150 years ago: “Man your oars, and follow me!” Federal assault on Morris Island

That’s not a command from any infantry drill manual, but it was heard on July 10, 1863 as the Federals conducted a shore-to-shore amphibious landing on Morris Island. Brigadier-General Quincy Gillmore intended to attack on July 9, but waited a day for the weather to cooperate. The revised plan called for artillery on the north end of Folly Island, howitzers on a navy boat detachment, and heavy guns from monitors off shore to support a cross-channel assault by Brigadier-General George Strong’s brigade.

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Strong’s brigade (officially Second Brigade, Second Division, Tenth Corps) consisted of the 48th New York (four companies), 6th Connecticut, 9th Maine, 3rd New Hampshire, and 76th Pennsylvania, with a battalion of the 7th Connecticut (under Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Rodman). To aid recognition during the fight, the Federal troops wore white strips on their left arms. Considered “the most reliable” the 7th Connecticut was chosen as the lead force in the assault.

Follow on forces on Folly Island included the remaining companies of the 48th New York, along with the 7th New Hampshire and 100th New York from Brigadier General Israel Vogdes’ brigade.

Strong embarked his brigade in row-boats and proceeded up Folly Island Creek at 1 a.m. on July 10. They reached the mouth of the creek, and proceeded hold just inside Light House Inlet around 4:30 a.m. Four boats armed with landing howitzers, commanded by Lieutenant F. M. Bunce from the USS Pawnee, escorted Strong’s boats.

Just before civil twilight, at 4:51, the artillery on Folly Island opened fire. Lieutenant Colonel Richard H. Jackson, commanding the artillery, observed:

The enemy at the commencement was so bewildered as to be unable to serve his guns with effect, and the rain of shot and shell from my batteries was so incessant and effective as to drive his gunners from their pieces, killing or wounding many.

Of course, on the other side of the channel, Colonel Robert Graham of the 21st South Carolina reported that despite a “terrific fire” on the south end of Morris Island, “The fire was gallantly replied to by the artillerists.” Graham’s defenders numbered around 450.

Lieutenant Bunce joined the bombardment:

Getting the armed launches in line abreast, I pulled into Light-House Inlet and at a distance of 1,800 yards opened fire upon the Morris Island batteries with the rifled howitzer. Pulling down the inlet, slowly firing till we got within good distance of the batteries, I opened with all the howitzers, using 4-second shrapnel. The enemy returned fire briskly with three or four heavy guns, but without effect.

Out in the main ship channel opposite Morris Island, the USS Catskill, USS Montauk, USS Nahant, and USS Weehawken crossed the bar and moved up towards Morris Island. Leading the force from the Catskill, Rear Admiral John Dahlgren ordered the monitors to open fire at 6:15 that morning (anchoring near the wreck of the USS Keokuk). Dahlgren claimed the Army’s guns seemed to over shoot, with shells bursting in the air more, while his gunners enfiladed the Confederate positions.

While the gunners dueled, Strong’s boats held their position at the mouth of Folly Island Creek. At 6 a.m., the presence of Confederate skirmishers deploying from Secessionville prompted Strong to move the boats down the channel. This placed the boats within range of the Confederate artillery, resulting in the loss of one small launch.

The tide was rising that morning, which gave Strong’s oarsmen more work. But the rising tide also reduced the distance troops had to move over the beach. At 7 a.m., Strong received the signal to press his attack. Bounce moved his boats closer to directly support the landing. As the boats neared the shore, they came under direct fire from the Confederate artillery. After a volley of grapeshot hit close to Strong’s boat, Rodman yelled over, “Let me land my command and take that battery” Strong agreed. Rodman then ordered his troops, “Seventh Connecticut, man your oars, and follow me!” With that, Rodman pointed his men towards the rifle pits opposite the left of the Federal batteries on Folly Island.

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The 7th Connecticut reached the shore and rapidly moved up to the line of Confederate rifle pits. Captain Sylvester Gray, of the 7th, later wrote:

Captain Chamberlain sent forward skirmishers, under Lieutenant Van Keuren, and we advanced rapidly to the first line of rifle works; our skirmishers cleared it with a bound, and advanced to the second line; our main forces moved to the first line; the foe retired, firing.

The rest of Strong’s Brigade, minus the 6th Connecticut, now followed Rodman’s battalion onto Morris Island.

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The 6th Connecticut, commanded by Colonel John Chatfield, nearly passed out of the inlet and landed alone on the southeastern side of Oyster Point. Lieutenant Colonel Lorenzo Meeker reported:

The enemy’s batteries were erected upon high sand bank, and as their guns could not be sufficiently depressed, a landing was effected, and the charge made, with but small loss; only 1 killed and 11 wounded. Of the twelve batteries captured, nine were siege and three mortar. About 100 prisoners were taken, together with one garrison and one battle flag, the latter inscribed, “Pocotaligo, October 22, 1862.” ….

While Chatfield’s men claimed the majority of the Confederate artillery, Rodman’s 6th Connecticut claimed the capture of one 8-inch seacoast howitzer (which I believe would be “Battery H” on the maps). Most accounts of the day indicate the Connecticut troops overran the Confederate batteries around 8 a.m. Immediately after landing, Strong sent boats across Light House Inlet to start ferrying the reinforcements. Jackson’s artillery on Folly Island fired an estimated 2,500 rounds in support, but now fell silent.

At that point, the battle became a race for Battery Wagner on the upper end of Morris Island. Strong’s brigade would reach reach the fort, stopping “within musket range.” The advance halted on account of “excessive heat of the weather, and consequent fatigue of our troops.” You’ll sometimes read that Gillmore failed to achieve full success on July 10. In all fairness, part two of Gillmore’s plan was to gain those works by siege…. a short siege.

Dahlgren’s monitors fired 534 shell and shrapnel on July 10 (no grapeshot, as they moved close enough to the shore). They lay off Battery Wagner from 9 a.m. until 6p.m., firing the first rounds of what would turn into a long siege. For what it was worth, Dahlgren was “favorably impressed with the endurance of these ironclads” noting the Confederates struck the Catskill sixty times without any serious damage.

Strong reported 15 killed and 91 wounded for the fighting on July 10. Jackson reported two wounded on Folly Island. Colonel Graham reported the the loss “in killed, wounded, and missing, 183″ in his 21st South Carolina, plus 12 more from assigned detachments, and over 100 from the artillery crews. Almost all the Confederate artillery fell into Federal hands in serviceable condition.

Normally, I’d close saying “go visit this battlefield”. But unless you have a boat, that’s a tall order:

Changes to the harbor currents and battering by ocean waves moved Morris Island to the west over 150 years. The remaining island was eyed by developers in the early 21st century. But thanks to the Civil War Trust and partners, the island is now safe from man-made changes.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 349, 357, 358-9, and 413-4. ORN, Series I, Volume 14, pages 321-2 and 329-30.)

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10 responses to “150 years ago: “Man your oars, and follow me!” Federal assault on Morris Island

  1. Good post, Craig. I am in the early stages of a biography of Joseph Roswell Hawley, the colonel on the 7th Connecticut, and later a brigadier general, governor and senator from that state. His story, and that of the 7th Connecticut, is a story few people know. General Strong is actually in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, having been taken to New York City after being mortally wounded later in the war.

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