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.)

The horse and the ox: Comparing the work of whites and blacks on Morris Island

As the work from the fifth parallel drug on… slowly drug on… Major Thomas Brooks recorded a change of the duty regiment among the fatigue detail on August 31, 1863:

The Third U.S. Colored Troops, who have been on fatigue duty in the advanced trenches since the 20th instant, were relieved to-day by the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteers, it being desirable to have older troops for the important and hazardous duty required in the advance at this period. Infantry officers commanding fatigue details inform me that it requires much more effort to make the men work than fight under the same fire.

Again we find an example where the contingencies of war, at the very front edge, challenged society’s perceptions of race.  As result authorities on the ground adjusted to meet the challenge in small ways.  There’s a subtle point made in the journal entry:  “men” behaved the same, and it was the “experience” that counted most.

As related yesterday, the Federals opted to employ their fatigue details within a rotation cycle.  Although the rotation did nothing to reduced the danger or improve the overall living conditions, at least it afforded some recovery time for the troops.  These rotations applied to all the regiments assigned to constructing the trenches.    A significant portion of the troops assigned to the fatigue details were USCT – particularly the 3rd USCT and the 54th Massachusetts in the critical later phases of the operation.  Black troops performed 56% of the fatigue detail duties (white troops performed all of the guard details on the line).

Shortly after Battery Wagner fell, Brooks sent out an inquiry among his fellow engineers regarding the performance of the USCT:

As the important experiment which will test the fitness of the American negro for the duties of a soldier is now being tried, it is desirable that facts bearing on the question be carefully observed and recorded.

It is probable that in no military operations of the war have negro troops done so large a proportion, and so important and hazardous, fatigue duty, as in the siege operations on this island.

The questions posed were:

I. Courage, as indicated by their behavior under fire.

II. Skill and appreciation of their duties, referring to the quality of the work performed.

III. Industry and perseverance, with reference to the quantity of the work performed.

IV. If a certain work were to be accomplished in the least possible time, i.e., when enthusiasm and direct personal interest are necessary to attain the end, would whites or blacks answer best?

V. What is the difference, considering the above points, between colored troops recruited from the free States and those from the slave States?

Brooks received six replies, of which those from Captain Joseph Walker and Lieutenant Hiram Farrand appear in Note 19 of Brooks’ report.

To the first question, Brooks indicated all those polled felt “the black is more timorous than the white, but is in a corresponding degree more docile and obedient, hence more completely under the control of his commander….” Walker explained further:

 I will say, in my opinion, their courage is rather of the passive than the active kind. They will stay, endure, resist, and follow, but they have not the restless, aggressive spirit. I do not believe they will desert their officers in trying moments in so great numbers as the whites; they have not the will, audacity, or fertility of excuse of the straggling white, and at the same time they have not the heroic, nervous energy, or vivid perception of the white, who stands firm or presses forward.

He added that he knew of no instances where the USCT had avoided duty, but the same could not be said for the white troops.

Although all observers felt the black troops were less skilled than whites, the skill level was more than sufficient for siege work and soldiering.  But as for appreciation of the work at hand, the black troops appeared to make up ground.  As Farrand observed:

White soldiers are more intelligent and experienced, and, of course, more skillful, than black ones, but they have not generally a corresponding appreciation of their duties. As a consequence, I have, in most cases, found the work as well done by black as by white soldiers.

I think this is significant.  We might explain the lack of skills within the individual experiences – in particular educational backgrounds.  But appreciation for duties is something derived from the individual’s situational awareness.

As for the quantity of work performed, Brooks noted that all agreed, “the black will do a greater amount of work than the white soldier, because he labors more consistently.”  Walker added in his response:

I think they will do more than the whites; they do not have so many complaints and excuses, but stick to their work patiently, doggedly, obediently, and accomplish a great deal, though I have never known them to work with any marked spirit or energy. I should liken the white man to the horse (often untractable and balky); the black man to the ox.

In line with that assessment, to the fourth question, Brooks summarized, “The whites are decidedly superior in enthusiasm.”  Walker offered an amateur analysis, “… there is a hard, nervous organization at the bottom of the character of the white, and a soft, susceptible one at the bottom of the character of the black.”

In regard to the performance of those recruited from slave states compared to those from free states, all felt those from the north performed better.  Walker stated, “They have more of the self-reliance, and approximate nearer to the qualities of the white man, in respect to dash and energy….”

Walker went on to add his own summary:

To me they compare favorably with the whites; they are easily handled, true and obedient; there is less viciousness among them; they are more patient; they have great constancy. The character of the white, as you know, runs to extremes; one has bull-dog courage, another is a pitiful cur; one is excessively vicious, another pure and noble. The phases of the character of the white touches the stars and descends to the lowest depths. The black character occupies the inner circle. Their status is mediocrity, and this uniformity and mediocrity, for military fatigue duty, I think answers best.

