The Bogged Down and Meaningless Federal Victory at Battery Wagner

August 26, 1863 (Wednesday)

You could hear the long sigh from General Gillmore from Fort Sumter.
You could hear the long sigh from General Gillmore from Fort Sumter.

The intense bombardment of Fort Sumter had more or less come to a close. The Confederate bastion was reduced to a veritable pile of rubble. Still, the Rebels would not abandon it to the Federals. Union General Quincy Gillmore was growing more and more frustrated. It had been his artillery that had battered the fort, crumbling its walls and rendering its guns useless. He had asked Admiral John Dahlgren of the Navy to steam past the fort, but over the course of several nights, the ironclads were stopped not by Confederate firepower, but by obstructions and torpedoes (basically floating land mines) placed in the channels. Finally, Dahlgren refused to help until the torpedoes were cleared.

With the Navy all but out of the game, Gillmore concocted an almost panicked idea to take Fort Sumter by landing 600 troops. They would storm and scramble over broken walls and mortar, and soon, thought Gillmore, the island fort would be in Union hands. Thankfully, Gillmore was quickly convinced by his authority that the attack would be suicidal as long as the Confederates still maintained their forces at Batteries Wagner and Gregg, on the northern end of Morris Island.

This touched upon Gillmore’s other, and possibly greater, frustration. His troops had occupied the southern end of Morris Island for weeks. They had attacked Battery Wagner twice, and were both times slaughtered. Since then, his men had been inching closer, digging trenches and parallels toward the earthen fortifications. So close had they dug that not only were they a mere 150 yards from the Confederate rifle pits, but enemy artillery fired from James Island was now able to hit them.

Even so, the time had come on the 25th to launch another assault. Major Thomas Brooks, in charge of the trenches, directed his artillery to fire into the Rebel lines in preparation for a New Hampshire regiment to storm them. For some reason or another, the order to advance never reached the troops and nothing came of it at all. Brooks seemed to blame the troops themselves. The men, he wrote, were overexcited about the demolition of Fort Sumter, and “do not yet take much interest in the operations against Wagner.”

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The next evening, (on this date – the 26th), Gillmore was determined to try it again, throwing a Massachusetts regiment into the fray. They would leap from their parallels, charging the enemy rifle pits, as the New Hampshire troops were held in reserve. Each soldier carried not only his musket, but two spades strapped onto his back. Once the Rebel works before Wagner were taken, he was to dig down and improve them immediately.

At 6pm, it began. The artillery heralded the coming Federal infantry. The Rebels, numbering less than 100, fired a deathly volley, but were quickly sent reeling to surrender. They feared the coming Yankees, but feared their own torpedoes (actual land mines), planted between their rifle pits and Battery Wagner, even more. Sixty-seven out of eighty-six Confederates were captured. The rest were either killed or carelessly ran the hidden gauntlet.

With shovels in hand, the Rebel trench shortly became the fifth Union parallel, less than 250 yards from the battery itself. As they dug, the Confederates in Wagner opened upon them a hellish fire of grape and shell. Col. George Harrison, now commanding the Southern troops, badly wanted to counterattack, but was expeditiously convinced it was a bad idea. The dark, the torpedoes, and the unknown number of Federals all swirled in his mind. He must have known that one final thrust against the battery would soon be upon him. Ordering men to their certain death would help matters not at all.

Dahlgren: Crazy weather, huh?
Dahlgren: Crazy weather, huh?

But while General Gillmore was pleased with the initial success, he continued to remain frustrated at the Navy. He had little desire to risk another all out attack upon Battery Wagner, and began to feel the situation was hopeless. Gillmore felt that he could do little more. Now, it was up to the Navy to figure out how to avoid the torpedoes and obstructions and take Charleston Harbor.

It was also on this date that Dahlgren saw the light, and ordered his men be begin to remove the obstructions from the channel. With Fort Sumter no longer a threat, this was a relatively simple job. The only problem now was the weather. The small boats filled with a handful of men and an arsenal of cutting tools and rope were little match for yet another hurricane (the fourth of the season, and the second to swerve off the Atlantic Coast in the past week). The water and wind would not be settled for several more days. By then, things at Fort Sumter would be disturbingly different.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis had agreed with General P.G.T. Beauregard’s decision to defend Fort Sumter to the last. “By using debris of fort, assisted by sand-bags,” telegraphed the President on this date, “it is hoped effective guns can be maintained in position.” As of now, there were no workable guns at Sumter. With this message, Beauregard would begin his work.1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 28, Part 1, p295; Vol. 53, p294; Gate of Hell by Stephen R. Wise. []
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The Bogged Down and Meaningless Federal Victory at Battery Wagner by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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