Let’s talk memory for a moment. I suspect this is what most readers recall when the July 18, 1863 assault on Battery Wagner comes up in conversation:
The other day Kevin Levin refered to this action as “the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry’s unsuccessful assault at Battery Wagner.” While I certainly agree with Kevin’s broader point in regard to the aspects of the commemoration, I can’t help but draw a “memory” parallel here with respect to his “high water-mark” label. Somewhat as the “high-water mark” of the Confederacy at Gettysburg was long associated with just one of the participating divisions, we’ve linked, for good measure to be sure, the July 18th assault with just one of the participating regiments. Don’t get me wrong. I say this not to take away from the heroic deeds of the 54th Massachusetts, but rather to offer context. We have recast, for accuracy’s sake, the Confederate assault of July 3 as the “Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Charge.” Perhaps we should consider the term “Seymour’s Charge” for July 18:
Civil War Trust offered this Steve Stanley map in 2008 to support the effort to preserve the remaining sections of Morris Island (the yellow section in the middle of the map). The map depicts the column of regiments from the First and Second Brigades, Second Division, of the Tenth Corps under Brigadier-General Truman Seymour. All told around 6000 men attacking through a narrow corridor. And Seymour’s name isn’t even on the map!
Department commander Brigadier-General Quincy Gillmore (who’s name is on the map, but who was not nearly that far forward), shifted brigades and regiments within the Tenth Corps in order to meet mission obligations. After Brigadier-General Alfred Terry’s division fell back from James Island, Gillmore reorganized the two divisions. The 54th Massachusetts left Terry’s division and joined Brigadier-General George Strong’s brigade (First Brigade of Seymour’s division) alongside five veteran regiments most recently tested on July 11 in an assault on Battery Wagner. Brigadier-General Haldimand Putnam commanded Second Brigade in Seymour’s division with three regiments moved over from Brigadier-General Israel Vogdes’ briagde, rounded out with a fourth pulled from Terry’s division. The brigade of Brigadier-General Thomas Stevenson moved out of Terry’s division, picked up the 2nd South Carolina Infantry, and became the Third Brigade of Seymour’s division. Stevenson’s is not depicted on the map and remained back near the First Parallel (off the map to the south) as the exploitation reserve. This reorganization, done between July 16 and 18, touched every brigade in the assault force. Confusing on paper, and even more so in the ranks. The movements also meant that several regiments arriving from James Island were going into line without rest or even a chance to catch a meal.
Recall Gillmore’s original plan called for a siege of Battery Wagner as the second phase of operations. And I would say “short siege.” However events on July 10 gave the impression the Confederate fort might be taken short of a formal siege. Strong’s infantry assault failed to dislodge the Confederates, but Gillmore still held to the modified plan. What he failed to realize was the Confederate garrison, under Brigadier-General William Taliaferro, increased to about 1,300 men while all the preparations were being made.
Starting on July 13, he focused on silencing the Confederate guns in preparation for another infantry assault. Engineers prepared several battery positions on Morris Island and the Navy moved more gunboats offshore. The position of the land batteries and the firing instructions best illustrate Gillmore’s intent. The guns and mortars were to focus fires on the fortification to “dismount the enemy’s guns.” The fires were not concentrated against any single point in the works to break down the walls, as one might do for a siege (say like… Fort Pulaski).
Gillmore wanted to start this bombardment on July 16, but bad weather stalled commencement until on July 18. Following a morning of ranging fires, the bombardment commenced in earnest at around mid-day. In Battery Wagner, Taliaferro estimated 9,000 projectiles struck in and around the fortification. “In a short time,” Gillmore recalled, “the fort was entirely silent on the face fronting the land batteries, and practically so on the sea front….” However, Taliaferro, with only two of his guns out of action by that time, had simply reduced his fire anticipating the infantry attack.
Assuming bombardment produced the desired effect, Gillmore set the time for the infantry assault at sunset – a rare, for the Civil War, night attack. Initially, Gillmore only wanted to commit Strong’s brigade. But after consulting with Seymour, he agreed the entire division should move. The hope was the twilight would provide just enough light for the infantry to see their way down the beach, but not enough light the defenders could focus fire upon them during the advance. The attackers would go in with bayonets fixed, intending for close quarters combat. No engineers supported the assault. And none of the infantry brought forward equipment to deal with obstacles. As for the lead of this assault, Seymour explained:
The Fifty-fourth Massachusetts, a colored regiment of excellent character, well officered, with full ranks, and that had conducted itself commendably a few days previously on James Island, was placed in front.
Seymour went on to say that while the other regiments could easily form into column, the 54th, with 600 men, was too large and formed into two lines of columns. Indeed, one of the reasons the 54th was posted to the van of this column it’s strength in numbers. Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Hallowell recalled for the 54th’s official report of the action, “General Strong presented himself to the regiment and informed the men of the contemplated assault upon Fort Wagner and asked them if they would led it. They answered in the affirmative.”
