Category Archives: South Carolina

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

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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

Charleston: Federals Invade Morris Island

July 6, 1863 – Federal army-navy forces stepped up efforts to capture the vital port of Charleston, South Carolina, by focusing on the Confederate batteries on the islands south of the harbor.

Adm S.F. Du Pont | Image Credit: Flickr.com

The South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, commanded by Rear Admiral Samuel F. Du Pont, had been enforcing the Federal blockade of Charleston throughout most of the war. However, Du Pont had drawn the ire of the Lincoln administration for his failure to seize the forts guarding Charleston Harbor, and his lack of aggression ever since.

Du Pont resented taking the blame for the failed attack on the Charleston forts and wanted the administration to officially acknowledge that the ironclads used in the assault were too weak to capture such strong fortifications. Both President Abraham Lincoln and Navy Secretary Gideon Welles refused because it would reveal this naval weakness to the enemy. Du Pont finally asked to be removed from command, and the administration obliged, replacing him with Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren.

Welles had initially chosen Rear Admiral Andrew H. Foote to replace Du Pont, but Foote died before he could take command. Dahlgren was an ordnance expert and inventor of the bottle-shaped “Dahlgren” gun; he had formerly been the commandant of the Washington Navy Yard. He arrived outside Charleston on July 6, where he inherited about 70 warships of various types.

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

Dahlgren was expected to use every resource at his disposal to force the surrender of Charleston. He immediately began working with Major General Quincy Adams Gillmore, the conqueror of Fort Pulaski and the new commander of the Department of the South, to launch a joint army-navy expedition against the “cradle of the Confederacy.”

The Confederates, led by General P.G.T. Beauregard, had batteries posted on both Morris and James islands, south of the Charleston Harbor inlet. Beauregard expected Federals to target James Island, which was closer to Charleston. As such, he left the two batteries on Morris Island lightly guarded. Battery Wagner was garrisoned by about 300 Confederates, while Battery Gregg, farther north at Cumming’s Point, was held by only 30.

The Federals needed to take both islands and both batteries if they had any hope of capturing Charleston. Gillmore planned to land two forces on Morris Island–one on the southern end and one on the northern end–to capture Batteries Wagner and Gregg. Meanwhile, Federal artillery would bombard Fort Sumter in the harbor. Gillmore also tried diverting Confederate attention with two separate operations:

  • A force would invade James Island, west of Morris Island
  • A force would destroy the railroad bridge on the South Edisto River, below Morris Island

Once the islands and batteries were seized, the Federals would remove the obstructions in the channel, enabling the ironclads to enter the harbor and take part in the assault on Charleston itself. The Federals had been secretly working on this plan since June, moving troops to their starting point at nearby Folly Island at night to avoid detection. Heavy rain delayed the Morris Island invasions, but on the 9th, the Federal diversion against James Island took place. The Federals overwhelmed a small Confederate force and seized the island as planned.

The next morning, Federals moved to carry out the second diversion, but they encountered heavy Confederate resistance as they moved up the Edisto. The three ships grounded multiple times, leading the Federals to finally burn one near Willstown Bluff and withdraw with the other two before they could destroy the railroad bridge.

Meanwhile, Gillmore delayed his attack on Morris Island until naval support could get into position. During that time, the Confederates observed the Federal buildup on Folly Island and reported that they believed the main attack would come against Morris. Gillmore, worried that the Confederates knew about his two-pronged advance, changed his plan to land all troops on the southern end of Morris Island instead.

On the 10th, 47 Federal guns and mortars on Folly Island opened a two-hour bombardment to cover the troop landing. The ironclad monitors U.S.S. Catskill (Dahlgren’s flagship), Montauk, Nahant, and Weehawken also provided covering fire with their 11 and 15-inch Dahlgren guns.

Transports conveying a 3,000-man Federal brigade under Brigadier General George C. Strong crossed Lighthouse Inlet and began landing the troops; Strong nearly drowned during the landing. The Confederates, having been pummeled from land and water, quickly abandoned their first two lines of defense and fell back toward Battery Wagner.

