July 18, 1863 (Saturday)
What was to be a great explosion, a sudden conflagration erupting from the muzzle of every piece of artillery and from every gunboat and monitor at sea began with a fizzle before Battery Wagner. Under the command of General Quincey Gillmore, the Federal troops on Morris Island, just south of Charleston Harbor, were to open upon the Confederate fortification at 9am, but the rains and morning mists dampened their powder and the barrage built slowly, taking hours to reach a crescendo. As it grew in intensity, Rear Admiral John Dahlgren, commanding the Federal Naval forces, drew five monitors and an ironclad frigate to within 1,200 yards of Battery Wagner’s walls.
By noon, every gun was sounding and the Rebels were holding back tens of thousands of pounds of iron with every Union volley. With so much fire power, Wagner was being hit by shot and shell at a rate of one every two seconds. General Gillmore, who had the previous day appeared “much too sanguine” for Dahlgren’s liking, watched what he believed to be the reduction of the Rebel fort. His artillery sank giant craters into the walls and earthen sand was flying with each hit.
Inside the works, most of the Confederates who would be defending the fort against any ground assault, had huddled in the relatively safe bombproof. Most of the remaining Rebels manned the guns until even that proved too hot. Even before the Federal bombardment reached its peak, the Southern artillery facing the land-side fell silent.
On the seaward side, the Confederates dueled for a time with the Federal Navy. But even that was useless. Their heaviest gun, a 32-pounder, could only dent the iron sheathing of the ships. As the tide rose, Rear Admiral Dahlgren ordered his monitors to within 300 yards of Battery Wagner. This was too much and the 32-pounder was knocked off its platform by a well-placed Yankee shot.
Battery Wagner had fallen silent, but the Confederates on Sullivan and James Islands, as well as Fort Sumter, kept up an even fire, though it did little damage. As General Gillmore watched the show, he was overjoyed. The fort was already reduced, he believed. All he really had to do was march a few regiments up to claim it.
But that wasn’t exactly true. While Wagner indeed took its fair punishment, the soft sand walls absorbed the blows and the Federal artillery did little actual damage. Thus far, the casualties were light – only eight killed, which seemed like a minor miracle.
Sometime in the afternoon, a lucky Federal shot took out the battery’s flag. Thinking the Rebels had finally capitulated, the firing ceased and loud cheers could be heard from the Union works on the southern end of the island. But when the smoke cleared, atop Battery Wagner’s parapets stood a defiant Rebel waving the Confederate battle flag. Soon the flag was again run up the staff and the battle resumed its course.
Though the fort was withstanding the Union barrage, General Taliaferro was beginning to think that P.G.T. Beauregard, his superior in Charleston, had abandoned him. He called for reinforcements, but there was no way that reinforcements could be sent. Union shot was actually beginning to pile up in the passageways, literally filling the fort with iron. Late in the afternoon, the roof of Wagner’s magazine was torn off and if hit just right, Taliaferro feared they would all be “blown in the marsh.”
Night was coming on. They had survived the day-long bombardment, but knew the fight was not over. Through intercepted messages, the Rebels learned that Gillmore was about to launch a night attack. When the Federal guns fell silent, all knew it was about to begin. The troops huddled in the bombproof made their way back to the parapets. However, one regiment, the 31st North Carolina, decided to sit out for this battle. They could not be coaxed or ordered to lend any support. The remaining Rebels loaded the land-facing artillery, which had somehow survived the barrage, with grape and canister.
Waiting until dusk, 6,000 Federal soldiers under the command of General Thomas Seymour, were ferried and gathered on the southern end of Morris Island. Leading the attack would be the brigade of George Strong, which had made the first attempt upon Wagner the week previous. Strong’s number were now augmented with two additional regiments, including the 54th Massachusetts, a regiment comprised mostly of free black men from all across New England, New York and Pennsylvania.
The 54th had been chosen to lead the attack. It was a controversial and politically-driven decision made by Generals Seymour and Strong. According to Seymour, “the Fifty-fourth was in every respect as efficient as any body of men; it was the strongest [with 650 men] and best officered [led by Col. Robert Gould Shaw], there seemed no good reason why it should not be selected for this advance.”
So certain were they of success, it was anticipated that it would take but a bayonet charge to drive the Rebels from their works. Muskets were loaded, of course, but they were not capped. At 7:45, General Strong rode before, reportedly telling his troops to “bayonet every mother’s son of them.” The mile-long column then began their march to Battery Wagner.
Through the darkness, the blue soldiers stumbled their way north, tripping over Rebel entrenchments and artillery shells. The entire time, Battery Wagner remained silent. When the Federals drew to within 100 yards, however, General Taliaferro and his Rebels opened fire upon the Yankees with everything they had. Muskets and guns loaded with canister tore bloody holes through the lines, now charging.
The 54th Massachusetts, being at the front, took the brunt of the volley. They reeled, but soon recovered, splashing across the shallow moat to clamor up the steep walls. In a flash, many were over the parapets and among the guns. Fighting grew brutal as the sword and bayonet took the place of the bullet. Rifles were turned to clubs as Rebel artillerymen grabbed anything they could swing to split a head. As Col. Shaw directed his regiment’s attack, several Confederate balls ripped through him. He fell dead to the ground as his men were beaten back down the slopes.