Reading this 150 years later, one must keep in mind the context.  And an important part of that context was that on Morris Island white and black regiments performed duties within the same set of trenches, in close proximity.  Perhaps not an “integrated” force, but at least one where a few preconceptions were broken.

At the end of his report, Brooks offered an observation worth noting:

The efficiency and health of a battalion depends so much upon its officers, that, in order to institute a fair comparison, when so small a number of troops are considered, this element should be eliminated.  That has not, however, been attempted in this paper.

The matter called for more study, to be sure.  An army does not simply recruit a good regiment.  Rather good leaders train a group of recruited men into a good regiment.  I think those observing the performance of the troops on Morris Island saw that held true regardless of skin color.

(Source: OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 328-31.)

150 years ago: Fourth parallel at 350 yards from Battery Wagner

August was a busy month on Morris Island, 150 years ago. And the busiest days occurred from August 17 through 23 with the simultaneous bombardment of Fort Sumter, advance of the siege lines against Battery Wagner, and the little matter of a Parrott Gun firing on Charleston. Add in Confederate attempt to sink the USS New Ironsides and the week’s worth of activity becomes one of the most interesting of the war. Not to be outdone by the actions of man, a gale blew in from the Atlantic Ocean on August 18 and continued through the 21st. What we would refer to as a “storm surge” in combination with a spring tide filled the trenches of the parallels and boyaux with water. The storm also took out the surf battery’s parapet, and forced the temporary removal of the howitzers. The aim of the heavy Parrott guns was not significantly affected by the storm’s winds, so the big guns continued their work. However the same could not be said for the work advancing the siege lines towards Battery Wagner.

After the construction of the third parallel earlier in August, Brigadier-General Quincy Gillmore suspended the advance of more parallels pending the bombardment of Fort Sumter. On the night of August 18, Gillmore ordered the engineers to resume the advance, despite the weather. Major Thomas Brooks recorded minimal work was completed that night:

… the trench of this parallel was cleared out and widened, the parapet strengthened, and the debouch made. A Requa battery was placed in position on the extreme left of the third parallel, to enfilade the front of the parapet of the proposed sap. Sap-rollers and sapping tools were carried forward. The extreme high tide, requiring the men to work in mud and water, greatly interfered with all these operations.

The immediate objective of the next parallel was to reach past a set of fingers extending from the marshes, which neared the beach at several points. This was the narrowest section of Morris Island, and which had proved so difficult to traverse in the July assaults on Battery Wagner. Accordingly the engineers approached with careful deliberation and caution. Adding to the difficulty were the presence of Confederate sharpshooters on a sand ridge in front of Battery Wagner. Referencing the map below, provided by Colonel Edward Serrell in his report, the sand ridge is to the right (however, disregard the location of the fourth parallel for the moment).


The plan was to run the sap out from the third parallel past those marsh fingers. Then construct a parallel running from the beach across to the marshes. Such would put the next parallel within 200 yards of Battery Wagner. The work resumed in the early morning hours of August 19:

This morning at 2 o’clock, the water having so subsided as to render it possible, the full sap was started from the point above indicated, by Captain [Joseph] Walker, with a sapping brigade, consisting of 10 men from his own company (I, New York Volunteer Engineers). He had executed 60 feet at 8 a.m., and was then relieved by Captain [John L.] Suess, with a sapping brigade from his company (B), same regiment, who completed 70 feet of approach during the day. The enemy’s sharpshooters opened on the head of the sap as soon as they observed its progress in the morning, and fired at it all day. One casualty occurred among the sappers, a slight wound from the explosion of a shell. Captain Walker again took the advance this night, and, by means of the flying sap, executed about 160 yards of approach, leaving the sap-roller at daybreak in position several yards in advance of our picket line.

The advance here being measured in yards, with the Federals then about 200 yards closer to Battery Wagner, but without a parallel. As indicated by Brooks, the sapping details worked in shifts, and cycled through rest periods similar to those of the men in the breaching batteries. With that work ever so close to Confederate lines, Brooks made arrangements for an advanced guard, consisting of a full regiment of infantry, positioned in the forward trenches of the third parallel (and recall the “keeps” of that trench line).

On the morning of August 20, a detail under Lieutenant Charles Wilcken took over the work on the sap. The work proceeded slowly during the day. Three of the detail were injured. By mid day, Captain Suess’ detachment took up the work. Finally around six that evening, Lieutenant Charles Parsons brought a fresh detail into the trenches. Six hour shifts during daylight hours, with longer runs at night.

