Major-General Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding the Federal Department of the South, had directed the landing of Federal troops on Morris Island, south of Charleston Harbor, on July 10. The troops had advanced northward up the island before stopping at Battery Wagner, an open Confederate embrasure that Federals called “Fort Wagner” because it appeared closed to them. Brigadier-General George C. Strong, commanding the Federal attack force, rested his men and prepared to attack the work the next day.
Strong’s Federals advanced toward Wagner at dawn on the 11th. They had orders to fire one round and then charge the fortifications with bayonets. Strong instructed the men, “Aim low and put your trust in God.” Neither Strong nor Gillmore knew that waiting a day to attack had given the Confederates time to gather reinforcements. They now had 1,200 men defending the battery. Conversely, Gillmore did not bring up any artillery to support the attack, nor did he request naval support.
The advancing Federals consisted of just three infantry regiments. To reach the fort, they had to charge along a narrow path on the beach that the Confederates covered with heavy guns. The Federals were quickly met by murderous grapeshot and musket fire. Elevated fire from Fort Gregg, 1,300 yards past Wagner at Cummings Point, also did damage. Some Federals of the leading 7th Connecticut reached the fort’s parapets, but when their commander, Colonel Daniel Rodman, saw the other two regiments breaking behind him, he hollered, “Retreat! Every man for himself!” Rodman was wounded near the parapets. The Federals were repelled within an hour.
Strong’s men sustained 339 casualties (49 killed, 123 wounded, and 167 captured or missing). The 7th Connecticut lost 112 of its 200 men. The Confederates lost just 12 (six killed and six wounded). Unwilling to accept defeat, Gillmore prepared to bring up 40 rifled and mortar guns to bombard Battery Wagner, supported by Federal naval guns offshore.
General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederate defenses in the Charleston vicinity, ordered women and children to evacuate the city. He also sent more reinforcements to Wagner, led by Brigadier-General William Taliaferro. When they arrived on the 12th, Taliaferro resolved to hold the fortifications while Beauregard bolstered the harbor defenses at James and Sullivan’s islands, as well as Fort Sumter in the harbor.
The Federals bombarded Battery Wagner almost continuously from the 12th through the 17th. The Confederates took shelter in their bombproofs, which they called “rat holes,” and sustained just 28 casualties (eight killed and 20 wounded) during the artillery barrage.
Meanwhile, Brigadier-General Alfred H. Terry’s Federals fought off a strong Confederate effort to take back James Island. Confederate heavy guns at Grimball’s Landing on the nearby Stono River repeatedly struck the U.S.S. Pawnee and Marblehead during the assault until Federals answered with heavy artillery fire of their own. The 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry sustained 46 casualties while helping to drive the Confederates off.
By the 16th, the Confederates knew another Federal attack on Battery Wagner was imminent. Beauregard wrote his superiors at Richmond, “Enemy is massing his troops on Morris Island, evidently for another attack on Battery Wagner this night or tomorrow. Their monitors, gunboats, and mortar-boats kept up an almost constant fire all day on that work, with little damage to it and few casualties.” According to an article in the Charleston Courier, “A forest of masts present themselves to our view just outside the bar, mortar boats, gunboats, and monitors, lie within range of our guns on Morris Island.”
Gillmore truly was massing troops for another attack. But, as he reported, “up to this period, our actual knowledge of the strength of the enemy’s defenses on the north end of Morris Island was quite meager.” Based on the limited information he had, he resolved to launch a combined infantry-artillery-naval gun attack on Battery Wagner to “either drive the enemy from it or open the way to a successful assault.”
Gillmore met with Rear-Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren to discuss the details of the upcoming assault. The Federal guns on land and water would continue pounding Battery Wagner, weakening the defenders enough to enable the infantry to charge through and seize the works in late afternoon on the 17th. After the meeting, Dahlgren noted, “I thought the General much too sanguine.” Rain postponed the attack until the 18th.
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