The Federals moved up Morris Island, staying close to the shore and their naval support. Many succumbed to heatstroke in the sweltering heat. They quickly gained control of the island’s lower three-fourths, but Confederate reinforcements began arriving from James Island, and they stopped the Federal advance around 9 a.m. The Confederates, led by Colonel Robert Graham, assembled in the strong defenses of Batteries Wagner and Gregg, ready to meet the next Federal attack.

The first obstacle for Strong’s Federals was Battery Wagner, a partially open fortification made of sand and palmetto logs that was much stronger than it looked. As the Federals approached Wagner, the Confederates opened a punishing fire on the troops and the ironclads. The Catskill took 60 hits, the Nahant took six, and the Montauk took two.

None of the ships sustained serious damage, but Dahlgren was nearly killed when a shot sent a bolt past his head in the pilothouse. According to the Catskill’s executive officer, “Our attack on Sumter before is nothing to this. Thank God we have all come out safely, except two or three wounded on this vessel & several used up from exertion & the heat.”

The advance and the sweltering heat exhausted the Federals on the island, compelling Gillmore to suspend the attack on Battery Wagner until the next day. He was unaware that the Confederates in the defenses had been demoralized by the sudden, overwhelming assault; one more quick, all-out attack might have overrun them. The ironclads continued bombarding Wagner throughout the day.

The Federals sustained 106 casualties (15 killed and 91 wounded) in the assault. The Confederates lost 294 men and 11 guns. Graham, stunned by the sudden Federal attack, tried rallying his Confederates within Battery Wagner. President Jefferson Davis asked Governor Milledge L. Bonham to send state militia to help the Confederate defenders. Gillmore’s decision not to follow up until morning enabled more reinforcements to join Graham through the night.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 120-24; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 230; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 303, 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; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 325-27; Jones, Virgil Carrington, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 131-32; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 380, 382-83; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 727, 830; 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. 172-73; Simon, John Y., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 310-11; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 703; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 202

Federals Invade Charleston Harbor

April 7, 1863 – Federal ironclads launched a doomed attack on the Confederate forts guarding Charleston Harbor.

Adm S.F. Du Pont | Image Credit: Flickr.com

The Lincoln administration had pressured Rear Admiral Samuel F. Du Pont, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, to capture the forts in Charleston Harbor, which would lead to the fall of Charleston itself. Charleston, site of Fort Sumter, was more of a symbolic than a strategic objective for the Federal high command.

Du Pont had been reluctant to attack the forts ringing the harbor because he doubted the new ironclads had the power to reduce such strong fortifications. He also could not rely on army support, as Major General David Hunter (commanding the Federal Department of the South) had no intention of attacking such a strong position.

Unable to put it off any longer, Du Pont dispatched the ironclads U.S.S. Keokuk, Montauk, Passaic, and Patapsco to the North Edisto River and positioned other gunboats in preparation for the impending assault on the 1st. Du Pont arrived at Edisto Island the next night and issued orders to his ship commanders on the 4th:

“… The Squadron will pass up the main channel without returning the fire of the batteries on Morris Island, unless signal should be made to commence action. The ships will open fire on Fort Sumter when within easy range, and will take up position to the northward and westward of that fortification, engaging its left or northeast face at a distance of from 600 to 800 yards firing low and aiming at the center embrasure… After the reduction of Fort Sumter it is probable that the next point of attack will be the batteries on Morris Island. The order of battle will be line ahead…”

Du Pont assembled his ironclad fleet on the afternoon of April 5. Federals had placed buoys in the channel off the Stono bar to mark the safe passage, with the gunboats U.S.S. Catskill and Patapsco guarding the buoys. Du Pont assigned steamers to tow off any vessels that might be disabled in the impending assault.

The attack fleet consisted of nine ironclads: the U.S.S. Weehawken, Passaic, Montauk, Patapsco, New Ironsides (Du Pont’s flagship), Catskill, Nantucket, Nahant, and Keokuk. The ships had 32 15-inch guns to face 76 guns in the harbor forts. The ships crossed the Charleston bar and prepared to attack, but hazy weather rendered pilots unable to judge the ranges, so it was postponed for a day. The ships anchored just outside the harbor that night.

