Tag Archives: Battery Wagner

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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Charleston: The Bombardment Winds Down

August 23, 1863 – The Federal bombardment of Fort Sumter and Batteries Wagner and Gregg in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, temporarily halted.

The Confederates still held their defenses despite enduring an unprecedented artillery bombardment. The garrisons at Forts Sumter, Moultrie, Ripley, and Johnson held firm, and the Confederate vessels C.S.S. Charleston, Chicora, and Palmetto State remained intact. Federal ships still could not enter Charleston Harbor, which was filled with obstructions such as piles, ropes, chains, and anchored torpedoes (i.e., mines).

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

By this time, the South Carolina summer began taking its toll on Federals unaccustomed to the draining heat and humidity. The most prominent officer to fall ill was Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. He wrote in his diary, “My debility increases, so that to-day it is an exertion to sit in a chair. I feel like lying down. My head is light. How strange–no pain, but it feels like gliding away to death.”

In the Stono River, several torpedoes exploded and barely missed destroying the U.S.S. Pawnee. Dahlgren responded by directing men to string nets across Stono Inlet to prevent torpedoes from floating downriver and threatening Federal vessels.

At Charleston, a Confederate officer announced that John Fraser & Company would offer a $100,000 reward to anyone who destroyed the ironclad U.S.S. New Ironsides or the wooden gunboat U.S.S. Wabash. On the 21st, a Confederate torpedo boat led by Pilot James Carlin attempted to collect the purse by targeting the New Ironsides near Morris Island.

As Carlin approached, he turned his engines off so he could quietly drift up and detonate his torpedo beside the ship. However, the current placed his vessel alongside the New Ironsides instead. Carlin had trouble restarting the boat, and the Federals could not depress their guns low enough to fire on him. He finally got the boat started and hurried away, avoiding two Federal shots as he escaped.

On the 22nd, Dahlgren, believing the bombardment left Fort Sumter vulnerable, ordered a pre-dawn attack. However, the U.S.S. Passaic ran aground, and by the time she was freed, the sun had come up and the attack was called off. Dahlgren resumed his attack the next day, targeting both Forts Sumter and Moultrie. However, a heavy fog rendered the Federals unable to cite their targets, and the ships withdrew.

The Federal bombardment halted for the time being. Artillerists had fired 5,909 rounds at Fort Sumter, leaving it in ruins. Even a hurricane sweeping through Charleston in late August could not stop the Federal fire. Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding the Federal Department of the South, announced:

“I have the honor to report the practical demolition of Fort Sumter as the result of our seven days’ bombardment of that work, including two days of which a powerful northeasterly storm most seriously diminished the accuracy and effect of our fire. Fort Sumter is today a shapeless and harmless mass of ruins.”

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

General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Charleston defenses, sent his chief engineer, Colonel Jeremy Gilmer, to inspect the damage at Sumter and confer with the garrison commander, Colonel Alfred Rhett. Gilmer concluded that of the “very limited” heavy artillery, one gun was “capable of being fired with advantage,” while others were at a “disadvantage, in consequence of shattered condition of parapet.”

Rhett recommended only using the one effective gun, while another officer reported, “The offensive condition of the fort is nearly destroyed.” Rhett stated, “The eastern wall is much shattered by the fire of 7th of April, and has never been repaired.” It had “also been seriously damaged by fire from the land batteries on Morris Island.”

Rhett guessed that any more than another three hours of bombardment “would destroy the integrity of the wall, if it did not bring it down.” Moreover, “The fort wall adjoining the pier of the upper magazine has been completely shot away, and I think a concentrated fire of two hours on the junction of the upper and lower magazines would render the magazine unsafe.” The north wall could sustain only “a few shots.”

Nevertheless, the Confederates reported, “We beg leave to state, that, in our opinion, it is not advisable to abandon the fort at this time. On the contrary, we think it should be held to the last extremity.” Beauregard reported, “Not a single gun remained in barbette, and but a single smooth-bore 32-pounder in the west face could be fired.” Beauregard removed all the functioning guns except one, but the defenders refused to surrender.

