Charleston at War: Union troops set sights on Morris Is.
Something about Folly Island didn't look quite right.
As the night faded to a dull gray on Friday morning, July 10, 1863, the Confederate troops guarding the southern tip of Morris Island stared across the inlet, trying to figure out how Folly had changed.
They soon realized that, the day before, the northern end of Folly had been a dense mass of trees and brush. But now all that foliage had been cleared away, and in its place stood a Union battery of at least nine guns.
The Southerners figured this out just before those guns opened fire.
Later, Union officials would boast that the attack on Morris was a complete surprise, but that apparently was not the case.
Charleston residents had known that the Yankees were on Folly for months. They had been on Cole's Island at least since April, and the Confederates had fired on Union gunboats in the Little Folly River since then.
There had been minor skirmishes when small bands of Union troops tried to infiltrate James Island, and the Northern troops had even fired on Morris Island before. Just that morning, the July 10 edition of The Charleston Mercury would report that there were an estimated 8,000 Union troops on Folly, backed up by seven ironclads and 43 other boats.
Locals had hoped this build-up was merely for show. But when the Morris Island sentries saw those guns, they realized it was an assault.
The shooting began just after 5 a.m. The southern batteries on Morris returned fire and for three hours the two sides bombarded each other, the sound of their incessant shooting echoing across the harbor and through the streets of Charleston.
In the midst of that barrage, boats carrying hundreds of Union soldiers landed at Oyster Point. Once the soldiers had filed off the barges, the boats immediately cast off and went back for reinforcements. It was a full-scale invasion.
On the beach at Morris Island, the Union troops flanked the southern batteries, driving back the infantry support for the batteries. Outnumbered, the Confederates were forced north, toward the safety of Battery Wagner.
Capt. J.C. Mitchell of the 1st Regiment, S.C. Artillery, would later report that he and his men in the southern battery were nearly cut off from the main body of Confederate forces by the sheer number of Union soldiers storming onto the island.
As the Union troops advanced on the southern battery, Mitchell's men stood at their guns, fighting as best they could. But they never had a chance. The Union ground troops were aided by ironclads off the beach, which shelled the battery and Southern troops while the men in blue trudged north.
Soon, the Confederates were overwhelmed, and there was no way to fight back. There were just too many Yankees.
The Southern troops retreated north into the dunes, following the infantry support that had already ceded the lower part of the island. By 9 a.m. Union forces had followed the retreating Southerners so far up the island that they were within shooting range of Battery Wagner.
In little more than four hours, a Union force of 2,000 men had taken two-thirds of Morris Island. They had killed nearly 300 Southerners and injured another 700. By contrast, the North had lost only 12 men, and fewer than 100 had been injured. It was a rout.
But the Yankees were not finished. They wanted the rest of Morris Island.
They wanted Battery Wagner.
A simple plan
The attack on Morris Island distracted Charleston from the Confederate disaster a week earlier.
About 170,000 troops had converged in the Pennsylvania countryside -- nearly 100,000 under the command of Union Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade, and more than 70,000 behind Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
For three days the two sides had clashed in what would become one of the most famous battles in history. It was an unquestionable victory for the North, as Meade stopped Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.
Between July 1 and 3, nearly 5,000 Southern troops were killed and 18,000 were injured, captured or missing. The Union, by contrast, lost more than 3,000 men with 14,000 wounded.
The battle, which historians would later call the turning point of the war, ended Lee's push north.
It seemed that, in some ways, Morris Island would become Charleston's own Gettysburg. The invasion of the island was just the first move in a larger campaign to capture Charleston. The goal of the July 10 attack had been to move troops into a position from which to attack Battery Wagner, which sat on the north end of the island.
As The Mercury explained it on Monday, July 13, Wagner was the key to the city.