The tides delayed the attack on the 7th until around noon. The fleet began advancing toward the main channel leading into the harbor single-file, with the Weehawken under Captain John Rodgers leading the way. But the raft that the Weehawken was pushing to offset Confederate torpedoes got tangled with the main ship, causing another delay. The advance finally got under way in earnest around 3 p.m.

This was the largest naval attack of the war. The Confederates knew the attack was coming, and Charleston residents lined the shore to watch the action. As the fleet headed for Fort Sumter, the Confederate garrison there raised their flag and fired a salute to the Confederacy while a band played “Dixie.”

Federal attack on Charleston | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

The Federal ships struggled to get past the obstructions and over the sandbars. Confederates had also placed markers in the water to guide the range of their guns. Federal captains had trouble navigating the strong flood tide sweeping into the harbor as they came under fire.

Intense fire opened from Fort Sumter and nearby Sullivan’s and Morris islands. The Federals returned fire, but the ironclads’ slow guns could not match the enemy’s cannonade. A witness called the Confederate cannonade, “Sublime, infernal, it seemed as if the fires of hell were turned upon the Union fleet.” A naval officer said, “Such a fire I never saw. Nothing could be heard but the whistling of shot.”

The Federal ships fired 154 rounds, hitting Fort Sumter 55 times. But the Confederates fired 2,209 rounds and scored over 400 direct hits that destroyed decks, riddled smokestacks, penetrated armor, and disabled guns. The Weehawken took 53 hits and struck a torpedo. The Passaic took 35 hits and had her main gun turret disabled. The Montauk under Captain John L. Worden took 47 hits, as did the Patapsco. The New Ironsides was disabled and sat helpless above a 2,000-pound torpedo. Confederates tried detonating the torpedo, but a faulty wire saved the ship and crew, including Du Pont.

The Catskill was next in line, sustaining 20 hits and taking in water. The Nantucket took 51 hits that disabled her turret. The Nahant was crippled by 36 hits. The Keokuk got within 600 yards of Fort Sumter but sustained 90 hits, 18 of which penetrated the iron near the waterline. “Riddled like a colander,” the ship fell back toward Morris Island and sank later that night. Confederates later recovered the Keokuk’s signal books and learned all the Federals’ naval codes.

In addition, two Confederate spar-torpedo boats (oar-driven vessels with mines attached to a spar to ram enemy ships) went to confront the Federal ships still inside the Stono bar, but the Federals withdrew before they arrived.

The Federals sustained 23 casualties (one killed and 22 wounded), and the Confederates lost 14 (four killed and 10 wounded). Du Pont’s flagship signaled a withdrawal around 5 p.m., as the sun began setting. The harbor proved to be “a circle of fire not to be passed.” A Charleston resident wrote of the Federal ships, “It was a most signal defeat for them. We did not use half of our guns and had no recourse to rams, torpedoes, etc.” His “only regret is that the fleet did not make more of a fight so as to be more badly damaged.”

Du Pont planned to renew the assault the next morning until he received the damage reports from his commanders. Five ships were heavily damaged. Du Pont held a council of war and announced, “We have met with a sad repulse. I shall not turn it into a great disaster.” Du Pont reported to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, “I determined not to renew the attack, for, in my judgment, it would have converted a failure into a disaster.” Every captain agreed, confident that naval force alone could not take the harbor.

Du Pont wrote to Hunter the next day that his suspicions about the ironclads’ abilities had been confirmed: “I attempted to take the bull by the horns. but he was too much for us. These monitors are miserable failures where forts are concerned.” Du Pont urged Welles to publicly acknowledge that the failed assault was due to the ironclads being unfit for the purpose, but Welles refused.

Lincoln was greatly disappointed by the defeat, and he ordered Du Pont, “Hold your position inside the bar near Charleston, or, if you shall have left it, return to it, and hold it till further orders.” Lincoln hoped the Federal presence would keep the Confederates anxious and prevent them from building more defenses.

