Category Archives: Navy

Charleston: Morris Island Abandoned

September 6, 1863 – Confederate forces finally abandoned Morris Island in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, after enduring relentless pressure for nearly two months. The Federals then looked to capture Fort Sumter.

Maj Gen Q.A. Gillmore | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding the Federal Department of the South, had aborted two planned assaults on Battery Gregg, on the northern tip of Morris Island, earlier this month. But now Gillmore was ready to launch a full-scale attack on the more formidable Battery Wagner. In preparation, Federal gunners had pounded both Wagner and Gregg, as well as Fort Sumter in the harbor, relentlessly.

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 Keitt waited for a rescue force to take his men off the island, he wrote Beauregard, “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.” 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. Gillmore ordered his troops to advance, and they soon learned that the deserters had told the truth.

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 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 now “from seaward was rather that of a steep, sandy island than that of a fort.”

Beauregard assigned Major Stephen Elliott, Jr. to lead 320 Confederate infantrymen to bolster the fort’s defenses. Beauregard told him:

“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.”

Rear Adm J.A.B. Dahlgren – Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

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 pulling 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 plan 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 captured five boats and inflicted 124 casualties, most of which were prisoners taken. Beauregard reported, “Nobody hurt on our side.”

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. Although the Federals had finally captured Morris Island, Fort Sumter and Charleston remained in Confederate hands.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 131-33; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 323-24; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 699-700; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 347, 349; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 405-07; 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), p. 176-78; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 88

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The Laird Rams

September 5, 1863 – Charles Francis Adams, U.S. minister to Great Britain, threatened war unless the British stopped clandestinely building warships for the Confederacy.

Charles Francis Adams | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Adams had demanded that the British government investigate allegations that naval warships were being built in British shipyards for Confederate use. This demand specifically referred to ironclads currently under construction in the Laird shipyards at Birkenhead that had become known as the “Laird rams.”

Emperor Napoleon III of France was listed as the rams’ original owner, but U.S. officials claimed the British government secretly knew that Confederate agents owned the ships behind the scenes. The agents arranged for the unarmed rams to be sold to Bravay & Company of Paris, on behalf of “his serene Highness the Pasha of Egypt.” The Pasha would then arm the rams and sell them to the Confederates on the open sea.

Adams and Thomas Dudley, the U.S. consul in Liverpool, had been gathering evidence that the rams truly belonged to the Confederacy since June. They argued that if such activity was taking place, it violated Britain’s avowed neutrality and had to be stopped. Secretary of State William H. Seward had even threatened to declare war on British Canada if evidence surfaced that Britain was aiding the Confederate war effort.

British Foreign Minister Lord John Russell | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Adams urged British Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell to stop construction on the rams, but Russell replied on the 1st, “Under these circumstances, Her Majesty’s Government cannot interfere in any way with these vessels.” Without Adams’s knowledge, Russell turned around two days later and issued orders detaining the rams at Birkenhead until British officials could investigate the matter further. Russell decided that such a move was necessary to maintain peaceful relations with the U.S., as well as British neutrality.

Adams wrote Russell on the 5th, unaware that Russell had detained the rams. Adams warned that if the rams left the shipyard, “It would be superfluous in me to point out to your Lordship that this is war…” Adams was then informed that the British government had already taken steps to prevent such a thing from happening.

This was hailed in the U.S. as a great diplomatic victory, and although the British government had decided on its own to detain the rams, Adams became a hero in the U.S. for supposedly forcing Britain to back down. This did much to ease tensions between London and Washington, at the same time dealing another damaging blow to Confederate hopes for independence.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 260; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 322-23; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9918-28; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 346, 348; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 404-05; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 682; 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), p. 202-03; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 126-27; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q363

Post-Vicksburg: Grant’s Army Reduced

August 3, 1863 – Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federal Army of the Tennessee underwent vast reductions following its capture of Vicksburg.

Maj Gen U.S. Grant | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

By this month, Grant’s Federals were performing occupation duty at Vicksburg and other points in Mississippi and western Tennessee. After borrowing IX Corps to help conquer Vicksburg, Grant returned those troops to Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Army of the Ohio, which was poised to invade eastern Tennessee.

Grant proposed joining forces with Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Army of the Gulf to capture Mobile, Alabama. This plan was backed by both Banks and Rear Admiral David G. Farragut, whose naval force would be needed to attack the city from the Gulf of Mexico. But General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck rejected the idea and instead urged Banks to invade eastern Texas while Grant continued managing occupation forces.