Two days later, Beauregard wrote, “Fort Sumter must be held to the last extremity, not surrendered until it becomes impossible to hold it longer without an unnecessary sacrifice of human life. Evacuation of the fort must not be contemplated one instant without positive orders from these headquarters.” He told President Jefferson Davis that Sumter, “even in ruins,” would be held, “if necessary, with musket and bayonet.” Davis approved, writing in response, “By using debris of fort, assisted by sand-bags, it is hoped effective guns can be maintained in position.”

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

By late August, Gillmore was satisfied with the damage he caused, but he was frustrated that he had not compelled any of the Confederate defenders at Fort Sumter or Batteries Wagner or Gregg to surrender. He needed Dahlgren’s help to capture Fort Sumter, but Dahlgren’s vessels could not navigate past the torpedoes in the harbor. Gillmore contemplated landing an infantry force to take Sumter, but this would do no good while Batteries Wagner and Gregg remained in Confederate hands.

Federal troops had slowly inched up Morris Island toward Wagner, but they had to be careful not to advance too far or else they would be vulnerable to Confederate cannon on James Island to the west. By the 25th, the closest Federal entrenchments were within 150 yards of Wagner’s outer rifle pits. Major Thomas Brooks directed an artillery barrage, followed by an infantry charge on the pits, but the infantry never got moving. Brooks later reported that the men “do not yet take much interest in the operations against Wagner.”

Gillmore planned another assault on the rifle pits the next day, with the troops strapping spades to their backs to dig stronger defenses after taking the Confederate embrasure. At 6 p.m., Federal artillery preceded the advance. The troops surged forward, quickly overtaking the 100 Confederates in the outer pits. This line of rifle pits became the Federals’ fifth trench line on Morris Island, putting them within 250 yards of Battery Wagner itself.

However, both sides were stalemated once more. The Federals on Morris Island could advance no further without severe losses, Wagner was impervious to bombardment, Confederates at Fort Sumter refused to surrender, and Dahlgren’s ships could not approach Sumter without removing the harbor torpedoes.

Near the end of August, Dahlgren finally directed his men to begin removing the torpedoes, but near-hurricane storms impeded their progress. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles asked Dahlgren to send him weekly reports and sketches of the damage Confederate artillery was doing to the Federal ironclads:

“These reports and sketches are important to the Bureau and others concerned to enable them to understand correctly and provide promptly for repairing the damages; and frequently measures for improving the ironclads are suggested by them.”

By month’s end, Federal batteries on Morris Island continued their bombardment of Fort Sumter as Confederates at the fort began transferring their cannon to Charleston. Elsewhere in the harbor, Confederate batteries at Fort Moultrie accidentally sank the steamer C.S.S. Sumter after mistaking it for a Federal vessel.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 130-31; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 315-20; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 340, 342-45; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 400-01; 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. 175-76

Charleston: The Swamp Angel Debuts

August 22, 1863 – Federals unleashed the destructive cannon nicknamed the “Swamp Angel” on the people of Charleston, South Carolina.

A Parrott rifle used to bombard the harbor | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

By the 21st, the Federal guns on Morris Island and the Federal gunboats offshore had been bombarding Fort Sumter and Batteries Wagner and Gregg for four days. Large portions of Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor north of Morris Island, had been reduced to rubble, but the defenders showed no signs of giving up. Confederate defenses remained strong at Wagner and Gregg, on the northern section of Morris Island, as well.

As the bombardment entered its fifth day, construction of a new Federal battery was completed in the marshes between Morris and James islands. This featured the “Swamp Angel,” an eight-inch Parrott rifle launching 200-pound incendiary shells capable of reaching Charleston itself, about four and a half miles away. Placement of this destructive new weapon took nearly three weeks.