Finally able to cap their rifles, the men 54th Massachusetts fired when they could, but the mass of Rebels seemed to be everywhere. Their colors were taken and the enraged Southerners actually launched counterattacks over their own parapets. The regiment, now leaderless, was being thoroughly destroyed. A captain, realizing that he was now in command, looked behind him for reinforcements. Though at least two other regiments followed the 54th, in the darkness and confusion, he saw none. The other regiments had stayed closer to the shoreline and were attacking Wagner’s seaboard side. With Rebel artillery outside the fort now enfilading their position, he saw no choice but to retreat.
While most of the 54th followed the captain, other made their way to the seaboard side and joined in the attack launched by the rest of Strong’s Brigade. The 6th Connecticut, which followed the 54th, fought on, even compromising the fort, but were, like the 54th, driven back down the slopes. The retreating Federal regiments sent much of Strong’s brigade into a panicked confusion. This was not expected. Behind the Connecticut troops, the 48th New York had faired even worse. Along with the 9th Maine and 76th Pennsylvania, all of the commanding officers in Strong’s Brigade, including Strong himself, were killed or wounded. The entire brigade was in retreat and streaming back into Federal lines.
But Strong’s Brigade was only half the Federal assault force. Another brigade, led by Col. Haldiman Putman, was to follow according to the original plans. But Col. Putman kept his men lying prostrate, claiming that General Gillmore himself, apparently certain of success, ordered his brigade not to move. True or not, his brigade did not move until ordered twice by General Seymour (his immediate commander) to move out.
In that time, twenty minutes of quiet had passed. Rather than one assault comprised of two brigades, the attack on Battery Wagner devolved into two assaults comprised of a brigade each. Seymour realized this too, and ordered his reserve brigade to join the next attack. But General Gillmore stepped in and told it to wait until he saw how Putnam’s attack faired.
Still, this faired better than the first. The Confederates had abandoned the sea-facing portion of the fort, and with little effort, the Federals were up and over it. Once inside the fort, the Union troops took advantage of the shelter and lost most of the momentum they used to carry the position. The regiments were all muddled together and all order was lost.
Confederate General Taliaferro knew that he had to launch a counterattack before the Federals made themselves at home. He ordered a regiment forward, but then something incredibly unfortunate happened. The 31st North Carolina, who had sequestered themselves in the bombproof, choosing to sit out the fight, decided that now was the time for them to make an appearance.
In the thick darkness, they burst from the bombproof, spied the counterattack made by their comrades, and opened fire upon them, believing them to be the enemy. The Rebel counterattack was beaten back by the Rebels themselves. With still quite a bit on his plate, Taliaferro ordered artillery to fire on the Federals inside the fort and then launched another counterattack (this time with men from the 31st).
Somehow or another, the confused Federals were able to put up enough resistance to check the Confederate attack. Seeing that an attack would not work, the Confederates decided to keep up a steady fire upon the Union position inside their own fort.
General Putnam tried to rally his men to attack, but the chaos had overcome them, and soon he was shot and killed by a Rebel bullet. As with Strong’s Brigade, every regimental commander in Putnum’s Brigade was either wounded or dead. The command of the entire brigade (which was now a mere shadow of its former self) fell upon Major Lewis Butler of the 67th Ohio. He ordered a retreat, and those who could fled for the Federal lines. Those who could not were soon taken prisoner.
The Confederates defending the fort suffered understandably light casualties, losing 222 men, killed and wounded. The Federal forces that attacked, however, were decimated. 246 had been killed, 890 wounded and 391 were captured. The 54 Massachusetts, leading the attack, sustained a 42% loss. The 48th New York lost over 50%.
Of Seymour’s attacking force, both brigade commanders and two regimental commanders were dead and the rest of them wounded. Things had gone horribly wrong.
The next morning, the scene before Battery Wagner was a nightmare:
“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 twenty 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.”
But not all of the faces were pale, of course. By General Beauregard’s orders, the wounded men of the 54th Massachusetts were to be treated as any other wounded soldiers. As for the dead, black and white were placed in mass graves.
Fallen officers, however were not to be treated with such indignities. Generally, their bodies were preserved and sent back into enemy lines to be sent home to their families. Such would not be the case for Col. Shaw, who had led the black troops 54th.
Confederate General Johnson Haygood, who had been sent to oversee the burials, gave specific orders that the bodies of all Union officers were to be returned, except for Col. Shaw’s. To a Union surgeon assisting with the wounded, Haygood reportedly told him: “I shall bury him in the common grave with the Negroes that fell with him.”
With the second assault upon Battery Wagner defeated, General Gillmore’s campaign to take Charleston would now become a full scale siege.1
- Sources: The Siege of Charleston by E. Milby Burton; P.G.T. Beauregard by T. Harry Williams; Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War by Walter Clark; Gate of Hell by Stephen R. Wise. [↩]