Confederate defenders still held Batteries Wagner and Gregg on the northern end of Morris Island, and Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. Federal troops, having failed twice to capture Wagner, remained poised on the southern end of Morris Island to capture both Wagner and Gregg once they were pounded into submission by massed artillery. Federal shells had crumbled the brick walls of Fort Sumter, but the garrison would not surrender.
On the night of September 1, six ironclad monitors, led by the U.S.S. Weehawken, came to within 500 yards of Fort Sumter and opened a blistering five-hour bombardment. The Confederates in the fort did not respond, but Confederate batteries at Fort Moultrie scored 70 hits on the enemy ships. Captain Oscar C. Badger of the Weehawken was badly wounded when a shot hit the turret and sent iron into his leg. The Federals withdrew at dawn with the fort still in Confederate hands.
The intense Federal bombardment forced General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Charleston Harbor defenses, to rotate the Confederate defenders on and off Morris Island every three days. Beauregard also relied on slave labor to repair the damages; he asked Charleston slaveholders “to send 100 negroes, with competent managers, to Morris Island as soon as practicable (if not already done), to relieve those sent there this morning.”
Beauregard sent his aide, John McDaniel, to the plantations outside Charleston to ask planters to donate a quarter of their slave labor for strengthening harbor fortifications. McDaniel reported that most planters refused. Beauregard responded, “I regret that you have found planters so ready with excuses for not furnishing labor to defend Charleston. May God grant that, in seeking to avoid furnishing a fourth of their labor, at this momentous junction, they do not materially contribute to the loss of the whole.”
Beauregard directed McDaniel to change his request to an order, and “call on the planters to give you, in good faith, a list of their able-bodied male negroes between the ages of 18 and 45… every man in the district must be required to send one-fourth” of his slaves. McDaniel was to also round up any fugitive slaves (i.e., “refugees”) he could find, as they “of course must fare the same as others. Send back all negroes who have run away from the works.”
Beauregard then wrote to Major-General W.H.C. Whiting, headquartered in North Carolina, “Can you spare me, say, 500 small-arms” to defend the harbor works; he pledged that they would “be returned in 20 days.” Beauregard also asked, “Can you not hurry up the second Blakely gun? Its position on White Point Battery will soon be ready.” He then told Whiting, “Sumter and Wagner still gallantly held.”
By the 2nd, the Confederates huddled in Battery Wagner prepared to evacuate, as Federal troops had inched to within 80 yards. Beauregard started pulling men and guns out of both Wagner and Gregg to minimize his losses in case the batteries fell. Confederate Major-General Jeremy F. Gilmer requested that Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory send as many sailors as possible to Charleston to operate the rowboats moving troops and supplies to and from Morris Island.
The Federals in front of Wagner alleged that the Confederate defenders used grenades to hold them off. But Confederate Brigadier-General Gabriel J. Rains, who had organized the system of torpedoes and mines protecting the harbor, reported that the devices were really subterra shells. These were eight to 10-inch Columbiad shells buried in the sand that exploded when stepped on. Rains had invented these types of land mines, which both sides considered unethical weapons.
Major-General Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding the Federal Department of the South, resolved to launch another infantry attack on Batteries Wagner and Gregg. But he needed support from Rear-Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren’s South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. Dahlgren refused to help because he would have to move his ships close to shore, where they would be vulnerable to counterfire from the batteries. Therefore, Gillmore changed his plan to target just Gregg instead.
Prior to the attack, the Federals unleashed a terrible 42-hour bombardment, during which they fired some 3,000 rounds at Wagner, Gregg, and Fort Sumter. Gillmore loaded troops onto boats and planned to land them on the northern end of Morris Island, where they could assault Battery Gregg. However, the Federals traded fire with a nearby Confederate boat, alarming Gregg’s defenders and forcing Gillmore to call off the attack. Gillmore then planned a night attack, but with the Confederates now on full alert, he aborted this mission as well.
Colonel Lawrence Keitt, commanding the Confederates on Morris Island, received a dispatch intercepted from Gillmore stating that he planned to launch an all-out attack on Battery Wagner on the 7th. Keitt wrote Beauregard, “The whole fort is much weakened. A repetition tomorrow of today’s fire will make the fort almost a ruin. Is it desirable to sacrifice the garrison? To continue to hold it is to do so.”
Keitt had not yet been notified that Beauregard already decided to abandon Morris Island.
- 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.
- 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.
- Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.