Charleston at War: Union's barrage on Charleston begins
The bodies were scattered over the dunes and scrub, contorted in unnatural positions, their faces frozen by the onset of rigor mortis.
As the sun rose over Morris Island on July 19, 1863, the Confederate defenders of Battery Wagner surveyed these ghastly remains of the previous night's battle. There were hundreds of bodies spread out over the sand, most of them Union soldiers.
Many of them had fallen in the moat protecting the fort, others were lying on the very edge of the battery. It had been a particularly vicious battle -- perhaps the bloodiest in Charleston history.
Suddenly, the Confederate sentries spotted a white flag in the distance. The Yankees, it seemed, wanted a word.
The Union soldiers had been sent to request a cease-fire long enough for them to bury their dead. Battery Wagner officers did not consider the request for long before denying it. They assumed it was a trick, a ploy to allow Union officers to get a better look at the fort's defenses.
For that reason, the task of interment fell to Southern troops, who spent the entire day toiling in the Lowcountry sun. By nightfall, The Charleston Mercury reported -- erroneously -- the Confederates had buried 600 men. The newspaper claimed the Yankees had buried another 200.
"Including those still unburied, and the wounded who have since died, the enemy's loss in killed alone must have been nearly or quite one thousand," the paper reported.
"The number of prisoners taken by our troops (including wounded) was 276. Judging from these figures, and remembering the well-known habit which the Yankees have of carrying off their wounded, it seems quite reasonable to believe that their total loss in killed, wounded and prisoners could not have been less than two thousand."
The official estimate for Union casualties in the battle was 1,500 -- less than The Mercury predicted, but high enough. Confederate casualties numbered about 174. Some of those bodies would remain unburied when the fighting began again.
On Monday, July 20, Union gunboats including the New Ironsides opened fire on Battery Wagner around 11 a.m., joined by land batteries the Northern troops had constructed in the middle of the island.
The firing continued unabated for more than an hour and a half, Wagner and Fort Sumter responding "slowly," The Mercury would report.
"Fort Sumter got the range of the Ironsides, and little before four o'clock she withdrew," the paper reported the next morning. "The Monitors also hauled off, and for the remainder of the evening the firing was at long and irregular intervals, coming chiefly from the enemy's land batteries. Some shots were fired at Fort Johnson, and at the Shell Point battery."
At Battery Wagner, four were killed and 11 were wounded.
The shelling resumed on Tuesday and continued intermittently through Wednesday. On Friday morning, a "cannonade far heavier than any that has been heard since Saturday last, was opened from the enemy's fleet and Morris Island batteries, against Battery Wagner," The Mercury reported.
Battery Wagner had held out "gallantly," the paper noted, but that was scarcely any comfort to the residents of Charleston. It was clear that, this time, the Yankees would not retreat.
The summer fell into a predictable pattern. Union gunships and batteries on Morris Island would shell Battery Wagner for a few days, followed by days of quiet before resuming their barrage.
On July 30, U.S. guns briefly turned their attention to Battery Gregg and the sand dunes around Cumming's Point. Fort Sumter and Battery Gregg managed to each hit the New Ironsides once before the day's shelling ended.
The Union's goal, of course, was to take Battery Wagner and use it against Sumter, but the Yankees may have had other purposes for their erratic bombardments. It seemed they were trying to keep the Confederates distracted.
Less than a week after taking the southern part of Morris Island, Northern commanders had brought in engineers to scout a location for their own battery. They needed to find some high ground on the notoriously low island, enough real estate to hold a tremendous weight.
The engineers walked the island until they found a satisfactory spot less than a mile from the highest ground on Morris. It was a small but sturdy spit of land that lay between three creeks. It would become the Union's latest battery, and it would be a particularly troublesome one.
At the same time, Charleston troops were working furiously to improve the city's defenses. On July 30, Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard himself was out inspecting the works on James Island, and he must have been disturbed by what he found.
The defenses were apparently shabby, not up to the general's standards. At Beauregard's command, Confederate officials asked local planters to provide additional slaves to help reinforce local batteries.
Most plantation owners refused, claiming the military had already taken "as much negro labor as is requisite for the proper and energetic prosecution of the work upon our defences, and that, therefore, no more slaves are needed," The Mercury reported.
Robert Barnwell Rhett Jr., the paper's editor, took the planters to task, calling their refusal to help the cause "a grave mistake."
"A vast amount of work, of a very important character, remains to be accomplished, and there is still urgent need of as many negroes as the people of the state can supply for the emergency," The Mercury editor opined. "The greater the number of hands furnished, the sooner will the necessary defences be completed and the negroes returned to their owners."
For the next few days The Mercury would publish pleas for locals to provide sand bags "for the protection of our harbor defences." The appeal was expanded to anyone who could "spare servants, either to fill the bags or to pull the boats as oarsmen."
"Besides this resource, the free colored men of Charleston might render important aid to the defence of the city by coming forward freely now and reporting themselves to the above-named gentlemen, to work either on the wharf or in the harbor," Rhett suggested.
"They have always constituted a very respectable and orderly class in this community. Let them do their part now."
Charlestonians were clearly worried. Every day brought more news of Union movement in the area -- more boats spotted in the Stono, U.S. troops sneaking onto James Island, the growing ranks of the blockading squadron. Clearly, the Union was pushing hard to take the city.