Halleck informed Grant on the 6th, “There are important reasons why our flag should be restored to some part of Texas with the least possible delay.” Halleck did not explain those reasons, but President Abraham Lincoln did in a letter to Grant three days later:

“I see by a dispatch of yours that you incline strongly toward an expedition against Mobile. This would appear tempting to me also, were it not that, in view of recent events in Mexico, I am greatly impressed with the importance of re-establishing the national authority in Western Texas as soon as possible.”

Lincoln was referring to Mexico falling under the rule of Maximilian I, a puppet dictator installed by Emperor Napoleon III of France. European interference in the affairs of a Western Hemisphere nation violated the Monroe Doctrine. Even worse, Napoleon had hinted at the possibility of allying with the Confederacy, and the administration feared that the Confederates could start receiving military and financial support from French-occupied Mexico.

Thus, much of Grant’s army was broken up, with Major General E.O.C. Ord’s XIII Corps going to reinforce Banks at New Orleans and Major General William T. Sherman’s XV Corps performing garrison duty in Louisiana. The rest of Grant’s forces held points along the Mississippi River in western Tennessee and Mississippi.

Meanwhile, Lincoln tried convincing Grant of the effectiveness of black troops. Lincoln wrote on the 9th that black troops were “a resource which, if vigorously applied now, will soon close the contest.” However, Sherman wrote his wife Ellen doubting the ability of blacks in the military and stating, “… I cannot trust them yet.” Consequently, Sherman did little to alleviate the problem of freed slaves scouring the region and resorting to robbery for food and shelter.

Major General John A. McClernand, who had caused Grant so much trouble until Grant relieved him of corps command during the Vicksburg campaign, had his military career effectively ended when Lincoln declined assigning him to a new command.

On the 17th, elements of Sherman’s infantry from Vicksburg and Major General Stephen A. Hurlbut’s cavalry from Memphis raided Grenada, Mississippi, south of the Yalobusha River, where Confederates had gathered supplies from the Mississippi Central Railroad. Those supplies were guarded by a token force while the main body of Confederates evacuated Jackson and burned the bridge over the Pearl River in May.

The Federal forces drove the Confederate guards off and seized 57 locomotives, destroyed over 400 railcars, and burned buildings containing vast amounts of commissary and ordnance supplies. This was one of the most destructive raids of the war, with damage estimated at $4 million.

In late August, Grant attended a banquet in his honor at the Gayoso House in Memphis. A pyramid in front of his place at the table listed all his battles, beginning with Belmont. He was toasted as “your Grant and my Grant,” and his feat of opening the Mississippi River was compared to the feats of Hernando de Soto and Robert Fulton. Grant delivered a two-sentence speech to the 200 guests, thanking them and pledging to do what he could to maintain their prosperity.

On the water, Rear Admiral David D. Porter formally took command of all Federal naval forces and operations on the Mississippi River, replacing Farragut. Porter’s main goal was to suppress Confederate raids on Federal shipping while promoting river commerce.

Recalling the terrible problems the navy had in trying to navigate the Yazoo River before the fall of Vicksburg, Porter reported to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, “There are no more steamers on the Yazoo. The large fleet that sought refuge there, as the safest place in rebeldom, have all been destroyed.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 314-16; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 770-73; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 337, 339, 345; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 393-94, 396-97; 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), p. 167, 170-71; Pritchard, Russ A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 178

Charleston: Federals Plan Another Attack

August 1, 1863 – Federal army-navy forces continued working to capture Morris Island at the southern entrance to Charleston Harbor, South Carolina.

Maj Gen Q.A. Gillmore | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

As August began, Confederates still held Batteries Wagner and Gregg on Morris Island, along with James Island to the west and Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. The Federals had unsuccessfully attacked Battery Wagner twice in July, and now Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding the 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.

On the 5th, 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, 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.”

As Federal reinforcements arrived on Morris Island, they began 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 the 11th 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.

Gen P.G.T. Beauregard | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

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.

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 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.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 314-16; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 738; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 697-98; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 337, 339; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 393-96

Federals Regroup on Morris Island

July 31, 1863 – President Abraham Lincoln approved reinforcing the Department of the South to bolster the Federals on Morris Island who were trying to capture not only the island but the city of Charleston, South Carolina.

