federal signals and knew an attack was coming.
The navy forces began rowing out to Sumter before moonrise, using muffled oars. Confederate lookouts expecting their arrival signaled the alarm, and the batteries on James and Sullivan’s island opened fire. Almost as soon as the first sailors and marines landed, Confederate rifle fire and hand grenades pinned them against the works.
The C.S.S. Chicora soon opened a deadly enfilade fire, and the guns at Fort Moultrie joined in as well. Dahlgren later reported, “Moultrie fired like the devil, the shells breaking around us and screaming in chorus.” The Federals could see nothing in the darkness, but the Confederates were well familiar with their surroundings.
The remaining navy boats turned back. The army boats were delayed by low tide, and when Gillmore learned of the navy’s failure, he canceled his part of the operation. The Confederates captured five boats and inflicted 124 casualties, most of which were prisoners taken. Beauregard reported, “Nobody hurt on our side.”
Dahlgren requested more ironclad monitors from the Navy Department. When Navy Secretary Gideon Welles refused, Dahlgren suspended bombardment operations, and his fleet resumed general blockading duties. Although the Federals had finally captured Morris Island, Fort Sumter and Charleston remained in Confederate hands.
Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 131-33; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 323-24; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 699-700; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 347, 349; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 405-07; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 176-78; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 88