150 Years Ago: The siege lines reach Battery Wagner

Starting his journal entry for September 6, 1863, Major Thomas Brooks wrote:

The sap is progressing to-day. One branch is to pass to the left and the other to the right of the bastion of the fort, thus enveloping it.

To-day, as yesterday, men are constantly exposing themselves above the parapets without drawing any fire from the enemy. Indeed, in the extreme front, there is no danger excepting from our own fire. Fragments of our own shell fly back to our trench, in one case inflicting a severe wound. The fort is as silent as a natural sand bank, which, indeed, it much resembles. All the outside revetments of the work, its lines and surfaces, are destroyed by our fire. It looms over the head of the sap, a huge, shapeless sand bluff.

At last, the trench lines traversed the final yards to Battery Wagner.  On the map, those last few trench lines enveloped the sea-side bastion of the battery.


As Brooks described, the left branch of the trenches reached out towards the land face of the bastion.  The other branch ran along the beach.  A photo staged after the siege depicts the final advances of the sap through these last few yards:


And that is Battery Wagner’s bastion in the distance to the right.

To cover the advance trenches the engineers laid out a Billinghurst-Requa position in the boyaux dug the previous day along the beach.  This would be the last of the numerous positions built for those proto-machine guns during the siege.  Another improvement was to widen the forward trenches to allow massing of troops for the planned assault on the battery.

The USS New Ironsides continued to fire on Battery Wagner despite the proximity of the lines.  To give the Navy a marker, the engineers placed a U.S. flag at the head of the sap.  Brooks  offered an up-close description of the fire effects on the fort:

Standing between the fires, and within a few yards of the point of striking, the opportunity to observe the effect, in the sand, of these huge shells from the smooth-bore guns of the navy and the rifles of the army was perfect. The ricochet of the former was uniform, and landed nearly every one in the fort. That of the latter was irregular; most of them exploded when they struck, throwing up a great quantity of sand, which falls back in its place; hence inflicting no injury save what may come from the heavy jar.

Although the trenches had moved past most of the torpedoes, at least one remained to cause harm.  Lieutenant Patrick McGuire reported one engineer killed and three infantry wounded by a torpedo explosion.

As the Federals reached the ditch in front of Battery Wagner, they encountered a new obstacle.  Captain Joseph Walker reported the presence of stakes and boarding-pikes.  The later requisitioned from Charleston’s supply of antiquated weapons at the start of the siege. He cleared a few hundred of these out of the counterscarp of the ditch.  By 10 p.m. Walker was in the ditch, taking observations to aid the storming party scheduled for the early morning hours of September 7.

But, before we get too far ahead, there was a plot twist to this last act in the long play on Morris Island.

Photo credit: Hagley Museum and Library collection of Haas & Peale photographs, ID Number 71MSS918_039.tif.

(Citation from OR Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 300-302.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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