Federal forces remained on the southern part of Morris Island after sustaining another defeat at Battery Wagner on the 18th. With his force reduced to 6,000 men due to combat and illness, Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding the department, wrote General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck requesting reinforcements. Gillmore asked for 8,000 veterans that he assumed would be freed up after the victories at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Port Hudson, and Tullahoma.

While waiting for Halleck’s response, Gillmore worked with Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, on a new plan of attack. The two commanders agreed that reinforcements were needed before any offensive operations could be resumed, but Dahlgren had none to offer.

Rear Adm J.A.B. Dahlgren – Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Dahlgren contacted Navy Secretary Gideon Welles and suggested that 20,000 reinforcements could take Morris Island and put the Federals in position to attack Charleston. When Welles received Dahlgren’s message, he sent Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox to discuss the matter with Halleck. Halleck claimed that he had received no request for reinforcements from Gillmore; that message would not reach him until the 28th. When Halleck read it, he immediately replied:

“You were distinctly informed that you could not have any additional troops, and it was only on the understanding that none would be required that I consented to your undertaking operations on Morris Island. Had it been supposed that you would require more troops, the operations would not have been attempted with my consent or that of the Secretary of War.”

Halleck explained that “every man that we could possibly rake and scrape together is in the field in face of the enemy… And now, at this critical junction, comes your urgent but unexpected application for 8,000 additional troops for Morris Island. It is, to say the least, seriously embarrassing.” Halleck ultimately dispatched 2,000 black troops from North Carolina, but they were untested and too few for Gillmore to proceed.

Lincoln and Welles then met with Halleck and agreed that since Major General George G. Meade would not be launching another offensive in northern Virginia any time soon, troops could be pulled from the Army of the Potomac to reinforce Gillmore. Lincoln directed the War Department to send 5,000 additional troops from XI Corps to Morris Island.

By month’s end, Gillmore had begun preparing to besiege Batteries Wagner and Gregg on Morris Island, as well as Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

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References

Official Naval Records (Series 1, Vol. 14), p. 380-82, 401; Official Records (Series 1, Vol. 28, Part 2), p. 23-24, 26, 29, 30, 39; Official Records (Series 1, Vol 53), p. 293-94; Welles, Gideon, Diary (Vol. 1); Wise, Stephen R., Gate of Hell

Charleston: The Second Assault on Battery Wagner

July 18, 1863 – Federal forces suffered a severe repulse in a second attack on Morris Island south of Charleston, despite a heroic effort by the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry.

About 1,200 Confederates defended Battery Wagner, an open embrasure on the northern section of Morris Island. They had repulsed a Federal assault a week earlier, but this time, Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding the Federal Department of the South, planned a much stronger attack. Unlike the first attempt, Gillmore would employ artillery support from both land and water.

The assault had been postponed a day due to rain, and the artillery bombardment that was supposed to begin at 9 a.m. on the 18th was delayed due to damp powder. The naval bombardment began after noon, when the tides allowed the Federal warships to get within range. Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren’s ironclad flotilla (the U.S.S. Catskill, Montauk, Nantucket, New Ironsides, Patapsco, and Weehawken) heavily shelled Battery Wagner, producing what Dahlgren wrote called, “Such a crashing of shells and thunder of cannon and flying of sand and earth into the air.”

The ships moved to within 300 yards as the tides rose, with the New Ironsides staying back and firing over the rest of the flotilla. Dahlgren wrote, “The gunnery was very fine, the shells of the ‘Ironsides’ going right over the ‘Montauk,’ so we had it all our own way.” The Federal guns scored hits at a rate of one every two seconds. They silenced the Confederate cannon after seven hours, which signaled the Federal infantry to begin its advance.

Gillmore watched the bombardment and believed Battery Wagner had been reduced to rubble. The Federals had done extensive damage, piling shells in passageways and exposing the magazine, which put the Confederates at risk of being “blown in the marsh.” But Gillmore was unaware that the sandy walls had absorbed most of the shells, and the defenders remained hidden within their strong bombproofs.

Gillmore ordered Brigadier General Truman Seymour to launch a night attack. Seymour’s force consisted of 6,000 Federals in two brigades gathered on the southern end of Morris Island. Seymour planned to send three attack waves against Battery Wagner to the north, with Brigadier General George C. Strong commanding the first wave.