Captain Walker’s detail returned to the sap at 3:30 am on August 21,

… at which time the enemy were directing a heavy fire of grape and canister upon it, which fire ceased before daylight. This permitted him to place a line of gabions on the reverse side of the trench, to shield the sappers from the enemy’s sharpshooters, who, it was feared, would occupy the cover furnished by the old ruins to the front and head of the sap.

At that point, the engineers could not move farther forward. Artillery fire from Battery Wagner and sharpshooters on the ridge kept the sappers pinned down. When Wilcken’s crew took over duties, he was forced to retire. A flag of truce went out at 11:30, but by noon hostilities resumed.

In response to this resistance, the Navy brought up the USS New Ironsides and several gunboats to fire on Battery Wagner. Likewise the 30-pdr Parrotts and field guns in the Federal batteries fired in support of the sappers. General Alfred Terry ordered up the 100th New York Infantry, under Colonel George B. Dandy, from the keeps of the third parallel to conduct an evening assault on the Confederates on the ridge. Despite several attempts and the loss of six men, the New Yorkers could not gain the ridge.

Brooks considered the situation that night and determined to at least secure what was gained:

I examined the ground, and concluded to establish a fourth parallel, in order to secure possession of the ruins on the elevated ground to the left, from which the enemy’s sharpshooters had long given us so much annoyance, and to increase our front preparatory to another attempt to take the ridge. This parallel, comprising a linear development of 300 yards, was opened from the beach to the marsh, close along the heels of our outposts (its right being 350 yards from Wagner), by Captain Suess. He reports most part of the work was done by means of the flying sap, the engineers placing the gabions and the negro troops (Third Regiment United States Colored) digging the trench. The part on the left, near the ruins, being constantly swept by the enemy’s musketry fire, was performed by the full sap; not, however, using the sap-roller, as a flank fire only had to be provided against. The details for this advanced work this night were 100 infantry and 15 engineers.

The resulting trench lines appear on Brooks map of the approaches to Battery Wagner (here with the third and fifth parallels for context):


I’ll save the discussion of the Requa and coehorns for later. But notice the fourth parallel fit between two of the marsh fingers. At first glance, this might seem a bad position. But the extent of 300 yards of trenches allowed more room to maneuver for the Federals.

Brooks offered two profiles of the trenches on the fourth parallel. The line m-m’ was across the approach boyaux just behind the parallel. Here the engineers used a barrel to help form a step up to the banquette.


Profile n-n’ was along the actual parallel trench. Here the engineers used gabions to raise the height of the works and allow the infantry to better defend the line.


Notice that in both profiles the trench’s ditch was wide enough to accommodate more troops, equipment, and weapons.

I’ve run a bit long in the description of the fourth parallel. But much of that was a “setup” of sorts. The take away here was how the action at the point of advance evolved into something which had similarities to … say… actions in the Central Pacific during World War II. An assault force worked foot by foot against an entrenched enemy, supported by heavy artillery and naval gunfire. Covering fire from the Billinghurst-Requa “machine-guns.” No fancy maneuvers to consider. Close quarters night actions. Spade, musket, and bayonet. And the fighting along the fourth parallel was just starting as August 22 dawned. The Confederates could not let this advance could not go uncontested.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 288-290.)

150 Years Ago: Third Parallel at 540 yards from Battery Wagner

In the evening of August 9, 1863, Brigadier-General Quincy Gillmore passed the word down to his subordinate leaders on Morris Island to open the third parallel against Battery Wagner. The operation, which the engineers and infantry had prepared for over the previous week, entailed the construction of a boyaux from the second parallel and then construction of another main trench line. When dawn came on August 10, the Federal lines were only 540 yards from Battery Wagner.

Well that was the short description of what happened, of course not counting the great difficulty of such operations. Major Thomas Brooks explained in his journal:

The engineering difficulties anticipated at this time in the construction of the approaches against Wagner were–

First. The narrow front on which to conduct the operations, together with the scarcity of earth for covering masses, as heretofore experienced.

Second. The heavy cross-fire from Wagner and Sumter, Battery Gregg, and the James Island batteries, which will necessarily take in reverse and enfilade a part of our trenches; together with the vigilance, skill, and obstinacy of the enemy’s sharpshooters.

Third. The difficulty of protecting the flanks of our parallels from being turned by the sorties of the enemy. At each low tide our right flank, as we progress, will be irreparably open. At all times the dry, intermediate marsh, between mud and sand, on the left endangers that flank, for this marsh is too wet to trench, but still entirely passable for troops.

There was no real solution for the first two issues. The terrain worked against the Federals for this siege line approach just as it did on July 18 for the infantry assault. But for the third, Brooks and the engineers came up with a couple of plans. One called for extensive abatis and palisading along the lines of advance. This was rejected due to lack of materials. The second, less expensive on material, involved construction of keeps for positioning of the advance guard as the trenches moved forward. That of course meant the infantry must post a substantial force in the trenches, day and night, in order to quickly meet any Confederate attacking force. This second option was approved.