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

Before unleashing the Swamp Angel, Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding the Federal Department of the South, sent a message to General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Charleston defenses, demanding “the immediate evacuation of Morris Island and Fort Sumter.” Gillmore warned that “all my heaviest guns have not yet opened,” even though Sumter was already almost completely destroyed.

If Beauregard refused, “I shall open fire on the city of Charleston from batteries already established within easy and effective range of the heart of the city.” Gillmore concluded, “Should you refuse compliance, or should I receive no reply within four hours, I shall open fire on the city of Charleston.”

Gillmore’s demand arrived at Beauregard’s Charleston headquarters at 10:45 p.m. Beauregard was inspecting the damage at Fort Sumter and did not receive the message before the four-hour deadline expired. Gillmore directed the Swamp Angel to open fire at 1:30 a.m. on the 22nd.

The first round landed in the city, prompting the ringing of church bells and alarm whistles. Federal artillerists fired another 15 rounds, 12 of which were filled with “Greek fire,” an unstable explosive which ignited the shells upon impact. The Federals used St. Michael’s Church as their principal target, but the steeple withstood several direct hits. The Swamp Angel caused little damage other than burning one house and sending residents fleeing out of range. However, it quickly became an effective weapon of terror.

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

At dawn, Beauregard rejected Gillmore’s surrender demand and protested the firing of “a number of heavy rifled shells into the city, the inhabitants of which, of course, were asleep and unarmed.” Beauregard condemned Gillmore for waging war against innocent civilians:

“Among nations not barbarous the usages of war prescribe that when a city is about to be attacked timely notice shall be given by the attacking commander, in order that non-combatants may have an opportunity for withdrawing beyond its limits. Generally the time allowed is from one to three days; that is, time for a withdrawal, in good faith, of at least the women and children. You, sir, give only four hours, knowing that your notice, under existing circumstances, could not reach me in less than two hours, and that not less than the same time would be required for an answer to be conveyed from this city to Battery Wagner. With this knowledge, you threaten to open fire on the city, not to oblige its surrender, but to force me to evacuate these works, which you, assisted by great naval force, have been attacking in vain for more than 40 days. It would appear, sir, that despairing of reducing these works, you now resort to the novel measure of turning your guns against the old men, the women and children, and the hospitals of a sleeping city–an act of inexcusable barbarity.”

Beauregard declared that this “mode of warfare, which I confidently declare to be atrocious and unworthy of any soldier… will give you ‘a bad eminence’ in history, even in the history of this war.” On the morning of the 23rd, the British consul in Charleston went to Gillmore’s headquarters to officially protest the use of such a harsh weapon on a civilian population. Gillmore refused to meet him. The Spanish consul protested as well, but the bombardment continued as the war entered a new, more brutal phase, with civilians now becoming legitimate targets.

The issue resolved itself later that night, when the Swamp Angel exploded after firing its 36th round, “blowing out the entire breach in rear of the vent.” Six shells had exploded in the gun before being fired, which weakened its tubing. Federals buried the Swamp Angel in sandbags, and the bombardment of Charleston ended for the time being.

Gillmore reported, “No military results of great value were ever expected from this firing. As an experiment … the results were not only highly interesting and novel, but very instructive.” Nevertheless, five days of bombarding Fort Sumter, Batteries Wagner and Gregg, and Charleston produced three innovations in warfare: the heaviest rifled shells ever used, employment of calcium lights to conduct nighttime operations, and the Swamp Angel.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 136-37, 139; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 317-18; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 322, 738; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), p. 698-99; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 342-43; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 399-400

Charleston: The Federal Bombardment Begins

August 17, 1863 – Federal heavy artillery opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, while Federal naval vessels began bombarding Battery Wagner on Morris Island to the south.