News of this defeat brought tremendous criticism upon Du Pont. Charles C. Fulton, who had witnessed the battle, wrote a damning article in the Baltimore American titled, “A Disgraceful Result.” Fulton claimed the ships could have taken Fort Sumter if they were given more time before withdrawing. Fulton wrote, “Oh, that we had a (Admiral David) Farragut here to take command at once, and do what has been so weakly attempted by Admiral Du Pont.”

Du Pont blamed Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox for allowing such an article to be published because Fox had assigned Fulton to witness the battle. Welles concluded that the captains who agreed with Du Pont’s decision to withdraw would not have done so had they not been part of Du Pont’s inner circle.

Welles refused to publish any reports about the ironclads’ weaknesses because “there was no necessity for us to proclaim that weakness to our enemies… Du Pont is morbidly sensitive, and to vindicate himself wants to publish every defect and weakness of the ironclads and to disparage them, regardless of its effect in inspiring the Rebels to resist them, and impairing the confidence of our own men.” Welles and the Federal high command began seeing Du Pont as the main impediment to capturing Charleston.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 191; Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 115-18; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 230; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 270-74; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9225; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 224, 226-30, 232; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 278, 280; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 335-38; 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. 645-46; 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. 146-48; Melton, Maurice, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 131; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 640-41; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 703

Federals Shift Their Focus to Charleston

February 18, 1863 – General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederate defenses in South Carolina and Georgia, issued a proclamation warning citizens that a Federal attack on either Charleston or Savannah was imminent.

Following the destruction of the U.S.S. Monitor in late December, the Federal Navy Department shifted its focus from attacking Wilmington, North Carolina, to Charleston, South Carolina. In January, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles informed Admiral Samuel F. Du Pont, heading the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, that five new ironclads would be coming for him “to enter the harbor of Charleston and demand the surrender of all the defenses or suffer the consequences of the refusal.”

Adm S.F. Du Pont | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Du Pont was not as sold on the effectiveness of ironclads as others in the Federal navy, especially when trying to reduce strong fortifications such as those in Charleston Harbor. When Du Pont voiced his concerns, Welles left it up to him whether to attack, but he called Charleston’s capture “imperative.” Welles also pledged that the Navy Department would “share the responsibility imposed upon the commanders who make the attempt.” Du Pont opted not to attack, instead requesting two more ironclads that would not be ready for another six months.

In the meantime, Du Pont worked with Major General David Hunter to adopt the Army Signal Codes for ironclads. Using navy signals relied on running banners up and down the masts, which was a problem for ironclads because they had no masts. Using the Army Signal Codes not only solved the problem, but it facilitated better communication between the army and navy during joint operations.

Du Pont also reported on chronic supply shortages:

“Our requisitions for general stores, I have reason to believe, are immediately attended to by the bureaus in the Department… but there seem to be unaccountable obstacles to our receiving them… We have been out of oil for machinery. Coal is not more essential… My commanding officers complain their wants are not supplied…”

Maintaining the blockade was also troublesome for Du Pont:

“No vessel has ever attempted to run the blockade except by stealth at night–which fully established internationally the effectiveness of the blockade–but it is not sufficient for our purpose, to keep out arms and keep in cotton–unfortunately our people have considered a total exclusion possible and the government at one time seemed to think so… If I had not induced the Department to establish a floating machine shop, which I had seen the French have in China, the blockade would have been a total failure…”

However, Du Pont refused to stray from the rules of civilized warfare. He condemned Confederate use of torpedoes in Charleston Harbor, adding, “Nothing could induce me to allow a single one in the squadron for the destruction of human life. I think that Indian scalping, or any other barbarism, is no worse.”

A meeting took place on the morning of Sunday the 15th between President Abraham Lincoln, Welles, Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox, General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, and General John G. Foster, commanding Federal forces on the North Carolina coast. They all agreed that Charleston must be captured, but they could not agree on a plan.

