July 11, 1863 (Saturday)
They came as silent figures folded into the gray mists of the early dawn, before the sun could burn its way through the fog surrounding Morris Island and Battery Wagner. The thinly reinforced Confederates, now numbering nearly 1,800, steadfast and bold, held their fire until the forms took hurried shapes and their bayonets shown bright in the dark.
“Aim low and put your trust in God,” commanded Union General George Strong, commanding the advance against the earthen Rebel fort. The 7th Connecticut, followed by the 76th Pennsylvania and 9th Maine, were not to fire until upon the enemy crowded near the ground in rifle pits at the fort’s facing. The Confederates, however, were under no such constraints. When the blue shapes turned to blue soldiers, they fired a volley before turning back to fire twice more. The Confederates hurried for the shelter of the fort as their artillery let loose the hellish canister at the coming foe.
Though the Connecticut troops, being the most forward and already in the moat surrounding the fort, had escaped most of the blow, the deadly iron balls tore holes in men and ranks of the regiments following. The sheer weight of the blast stopped them cold as the 7th Connecticut crashed through the water to scale Wagner’s steep wall.
While they could scale it, they could not reach its crest without attracting the fire from every Confederate therein. But even clinging to the wall itself provided little safety. The Rebels, from behind their parapets, tossed grenades timed to explode among the Yankees massed against their wall.
Daniel Rodman, colonel of the 7th Connecticut, watched in horror as his men were torn apart and unable to defend themselves. He was just about to order his men to retreat when he saw the Pennsylvania and Maine regiments behind him begin to reform, recovering from the initial barrage of artillery. If only he and his men could hold out until they arrived.
But they never made it. Col. Rodman wasn’t the only one to notice they had reformed. As the 76th Pennsylvania and 9th Maine reformed and advanced, they attracted more and more Confederate fire and were quickly scattered into the few reserve regiments far behind.
Now the 7th Connecticut was completely isolated. With no other target before them, the Confederates focused all attention upon them. Most of the Federal officers were wounded or dead – even Rodman was hit, falling hard to the parapet. “Retreat!” he ordered. “Every man for himself.”
Those that could, rushed for the rear, and many were killed or wounded in the attempt. Others decided to be taken prisoner, figuring it was a fate better than certain death.
This assault was a miserable failure. Only 88 men out of the initial 200 from the 7th Connecticut survived unscathed. In all, the Federals lost 339 in killed and wounded from the three regiments. The Confederates defending lost only 6 killed and 6 wounded.
The initial successes of the previous day had convinced the Federals that one more push would clear Battery Wagner and perhaps even all of Morris Island. That may have been true the previous day, but through the night Confederate reinforcements had arrived. They were not many just yet, but were enough to fend off the attack of a single regiment small in number.
Another attack would, of course, come, but before it did, both sides knew they needed to prepare. Union General Quincy Gillmore, commanding the Federals on Morris Island, could see his own mistakes and would go to great lengths to correct them. He had called for no naval support at all. In fact, there was no artillery involved in this day’s assault at all. Trenches and batteries were to be built facing Battery Wagner, so as to soften the Rebel works before ordering the next attack. The Navy would also have to play a greater role.
The very next day, Gillmore began construction of the batteries, while Rear Admiral John Dahlgren’s ironclads blasted away at the Rebel works. But Dahlgren would not stop there. Just off Charleston Harbor, he would concentrate twenty-one warships with promises of more to come.
In nearby Charleston, the true objective of Gillmore’s Federals, the people called for a counterattack. Charleston, the birthplace of secession, had to be saved. How could the South recover from such a loss on the heels of Vicksburg and Gettysburg?
General P.G.T. Beauregard, in command of the Confederate troops in the area, called for all women and children to be quickly ushered out of Charleston. To stave off what many believed would be a revolt among the black population, all free people of color were forced to register with the police (the slaves were already registered, of course).
All the while, Confederate reinforcements were filing into the city, giving Battery Wagner a new commander. General William Taliaferro had fought in Stonewall Jackson’s Army in the Shenandoah Valley. Now, he had come to save Charleston. There had been some speculation that Wagner should be abandoned, but by the 12th, only a day after the Federal assault, Beauregard, Taliaferro and the other officers agreed that it must be defended until the harbor defenses could be built up to withstand any attack.
Many, including Beauregard, desperately wanted to launch a counterattack. But while there were enough to defend the fort, there were hardly enough to wage such a risky assault against entrenched Federals. Until the next Union attack came, they would hold out, improve their defenses, and do what they could to survive the near constant bombardment from the Northern warships.