Tag Archives: Charleston Harbor

The Hunley Attack

February 17, 1864 – One of the first submarine attacks in history occurred when a “submersible” Confederate vessel confronted a Federal warship on blockade duty at Charleston Harbor.

The C.S.S. H.L. Hunley was a forerunner to the modern submarine. It had sunk in two previous test runs, killing both crews, including inventor Horace L. Hunley himself in the second run. Both times the Confederate navy salvaged the Hunley and restored her for service. Built from a boiler cylinder, the hand-cranked, cigar-shaped craft was nicknamed “the peripatetic coffin.”

The H.L. Hunley | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the Federal South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, had received intelligence that Confederates were experimenting with submersible ships to attack the Federal blockaders. He had been aware of “semi-submersible” vessels ever since the David’s attack on the U.S.S. New Ironsides last October, and he knew that new technology was being attempted to make the vessels even harder to see on the water.

Navy Secretary Gideon Welles warned Dahlgren that Confederates were developing a type of “submarine machine.” Dahlgren passed this information to his fleet commanders, instructing them to look out for a ship “of another kind, which is nearly submerged and can be entirely so. It is intended to go under the bottoms of vessels and there operate.”

A Confederate deserter informed the Federals that a vessel had been developed that could “stay underwater 10 minutes each time, and would come up 75 to 80 yards from where she went down.” Dahlgren reported, “When she does not dive, she only shows two heads above the water about the size of a man’s head. He (the deserter) thinks she is about 20 feet long and the manholes are about eight feet apart. She is made of iron.” Dahlgren stated that because he had “every reason to expect a visit from some or all of these torpedoes, the greatest vigilance will be needed to guard against them.”

Dahlgren put all his ship captains on high alert, but he assured them that only in “smooth water, and when the tide is slack, that any danger is imminent.” The waters had been rough in Charleston harbor since the beginning of the year, and by the time calm finally came on the night of the 17th, the Federal crews had grown complacent.

Lieutenant George E. Dixon, commanding the Hunley, targeted the U.S.S. Housatonic, a 1,240-ton wooden sloop-of-war. Dixon and his six crewmen waited for a strong ebb tide and favorable winds to help maximize the Hunley’s top speed of four knots. Moving out on a foggy night, guided by a near-full moon, the vessel covered the 12 miles to her target, on blockade duty just outside Charleston Harbor.

At 8:45 p.m., Captain Charles W. Pickering, commanding the Housatonic, sighted a strange object floating in the water toward his ship and notified Acting Master John K. Crosby, the deck officer. Crosby later stated, “It… had the appearance of a plank moving in the water.” The Hunley was already within 100 yards when Crosby saw that it was an enemy vessel. He ordered the crew to slip the anchor cables and back the ship away, but by that time, the Hunley was upon them. None of the Housatonic’s 12 guns could be depressed low enough to fire on the attacker.

The Hunley’s crew detonated a torpedo attached to a spar against the Housatonic’s side. According to Crosby, “The torpedo struck forward of the mizzen mast, on the starboard side, in line with the magazine.” The torpedo held 90 pounds of gunpowder, and the Federal ship sank within five minutes after detonation. Because the water was just 27 feet deep, the Housatonic did not sink completely, allowing all but five of her crew to escape. The remaining 158 crewmen were rescued by the nearby U.S.S. Canandaigua.

The Hunley signaled her success to Confederates on Sullivan’s Island but then disappeared, believed to have been sunk by the blast. There were no survivors, and the craft was finally found in 1970. However, this was the first sinking of a ship by a submarine in history, and it served to put the Federal blockaders on full alert. According to the Charleston Daily Courier:

“The explosion made no noise, and the affair was not known among the fleet until daybreak, when the crew were discovered and released from their uneasy positions in the rigging. They had remained there all night. Two officers and three men were reported missing and were supposed to be drowned. The loss of the Housatonic caused great consternation in the fleet. All the wooden vessels are ordered to keep up steam and to go out to sea every night, not being allowed to anchor inside. The picket boats have been doubled and the force in each boat increased.”

Dahlgren directed his captains to launch patrols and put up netting to guard against similar type vessels. He also wrote Welles proposing a Federal reward of $20,000 to $30,000 for anyone seizing or destroying any vessel like the Hunley. Distressed by this surprise attack, Dahlgren wrote, “They are worth more to us than that.”