"The fall of Fort Wagner ends in the fall of Charleston," the paper's editor, Robert Barnwell Rhett Jr., wrote. "Fort Sumter, like Fort Wagner, will then be assailable by land and sea, and the fate of Fort Pulaski will be that of Sumter. ... It appears to be useless to attempt to disguise from ourselves our situation. By whose fault we got into it, it is vain now to enquire. The Yankees having got possession of the southern half of Morris Island, there is but one way to save the city of Charleston, and that is the speedy and unflinching use of the bayonet."
It was a simple plan. The Union wanted to take Battery Wagner to use the fort's advantageous position to attack Sumter. If the Yankees could take out Fort Sumter, Charleston would then become relatively easy pickings.
On paper, it seemed almost elementary. But Union forces would find several obstacles to their battle plan. Taking the southern half of Morris Island had been easy; taking Wagner would take even more troops -- and a lot of luck.
Battery Wagner, named for the late Lt. Col. Thomas M. Wagner, was a massive earthwork that stretched across the narrow end of Morris Island about a half-mile from its northern shore.
The battery was protected from a ground assault by a ditch that was 10 feet wide and held 5 feet of water. If that weren't enough, Southern troops had planted mines and mounted stakes made of palmetto on its banks.
It was a most formidable moat.
The fort itself had 14 guns, one of which was a 10-inch Columbiad that fired a 128-pound shell. More than 1,700 Confederate troops were stationed in and around the fort. The Confederate Army did not need The Mercury to explain the importance of Battery Wagner.
At daybreak on Saturday, July 11, 200 men from the 7th Connecticut made the first pass at the fort. The Union soldiers snuck through the dunes, bayonets fixed on the ends of their rifles, trying to get as close to Wagner as possible before alerting the Southerners to their presence.
When they were about 500 yards out, Confederate pickets spotted the men and opened fire. Instead of retreating, the men of the 7th Connecticut let out a yell and rushed the fort, advancing far enough to clear the treacherous moat. But it took them far too long to reach that position.
On the outskirts of Battery Wagner, the Union soldiers were pinned under heavy rifle and cannon fire, some of that ammunition sailing over their heads to fend off the 7th Connecticut's reinforcements.
This time it was the Southern barrage that was too much for the Northern troops, and the Union forces had to retreat -- but not before the 7th Connecticut lost half its men.
That day there were more than 300 U.S. casualties, many of which were left lying in front of the earthworks. By contrast, the South had lost only 12 men.
Battery Wagner was safe, for the moment.
For the next week, Union gunboats shelled Wagner daily. In part, the assault was meant to provide cover for Northern troops who were busy building their own earthworks on Morris Island south of Battery Wagner. As a result of the barrage, the Confederates stayed safely behind the walls of the fort, which allowed the Union to prepare for the next assault.
The Mercury reported that little information had been gleaned from the prisoners of war taken in the most recent battle, but they had let slip one interesting fact: there were two Union regiments in South Carolina composed of black soldiers.
The 2nd Regiment of South Carolina had been assembled earlier in the year by Col. James Montgomery. He was told to enlist free black citizens of South Carolina and escaped slaves, of which there were many in the Lowcountry around Beaufort. Montgomery also found others less than willing to serve, so he conscripted them.
In June the 2nd Regiment participated in the raid on Combahee Ferry, traveling with the escaped slave and famous abolitionist Harriet Tubman. The 2nd Regiment had sailed to the mouth of the Combahee River on one of three Union ships sent to drive the Confederates back.
Eventually, the Union troops burned several plantations and freed hundreds of South Carolina slaves.
The 2nd Regiment would become more famous -- or infamous, in the South -- for burning and looting the town of Darien, a minor outpost on the Georgia coast. Southerners would cry foul over the attack, which had been ordered by Montgomery.
The 54th Massachusetts had been reluctant participants in the raid on Darien. Col. Robert Gould Shaw, the white commander of the 54th, reportedly called the raid a "Satanic action," but had little recourse to stop it -- Montgomery was in charge.
The 54th had been recruited and promoted by Massachusetts abolitionists, and enthusiasm for the regiment was so high that the Army had its pick of soldiers.
