Dantzler’s counterattack added four day delay to siege of Battery Wagner

A few days ago while discussing the establishment of the fourth parallel against Battery Wagner, I brought up the infantry fighting between the sand ridge, held by the Confederates, and the ruins of the McMillian house. Colonel Edward Serrell depicted that particular section of the battlefield with this plate in his report:


The fourth parallel is in the middle of the diagram – a crooked line running from the beach up to a slight rise where the McMillian house had stood. To the right is the sand ridge used by the Confederates pickets. There are some, being gracious, dependencies between that diagram and that of Major Thomas Brooks’ map of the siege operations:


Brooks’ map adds the fifth parallel and other works which were still “future” advances at this moment 150 years ago (August 23, 1863). Notice on the left side of the fifth parallel, in the “knuckle” of the line, there’s an upside down annotation “the ridge” indicating the location of that feature used by the Confederates. Also notice, in black lettering up on the left end of the fourth parallel, “cistern and ruins of house.” On the night of August 20-21, those were some of the most valuable real estate on Morris Island.

Focusing in on the ground between the fourth and fifth parallel, let me add some call outs:


You see “the ridge” a bit clearer here. That was the location the Federals wanted the fourth parallel to stand. The sand ridge would offer protection for mortars advanced towards the ultimate objective. A parallel at that point would also provide a foothold near the narrowest portion of Morris Island, making an idea line to close off any Confederate spoiling attack. In short, that was, relative to Morris Island, damn good ground.

But the morning of August 21, the the sappers had not cleared to the ruins of the McMillian house. Artillery firing from Battery Wagner and sharpshooters on the ridge halted the engineers in the early hours of the day. However the balance shifted somewhat after the sun rose and artillery on the Federal siege lines were able to counter Battery Wagner. Later in the day the USS New Ironsides and other ships were able to silence, for the time being, Battery Wagner. With the Confederates on their heels, Colonel George B. Dandy’s 100th New York moved forward in an attempt to gain the ridge. Although the New Yorkers stalled short of the ridge, they held ground from which the Federals might press the pickets back.

The presence of an infantry force just 20 yards from Battery Wagner’s picket line was a threat to the main Confederate defense. A counter-attack was in order. And it was the 20th South Carolina Infantry, under Lieutenant-Colonel Olin M. Dantzler, which had just arrived as part of a troop rotation, which delivered that counterattack on the night of August 21. In a report posted the following day, Brigadier-General Johnson Hagood described the action:

Last night, as briefly mentioned in yesterday’s journal, an attempt was made to seize by assault our rifle-pits, and the enemy succeeded in establishing themselves within 20 yards of them before we could re-enforce our men. The re-enforcements, however, under Lieut. Col. O. M. Dantzler, Twentieth Regiment South Carolina Volunteers, drove their line back, and held nearly our original vedette stations during the night. It is but simple justice to mention the decision and promptitude with which Colonel Dantzler accomplished his purpose, as well as to acknowledge the unfailing zeal and gallantry with which he has served at this post during his whole tour of duty here. The colonel was shot through the breast of his coat while pushing forward his vedettes.

It was just a small attack in the middle of a larger campaign. But it had some significant implications.

This brief, sharp action pushed the Federals back to a line anchored on the left at the ruins of the McMillian House. Taking account of the situation, Brooks decided to make the best of it and build the fourth parallel there instead of the intended location. On the other side, Hagood likewise lamented the effort against those advancing siege lines was not enough:

The enemy’s sap was advanced during last night to McMillan’s burned house, and I regret to say that our fire to-day appears to have produced no other effect than to prevent much visible progress being made either forward or in completion of last night’s work. It was in an imperfect state, and made of gabions and sand-bags, and I had hoped by our fire to have knocked so much of it to pieces.

However, Dantzler’s assault did have a larger impact than Hagood appreciated at that moment. For the next four days, the Federals tried mortar fire, artillery fire, and infantry approaches. Finally on August 26, they would take the ridge by direct assault. Four full days (and change) behind original intentions.

The fighting on Morris Island was measured in short yardage at this point. How many yards in a day? Four days? Contesting control of a ridge. Remind you of any other place and time?

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, page 440.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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