Major-General Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding the Federal Department of the South, had aborted two planned assaults on Batteries Wagner and Gregg, on the northern tip of Morris Island in Charleston Harbor. But now many of his men were on the verge of collapse from this taxing campaign, so Gillmore decided to launch an all-out attack on the more formidable Battery Wagner. In preparation, Federal gunners relentlessly pounded both Wagner and Gregg, as well as Fort Sumter in the harbor.
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 the Confederates prepared to evacuate, the Federal bombardment continued. Keitt waited for a rescue force to take his men off the island, and he offered to make one last stand: “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.” The sacrifice would not be necessary. 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. Federal troops carefully crept up to the embrasure and learned that the deserters had been telling the truth. They reported that “everything but the sand was knocked to pieces.”
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 announced, “The city and harbor of Charleston are now completely covered by my guns.” But the Federals soon realized that the conquest of Morris Island did not get them any closer to capturing Charleston itself. Northern newspapers urged Gillmore to fire incendiary shells known as Greek fire into the city to burn it down. The Baltimore American declared, “General Gilmore may be expected to roll his fire-shells through the streets of Charleston.” But for now, Gillmore would rest his men and plot his next move.
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’s shape “from seaward was rather that of a steep, sandy island than that of a fort.”
Beauregard assigned Major Stephen Elliott, Jr. and 320 Confederate infantrymen to bolster the fort’s defenses. Beauregard told Elliott, “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 to pull 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 plans 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 inflicted 124 casualties with, as Beauregard reported, “Nobody hurt on our side.” They also captured five boats, five stands of colors, and reportedly the flag that Major Robert Anderson had lowered when he surrendered Fort Sumter in April 1861. According to a Charleston newspaper:
“It was the identical ‘gridiron’ carried from Fort Sumter in 1861; exhibited to a monster mass meeting in New York shortly after; talked, cheered, and prayed over until almost sanctified; wrapped around the gouty limbs of General (Winfield) Scott, and finally brought back under oath that it should be victoriously replanted on the walls where it was first lowered in recognition of the Southern Confederacy.”
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. This ended the siege of Charleston. Although the Federals had finally captured Morris Island, Fort Sumter and Charleston remained in Confederate hands.
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- Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.