This despite an order from Confederate President Jefferson Davis -- reported by The Mercury when Rhett learned of the 54th's presence in Charleston -- which said that any "negros (sic) or slaves" that make mutiny or insurrection, or rise in rebellion, would be tried and, in most cases, executed.
While captured white soldiers could expect to end up in a prison camp, there was always the possibility of freedom through a prisoner exchange. Black soldiers did not have that luxury. If they were caught, the Southerners would kill them.
Still, the 54th Massachusetts officially announced its arrival on Thursday, July 16. The regiment, trudging across James Island, ran head-first into a column of Southern infantry from Secessionville.
The fight was short but brutal, and residents in downtown Charleston again heard the gunfire. When it was over, 15 men from the 54th had been captured.
It would be only two days before the Massachusetts soldiers got their shot at revenge.
'A galling fire'
On Friday, July 17, a Confederate soldier approached a woman selling peaches on King Street near the intersection of John Street. The private, who belonged to a regiment that had recently arrived in the city, forced the woman to give him some fruit and refused to pay.
A local boy, named by The Mercury only as "Rantin," berated the soldier for his behavior. When the boy turned to walk away, the soldier shot him with his musket. The ball went in one hip and out the other, a wound "of such a nature that the young lad is not expected to live."
It was the beginning of a long, bloody weekend in Charleston.
On Saturday, the heavy rain that had pelted the city for weeks finally died out, taking the excessive heat with it. Under a cloudless sky, a light breeze stirred the harbor. At 8 a.m. Union cannons began firing at Battery Wagner, an assault that went on for nearly three hours before growing even more intense when five ironclads joined the fight.
The Mercury would later report that the firing was so intense that "at one time, so rapid was the fire, that the reports averaged twenty-seven per minute." But the damage to Fort Wagner, the paper reported, was "insignificant."
The bombardment tapered off at dusk. And that's when the real assault began.
Just before 8 p.m., Confederate pickets spotted two columns of advancing Yankee troops -- 3,000 men in each column. The Union troops were moving quickly, led by the men of the 54th Massachusetts.
The 54th's column attacked on the right, bringing a direct assault at Battery Wagner. When they were 60 yards out, the Confederates behind the parapet unleashed "a galling fire into the moving masses."
While the second column found itself in the cross hairs of Fort Sumter's Dahlgren guns and Columbiads, the 54th conquered the moat protecting the battery, crossing the water and dodging the palmetto stakes.
But when they reached the other side, Blake's Battery opened up with a raking fire from two brass howitzers. The 54th was caught in the "bloody repulse" of a Confederate crossfire.
Still, they kept coming.
Before long, the first troops from the 54th reached the Battery Wagner parapet. There they ran into heavy fire from the troops of the Charleston Battalion, a group of men who had seen heavy action the previous summer at Secessionville.
But the 54th Massachusetts would not stop, even as the Southern troops picked them off one by one. The regiment suffered heavy casualties -- Col. Shaw, the commanding officer, was one of the first to fall. Many of his men soon fell by his side.
The battle lasted three hours, which included two waves of assault from the 54th Massachusetts, and it was nothing short of a Union bloodbath.
The Mercury estimated that more than 1,500 Yankees died, and at least 200 -- some of them members of the 54th -- were taken captive. When it was all over, the Confederates still held Battery Wagner.
The Confederates' success on Morris Island restored a bit of confidence among Charleston residents, but the victory came with a price.
The Union Army had taken most of island, and the Confederates still holding the northern tip of Morris were trapped with no way to replenish provisions, much as the Union troops at Fort Sumter had been before the war began. The clock was ticking for Battery Wagner.
The repercussions of the battle would be felt for the rest of the war. Although the 54th Massachusetts had suffered heavy casualties, the bravery and heroism of these fearless black troops would encourage other free African-Americans and former slaves to join the U.S. Army at a time when the South was desperate for new recruits.
The odds -- in Charleston and across the South -- were tilting in favor of the Union.
As the Confederate troops toiled under a July sun burying the dead, they must have wondered how long they -- and Charleston -- could hold out.
Next: The Siege of Charleston