On Aug. 4, Confederate troops ambushed a Yankee barge attempting to land more troops in the area. For several nights the Southerners had been aware of Yankee picket boats in Schooner Creek between James and Morris islands.
These boats had lingered around the wreck of the old steamer Manigault, and it was assumed that these men were spying on Confederate movements around Cumming's Point, or so The Mercury reported.
Finally, on Tuesday night, the Confederates decided to act. Around 8:30, 30 men set out from Fort Johnson in rowboats while, at the same time, the ironclads Chicora and Palmetto State snuck into the creek.
Capt. Sellers and the men of the 25th South Carolina Volunteers opted for stealth. They slid out of their boats and crept through the marsh, knee-deep in the muck. Before long, they came face to face with the Yankees.
The Union troops, take by surprise, tried to escape by rushing for their two boats. One barge got away, but not without several casualties. The other boat was captured by Capt. Warley's men.
The next day the prisoners were paraded through the city. One Confederate soldier used the occasion to show off the captured field glasses of Gen. Gillmore.
The spectacle may have been intended as a morale booster for the locals, and it might have worked if not for the sound of Union shells hurled at Morris Island, a noise that was becoming all too common in Charleston.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis designated Friday, Aug. 21, a day of fasting, humiliation and prayer across the South.
In Charleston, The Mercury began its front-page editorial with a litany of the Book of Common Prayer: "In all time of our tribulation, in all time of our prosperity, in the hour of death, and in the day of judgment, good Lord deliver us."
The Confederate States, Rhett wrote, "are now in trouble, and today has been set apart for the people to pray for deliverance from it as our Litany prescribes."
At least in Charleston, those prayers would go unanswered.
The Union army, having spent the week bombing Fort Sumter and Battery Wagner, did not recognize Davis' holiday. Heavy fire was directed at Sumter all day, but the harshest blow did not come until later that night. Just before 11 p.m., a Union messenger delivered a letter to Battery Wagner.
The dispatch, addressed to Gen. Beauregard, was as chilling as it was blunt.
"I have the honor to demand of you the immediate evacuation of Morris Island and Fort Sumter, by Confederate forces," the note from Union Brig. Gen. Q.A. Gillmore said. "The present condition of Fort Sumter, and the rapid and progressive destruction which it is undergoing from my Batteries, seem to render its complete demolition, within a few hours, a matter of certainty. All my heaviest guns have not yet opened.
"Should you refuse compliance with this demand, or should I receive no reply thereto, within four hours after it is delivered into the hands of your subordinate at Fort Wagner, for transmission, I shall open fire on the city of Charleston from batteries already established, within easy and effective (range) of the heart of the city."
Beauregard was nowhere to be found that evening. The general was inspecting batteries in the countryside, and there was no way to reach him. His staff was nearly in a panic, because it did not seem that Gillmore was bluffing. Thomas Jordan, chief of staff, attempted to stall the Yankees.
Jordan sent a terse note back with the original letter. It said: "This paper is returned for the signature of the writer."
Gillmore saw through the ruse, of course, and would waste no time following through on his threat. At 1:30 a.m. on Aug. 22, the first shell soared over the harbor and landed inside the city.
Charleston was under attack.
The shells were fired from the new battery, an earthworks fort in which Northern engineers had built a platform suitable to hold the massive, 8-inch Parrott gun that Yankees called the Swamp Angel.
The gun was capable of firing a 150-pound projectile 7,900 yards over the harbor and into the streets of the lower peninsula. If the Union couldn't take Fort Sumter, they would simply bypass it.
Before dawn, the Swamp Angel had fired at least 15 shots into the city. The Mercury, feigning outrage that the Yankees would fire on a city filled with innocent children and women, noted that the big gun did "no damage."
"It is unnecessary to make any comments upon this act," The Mercury editors wrote.
For the rest of the weekend, the North and South would trade fire. Confederate sharpshooters tried to take out the Northern crew firing at the forts. Union troops shot down the flag at Fort Sumter eight times, The Mercury claimed.
The New Ironsides and six other ironclads bombarded Forts Sumter and Wagner mercilessly for hours on end. Sumter and Moultrie fired back, allegedly hitting the Ironsides once again.
And all the while the Union's mystery battery bombed Charleston. On Sunday, the firing began near midnight and lasted three hours.
"The firing continued for three hours, the shells being thrown at intervals of fifteen minutes," the paper reported.
"There seems to be some mystery in regard to the location of this battery, which is bombarding a town at a distance of five miles," the paper said.
"It has been asserted, upon good authority, that the shells proceed from a mud fort lately built in the marsh adjoining Morris Island. And there are yet others who declared that the obnoxious battery is a floating one, which the Yankees run up nightly under cover of darkness into one of the numerous creeks which intersect the neighboring islands.
"It is to be hoped that the mystery will soon be solved and the battery silenced," Rhett wrote.
What no one in Charleston knew for sure at the time was that the Swamp Angel was already out of commission. On Sunday evening, the gun's breech had blown, an explosion that injured four men and sent the big gun flying off its carriage and into the parapet. In its brief career the gun had fired only 36 shots at the city.
The loss was merely an inconvenience; the Union had other guns. The siege of Charleston had begun, and it would be a long time before the city had any peace.
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