Shortly after that, Colonel Robert Shaw ordered the 54th forward to commence the assault. The other regiments in the two lead brigades formed up behind. Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Abbott, of the 7th New Hampshire, waiting in the second brigade line, observed:
Each of these brigades thus stood upon the beach in close column, and thus, while twenty standards opened their folds, and 6,000 bayonets flashed in the rays of the departing sun, they moved up in solid mass toward the batteries, where a hundred pieces of artillery still continued to thunder.
As the men advanced, Confederate canister, grapeshot, and musketry bore upon the ranks. By Hallowell’s account, the 54th crossed the ditch of the fort and reached the parapet. There Shaw and two of the regiment’s captains fell dead. The 54th held that position on the parapet for about an hour, by Hallowell’s estimate.
Behind the 54th Massachusetts, the 48th New York and 6th Connecticut swung to the right. Those regiments reached a section of the parapet which happened to be lightly manned. The 31st North Carolina was assigned that sector. But, as Taliaferro recorded, the North Carolinians “could not be induced to occupy their position, and ingloriously deserted the ramparts….” This allowed the two Federal regiments to gain the parapet and gain a lodgement in the works. But they needed reinforcement to secure the footholds gained by the initial assault.
In addition to Shaw, Strong and Colonel John Chatfield of the 6th Connecticut also fell mortally wounded. Further injuring the command structure, all but one of Strong’s regimental commanders went down with wounds. Command of the 54th Massachusetts went to Captain Luis Emilio as the last line officer standing. And Seymour himself was wounded.
Problem was Putnam’s second brigade did not follow closely as planned. After Strong’s advance, Putnam held his position claiming he was simply complying with orders from Gillmore (recall the original plan for advance). Seymour did mange to convince Putnam to move forward but the delay proved costly. Into this confusing night battlefield, Putnam’s regiments pressed towards the works. One of his regiments fired on a body of troops which turned out to be the 3rd New Hampshire and part of the 48th New York. But at best Putnam’s troops could only maintain what was gained by the first wave. As he directed his troops, Putnam was struck in the head and killed.
With the operation reaching a crisis, Seymour called for the Third Brigade. But at that point, Gillmore sent word to hold off committing the brigade. This halted any remaining momentum in the Federal attack. By midnight, the fighting began to fall off. The assault now turned into a retrograde. Captain Emilio managed to rally a large group of the 54th Massachusetts at a trench line 700 yards from the fort. That line served as a rally point for troops falling back from the failed assault. Going in and coming out, the 54th had furthered their reputation.
Looking at the casualty figures by regiment, Strong’s brigade felt the heaviest loss:
- 54th Massachusetts – 34 killed, 136 wounded, 92 missing – Total 272
- 48th New York – 54 killed, 112 wounded, 73 missing – Total 242
- 6th Connecticut – 15 killed, 77 wounded, 46 missing – Total of 138
- 9th Maine – 4 killed, 94 wounded, 19 missing – Total 177
- 76th Pennsylvania – 2 killed, 20 wounded, 2 missing – Total 24
- 3rd New Hampshire – 2 killed, 38 wounded, 6 missing – Total 46
But Putnam’s brigade suffered considerable loss too:
- 7th New Hampshire – 41 killed, 119 wounded, 56 missing – Total 216
- 100th New York – 49 killed, 97 wounded, 29 missing – Total 175
- 62nd Ohio – 26 killed, 87 wounded, 38 missing – Total 151
- 67th Ohio – 19 killed, 82 wounded, 25 missing – Total 126
The artillery batteries reported six wounded during the fighting on July 18. That brought the total casualties to 1,515 men. The assault stands up as one of the bloodiest division-size attacks of the war.
There’s a lot to focus upon that went wrong regarding the July 18 attack on Battery Wagner – hasty reorganization, failure to rest and feed the troops, insufficient artillery bombardment, deviations from the original plan of action, lack of engineering support at the point of attack, and absence of any contingency plans. The severe loss among Federal leaders, from division commander down to the line officers, further hindered the operation. But perhaps most felt was the very narrow corridor which prevented the Federals from fully developing the assault. Say what you will for the failure, Gillmore would not repeat it on Morris Island. He would now return to his original plan – a siege of Battery Wagner.
From the broader context, the assault of July 18 was a rare example where battlefield failure turned into political success. The actions of the 54th Massachusetts received widespread attention in the northern papers.
The Emancipation Proclamation had spawned a weapon of battle.
(Citations and primary sources: OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 15, 201, 210-1, 345-8, 362, 364-5, 417-19; Secondary sources: Burton, E. Milby. The Siege of Charleston 1861–1865. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1970; Kennedy, Frances H., ed. The Civil War Battlefield Guide. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998; Reed, Rowena. Combined Operations in the Civil War. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1978)