Winding down Morris Island

I’ve been on this Morris Island run since the days after Gettysburg in July. Two and a half months of mostly Morris Island stuff. Not that I complain. I find it fun to write about a lively, interesting (to me at least) topic. But I’ve got to begin “ground work” for the next round of sesquicentennial related posts. So let me offer a conclusion or two here. And at the same time promise to pitch in a few more posts in order to round out the set.

The Morris Island posts I’ve published here are in no way, shape, or form intended to cover the subject from all angles. Or even from the most important angles (for instance I’ve politely stepped around the issues between Gillmore and Dahlgren during the summer). Just some essays that I’ve been needing to write for some time, the blog just gave me a platform. I’ll update the Morris Island page shortly and arrange those links a bit better. Looking forward, I have some topics in mind for future posts to add in:

  • Study of the signal operations in the theater
  • Torpedo warfare practiced by the Confederates against the ironclads
  • The wearing down of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron through continual action through the summer
  • Pros and cons of ironclad employment at Charleston
  • Failures of the Parrott Rifles – talking about those big burst guns
  • Confederate balloons employed at Charleston
  • The 10-inch banded and rifled Columbiads
  • Re-purposing of Battery Gregg into Fort Putnam

And of course I will finish up the key maps for photographs…. and speaking of which there are a few I need to offer up for analysis.


Foremost, the campaign on Morris Island was the first major operation to feature the USCT. This, in some ways, marks the fruition of the Emancipation Proclamation. To blunt the old canard – maybe the proclamation didn’t free a single slave, but it put weapons in the hands of a lot of former slaves. And those former slaves were employed to great effect in and around Morris Island. That successful employment, while perhaps a long way from full, equal civil rights, put some things in motion… even if not fully developed for 100 years. If nothing else, the question of “would the African-Americans fight?” was answered with a resounding “yes!”

Morris Island was another campaign showcasing the Army-Navy team in action. While some will “gossip” the story line here, the raw facts are the Army and Navy suppressed rivalries (including personal ones) to pursue the common goal. The team did secure lodgement on Morris Island and eventually wrestled the island from the Confederates in a long campaign with more cooperation than contention. But the ultimate goal – Charleston itself – eluded the team. That, more than anything else, lead to the long enmity between the principal commanders.

Morris Island became more than a foothold along the coast. By October, that island became an artillery platform from which Federals pummeled Fort Sumter, attempted to suppress Sullivan’s Island, and threatened Charleston.

After September 1863, Charleston lost its position as a leading blockade-runner port. The presence of Federals at Cumming’s Point allowed the Federal blockaders to focus on the few ship channels left uncovered by the guns. Of course, Charleston’s loss became Wilmington’s gain.

Big Parrott rifles could turn any fortification into rubble and dust, given time. But those big guns, even with the support of the Navy’s big Dahlgren guns, could not secure a single square foot of ground. To render a fortification neutralized, the Army still had to do it the old fashioned way – occupy the works.

And at the same time, the iron guns and ships needed men to work them. By mid-September the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron and the Tenth Corps were beyond fatigued. This operation had rivaled Vicksburg as the longest sustained combat experience of the war to that time.

The limitation of the Federal artillery and ironclads allowed the Confederates to buy time. The most visible benefit of this was the shifting and improvement of the remaining Charleston defenses. And at the strategic level, Morris Island was one of several “checks” played by the Confederates. With Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Tullahoma dealing major losses, both in resources and terrain, by the first week of July, the military collapse of the Confederacy seemed eminent. By holding Battery Wagner into September, Beauregard had wrestled a strategic victory from tactical defeat. While overshadowed by the larger “check” at Chickamauga, the defenders of Morris Island could claim their rightful share.

But the siege of Charleston would continue on. Sixteen more months, that is. I’ll continue to work in posts about these operations at the appropriate time intervals, as a proper sesquicentennialist should. But for now this train has some stops at Chattanooga, Knoxville, Bristoe Station, and Rappahannock Station.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

3 thoughts on “Winding down Morris Island

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