When Foster suggested landing troops with naval support, Fox called it “so insignificant and characteristic of the army.” Fox urged sending in all the vessels to seize the harbor, which would isolate the forts and force their surrender. Ultimately, Fox directed Du Pont to “go in and demand a surrender of the forts or the alternative of destruction to their city.”

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

At Charleston, Beauregard had previously announced that the blockade had been broken, but by the 13th he reported that eight Federal vessels had returned. He informed his superiors, “Everything indicates an early attack on Charleston or Savannah, probably former. Enemy is accumulating a large force at Port Royal (South Carolina) several iron-clads are there.”

On the 18th, Beauregard issued a proclamation to Charlestonians:

“It has become my solemn duty to inform the authorities and citizens of Charleston and Savannah that the movements of the enemy’s fleet indicate an early land and naval attack on one or both of these cities, and to urge that all persons unable to take an active part in the struggle shall retire.

“It is hoped that this temporary separation of some of you from your homes will be made without alarm or undue haste, thus showing that the only feeling that animates you in this hour of supreme trial is the regret of being unable to participate in the defense of your homes, your altars, and the graves of your kindred.

“Carolinians and Georgians! the hour is at hand to prove your devotion to your country’s cause. Let all able-bodied men, from the seaboard to the mountains, rush to arms. Be not exacting in the choice of weapons; pikes and scythes will do for exterminating your enemies, spades and shovels for protecting your friends.

“To arms, fellow citizens! Come to share with us our dangers, our brilliant success, or our glorious death.”

Beauregard also asked local slave owners to donate their slaves for building more defenses in the harbor. His fears proved unfounded, however, as the Federal high command still had not agreed on a plan of attack.

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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. 260-61; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 224; 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. 180

Confederates Break the Charleston Blockade

January 31, 1863 – Two new Confederate ironclad rams attempted to break the Federal blockade of Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, by attacking a portion of the blockading fleet.

Confederates had continuously sought ways to break the Charleston blockade as soon as it had begun. The Federals had captured several blockade runners, including the British merchant steamer Princess Royal on the 29th, which was run aground near Rattlesnake Channel by the Federal gunboat U.S.S. Unadilla. Federals confiscated six rifled cannons, 930 armor-piercing shells, 600 barrels of gunpowder, and two engines for ironclad vessels. The cargo totaled nearly $500,000 and was the blockading fleet’s largest capture of the war.

The next day, Confederate shore batteries opened a crossfire on the Federal gunboat U.S.S. Isaac Smith as she tried reconnoitering up the Stono River. The fire ran the ship aground, and the captain surrendered after losing 25 men (eight killed and 17 wounded). Confederates later renamed the Isaac Smith the Stono.

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

General P.G.T. Beauregard, now commanding the Confederate defenses in South Carolina after recovering from illness, directed Flag Officer Duncan N. Ingraham, the Confederate naval commander at Charleston, to confront the Federal blockading vessels with his two new rams, the C.S.S. Chicora under Commander John R. Tucker and Palmetto State under Lieutenant John Rutledge, along with three tenders.

In the predawn fog of the 31st, the Chicora fired on the U.S.S. Keystone State, hitting the ship’s boilers several times. Twenty-five Federals were killed; many were scalded to death. Meanwhile, the Palmetto State rammed the converted merchant ship U.S.S. Mercedita and left her when the Federals reported that she would soon sink. The rams returned to their base, where the Confederate crewmen reported destroying two Federal vessels and burning four others.

However, the Confederates had not destroyed any vessels; the U.S.S. Memphis rescued the Keystone State, and the Mercedita was not sinking as the Federals claimed. Both ships were towed to Port Royal for repairs and were soon back on active duty. All other Federal ships continued their blockade as normal, unharmed.

Even so, Beauregard interpreted the exaggerated news of the Isaac Smith’s capture and the destruction of blockaders to announce that the blockade of Charleston had been broken. Beauregard escorted the French and Spanish consuls to the waterfront to show them that “the outer harbor remained in the full possession of the two Confederate rams. Not a Federal sail was visible, even with spyglasses.”

