Defending Charleston to the Last Extremity

Confederates still held Batteries Wagner and Gregg on Morris Island at the southern entrance to Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. They also held James Island to the west and Fort Sumter in the harbor. The Federals had unsuccessfully attacked Battery Wagner twice in July, and now Major-General Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding the Federal Department of the South, awaited reinforcements to besiege the Confederate works.

Gillmore’s Federals entrenched themselves in the southern section of Morris Island, facing Wagner, Gregg, and Sumter to the north. Gillmore, a former engineer, worked with his army engineers to carefully emplace a powerful artillery battery on the island’s swampy ground. This work was done under heavy fire from the Confederates on James Island.

The Confederates at Wagner and Gregg were under almost constant bombardment. They hid in poorly ventilated bombproofs during the day and came out at night to shore up their fortifications. The Federal shells opened shallow graves and produced an almost unbearable stench. Drinking water had to be shipped from Charleston in kegs.

On August 5, a detachment of U.S. Marines arrived at Charleston Harbor, sent by Navy Secretary Gideon Welles to support Rear-Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren’s South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. The Marines joined their comrades from the naval fleet at Charleston and Port Royal under the command of Major Jacob Zeilin, U.S.M.C. They were deployed on Morris Island as reinforcements.

Meanwhile, Confederate President Jefferson Davis wrote South Carolina Governor Milledge L. Bonham, “Be assured the executive branch of the Government will continue to do all that is possible for the safety and relief of the city, which we pray will never be polluted by the footsteps of a lustful, inhuman foe. It must never pass to the even temporary subjection of the mean and cruel enemy.”

Federal reinforcements arriving on Morris Island were put on fatigue duty, which consisted of digging trenches and building earthworks in the harsh summer heat. The black troops did most of the heavy labor. By this time, the Federals had constructed three parallel lines of batteries and earthworks, with the third line just over 500 yards from Battery Wagner.

The troops worked almost around the clock, with calcium lights illuminating their work at night. They were under constant bombardment from Batteries Wagner and Gregg, as well as from James Island and Fort Sumter. A furious Confederate barrage opened on August 11 which temporarily halted the Federal work details.

Before dawn the next day, Federal artillerists began testing their newly installed heavy-caliber Parrott guns. This “test” did much to silence the guns at Wagner and Gregg, and blow large holes in the brick walls of Sumter. Colonel Alfred Rhett, commanding the Confederates at Fort Sumter, reported that a Federal shot had destroyed the bakery oven and compelled him to shift his guns to prevent their destruction. Gillmore planned to open a bombardment from all his guns on the 14th, but it was delayed three days due to defective powder. During that time, the sporadic Federal target practice continued.

General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederate forces defending Charleston, had just 6,000 men. He had to hold Battery Wagner, or else Battery Gregg would fall and with it all of Morris Island. From there, the Federals could attack Fort Sumter to the north or invade James Island to the west. Either move would put them within easy striking distance of Charleston.

Battery Wagner | Image Credit:

Governor Bonham wrote Beauregard urging him to evacuate non-combatants from the city while holding it at all costs. Beauregard agreed, writing that he would act in accordance with a state convention resolution “that Charleston should be defended at any cost of life or property,” with delegates preferring “a repulse of the enemy with the entire city in ruins, to an evacuation or surrender on any terms whatever.”

Beauregard cited the recommendation of General Robert E. Lee, who had “directed that Charleston should be defended to the last extremity, and if necessary the fight should be made from street to street and from house to house.” Beauregard assured Bonham, “You are entirely right in your belief that I propose to defend the city to the last extremity, in accordance with the patriotic wishes of the people of South Carolina, and the instructions of my superiors.”

Around this time, Confederate Congressman William Porcher Miles wrote to Secretary of War James A. Seddon, asking him to send reinforcements to defend Charleston. Miles wrote, “We have every reason to believe that General Gillmore will be speedily re-enforced, when he may attempt by an overwhelming force, to seize James Island. Should he succeed in this, Charleston will be in his power, for it can be battered down from James Island.”

Miles specifically asked Seddon to send Brigadier-General Micah Jenkins’s brigade of South Carolinians from the Army of Northern Virginia. He wrote, “In this, our greatest hour of trial, it seems hard that South Carolina cannot have some of her own veteran troops (who have been fighting so long outside of her borders) to strike a blow for their own homes upon their native soil.” Acknowledging that such a move would require sacrifice, Miles stated:

“But, really, if Charleston is to be defended with anything like the energy and tenacity with which Richmond has been, it seems absolutely necessary that something of ‘an army’ should be, so far as possible, concentrated for its defense, even at the expense of great risk and hazard to other places. This is a moral element that high statesmanship will not only refuse to ignore, but will eagerly avail itself of.”

Meanwhile, Beauregard scrambled to defend all points against the Federal assault that was sure to come.


  • Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Never Call Retreat: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 3. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1965.
  • Faust, Patricia L. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.

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