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 139-41; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 730-31; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 374; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 898; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 399-400; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 465; 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. 179; Melton, Maurice, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 363-64; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 371; Ward, Geoffrey, Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 325-26

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Federals Continue Pressuring Charleston

January 13, 1864 – Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, recommended that Federal forces use torpedo boats, like the Confederacy’s David, to attack enemy ships and defenses in Charleston Harbor.

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

By this month, the Federal blockade of Charleston Harbor was choking the city into submission. Federal troops occupied Morris and Folly islands southeast of Charleston, but Confederates still held Fort Sumter in the harbor. Dahlgren reported to President Abraham Lincoln:

“The city of Charleston is converted into a camp, and 20,000 or 25,000 of their best troops are kept in abeyance in the vicinity, to guard against all possible contingencies, so that 2,000 of our men in the fortifications of Morris and Folly Islands, assisted by a few ironclads, are tendering invaluable service… No man in the country will be more happy than myself to plant the flag of the Union where you most desire to see it.”

With Federal blockading vessels under constant threat from torpedoes and other obstructions, Dahlgren warned his commanders about a type of boat–

“… of another kind, which is nearly submerged and can be entirely so. It is intended to go under the bottoms of vessels and there to operate… It is also advisable not to anchor in the deepest part of the channel, for by not leaving much space between the bottom of the vessel and the bottom of the channel it will be impossible for the diving torpedo to operate except on the sides, and there will be less difficulty in raising a vessel if sunk.”

In recommending the Federal use of David-type torpedo boats, Dahlgren wrote:

“Nothing better could be devised for the security of our own vessels or for the examination of the enemy’s position… The length of these torpedo boats might be about 40 feet, and 5 to 6 feet in diameter, with a high-pressure engine that will drive them 5 knots. It is not necessary to expend much finish on them.”

In late January, the Federals batteries on Morris Island resumed their sporadic bombardment of Fort Sumter. The Charleston Courier reported, “The whizzing of shells overhead has become a matter of so little interest as to excite scarcely any attention from passers-by.” The barrage increased on the 29th, and over the next two days, 583 rounds were fired into the fort.

The Confederate defenders still refused to surrender. And despite the blockade’s effectiveness, blockade-runners still escaped into the open seas occasionally. Lieutenant Commander James C. Chaplin wrote to Dahlgren offering reasons why blockade running was so appealing:

“… They are provided with the best of instruments and charts, and, if the master is ignorant of the channel and inlets of our coast, a good pilot. They are also in possession of the necessary funds (in specie) to bribe, if possible, captors for their release. Such an offer was made to myself… of some 800 pounds sterling. The master of a sailing vessel, before leaving port, receives $1,000 (in coin), and if successful, $5,000 on leaving and $15,000 in a successful return to the same port.”

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References

Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 358-59, 362, 364; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 388, 391; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 457-58

Charleston: Another Federal Bombardment

October 31, 1863 – In a five-day span, Federal batteries fired 2,961 rounds into Fort Sumter, but the Confederate defenders still refused to surrender.

Federal army and navy forces had been unable to capture Sumter, the prime symbol of defiance in the South and of rebellion in the North. Federal gunners on Morris Island south of the fort concluded a six-day bombardment on October 3 after firing 560 rounds at their target. The Federal guns fell relatively silent for the next two weeks as the commanders pondered their next move.

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

Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the Federal South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, reported to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles that since his operations against Charleston began in July, the naval vessels had fired over 8,000 rounds and sustained over 900 hits.

Dahlgren also assured Welles that naval support to the Federal force on Morris Island ensured that “its supplies were entirely covered; provisions, arms, cannon, ammunition… were landed as freely as if an enemy were not in sight, while by the same means the enemy was restricted to the least space and action…”

Despite this, the Federal high command continued pushing for Dahlgren to lead his naval force into Charleston Harbor and capture the city. But the Confederates at Fort Sumter and other batteries throughout the harbor, along with the vast number of obstructions and torpedoes, prevented Dahlgren from doing so. Also, several ironclads needed repairs. Frustrated, Dahlgren told Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox that “the public demand for instantly proceeding into Charleston is so persistent that I would rather go in at all risks than stand the incessant abuse lavished on me.”

On the 22nd, Dahlgren met with his eight ironclad captains and two staff officers in a council of war. Dahlgren asked whether they should invade the harbor as soon as the ironclads were repaired or wait until new ironclads arrived in the winter. The officers voted six-to-four in favor of waiting.

