September 6, 1863 (Sunday)
Since resuming their push towards Batteries Wagner and Gregg, the Federal troops had gotten to within earshot of the Rebel forts on Morris Island, guarding the way to Charleston Harbor. They had dug their trenches, and crept ever closer to the besieged works. Fearing the inevitable, Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, commander of the Southern troops at Charleston, had begun slipping his men off the island on the 2nd. It wasn’t a general withdrawal, he was merely trying to limit casualties. If the batteries were taken, he would lose men to not only bullets, but the white flag as well.
The Federal Navy had been continuously bombarding Wagner and Gregg for days now. And for days, it was clear that something big was in the planning. The Union troops under General Quincy Gillmore had twice assaulted Wagner, and had twice been defeated. Now, however, if they tried a third attack, it might well end differently.
It was true, General Gillmore had been planning a third assault, not only against Wagner, but against Battery Gregg, a mile to the north, as well. He hoped that on September 4th, a strong bombardment would send the Rebels running for cover and allow his trenches to be dug right up to the moat at Wagner. As for Gregg, he wanted to land troops to cut off the garrison from receiving any reinforcements. It was a good enough plan, but required the Navy to place one of its ironclads in a fairly precarious spot. Admiral John Dahlgren declined the offer, and so Gillmore gave up on Wagner, deciding to focus on Gregg instead.
This attempt, late on the night of the 4th, failed when the Federals stumbled upon an unsuspected Rebel craft. The attack was postponed to the following day, when all of Gillmore’s artillery pounded away at both Wagner and Gregg. Soon, the play was joined by the USS New Ironsides and an ironclad monitor here and there. Meanwhile, the trenches drew ever closer to Wagner, and the attack on both was scheduled for the 6th.
It wasn’t just the flurry of activity that tipped the Rebels off to a probable Federal assault. A message written by General Gillmore to Admiral Dahlgren was intercepted on the 5th. The dispatch concerned the assault upon Battery Gregg. Immediately, Col. Lawrence Keitt, Confederate commander on Morris Island, sent a full regiment and some artillery from Wagner to Gregg. The attack never materialized, though one was still in the planning.
Gillmore was determined to hit Wagner on September 7th, and spent all of this date (the 6th) readying his troops. Meanwhile, the Confederate officers in Charleston were preparing to order Col. Keitt to fully evacuate Morris Island. They reached a decision on the 4th, but never bothered to tell Keitt, who continued to do the best he could with his dwindling garrisons.
By the time he read the intercepted message, he knew Wagner and Gregg were destined to fall. His men could no longer fight back. The bombardment was so heavy that it all but ignored any resistance put forward by the Rebels. Col. Keitt lost around 100 men on the 5th and was wondering what, if any, plans General Beauregard had for Morris Island.
“The whole fort is much weakened,” he wrote on the 5th. “A repetition tomorrow of today’s fire will make the fort almost a ruin.” At a loss, he had to ask: “Is it desirable to sacrifice the garrison? To continue to hold it is to do so.”
The next day (that is to say, on this date), Keitt realized that the Federal trenches were so close that the enemy could be up and over the walls before his own men could reach them. Shortly after dawn, several Yankee ironclads had joined in the heavy bombardment. While the men huddled in the bombproofs, Keitt sent the slaves behind the fort, into the sand dunes for safety.
In response to Keitt’s message of the previous day, two Confederate officers arrived from Charleston to assess the situation. Swiftly, they saw what Keitt saw and sent word back to Charleston that Morris Island must be evacuated. The message took its time in reaching Battery Wagner, and he was forced to inquire how plans were coming along.
“Will boats be here tonight for garrison?” he asked. “If so, at what time?” Not wanting to seem like he was itching to get off the island, Col. Keitt played the willing martyr card. “And if our sacrifice be of benefit, I am ready. Let it be said so, and I will storm the enemy’s works at once, or lose every man here.”
While Keitt was awaiting orders to abandon the island, Union General Gillmore was making the final preparations for his third assault, which was to kick off at 9am the next morning. Keitt would receive his orders before that, but it would take time to empty the works, leave the island, and destroy the batteries. In that time, if all went according to plan, the Federals would attack.
Of course, things rarely go according to plan. The next day (we are now peering a day into the future!), the attack had to be postponed for a few hours. In that time, Confederate deserters would make their way into the Union lines, telling everyone they could that the batteries and island were being evacuated. The curious Yankees would investigate later that day, and find the Rebel works abandoned. The guns were spiked, and there was a long lit fuse burning its way toward the magazine. With the fuse snuffed, the forts and island fell into Federal hands.
General Gillmore and Admiral Dahlgren would now turn their full attention to the capture of Fort Sumter.1
- Official Records Series 1, Vol. 28, Part 1, p482, 490; Gate of Hell by Stephen R. Wise; The Siege of Charleston by E. Milby Burton; P.G.T. Beauregard by T. Harry Williams. [↩]