Thomas Pinckney Lowndes had cracked the Union military's code, which allowed him to decipher the feverish messaging between U.S. warships and the Yankee soldiers on Morris Island.


July 10, 1863

Union forces on Folly Island cross the inlet and invade Morris Island. In a few hours, the U.S. Army has secured the southern two-thirds of the island.

July 11, 1863

More than 200 troops from the 7th Connecticut attempt to take Battery Wagner, at Morris Island's northern tip. They are unsuccessful.

July 18, 1863

Union gunboats bombard Battery Wagner for 10 hours before a dusk land assault by more than 5,000 U.S. soldiers. The 1,600 men inside the Confederate fort hold them off.

Aug. 22, 1863

Union troops stationed on Morris Island, south of Battery Wagner, take aim at Charleston with the Swamp Angel — a 16,000-pound cannon that fired 200-pound shells. The siege begins, and will last more than 500 days.

Sept. 4, 1863

Land batteries and U.S. warships begin a new bombardment of Battery Wagner that will last for two days.

Sept. 6-7, 1863

Low on provisions and drinking water, Confederate troops abandon Battery Wagner. Union forces move into the fort within days.

Visit our Civil War 150 section for more stories and photos.

The news was not good.

Upcoming events

Thursday: The National Park Service is organizing re-enactors and living history events for 3 days at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island. There will be history talks at 10 a.m., noon, 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. on that day, as well as an outdoor concert of Civil War music from 6:30-7:30 p.m.

From 7:45-8:15 p.m., the hour that the 1863 Assault on Battery Wagner began, Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell will speak, and re-enactors will represent the 54th Massachusetts, the 48th New York and the 7th South Carolina battalions.

In the field in front of Fort Moultrie, 294 luminaries will be lit — one for every Union and Confederate soldier who died in the July 18 battle on Morris Island.

Friday: The city of Charleston will present the movie, “Glory,” whose final scenes depict the July 1863 battle on Morris Island, from 7-9 p.m. at Marion Square.

Saturday: The Fort Sumter-Fort Moultrie Historical Trust will present a forum, Toward “A New Birth of Freedom”: Sesquicentennial Reflections on Charleston, the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, and the Battle for Morris Island.

The forum runs from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Dock Street Theatre and is free and open to the public. Speakers include these historians and authors: Joseph T. Glatthaar, Thavolia Glymph, Robert N. Rosen and Stephen R. Wise. College of Charleston history professor Bernard Powers will lead a discussion with the audience.

July 21: The National Park Service's living history programs will run from 10 a.m. to noon.

At 7 p.m., the city of Charleston will dedicate a monument to the 54th Massachusetts Regiment at White Point Garden on the Battery. The ceremony will include Civil War music, Union and Confederate re-enactors, and remarks by Charleston Mayor Joe Riley.

Also, The Charleston Museum is continuing its Civil War Sesquicentennial observation with its exhibit, “Our Duty was Quite Arduous”: The Union Encampment on Little Folly Island, 1863-1865. It features items the museum's archaeologists recovered from the beach there after erosion caused by Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

“An assault is ordered at dusk,” Lowndes reported to the Confederate brass, less than three hours before dark.

It was July 18, 1863, and the Union forces had been bombarding Battery Wagner for nearly 10 hours.

Before they finished, 9,000 rounds of ammunition would hit the earthen fort on the northern end of Morris Island.

Now it appeared that the 1,600 shell-shocked Southerners at Wagner would be forced to repel a full-frontal assault before the night's end.

Lowndes' intelligence would allow the Confederates to hold off nearly 6,000 Union troops, including the black soldiers of the famed 54th Massachusetts.

But the South's victory that night was actually the beginning of a long end-game for Charleston.

After the Battle of Battery Wagner, which happened 150 years ago this Thursday, nothing would ever be the same again.

“The siege of Charleston begins with the assault on Battery Wagner,” said National Park Service Historian Rick Hatcher. “It is overlooked or forgotten by the general public because it happened soon after Gettysburg and Vicksburg. But it's an important component of the overall Civil War era.”

The battle marked the escalation of warfare in the city where the conflict began.

It would take more than a year to play out, but the Battle of Morris Island was the beginning of the end for Charleston.

'Great wickedness'

The Union desperately wanted to take Charleston.

The South Carolina port was far from most of the action, and not giving the North too much trouble by the mid-point in the war, but it held unparalleled significance.

Charleston began the secession movement and, less than four months later, fired the first shots of the War Between the States.

“The place has no strategic importance, yet there is not another place our anxious countrymen would so rejoice to see taken as this original seat of the great wickedness that has befallen our country,” Gideon Welles, the Secretary of the Navy, wrote in his diary on May 26, 1863. “The moral effect of its capture would be great.”

The Union had tried, off and on, to take Charleston for the past year. In June 1862, 6,000 Union troops landed on James Island but were held off by barely 2,000 Confederates at Secessionville.

It had been the North's plan to take the city via James Island, bypassing Forts Sumter and Moultrie, as well as the batteries on Morris Island.

When that did not work, Union troops set up on Folly Island and began plotting to take Morris Island. The rank-and-file soldiers wanted to take Charleston just as badly as Welles.

“To capture Richmond would be grand, but to capture Charleston would be glorious,” one soldier from the 11th Maine Infantry Volunteers wrote.

