The South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, commanded by Rear-Admiral Samuel F. Du Pont, had been enforcing the Federal blockade of Charleston, South Carolina, throughout most of the war. However, Du Pont had drawn the ire of the Lincoln administration for his failure to seize the forts guarding Charleston Harbor, and his apparent lack of aggression ever since.
Du Pont resented the blame he had received for the failed attack on the Charleston forts, and he wanted the administration to officially acknowledge that the ironclads used in the assault were too weak to capture such strong fortifications. Both President Abraham Lincoln and Navy Secretary Gideon Welles refused because it would reveal this naval weakness to the enemy.
Du Pont finally asked to be removed from command, and the administration obliged, choosing Rear-Admiral Andrew H. Foote to replace him. But Foote died before he could take command, so the job went to Rear-Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren.
Dahlgren was an ordnance expert and inventor of the bottle-shaped “Dahlgren” gun; he had formerly been the commandant of the Washington Navy Yard. He arrived outside Charleston on July 6, where he inherited about 70 warships of various types. Dahlgren’s mission was to use every available resource to capture Charleston. He immediately began working with Major-General Quincy A. Gillmore, the conqueror of Fort Pulaski and the new commander of the Department of the South, to launch a joint army-navy expedition against the “cradle of the Confederacy.”
The Confederates, led by General P.G.T. Beauregard, had batteries posted on both Morris and James islands, south of the Charleston Harbor inlet. Beauregard expected the Federals to target James Island, which was closer to Charleston. As such, he left the two batteries on Morris Island lightly guarded. Battery Wagner was garrisoned by about 300 Confederates, while Battery Gregg, farther north at Cumming’s Point, was held by only 30.
The Federals needed to take both islands and both batteries if they had any hope of capturing Charleston. Gillmore planned to land two forces on Morris Island–one each on the northern and southern ends–to capture Batteries Wagner and Gregg. Meanwhile, Federal artillery would bombard Fort Sumter in the harbor. Gillmore would also try to divert Confederate attention with two separate operations:
- A force would invade James Island, west of Morris Island;
- A force would destroy the railroad bridge on the South Edisto River, below Morris Island.
Once the islands and batteries were seized, the Federals would remove the obstructions in the channel, enabling the ironclads to enter the harbor and take part in the assault on Charleston itself. The Federals had been secretly working on this plan since June, moving troops to their starting point at nearby Folly Island at night to avoid detection. Heavy rain delayed the Morris Island invasions, but on the 9th, the Federal diversion against James Island took place. Troops went up the Stono River, overwhelmed a small Confederate force at Stevens’ Point, and seized the island as planned.
The next morning, Federals moved to carry out the second diversion, but they encountered heavy Confederate resistance as they moved up the Edisto. The three ships grounded multiple times, leading the Federals to finally burn one near Willstown Bluff and withdraw with the other two before they could destroy the railroad bridge.
Meanwhile, Gillmore delayed his attack on Morris Island until naval support could get into position. During that time, the Confederates observed the Federal buildup on Folly Island and reported that they believed the main attack would come against Morris. Gillmore, worried that the Confederates knew about his two-pronged advance, changed his plan to land all troops on the southern end of Morris Island instead.
On the 10th, 47 Federal guns and mortars on Folly Island opened a two-hour bombardment to cover the troop landing. The ironclad monitors U.S.S. Catskill (Dahlgren’s flagship), Montauk, Nahant, and Weehawken also provided covering fire with their 11 and 15-inch Dahlgren guns.
Transports conveying a 3,000-man Federal brigade under Brigadier-General George C. Strong crossed Lighthouse Inlet and began landing the troops; Strong nearly drowned during the landing. The Confederates, having been pummeled from land and water, quickly abandoned their first two lines of defense and fell back toward Battery Wagner.
The Federals moved up Morris Island, staying close to the shore and their naval support. Many succumbed to heatstroke in the sweltering heat. They quickly gained control of the island’s lower three-fourths, but Confederate reinforcements began arriving from James Island, and they stopped the Federal advance around 9 a.m. The Confederates, led by Colonel Robert Graham, assembled in the strong defenses of Batteries Wagner and Gregg, ready to meet the next Federal attack.
The first obstacle for Strong’s Federals was Battery Wagner, a partially open fortification made of sand and palmetto logs that was much stronger than it looked. As the Federals approached Wagner, the Confederates opened a punishing fire on the troops and the ironclads. The Catskill took 60 hits, the Nahant took six, and the Montauk took two.
None of the ships sustained serious damage, but Dahlgren was nearly killed when a shot sent a bolt past his head in the pilothouse. According to the Catskill’s executive officer, “Our attack on Sumter before is nothing to this. Thank God we have all come out safely, except two or three wounded on this vessel & several used up from exertion & the heat.”
The advance and the sweltering heat exhausted the Federals on the island, compelling Gillmore to suspend the attack on Battery Wagner until the next day. He was unaware that the Confederates in the defenses had been demoralized by the sudden, overwhelming assault; one more quick, all-out attack might have overrun them. The ironclads continued bombarding Wagner throughout the day.
The Federals sustained 106 casualties (15 killed and 91 wounded) in the assault. The Confederates lost 294 men and 11 guns. Graham, stunned by the sudden Federal attack, tried to rally his Confederates within Battery Wagner. President Jefferson Davis asked Governor Milledge L. Bonham to send state militia to help the Confederate defenders. Gillmore’s decision not to follow up until morning enabled more reinforcements to join Graham through the night.
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