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

Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding the Federal Department of the South, had failed twice to capture Battery Wagner on Morris Island. He insisted that he needed more men to try again. Since no reinforcements were forthcoming, Gillmore instead resolved to bombard Wagner and the other Confederate embrasure on the island, Battery Gregg, as well as the symbol of the rebellion, Fort Sumter.

Gillmore had spent nearly a week positioning 11 heavy-caliber Parrott rifled guns on the southern part of Morris Island and test firing them. Once in place, Gillmore announced to his superiors, “I shall open on Sumter at daylight” on the 17th. The guns were ready to launch a bombardment on Fort Sumter, to the north, that was unprecedented in warfare.

The bombardment would be supported by Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren’s naval fleet, which consisted of the ironclads U.S.S. Catskill, Montauk, Nahant, New Ironsides, Passaic, Patapsco, and Weehawken; as well as the wooden gunboats U.S.S. Canandaigua, Cimarron, Dai Ching, Lodona, Mahaska, Ottawa, Seneca, and Wissahocken. Dahlgren’s gunboats would silence the Confederate guns at Batteries Wagner and Gregg.

A Parrott rifle fired a round at 5 a.m. on the 17th, signaling the start of the barrage. Soon every cannon joined in, with each battery targeting a different section of Fort Sumter. The artillerists mainly focused on the fort’s south-facing “gorge wall.”

Dahlgren moved his warships as close to shore as the tide could bring him to fire on Wagner and Gregg, using canister and shrapnel. All the ironclads joined in a concentrated fire at 8:30 a.m., forcing the Confederates into their bombproofs until the ships fell back around noon.

The Confederate defenders answered with sporadic fire that usually missed its targets. However, one shot from Fort Sumter struck the pilothouse of the Catskill and killed the ship’s paymaster and Dahlgren’s chief of staff, Captain George W. Rodgers.

Gillmore, who could not see the bombardment’s effect on Sumter from his vantage point, sent a message to Dahlgren at 1 p.m., “What do you think of this morning’s work?” Dahlgren responded, “Sumter seems greatly damaged.” Also, Wagner had been silenced, and if the Confederates returned to their guns, “the monitors will run up and silence her again.” The ironclads sporadically fired on Wagner throughout the rest of the day, but they did relatively little damage to the embrasure.

The Federal guns on Morris Island crumbled sections of Fort Sumter’s walls and disabled seven Confederate cannon. The Federals had fired 948 rounds at the fort, of which 445 struck the outer walls, 233 landed inside, and 270 missed. Remarkably, the Confederates sustained only 18 casualties (one killed and 17 wounded).

Despite such heavy punishment, the rubble and sand that the barrage produced at Fort Sumter actually formed a newer, stronger layer of protection for the defenders. Gillmore notified Dahlgren, “I propose the same programme for tomorrow that we had today.”

The bombardment of Fort Sumter and Batteries Wagner and Gregg continued for the next three days. On the 20th, the mayor of Charleston asked the Davis administration to transfer all South Carolina troops from the Army of Northern Virginia to “defend their native soil.” To most Confederates, states’ rights still took precedence over the central government, and things seemed desperate at Charleston.

As the bombardment entered its fifth day, the Federals had fired 4,500 rounds at the fort, with over 2,000 hitting the walls and another 1,350 landing inside. Colonel Alfred Rhett, commanding the Fort Sumter garrison, stated, “The gorge face has been much battered, and the greater portion of it has fallen.”

Rhett reported the “northwest scarp wall penetrated at seven upper and five lowered casemates; breaches 8 by 10 (feet) and 6 by 8 through two of them. Stairway at salient demolished; only two traverse circles of barbette battery, northeast face, in good condition; east barracks badly damaged.”

General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederate defenses at Charleston, inspected Fort Sumter that day. He informed Richmond that the Federal bombardment was “still progressing rapidly from land batteries. Fort will ere long become ineffective.” However, he added that Sumter “will be held… as long as practicable.”

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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. 130; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 317; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 340-41; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 398

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

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