July 10, 1863 (Friday)
Over three months had passed since the Federal Navy tried to take Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. The ill-fated attack had been led by a very realistic Rear Admiral Samuel Francis DuPont, who believed that neither the fort nor the harbor could be taken by Naval power alone. In the end, DuPont was correct, but nevertheless disgraced.
Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles never got along with DuPont and soon after replaced him with Rear Admiral Andrew Foote. But Foote died before he could even make it to the coast. Welles then reluctantly settled upon John Adolphus Bernard Dahlgren, the fifty-three year old inventor of the naval run that bore his name.
The Navy wasn’t the only branch of the service subject to change. General David Hunter, who had also insisted that it would take a joint effort between the Army and the Navy, had been replaced in June by Quincy Gillmore, well renowned for his reduction of Fort Pulaski in April of 1862.
With both commanders who called for a joint campaign relieved of duty, the Army and Navy finally got together and planned the joint campaign so desperately needed to capture Charleston Harbor. Just south of the inlet, rested two large islands, James and Morris, upon which the Confederates under P.G.T. Beauregard had established some pretty serious batteries. These islands would have to be taken by the Army before the Navy could steam into the harbor to capture Fort Sumter and the city (if it could be done at all).
Folly Island, held by the Federals since April, was a small strip of coastal land separated by Morris Island by a smaller strip of water. General Gillmore’s plan was to launch a land advance from Folly, attacking north across this small watery strip, and fall upon Morris Island’s Battery Wagner.
For nearly three weeks, Gillmore prepared for the assault, sneaking men and artillery onto Folly Island, keeping them partially hidden from the Rebels on Morris. Though Gillmore was sly, he wasn’t invisible. Confederate General Beauregard knew he was there pretty well from the start. The hitch was that Beauregard never considered it possible that anyone would be bold enough to attack Morris Island. If the Federals were to attack Charleston, he thought, they would do so via James Island, not Morris.
To counter what he thought Gillmore’s Federals were up to, Beauregard threw as many men as he could on James Island. But “as many men as he could” was still less than 6,000. This left Morris Island relatively undefended and played perfectly into Gillmore’s hands. The issue, however, was the Gillmore believed he was outnumbered. This was anything but true.
Though Morris Island was lightly defended, it held two major forts – Wagner and Gregg. Both would have to be taken to hold the island. Battery Wagner was an earthen fort containing ten pieces of heavy artillery dispersed over a broad front. It was surrounded by a ditch that was designed to fill with sea water at high tide, creating a moat. Though it was built to house up to 900 men, on this date it was manned by just over 300. On the northern point of the island (Cummings Point), less than a mile away, was the smaller Battery Gregg. It was held by about thirty men. Elsewhere on the small island were addition troops, mostly infantry, giving Morris Island’s commander, Col. Robert Graham, nearly 1,000 men.
This wasn’t such a shockingly small figure seeing as how nobody expected the Federals to care about Morris Island. Nobody, that is, except Col. Graham (and to be honest, probably a few others). Through the use of a balloon and some crafty scouting, Graham had learned by July 8 that the Federals were not only gathering on Folly Island, but he strongly suspected that it was Morris Island they were targeting.
In war, every commander comes to believe that it is upon their own lines and forts the enemy’s attack will fall. In this case, Col. Graham was right.
Union General Gillmore may have over-thought a few things. Believing he was outnumbered, he wanted to create a diversion. For this, he sent about half of his 10,000 men south and west, while his main body readied themselves for an attack from two different spots on Morris Island on the night of July 8th. The Navy would supply ample covering fire from their artillery.
That night came and went, and while the troops were loaded in transports, Gillmore called it off at the last minute because his naval support had been delayed by a storm. This delay made Gillmore rethink the entire thing. Believing that he had tipped his hand, he gave up the idea of the two-pronged night assault and settled upon a heavy massing of troops on the morning of the 10th – this date. The 2,500 men – a brigade commanded by General George Strong – would first hit the southern shoreline of the island and advance north towards Battery Wagner.
Just as the sun glinted over the Atlantic, the Federal artillery opened upon Morris Island. General Strong’s men were loaded into boats to be ferried across the small stretch of water. In reply, the Confederate guns answered and the Federal infantry waited for orders to leave the landing. Able to withstand the Rebel shells, the ironclads just off shore crowded closer to gain accuracy.
When the signal was given, General Strong ordered his men out of the transports. They fell into line in water nearly up to their knees. They advanced first upon the Confederate rifle pits, and were quickly upon them. The fighting was short, but intense. Before long, the Rebels gave way, retreating through the smaller batteries, back toward Battery Wagner.
Realizing that the Federal attack was upon Morris Island and not James Island, Rebel reinforcements were swiftly ushered to Col. Graham. Since the rifle pits had been abandoned, he concentrated any and all men he could find inside Battery Wagner itself. Even with reinforcements, however, the Rebels on the southern portion of the island had been routed and even inside the fort, morale had crashed.
The Federals gave chase, but stopped long enough in the abandoned trenches to read a Southern newspaper telling of the fall of Vicksburg and the Union victory in Pennsylvania. Spurred on by such inspiring news, they must have felt invincible.
But their day was at an end. The heat had become oppressive and though they reached Battery Wagner, they dared not attack it in such a state of exhaustion. Through the remainder of the day, the ironclads kept up a steady barrage against Wagner, stopping only for lunch and then at nightfall.
Everything seemed to be working perfectly for General Gillmore and his Federal landing party. The lightning attack cost him thus far only 15 killed and 91 wounded, while the retreating Confederates suffered 300 men lost (killed, wounded and captured), as well as the loss of eleven pieces of artillery (not inside Battery Wagner, of course).
Inside Battery Wagner, Col. Graham was stunned. He could hardly afford such losses and had no fresh troops to replace them. The reinforcements, which came from Battery Gregg at Cummings Point were exhausted and, for the time being, useless. But morale quickly rebounded and more reinforcements were to come through the night if Graham could hold out. They were no doubt grateful that General Gillmore had not sent forward the several fresh regiments he had for a follow up attack. By dusk, it was clear that the Federal assault would come no sooner than the following morning.
The Rebels at Battery Wagner were mostly from the coastal regions of South Carolina and took this fight personally. They were not about to roll over.1
- Sources: The Siege of Charleston by E. Milby Burton; The Bombardment of Charleston by W. Chris Phelps; P.G.T. Beauregard, Napoleon in Gray by T. Harry Williams; Gate of Hell by Stephen R. Wise. [↩]