“…steadiness and soldierly conduct” of the 54th Massachusetts at Grimball’s Landing

Earlier I wrote of Brigadier-General Alfred Terry’s diversion launched on July 9, 1863 which occupied the southwest corner of James Island. Terry’s command held there for nearly a week, all the while distracting Confederate troops that would otherwise be thrown into the fray at Morris Island.


The earlier post detailed Terry’s three brigades. But I would add that the 56th New York joined the Second Brigade (Davis’s) on July 13th, bringing the entire force up to around 3,600 men. During their stay, Terry’s men were primarily engaged in picket duty and repairs of the causeway to Cole’s Island (in the case of a withdrawal).

On the Confederate side, Brigadier-General Johnson Hagood took command of the 1st Subdivision, 1st Military District, succeeding Colonel Charles Simonton, as the force there grew. By June 15, Hagood had a brigade under Brigadier-General Alfred Colquitt consisting of a mix of the James Island garrison and recently arrived reinforcements. The regiments included the 25th South Carolina, 6th Georgia, 19th Georgia, 54th Georgia, and 61st North Carolina. Four batteries of artillery, including some from the siege trains, and three companies of the 5th South Carolina Cavalry, under Lieutenant-Colonel R.J. Jeffords, also fell under Hagood’s command.

On June 15, Confederate headquarters in Charleston asked Hagood to draw up plans to deal with the Federals on James Island. Hagood responded with two plans – one a limited push against the skirmish line and the other an envelopment to cut off Federal troops at Grimball’s Landing. The more aggressive of the two gained approval. The approved plan called for three columns:

General Colquitt was ordered with about 1,400 infantry and a battery of artillery to cross the marsh dividing Legaré’s plantation from Grimball’s at the causeway nearest Secessionville, drive the enemy as far as the lower causeway (nearest Stono), rapidly recross the marsh at that point by a flank movement, and cut off and capture the force encamped at Grimball’s. Colonel Way, Fifty-fourth Georgia, with about 800 infantry, was directed to follow, en êchelon, on the Grimball side of the marsh the advance of General Colquitt and co-operate with him. A reserve of one section of artillery, supported by a company of infantry and a squadron of cavalry, under Lieutenant-Colonel Jeffords, Fifth South Carolina Cavalry, was held in hand near Rivers’ house. On the right, a battery of four rifled 12-pounders and one of four Napoleons, under Lieutenant-Colonel Kemper, supported by Colonel Radcliffe [61st North Carolina] with about 400 infantry, was ordered to engage the gunboats lying highest up the Stono.

Hagood’s plan assumed the Federals held their strongest force near the Stono with only a light guard on the causeways. The actual dispositions were almost reverse. Terry held most of his command back in camps on Sol Legare Island. The 10th Connecticut maintained a skirmish line at Grimball’s Landing. Colonel William Davis’s Second Brigade maintained a line across Sol Legare with the 104th Pennsylvania on the right of his line. To their left were the two attached regiments of the 3rd Brigade – 2nd South Carolina and the 54th Massachusetts. The USS Pawnee, USS Marblehead, and USS Huron remained on station in the Stono protecting the infantry.

The map below depicts, generally, the respective dispositions and the Confederate lines of advance.


Colquitt sent out skirmishers from the 25th South Carolina before dawn on July 16. These men encountered the outposts of the 54th Massachusetts. The opening shots alerted all. Colonel Robert Shaw ordered the 54th into line to confront this advance. Meanwhile the 10th Connecticut, with the sound of fire to their rear, moved out of their advanced position, seeking safety on Sol Legare. A Confederate battery under Captain E.L. Parker fired upon the 104th Pennsylvania, keeping that unit in place for about an hour.

The Confederates closed on Shaw’s line and attempted to brush the 54th aside, and this “rookie” regiment was at a critical position. If they gave ground, Colquitt might move up to Grimball’s Causeway and cut off three regiments. Wait… we have a movie clip….

I lack the space here to break down the action of the 54th in detail. For a written in Glory blog has an account by Luis Emilio, from A Brave Black Regiment, which I’d recommend for reference. Emilio’s account has the 54th engaged in an organized delaying action. But Colquitt wrote in his report, “the enemy’s line gave way and retreated in confusion.” However to be fair, even an organized withdrawal might appear, from across the battle line, as confusion. And to Emilio’s account, the 10th Connecticut did reach safety before Colquitt and Way closed off the causeway. We can at least say the 54th held Colquitt’s advance for more than an hour.

Meanwhile, Colonel James Radcliffe likewise moved his column forward in the pre-dawn darkness. His troops reached the open ground around Grimball’s Landing after the 10th Connecticut fell back. The Confederate gunners deployed four 12-pdr rifles and four Napoleons to confront the gunboats anchored in the river. Commander George Balch on the Pawnee reported taking 33 hits on the hull, 3 hits on the smokestack, 6 in the rigging, and 3 to the ship’s boats. But thanks to chain cables covering the engine compartments, the damage did not disable the ship. And the Pawnee gave as good as she got, firing 80 times that day. With the infantry withdrawal, Balch ordered the gunboats to retire.


On Sol Legare, Colquitt advanced to within 500 yards of the Federal camps. “His force, I think, did not exceed 1,500 infantry and a battery of artillery. They could, I think, easily have been routed…” After a short artillery duel, the Confederates took stock of the position and pulled all forces back across the causeways. Terry ordered his brigades forward at least to the original picket lines, but neither side reopened the engagement.


That night, Terry withdrew his division to Cole’s Island, using the recently repaired causeways. As they retreated, the Federals destroyed those same causeways to prohibit Confederate pursuit. The “demonstration” was done. After a long night marching, the Federals arrived at Cole’s island hungry and tired. Many, including the 54th, waited in the rain for transport to Morris Island.


During the actions of the 16th, Federal casualties numbered 46 killed, wounded and captured. The bulk of those were suffered by the 54th Massachusetts. The Confederates reported 18 casualties. Terry singled out the 54th for special recognition in his official report:

I desire to express my obligations to Captain Balch, U.S. Navy, commanding the naval forces in the river, for the very great assistance he rendered to me, and to report to the commanding general the good services of Captain Rockwell and his battery, and the steadiness and soldierly conduct of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment, who were on duty at the outposts on the right, and met the brunt of the attack.

Yet three of the Confederate commanders involved were less impressed. Hagood noted, “The enemy’s infantry fought badly. They were chiefly colored troops, and 14 of the captured. These belonged to the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts.” With this first use of colored troops in a major engagement (not raids as on the St. Mary’s, Combahee, or Edisto Rivers and at Darien) in the Department of the South, came the question about handling prisoners. Reports of Confederates bayoneting wounded or surrendering soldiers of the 54th came to light.

There’s a lot I can’t fit into this already lengthy post. But I chose to focus here on the troop dispositions and the flow of the battle to illustrate a point. There is a reason this little skirmish occupied valuable screen space in the movie.

The 54th Massachusetts would not have to wait long for their second combat action. Brigadier-General Quincy Gillmore had a revised plan to deal with Battery Wagner and the regiment would feature prominently in that action.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 584, 586, 587, and 755.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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