“Necessitated from the untenable condition of Battery Wagner,” Confederates evacuate

In the early morning hours of September 7, 1863, a deserter stumbled into the Federal siege lines.  Immediately captured, the deserter offered welcome news –  The Confederates abandoned Morris Island during the night. Instead of one final assault on the works, the Federals could simply walk into the fortifications.  The siege of Battery Wagner was over.

Major Thomas Brooks summarized the last few days of the siege in his journal of operations:

In this bombardment, which lasted forty-two hours, four distinct lines of batteries were used, each firing over those in advance of it. Mortars were fired from the fifth, third, and first parallels, and heavy rifled guns from the second parallel and left batteries. The practicability of this method of using guns, into which we were forced by our narrow front, was demonstrated.

Brooks also provided a complete assessment of Battery Wagner, as only an experienced military engineer might, recording the damage at the time of capture. As one might expect, he found substantial damage.  But in regards to the bombproof shelter inside the sea-facing bastion, he observed:

Considerable earth, which covered the south end of the main bomb-proof shelter, and the magazine just east of it, was removed by our fire. About 7 feet was left, however, which was enough to make both structures secure against a much longer continued fire.

I’ve seen this part of Brooks’ report used as evidence the Confederates abandoned Battery Wagner for other reasons.  Matching this with diary entries from Captain (later Lieutenant Colonel) H.D.D. Twiggs who served as a staff officer at times during the siege, some have claimed it was the lack of potable water which triggered the withdrawal.  As if the Confederates might have held out a week, perhaps, since the Federal efforts had not rendered the fort itself untenable. (One example where this notion about bad water surfaces is in a Wikipedia article citing an article from North & South magazine.  See reference 2.)

Nothing could be further from the truth. With respect to the water, I would further point out that the Confederates were in the habit of sending a water boat on the routine runs to Morris Island.  And placing Brooks’ statements in context, the assessment was to the structural integrity of the bombproof, not the overall status of the works.

On more than one forum I’ve seen Colonel Lawrence Keitt’s dispatch (sent at 3:15 p.m. on September 6) stating “And if our sacrifice be of benefit, I am ready.  Let it be said so, and I will storm the enemy’s works at once, or lose every man here.”  That was a statement of bravado, aimed more at his superiors than an assessment of reality.  What is often left out from the citation is the preceding questions in Keitt’s message: “Will boats be here to-night for garrison? If so, at what time?”   Leave no doubt, Keitt wanted to evacuate the island, but he had to be careful how that idea was floated.

Within an hour of Keitt’s inquiry, orders came to evacuate the island.  In his final report as commander of the Morris Island garrison, Keitt related the state of the defenses prior to evacuation:

[The evacuation] was authorized by a dispatch sent by signals from district headquarters, and received by me between 4 and 5 p.m., and directed in detail by a special order from department headquarters, which was received from Captain [W. G.] McCabe, of General [Roswell] Ripley’s staff, at dark, and was necessitated from the untenable condition of Battery Wagner, the greatly exhausted condition of the garrison, and constant artillery and sharpshooting fire of the enemy, which prevented repairs. The gradual approaches of the enemy had passed the front of the battery, and the termination of their sap was not over 50 yards from the parapet of the sea face, enabling them to throw a mass of troops upon this flank when our men were mostly in the bomb-proofs, where I was forced to keep them by the unceasing fire of mortars and rifled guns on land, with an enfilading fire from the fleet during most of the day. The salient on the left of the battery had been swept by such a terrible cross-fire as to breach the parapet and throw it into irregular shapes, rendering the ascent from the moat easy, and moreover, men could not be kept there during this cross-fire without the certainty of most of them being wounded or stunned. This salient is the part of the work gained by the enemy in the assault of July 18.

No doubt about it, the damage done to the battery and the proximity of the Federal lines prompted the evacuation.  Bad water and other situational factors made further defense of Batteries Wagner and Gregg difficult.  But it was those fellows in blue uniforms which forced the evacuation.

I think it significant that Keitt mentioned the July 18th assault in his report.  He was alluding to a particular portion of the battery which was the most exposed to assault.  And that salient had been the target of Federal efforts starting with the July 11th assault.  Yet Keitt’s memory focused on the later assault.  Some of the men who had reached that salient on July 18 were advancing the siege lines forward on September 6.  The 54th Massachusetts, as you may recall, was on fatigue detail in those final days.

(Citations from OR Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 302 and 483.)

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