Welles indicated that he did not oppose waiting; he told Dahlgren, “While there is an intense feeling pervading the country in regard to the fate of Charleston, the Department is disinclined to have its only ironclad squadron incur extreme risks when the substantial advantages have already been gained.”

But Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding the Federal army forces on Morris Island, would not sit idle while waiting for Dahlgren’s help. From Cummings Point on the island’s northern tip, Gillmore opened a massive bombardment on Fort Sumter on the 26th, which would continue almost non-stop for the next 41 days. The bombardment did little damage since the fort’s walls were already almost completely crumbled.

Federal gunners hurled 625 rounds into Sumter on the 26th. The captain of the U.S.S. Patapsco reported that the fire was “hardly describable, throwing bricks and mortar, gun carriages and timber in every direction and high into the air.”

By the end of October, the Federals had fired 2,961 rounds in the heaviest bombardment of the war. The Confederates held firm for the time being, but the artillery barrage continued into November.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 134; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 334-37; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 823; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 356, 364-65; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 417, 426-27; 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. 179-80; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q463

David v. New Ironsides

October 5, 1863 – A small torpedo boat named the C.S.S. David detonated a mine against the Federal ironclad U.S.S. New Ironsides outside Charleston Harbor, South Carolina.

The Federal bombardment of Fort Sumter continued sporadically after Federal forces had failed to capture either Sumter or Charleston by direct assault. Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the Federal South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, shifted his main focus from bombarding the fort to blockading the harbor. During this time, General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederate defenses in the harbor, directed a new type of naval vessel to attack.

The David was a steam-powered, semi-submersible ship whose construction had been funded by donations from Charleston residents. The David sat just above the waterline, making her nearly invisible to the blockade fleet. A 10-foot spar at the end of the David’s bow held an explosive device (i.e., a torpedo). This device had four percussion caps primed to detonate a gunpowder-filled canister on contact.

The torpedo boat headed out on the night of the 5th to destroy the hated 3,486-ton iron frigate U.S.S. New Ironsides. The David was led by Lieutenant William T. Glassell, and his three-man crew consisted of Pilot Walker Cannon, Assistant Engineer James H. Tomb, and Seaman James Sullivan (fireman). They had spent the past week testing the vessel, and Glassell pronounced them ready for action.

The David passed Fort Sumter around 9 p.m. About an hour later, the deck officer of the New Ironsides sighted the cigar-shaped craft approaching from 50 yards. He hollered, “What boat is that?” Glassell, hoping to cause confusion among the enemy crew, emerged from the David and killed the man with a shotgun blast. The David’s engines then turned off and she drifted toward the New Ironsides.

David approaching New Ironsides | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The Federals opened fire, but it was too late. The David surged forward and rammed the ironclad’s starboard quarter, detonating 60 pounds of gunpowder six feet below her waterline.

The blast was not strong enough to sink the New Ironsides, but it extinguished the David’s boilers. Glassell ordered the crew to abandon ship, and three of the four men began swimming to shore. Cannon stayed aboard because he could not swim, so Tomb returned and the men tried restarting the David. Tomb finally relit the boilers, and he and Cannon escaped. Charleston residents welcomed them back to shore as heroes.

Federals captured Glassell and Sullivan as they tried swimming ashore. They were shipped north to face charges of using an uncivilized weapon, but no trial was held and they were later exchanged as prisoners of war. The New Ironsides went to the repair yard at Port Royal, where workmen discovered the blast had caused more damage than initially thought. She remained under repair for the next eight months.

Dahlgren wrote Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, “How far the enemy may seem encouraged I do not know, but I think it will be well to be prepared against a considerable issue of these small craft.” Dahlgren informed Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox, “By all means let us have a quantity of these torpedoes, and thus turn them against the enemy. We can make them faster than they can.”

The explosion terrified the Federal crew and prompted the Federal naval command to develop a defense to this new type of warfare. Dahlgren issued orders for ironclads to have escorts while on patrol, and to be fitted with protective outrigging and netting while anchored.

Meanwhile, the Confederates scrambled to construct more David-like ships with larger torpedoes to attack the Federal fleet at Charleston.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 139; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 205; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 331; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 824; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 357; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 418; 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. 178; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 525

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

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