Four failed assaults: Fort Sumter Boat Assault, Part 2

Although the main Federal effort to take Batteries Wagner and Gregg through the summer of 1863 featured siege operations, the campaign also included a number of boat-based operations. As detailed earlier, the first of these was the initial landings on Morris Island on July 10. These amphibious operations culminated with the failed boat assault on Fort Sumter on the night of September 8, 1863. Earlier I focused on the command arrangements and failure to coordinate the assault. In this overdue post, let me turn to the particulars of the landing operations – against the backdrop of some other boat assaults attempted during the campaign.

By the middle of the Civil War, the Federal Army was getting pretty good with littoral operations. To be particular, there were “boat operations” supporting patrols and raids; “landing operations” where troops were placed on undefended shores (such as occurred at Folly Island in April); and finally opposed “assaults” as had occurred on July 10. Three examples of the later were planned from September 4 to 8, 1863. None of which met with even marginal success, for one reason or another.

On September 3, Brigadier-General Quincy Gillmore sent his Chief-of-Staff, Brigadier-General John Turner, out to Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren to relate the Army’s plans for Morris Island. Recall the Federals ashore were at that time building up to make the last push on Battery Wagner. Gillmore would have all the right elements – moonlight, breaching batteries, engineer resources – in place to commence that push starting the morning of September 5. Adding to this effort, Gillmore wanted to land a force behind Battery Wagner and capture Battery Gregg. To support this effort, Gillmore requested oarsmen, coxwains, and boats from the Navy. He also asked that the ironclads move up to fire in support of the attack.

Dahlgren the overall plan. But with respect to the boat assault, he was unwilling to risk the monitors in the shallows off Cumming’s Point. He would detail a section of boats already operating as pickets on Lighthouse Creek to support the Army. A force under Lieutenant Francis J. Higginson, with four launches and at least two boat howitzers would support the Army’s attempt. With the lack of ironclad support, Gillmore reduced the operation to a raid. Parts of four regiments formed the assault force:

Troops were details from Third New Hampshire (100 men), Eighty-fifth Pennsylvania, One Hundredth New York, and Seventh Connecticut. Maj. [Oliver S.] Sanford of the Seventh Connecticut was in command. Many of the men were provided with files to spike the guns, and one particular man was instructed to “touch off” the magazine.

The assault force set out that night, but ran into a Confederate boat making its way back to Fort Johnson with wounded and dispatches. Feeling the intercept of that boat was of higher importance, Higginson fired on the enemy boat and proceeded to capture it. The shots fired alerted the Confederates to the Federal boats. In light of that, Sanford called off the assault. Although the captured men, including Major Frederick Warley, 2nd South Carolina Artillery, provided some valuable information about Battery Wagner, Gillmore considered the mission a complete failure and blamed Higginson.

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The following night, while the engineers on the siege lines reached a point fifty yards short of Battery Wagner, Sanford went forward again with a boat assault force. This time, as the boats neared Cumming’s Point the Confederates were on full alert. After receiving some fire from shore, Sanford withdrew. The following day, no further boat assaults were attempted as all effort focused to the much anticipated final assault on that work. One has to wonder if a third assault had been attempted if it might have disrupted the Confederate withdrawal on the night of September 6.

Oddly, considering the action of the 4th, on September 7, Gillmore would rate Higginson highly, and even call out that Sanford, “who has been out with him on three occasions, speaks very highly of his presence of mind and personal bravery, as well as his efficiency as a commander.” It appeared all involved felt it better simply to forget the failed assaults in the euphoria over the victory at Morris Island.

The withdrawal from Batteries Wagner and Gregg on September 7 left both Gillmore and Dahlgren of the opinion Fort Sumter might be taken by night assault. As detailed in the earlier post, coordination of these competing efforts broke down due to faulty communications and disagreements. The army plan had Colonel Francis Osborn commanding a force of 500 men from the 24th Massachusetts and 10th Connecticut, transported by oarsmen pulled from the 7th Connecticut under Sanford’s command, to land on the gorge and northwest faces of the fort. Gillmore’s plan was more a redirection of the Battery Gregg plans. If successful, the Army would leave a detachment in the fort along with a signal team. Fearing a fratricidal encounter, Osborn had verbal orders to retire if there were any indication the Navy had started its assault.

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Dahlgren’s plan was to put 400 man force comprised of marines and sailors over the gorge, northeast, and southeast walls of the fort, by way of fifteen boats. For the approach, the tug USS Daffodil would tow the launches up the main ship channel. When cast off, the boats would land the men at places where they could scale up the rubble into the fort. In direct support of the landing was the Monitor USS Lehigh. But other than the watchword “Detroit,” no other instructions were passed to aid coordination with the Army force known to be operating the same night against the same objective.

Enough to make a modern operations officer go screaming into the night. No coordination. No rehearsals. Just the assumption that the Confederates would simply hand over the keys while the Federals rushed in. But in Fort Sumter, Major Stephen Elliott anticipated just such an assault and had his command of around 300 men on alert. Elliott hoped to repel the assault at the foot of the fort, and not allow any lodgement. The men were issued hand grenades and incendiary devices. And if that was not enough, the CSS Chicora moved out in the harbor to provide support for the garrison.

At 10 p.m. the Daffodil moved up the channel. After some problems getting into position, the boats finally cast off after midnight. Higginson, who commanded a division of boats approaching the fort, reported:

After casting off from the tug, I pulled up to the northeast face of the fort, in obedience to my instructions. I succeeded in reaching the fort without being seen and immediately attempted to land.

I found myself upon a narrow ledge of sharp rocks, in which no foothold could be obtained. My boats were in danger of getting stove, and after several ineffectual attempts I withdrew.

Higginson attempted to reach the southeast face instead, but found boats there also in retreat. Others indicated the fighting lasted twenty minutes. In confusion, the navy’s boats withdrew, retrieving some of the wounded but leaving many at the fort to be captured. On the other side of the fort, Osborn heard the firing and called off the Army assault as instructed. Elliott boasted the capture of five boats, five stand of colors, and 106 prisoners. He also recorded six killed at the base of the fort. Dahlgren’s report indicate losing 104 prisoners and three killed. By either tally, a loss of over a quarter of that committed.

The Federal amphibious assaults attempted from September 4 to 9 failed in almost all respects. The only one of the four to even land a blow was the Navy’s, and it got no further than the base of Fort Sumter. Some would say this action closed the book on the Morris Island Campaign. I tend to look at it as the last page in a chapter. The siege of Charleston would drag on for months to come.

(Citations from Daniel Eldridge, The Third New Hampshire and All About It, Boston: E.B. Stillings & Company, 1893, page 362. ORN, Series I, Volume 14, page 618.)

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