150 years ago: “Covered ourselves all over with glory” – First assault on Battery Wagner

Having secured the southern two-thrids of Morris Island on July 10, 1863, Brigadier-General Quincy Gillmore weighed options to secure the other third. The small strength of Confederate troops encountered after the landings, along with information gathered from prisoners, convinced Gillmore Battery Wagner might be taken by direct assault. Orders went to Brigadier-General George Strong that evening to prepare for a dawn assault on Battery Wagner, to occur 150 years ago today (July 11).

Unknown to Gillmore, Colonel Robert F. Graham, commanding Confederate forces on Morris Island had received reinforcements. Roughly 200 men of Graham’s 21st South Carolina reached Battery Wagner after the previous day’s fighting. The 7th South Carolina Battalion, three companies of the 1st South Carolina Artillery, the Gist Guard, and the Mathewes Artillery were the garrison of Batteries Wagner and Gregg, numbering about 470 men. Reinforcing Graham was Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Olmstead’s command consisting of four companies of the 1st Georgia Volunteers, four companies of the 12th Georgia Battalion, and three companies of the 18th Georgia Battalion. In short, Graham had something like a reinforced regiment in strength. Graham kept his men under arms during the night, fully expecting a night or dawn attack.

On the Federal side, Strong woke his men around 2:30 that morning. The word passed through the ranks, “Turn out, we have a job on hand.” Captain Sylvester Gray of the 7th Connecticut recalled in his official report:

A cold shudder came over me, for well I knew what it was. They seemed to think that no one but our battalion could be trusted. The men were soon out and into line, but rather slow to time, as they were tired from the former day’s work. The programme was to try to take Fort Wagner by assault…. Silently and quietly we moved up to the advance line of our picket. Our pieces were loaded and primed, and bayonets fixed.

Strong formed his line as a column of divisions with the four companies of the 7th Connecticut, under Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Rodman, leading the force. Behind them followed the 76th Pennsylvania and the 9th Maine Infantry. In reserve were the 3rd and 7th New Hampshire. (The map below was modified from that submitted by Gillmore with his official report. I’ve taken the liberty of removing the parallel siege lines in order to depict the July 11 assault on an uncluttered map.)


The difficulty of assaulting Battery Wagner stands out on this map. The fort’s trace covers from the high water mark on the beach to the backwater of Vincent’s Creek. The work had a sea face and two bastions protecting the curtain wall in the center. A wet moat ran in front of the fort wall. The marsh cut into the island at several points in front of the battery. So any attacker had to use a confined approach to reach the fort.

On the other side of the line, Graham deployed pickets to give warning of any assault:

At dawn of the day, the pickets warned us of the approach of the enemy. Three volleys were fired into the approaching enemy, and the whole picket force retired into the fort without loss. The enemy advanced in two columns, one on the beach and the other on the island. I allowed them to get within a short distance of the works, and gave the word “Fire.”

Advancing on the fort, Gray and the 7th Connecticut came at Battery Wagner:

We were then deployed into line of battle … and we reached and crossed the neck of land that approached the fort, our right resting on the beach. General Strong was there. He said there were but three guns that looked this way. We were deployed and ready for the start. Our orders were to move steadily forward until the pickets fired, and then follow them close, and rush for the work; and were were promised ready support. General Strong gave the order, “Aim low, and put your trust in God. Forward, the Seventh!” And forward we went, not over 500 yards from the fort when we started. We had not proceeded far before the pickets fired, and then we took the double-quick and, with a cheer, rushed for the works.

While the 7th Connecticut raced for the parapet of the works, the 76th Pennsylvania behind them went to ground when Graham’s defenders delivered the opening volley. “Though they remained in this position but a few moments, and afterward moved gallantly forward, some of them even to the ditch,” Strong observed, “that halt lost the battle, for the interval was lost….” The 9th Maine moved up on the left of the line, as the second column seen by Graham, but could only reach the moat in front of the works.

But the 7th Connecticut managed to, at least for the moment, hold onto the parapet on the right side of the line. Gray recounted the close action that ensued:

We lay so near the top that one had but to put his head up and gun across the top of the parapet, to kill his man. Many cases of individual bravery I might here name, but all did so well it is hard to select. Private Lyon, Company K, jumped upon the parapet, thrust his bayonet into the head of one of the gunners, and broke it off in endeavoring to pull it out…. One man on my right, William De Wit, Company A – I said to him, “Rise and shoot that gunner.” He rose up, deliberately took good aim, and fired. A ball, at the same instant, hit him in the forehead, and he fell on the spot, with his gun across the parapet.

By Gray’s estimate, the 7th Connecticut held for ten to fifteen minutes. But without the supporting regiments to exploit the purchase on the works, they were compelled to retreat. Of the 191 men from the regiment that made the attack that day, only 88 safely returned to their starting line. The rest, including Rodman (“the bravest of the brave” from Strong’s report of the action) were killed, wounded, or missing. Coming off the field, Strong met the 7th Connecticut, according to Gray, “with tears in his eyes, he said we had done our whole duty and covered ourselves all over with glory.” Strong’s brigade had tested Battery Wagner, at the expense of 339 casualties among the three attacking regiments, and fallen short.

The failure of a coup de main to gain Battery Wagner meant Gillmore would return to his original plan. In addition to unanticipated Confederate reinforcements, Gillmore now realized the maps he’d relied upon were inaccurate. The sea was rapidly eroding the east side of the island. “During the first fifty days of our occupation, the loss in many places was 1 foot per day, while between Fort Wagner and the Beacon House 75 yards in width have been lost since the last charts by the U.S. Coast Survey were prepared.” And I’d be remiss not to note that erosion trend continued through the present day, putting the battlefield of July 11 under water.

Heavy rains that fell during the days after the assault further delayed the placement of siege lines. The work of ocean waves and rainstorms washed away Gillmore’s intentions for a short siege.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 355, 360-1, and 414-5.)