The previous day Brooks had his engineers conducting experiments to determine the best techniques for advancing the lines:

Fired 30-pounder Parrott rifle projectiles into a sap-roller; ascertained “constraints of work” (work of one man for one hour) in a trench; also penetration of rifle-balls into wet and dry sand, facines, pine planks, and palmetto logs.

These experiments helped set the techniques used when the time came to construct the next parallel. Additionally, on the night of August 8, Brooks and other engineers went forward to inspect the ground on which the third parallel would be constructed.

As mentioned above, the word to advance the lines came on August 9. Brooks provided, as was his style, a detailed account of the work:

The detail for to-night’s work is 124 volunteer engineers, under Lieutenants [Hiram] Farrand and [Edward] Talcott, and 80 infantry, under Captain [Joseph] Walker. The engineers were in advance. Two hundred and sixty yards of trench were opened, and a splinter-proof parapet, from 6 ½ to 8 feet high, built throughout its length. No portion was revetted. Our grand-guard outposts were but 30 yards in front of the working party, and the enemy’s pickets, who could be seen, were apparently not over 30 yards farther. The engineers, on their knees, shoveled almost noiselessly. I could scarcely hear or see them from the line of outposts, 30 yards distant. The following method of setting the engineers at work was adopted: They carried no arms. Each man held a short-handled shovel in his right hand; in the left, at intervals of 6 feet, each grasped a marked rope. The engineer officer who located the line took the lead. The men marched forward, stooping. At a signal the rope was dropped, and each man went to digging a pit where he stood, throwing the earth over the rope. These pits were connected, and good cover was soon obtained.

And let me draw a fine point here – Brooks never mentions the use of a sap-roller during that night. The results were the basic system of trenches seen on Brooks’ map of the siege lines:


On the left is the right end of the wire entanglements and advanced positions on the second parallel. The work on the night of August 9-10 had to first run a boyaux through that line and out to the narrow formed between the mash and the beach. Before moving to the work on the third parallel, let me point out the profile of those defensive works advanced from the second parallel. Brooks provided a profile of those works, marked by the line h-h’ on the map above:


The palisades and wire on the right are part of the main defensive line. Notice however the splinter-proof and parapet on the left are not perfected to allow firing to the front. Those works were constructed to protect a force of men being held in reserve, without exposing them to fires – both friendly and enemy. The strength of this line lay in the obstacles and the howitzers to the immediate rear.

Further to the right of the map crop above is the first of three profiles Brooks provided for the third parallel. This one is a three point profile from g-g’-g”.


Anchoring the right end of the third parallel was a mortar position. These mortars went into the line on, or about, August 23. Forward of that position was another splinter-proof for the soldiers detailed for guard duty. But look back towards the left at the profile of the main parapet. The profile demonstrates the firing steps and other arrangements made so the infantry could defend this line with muskets.

Looking to the middle of the third parallel, another profile was drawn on the line i-i’:


We see here, in the center of the profile, the “keep” described by Brooks. Again there is a firing step for the infantry who have to defend this line. The abatis to the front was not as elaborate as the wire entanglements on the second parallel. To the rear was a line of vertical palisading. But again, not as elaborate as the main defensive line. That palisading attracted unwanted attention from the Confederates in the early morning hours of August 11:

At about 2 o’clock on the morning of the 11th, when the last-mentioned work was about one-half completed, Wagner opened a heavy fire of grape, canister, and shell, which, with the fire of the James Island batteries and Sumter, stopped our working parties entirely for the first time in the siege. Lieutenant Farrand, who had charge of the work, supposed that the tall palisading which was set across the gorge of the keep attracted the fire. This is the most spiteful fire delivered landward by Wagner since the 18th July. Indeed, this work has been very quiet since that time for fear of drawing the fire of the heavy guns of the navy, and that of the land siege batteries upon it. Our reply to all the enemy’s fire, from whatever direction, has been directed against Wagner.

Looking further along the third parallel, another profile runs the line k-k’:


This profile runs across a position for a Billinghurst-Requa gun anchoring the left flank of the parallel. The step formed by a “powder-barrel revetment” mimics the steps of the infantry line.

After the advance of the third parallel, the engineers would focus their efforts at improving the battery positions as the countdown to the big bombardment ticked. The overall plan, recall, was to use those big guns to do the work. As Brooks related, “these approaches would probably only amount to a feint, as, on the demolition of Sumter, the monitors can invest Morris Island, and thus reduced Wagner and Battery Gregg.” But things wouldn’t work out exactly like that.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 282-4.)