The Union had stepped up its efforts months earlier. On April 7, 1863, the U.S. Navy launched an assault on Sumter, hoping to neutralize the fort and take the city. But they seriously underestimated the South's resolve. That afternoon, a fleet of Navy warships took 2,200 hits from Confederate artillery while barely landing 150 shots on Sumter.

It was an embarrassing defeat — but they would be back.

The Confederates knew a Morris Island invasion was coming at some point, and they knew the consequences. Robert Barnwell Rhett Jr., editor of the Charleston Mercury, wrote that “the fall of Fort Wagner ends in the fall of Charleston.”

Union Gen. Quincy Gillmore wanted to be the man to take Charleston. In April 1862 he had shelled Savannah's Fort Pulaski into submission in barely more than a day, and he desperately wanted to do the same to Fort Sumter.

The only logical place to launch such an assault was Morris Island, and military leaders in Washington were willing to let him try.

The intricate battle plan began on Friday, July 10, 1863. That morning, Union troops launched an invasion of the southern end of Morris Island from Folly Beach. It took 2,000 Union soldiers just four hours to take two-thirds of Morris Island.

But it would take a little more time to take the northern third — home of Battery Wagner.

A night of chaos

The Union's first attempt to take the battery came the next day, on July 11.

The 7th Connecticut made the first pass, but it was a chore just to reach the walls of the earthen fort. Battery Wagner was protected by a ditch 10 feet wide that held 5 feet of water. The Southerners had planted mines and mounted wooden palmetto stakes on its banks.

The men of the 7th Connecticut were pinned down under heavy fire before they reached the fort and had to retreat. The Union would have to rethink its strategy.

Union gunboats shelled Wagner for the next week, culminating in the 10-hour strike that began at 8 a.m. July 18.

Somehow, the fort held, even though Union soldiers would later write that “No one would suppose that a human being, or a bird even, could live for a moment upon that fort.”

But that was just the first phase of the battle. The plan, as intercepted by Lowndes' signal corps, was to send in more than 5,000 infantrymen at dusk, to finish off what was left.

The Union forces would be led by the 54th Massachusetts, a regiment of 650 African-American men led by Col. Robert Gould Shaw — a white man, and a son of abolitionists.

The 54th, immortalized in the movie “Glory,” was not the first black regiment in the war. There was the 1st Kansas colored infantry regiment, and even the 1st South Carolina, but the 54th held a notable significance. While other states distinguished between black and white troops, Massachusetts, a center of the abolitionist movement, simply gave its black regiments the next available number. It would not distinguish between its white and black troops.

The state would, however, distinguish soldiers by race, paying black soldiers less than whites — a source of contention throughout the war.

The soldiers of the 54th volunteered to lead the charge against Battery Wagner. They wanted to prove themselves, they wanted to lead the battle and they wanted payback for the men they had lost the previous week in a skirmish on James Island. It also made sense to let the 54th lead, as it was the largest of the 11 Union regiments on the island.

The Confederates spotted them just before 8 p.m. — two columns of more than 2,500 men each. The 54th attacked on the right and, when they were 60 yards out, the Confederates sent “a galling fire into the masses” — or as galling a fire as they could, since the shelling of the fort had taken out Wagner's biggest gun.

The men of the 54th actually reached the Battery Wagner parapet, but the Charleston battalion opened fire, picking off the commanding officer, Shaw, and dozens of others. In all, 34 men from the 54th would die, 146 would be wounded and 92 were listed as missing.

Other Union regiments took even heavier losses.

The battle lasted three hours. Some Union troops made it into the fort, where they fought hand-to-hand with Confederate soldiers. The final hour of the battle was chaos, as war often is.

“Men fell by scores and on the parapet and rolled into the ditch, many were drowned,” one survivor later wrote, “and others were smothered by their own dead and wounded companions falling upon them.”

With more Confederates arriving late in the evening, the Union forces retreated by 11 p.m.

Nearly 250 Union soldiers had died, 800 were wounded and nearly 400 were captured. They would be tended to on the battlefield by nurse Clara Barton, years before she started the American Red Cross.

The Confederates had fewer casualties. They lost only 36 men, with another 130 wounded.

It was over.

Beginning of the siege

In August of that year, the Union troops on Morris launched their first shells into the city, beginning the siege of Charleston — the longest siege of the war. It would last more than 500 days.

“The last thing the Union wanted was a protracted siege of Charleston,” said Doug Bostick, executive director of the South Carolina Battleground Preservation Trust. “What occurred is exactly what they hoped so fervently to avoid.”

In September 1863, more than a month after the battle, the Confederates abandoned Battery Wagner. They were low on provisions and drinking water, and the fresh water on Morris Island had been contaminated by the decomposing bodies of the war dead.

Despite the fears of Charleston, or the plans of Gillmore, none of this led to the fall of Sumter or Charleston.

“The defense of Sumter is one of the most amazing stories of the siege of Charleston,” Bostick said.

Although the shelling led to many people fleeing Charleston, the city stood as tough as Fort Sumter.

“It was the impregnable city, ... They thought the battle of Morris Island would lead to the fall of Charleston.”

It was, however, the beginning of a siege, a long-distance bombardment that would rattle the city to the end of the war. But the battle of Battery Wagner convinced many Union soldiers that taking Charleston would not be easy.

“I regard any attempt to enter Charleston harbor by its direct channel, or to carry it by storm, or James Island, as too hazardous to warrant the attempt.”

That is what Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman said on Jan. 19, 1865, just as he was marching into South Carolina. He decided to take Columbia.

Other Union forces landed in Charleston the next day — but only because the Confederates had evacuated.