A Forest of Masts – Charleston Prepares for Attack

July 17, 1863 (Friday)

Siege warfare seemed all the fashion this summer. With Vicksburg, Port Hudson and Jackson all raging with heavy artillery, perhaps Union General Quincy Gillmore, operating near Charleston Harbor, SC, felt it only proper to follow suit.

P.G.T. Beauregard knows something is up.
P.G.T. Beauregard knows something is up.

After his incredibly botched landing and attack upon Morris Island’s Battery Wagner on July 11th, He decided to drag in his heavy artillery to reduce what he believed to be the gateway to Charleston. Since that time, his forty-one guns daily shelled the Rebels huddled behind their embrasures.

Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding at Charleston, realized that, like the other sieges, it would not end well for his troops. But he couldn’t pull them out just yet. First, he needed to strengthen his other defenses. When Morris Island fell, he would need batteries and entrenchments on James and Sullivan’s Islands to block the Yankees from the city. He also wanted to strengthen Fort Sumter, hoping to be able to ring Morris Island in a devastating rain of iron.

But Beauregard was growing tired of siege operations, and for a time considered the possibilities of attacking the Federals now dug in on Morris Island. At a council of war, he and his commanders reasoned that it would take at least 4,000 troops to pull it off. The problem was that the size of the island wouldn’t allow for a force that large – there simply wasn’t room. And so Beauregard resolved to allow the Federals to attack and to make them pay in blood for every foot of sandy beach they took.

Inside Battery Wagner, things were a bit crowded as the 1,300 men under General William Taliaferro manned the parapets and took shelter in the “rat holes” dug out for protection. The days passed slowly, but by the 16th, a Federal attack seemed imminent.

“Enemy is massing his troops on Morris Island, eveidently for another attack on Battery Wagner this night or tomorrow,” reported Beauregard to Richmond. “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.” The same day, the Charleston Courier noted that “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.”

"General View of Morris Island - Union Camps and Rebel Works - Fort Johnson - The lower Harbor of Charleston, South Carolina.
“General View of Morris Island – Union Camps and Rebel Works – Fort Johnson – The lower Harbor of Charleston, South Carolina.

The suspicions were true. General Gillmore was indeed planning an assault, but had no real idea just what he was assaulting. In his official report, Gillmore admits that “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.” All that they really knew was that Battery Wagner was an enclosed fort that stretched across the island. Gillmore believed it had ten or perhaps twelve guns, but that only four or five were on the south-facing side to protect against the land attack he was about to launch.

Still, he was determined to give it a shot. With the combined fire of his own artillery, plus the Navy’s gunboats, he hoped to “either drive the enemy from it or open the way to a successful assault.”

The same day that Johnston and the Courier noticed that forest of masts, Gillmore and Naval commander, Rear Admiral John Dahlgren met to discuss the coming attack. For the most part, it would be an artillery bombardment followed by an infantry attack near to sundown. Dahlgren gave Gillmore his entire cooperation, agreeing to lend every ship available to the assault. To Dahlgren, however, something didn’t seem right. “I thought the General much too sanguine,” wrote Dahlgren in his journal that evening.

They had decided to open upon Battery Wagner on this date, but the typically sunny weather had turned to rain. The assault was postponed until the next morning.1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 28, Part 21 p13; Part 2, p203; The Siege of Charleston by E. Milby Burton; P.G.T. Beauregard by T. Harry Williams; Gate of Hell by Stephen R. Wise. []
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  1. Also worth noting on this date: the Battle of Honey Springs, in some ways the most unusual battle of the war. It was fought outside the States, in what is now Oklahoma. The victorious Northern force was probably the most mixed the U. S. Army would field until WWII, comprising whites, blacks, and native americans.

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