The 54th Massachusetts, a black regiment, would lead the first wave. Colonel Robert G. Shaw, the son of Boston abolitionists who commanded the 54th, had lobbied Strong for a chance to prove what his men could do in combat. This would be one of the first times in which a black regiment led Federal troops into battle, and their performance would influence future decisions on how best to deploy black troops.

Despite the politics behind the decision to place the 54th in the lead, Seymour later explained that “the 54th was in every respect as efficient as any body of men; it was the strongest (with 650 troops) and best officered, there seemed no good reason why it should not be selected for this advance.”

As the Federals began advancing at 7:45 p.m., it instantly became clear that the bombardment had not subdued the Confederates, who had quietly withstood the barrage from the safety of their bombproofs. They suddenly came out to the parapets and opened heavy fire on the attackers moving along the narrow 200-yard beach. The Federal ships offshore stopped their shelling because, as Dahlgren wrote, “There could be no more help from us, for it was dark and we might kill friend as well as foe.”

54th Massachusetts charging Battery Wagner | Image Credit: Bing Public Domain

The black troops valiantly fought their way to a small angle of the fort’s wall and began scaling the parapet. As Shaw reached the top ahead of his troops, he shouted, “Onward, Fifty-fourth!” He was shot in the chest and killed, but his men held the parapets for nearly an hour as they waited for reinforcements that never came. Strong was wounded in the leg; he later developed tetanus and died.

As the 54th fell back in disarray, the Confederates repelled the rest of the first wave. Colonel Haldimand S. Putnam, commanding the second wave, held his men back, ostensibly under orders from Gillmore not to advance because he had been certain only one wave would be needed to take the works. Putnam finally put his men in motion after being ordered twice by Seymour to attack.

The lag between the first and second waves resulted in two separate, piecemeal attacks that the Confederates easily thwarted. Seymour then ordered his reserve brigade, under Brigadier General Thomas G. Stevenson, to advance, but Gillmore overrode Seymour and directed Stevenson to wait until Putnam’s men made headway. Some Federals got into the fort on the sea-facing side, but the Confederates counterattacked and drove them out, killing Putnam in the process.

Distraught over the heavy losses, Gillmore refused to commit the third wave under Stevenson. The Federals sustained 1,515 casualties (246 killed, 880 wounded, and 389 missing), including five regimental commanders. The 54th lost 272 of its men, or 41 percent. Sergeant William H. Carney brought the U.S. flag back to Federal lines despite suffering four wounds; he later became the first black man awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The Confederates lost just 174 men (36 killed, 133 wounded, and five missing). A witness described the scene when the Confederates came out of their works to tend to the dead and wounded the next day:

“Blood, must, water, brains and human hair matted together; men lying in every possible attitude, with every conceivable expression on their countenances; their limbs bent into unnatural shapes by the fall of 20 or more feet, the fingers rigid and outstretched as if they had clutched at the earth to save themselves; pale, beseeching faces looking out from among the ghastly corpses, with moans and cries for help and water and dying gasps and death struggles.”

The Confederates treated the black and white casualties the same, sending the wounded off together and burying the dead together in mass graves. But General Johnson Hagood, commanding the burial detail, refused to send Colonel Shaw’s body back to his family in accordance with the traditional treatment of officers. Instead, he directed Shaw to be buried with his troops in the ditch. Shaw’s father later said that burying his son with his men was the highest honor the Confederates could have bestowed upon him.

Gillmore lost a third of his men in 10 days of operations on Morris Island, with Battery Wagner still in Confederate hands. He realized that Morris Island and Charleston could not be taken by a joint army-navy force without first besieging Wagner. Despite the setback, this effort earned fame for the 54th and legitimized the role of blacks as Federal combat soldiers.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 120, 124-28; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 310-11; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 696-97; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 332-33; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 364-65, 382-83, 387-88; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 727; McMurry, Richard M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 480; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 686; 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), p. 174; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 248; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 672-73

Charleston: Federals Target Battery Wagner

July 11, 1863 – Federal forces unsuccessfully attacked Battery Wagner near Charleston Harbor, and then prepared to try again.

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 the 10th. 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.

Battery Wagner | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

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, issued orders for women and children to evacuate the city. He also sent more reinforcements to Wagner, led by 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, 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 suffered 46 casualties while helping 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.” An article in the Charleston Courier stated, “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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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 124; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 308; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 696-97; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 328, 331; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 383; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 727; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 672-73