Beauregard argued that since the blockade had been broken, the Federals could not reinstate it without first giving the Confederates a 60-day notice in accordance with international law. Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, ignored Beauregard’s claim and resumed the blockade immediately.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 113; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 139, 555-56; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 258; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 222-24; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 259-60; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 316-17; 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. 124-25; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: C.B. Richardson, 1866; revised version New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 571

The Battle of Secessionville

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I am proud to announce that this is my 500th post on the Civil War Months blog! Thanks to all of you for your continued support on this project!

June 16, 1862 – Federal forces under Brigadier General Henry W. Benham attacked strong Confederate defenses near the town of Secessionville on James Island, just south of Charleston, South Carolina.

Between 2 and 3:30 a.m., Benham directed his two divisions under Brigadier Generals Isaac I. Stevens and Horatio G. Wright to advance on Confederate fortifications outside Secessionville, commanded by Colonel Thomas G. Lamar. Lamar notified his superior, Brigadier General Nathan G. “Shanks” Evans, who readied his batteries and sent reinforcements to the fort. Lamar had just 500 men, but another 1,500 were on the way.

Near 4 a.m., Stevens’s 3,500 Federals quietly captured the Confederate pickets and crept within range of the Confederates at Secessionville. Stevens led the assault’s first wave, supported by Federal gunboats on the Stono River. Struggling through brush on the left and right, Federals emerged on a narrow passage in the center and were met by Confederate grapeshot from 700 yards. The Federals continued advancing as the Confederates began firing canister that inflicted even more casualties. Within 15 minutes, Stevens saw the attack was futile and ordered a withdrawal to await reinforcements.

The Battle of Secessionville | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Evans arrived with his Confederates to bolster Lamar’s defenses. Benham led Wright’s Federals in an attack on the enemy right, where the Federals were partially hidden by hedgerows. But they were quickly caught in a Confederate crossfire. They silenced the Confederates on their far left and reached the fort’s parapets, but the Confederates ultimately drove them off.

Meanwhile, the Confederate gunners in the fort continued pounding the Federals in their front, making a charge against such strong works over such a narrow strip of ground suicidal. Benham ordered a withdrawal around 9:30 a.m., with the Federals gathering as many of their dead and wounded comrades as they could before falling back.

Benham, who had been ordered by Major General David Hunter not to bring on a general engagement, refused to acknowledge that this was a battle in his report. He wrote that “the main object of the reconnaissance was accomplished in ascertaining the nature of the fort…”

The alarming number of casualties indicated that this was much more than just a reconnaissance. The Federals lost 683 men (107 killed, 487 wounded, and 89 missing) out of about 6,600 on the island, setting back progress in trying to capture Charleston Harbor. The Confederates lost 204 (52 killed, 144 wounded, and eight missing). Evans commended Lamar for the Confederate victory, naming the fortifications Fort Lamar in his honor.

Hunter learned about the fight two days later at his Hilton Head headquarters. He quickly removed Benham from command for “disobeying positive orders and clear instructions.” After Benham argued vehemently in his own defense, Hunter read aloud his June 10 order to Benham:

“In leaving the Stono River to return to Hilton Head I desire, in any arrangements that you may make for the disposition of your forces now in this vicinity, you will make no attempt to advance on Charleston or to attack Fort Johnson until largely re-enforced or until you receive specific instructions from these headquarters to that effect.”

Benham was detained, and President Abraham Lincoln revoked his brigadier general’s commission. Stevens and Wright testified to the War Department that they had both warned Benham he was violating orders not to bring on a battle at their council of war on June 15. Stevens sent a letter to the New York Times claiming that Wright had told Benham that his orders during that council “were, in fact, orders to fight a battle.”

Wright assumed command of Benham’s forces on James Island, with orders from Hunter: “You will not attempt to advance toward Charleston or Fort Johnson till largely re-enforced and until you receive express orders from these headquarters.” If Wright could not hold the position, he was to “make all the necessary dispositions for abandoning James Island and John’s Island, sending off in the first place all your sick and all your stores.”

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 111; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 183; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 168-70; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 227; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 699; 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. 139; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 427; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 664