On this day… September 7, 1863 -Charleston learns Morris Island lost

Robert Moore ran a couple of “on this day” posts earlier, looking back at reports in Shenandoah newspapers.  After spending most of the sesquicentennial with “on this day” writing, I’ve gotten out of habit for the most part.  But I retain the historical mindset when looking at the calendar. So occasionally I’ll link to an old post on Facebook or Twitter as a way of mentioning anniversary dates.

But Robert’s use of newspaper accounts reminds me of the veritable mountain of source material that I’ve accumulated over the years when studying the war at Charleston, South Carolina.  And September 7 is an important anniversary date.  On that date in 1863 Morris Island was evacuated marking the end of a long Federal campaign to secure that barrier island outside Charleston.  Readers will recall the many posts about that campaign during the sesquicentennial.  I detailed the last three days of the campaign at that time.  On September 5, under protection of a withering bombardment, the Federal sap advanced towards Battery Wagner – just fifty yards short at around midnight.  The following day, Federals prepared to make a final assault, developing footholds just 100 feet from the battery parapet by 10 PM that evening. However, that final assault would not be necessary.  Overnight, the Confederate garrison withdrew, leaving Morris Island to the Federals.

Using that story (detailed in the links above), let’s step back and think of another perspective.  How did the citizens of Charleston, the Confederate “home front” so close to the fighting front, receive this news?

Granted, many could simply look across the harbor at Morris Island and Fort Sumter.  And the sound of cannons likely echoed into the streets at times (not to mention shells fired at Charleston itself, as way of showing the war was not very distant).  And of course there were always rumors and gossip spreading news. But for the “factual” news, Charleston had two primary newspapers – the Charleston Mercury and the Charleston Daily Courier.  I have reason to believe the Courier was a morning paper, while the Mercury was afternoon or evening. Perhaps confirming that cycle, the Mercury was able to break the news of Morris Island’s evacuation on September 7, 1863 (on the second page):

Evacuation of Morris Island

To sum up the events through which we have just passed, Battery Wagner has been subjected during the last three days and nights to the most terrific fire that any earthwork has undergone in all the annals of warfare.  The immense descending force of the enormous Parrott and mortar shells of the enemy had nearly laid the wood work of the bombproofs entirely bare, and had displaced the sand to so great a degree that the sally-ports are almost entirely blocked up. The parallels of the enemy yesterday afternoon had been pushed up to the very mouth of Battery Wagner, and it was no longer possible to distinguish our fire from that of the enemy.  During the entire afternoon the enemy shelled the sand hills in the rear of Battery Wagner (where our wounded lay) very vigorously.

Under these circumstances, and in view of the difficulties of communication with Cumming’s Point, the impossibility of longer holding Morris Island became apparent, and it was determined that strenuous efforts should be made at once to release the brave garrison of the Island, who seemed to be almost within the enemy’s grasp.  This desirable result was accomplished with the most commendable promptitude and success.

At about six o’clock, yesterday afternoon, the orders for the evacuation were delivered to Col. Keitt, commanding our forces on the island. Everything was at once made ready for the abandonment of Batteries Wagner and Gregg.  The dead were buried, and, at nightfall, the wounded were carefully removed in barges to Fort Johnson.  The guns, which, for so many weeks had held the foe at bay, were double-shotted, fired and spiked; the heavier pieces were dismounted, and the carriages rendered worthless. The preliminary preparations being thus completed, the work of embarkation was noiselessly begun, and the brave men of the garrison, in forty barges, were soon gliding from the beach they had held so stoutly and so long.  The evacuation was conducted by Col. Keitt, assisted by Major Bryan A.A.G.; and the success with which what has always been considered one of the most difficult feats of warfare has been performed is worthy of the highest praise.  Batteries Gregg and Wagner had both been carefully mined, with a view to blowing them up.  It was about one o’clock this morning when the last three boats – containing Col. Keitt and a number of his officers – left the island. The slow match was lighted by Captain Huguenin at Wagner, and by Captain Lesesne at Gregg; but, owing to some defect in the fuses, no explosion took place at either fort.

During the evacuation the enemy was not idle. A constant fire of shell was kept up against Wagner, and his howitzer barges were busily plying about this side of Morris Island, to prevent the retreat of our men. But fortunately the night was murky, and all our barges,with the exception of one, containing twelve or fifteen men, passed in safely.

Such is how the residents of Charleston learned of the loss of Morris Island on the evening of September 7, 1863.  Notice the narrative put some, not so unexpected, spin on the events.  In some ways to save face, to be sure.  At the same time to let readers know the Confederate soldiers had fought well and endured much.  A retreat could be justified with honor.

When we look back at this, knowing more so the 360° panorama of history, might offer more details to the story.  Certainly it is significant that US Colored Troops were at the fore of those efforts to take Battery Wagner.  Did the reporters for the Mercury know that? And did the residents of Charleston (white and black) know that?  I have a feeling the deeds of the USCT were indeed known, if not reported.  And we might imply some spin from just that alone.

Regardless, on this day in 1863 the residents of Charleston witnessed a grim turn in the war occurring at the mouth of their harbor.  Not surprisingly, on the second column of the first page ran a story, what we’d call today an op-ed piece, titled, “The Fate of Charleston if Captured.”

(Citation from Charleston Mercury, Monday, September 7, 1863, page 2, column 2.)

 

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