Summary Statement, 2nd Quarter, 1863 – 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery

Readers will be familiar with the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery due to their service along the South Carolina coast.  Hardly a month passes without mention of that unit here on this blog.  Though the main story-line in the 3rd’s service was operations against Charleston, batteries from the regiment served at times in Florida and Virginia.  And their service often defied the label of “heavy” artillery, as often the gunners served in the field as field artillery proper.

A bit of background on this regiment is in order.  The 3rd Rhode Island Volunteers first mustered as an infantry formation in August 1861.  As they prepared for their first major operation, as part of Brigadier-General Thomas W. Sherman’s expedition to Port Royal, they camped at Fort Hamilton, New York.  While there, under orders from Sherman, the regiment drilled on both heavy and light artillery.  By the time the regiment arrived at Hilton Head, it was for all practical purposes an artillery regiment.  Though the formal change did not occur until December of that year.

Over the months that followed, the 3rd Rhode Island served by batteries and detachments as garrison artillery, field artillery, infantry, and even ship’s complement as needs of the particular moment called.  In the winter of 1863, Battery C was designated a light battery in light of its habitual service.  We’ve seen that reflected in returns from the fourth quarter, 1862 and first quarter, 1863. However, the battery seemed to change armament with each quarter.  I believe this reflects more the “ad hoc” nature of tasking in the theater at that time.  For the second quarter, 1863, we find the guns reported on hand again changed:


At the end of June, Battery C had just returned from the raid on Darien, Georgia.  They were at Hilton Head on June 30, preparing for transit to Folly Island.  So this tally of two 12-pdr field howitzers may reflect a status as of January 1864, when the return was received in Washington.

This brief line, along with “clerical” lines for Batteries A and B, brings up a couple of facets to the summaries as they relate to the “real” operational situations.  First off, we know, based on official records and other accounts, not to mention photographs, the 3rd Rhode Island had more than just a couple of howitzers.  We must also consider the property management within the military and how that was reflected in the reports. The military in general tends to be very anal about tracking property.  For any given item, someone, somewhere is on the hook as the “owner” of said item.  Doesn’t matter if that item is a belt buckle or a cannon.  The “owner” might be a specific unit or could be a facility.  So, in the Civil War and specific to the context of this discussion, that “owner” could be a battery in the 3rd Rhode Island… or it could be the garrison commander at Hilton Head.  However, we rarely, if ever, see those garrison commands reflected in the summaries.  A significant blank that we cannot resolve with satisfaction.

What we can do, in the case of the 3rd Rhode Island, is use primary and secondary sources to provide a glimpse into that blank.  Let’s consider the 3rd Rhode Island by battery at this point in time of the war.  Recall, the 3rd and other units were, at the end of June, preparing for an assault from Folly Island onto Morris Island. Colonel Edwin Metcalf was in command of the regiment, with his headquarters on Hilton Head:

  • Battery A:  On Port Royal Island, under command of Lieutenant Edward F. Curtis (in absence of Captain William H. Hammer), serving as garrison artillery.
  • Battery B:  On Folly Island under Captain Albert E. Greene, having moved from Hilton Head at the end of June.  The battery manned six 10-inch siege mortars.
  • Battery C: Transferring from St. Helena Island to Hilton Head, and thence to Folly Island in the first week of July.  Commanded by Captain Charles R. Brayton.  The battery would man two 3-inch Ordnance Rifles and four 30-pdr Parrotts (along with a detachment from Battery C, 1st US Artillery).  Likely the reported howitzers were in reserve.
  • Battery D: Part of the original garrison sent to Folly Island in April.  Under the command of Captain Robert G. Shaw and manning eight 30-pdr Parrotts.
  • Battery E: On Hilton Head, serving as garrison artillery under Captain Peter J. Turner (who was serving as a staff officer, thus one of his lieutenants was in temporary command).
  • Battery F: On Hilton Head, serving as garrison artillery under Captain David B. Churchill.
  • Battery G: Stationed at Fort Pulaski and under Captain John H. Gould.
  • Battery H: On Hilton Head, serving as garrison artillery under Captain Augustus W. Colwell.  Would deploy to Morris Island in July.
  • Battery I:  On Folly Island under Captain Charles G. Strahan.  The battery manned four 20-pdr Parrotts.
  • Battery K: On Hilton Head, serving as garrison artillery under Lieutenant Horatio N. Perry.
  • Battery L: On Hilton Head, serving as garrison artillery under Captain Jeremiah Lanhan.
  • Battery M:  Part of the force on Folly island, under Captain Joseph J. Comstock.  They manned four 10-inch siege mortars and five 8-inch siege mortars.

Thus we see the 3rd Rhode Island was spread between garrison duties and advanced batteries preparing for a major offensive from Folly Island.  Those on the north end of Folly Island, overlooking Light House Creek, were armed with a variety of field guns, heavy Parrotts, and mortars.  Only the former category would have been covered by the summaries, as they existed in June 1863.  And what we have to work with is, based on official reports at the time, inaccurate.

But that’s what we must work with!  Turning to the smoothbore ammunition:


  • Battery C: 156 shell, 214 case, and 132 canister for 12-pdr field howitzer.

One might think no rifled projectiles would be on hand… but perhaps related to the two 3-inch rifles reported on Folly Island and manned by Battery C, we find some Hotchkiss projectiles on hand:



  • Battery C: 48 canister and 108 bullet shell for 3-inch rifles.

No ammunition reported on the next page, of Dyer’s, James, or Parrott patents:


But some Schenkl on hand:


  • Battery C: 100 shell for 3-inch rifles.

As for small arms:


  • Battery C: Forty-eight Army revolvers and 102 cavalry sabers.

I suspect, given the varied nature of the 3rd Rhode Island’s duties, the other batteries had a large number of small arms on hand also.  But because of the selective record, we don’t have the details.

Just to say we discussed ALL the Rhode Island artillery, let me mention two other heavy artillery regiments.  The 5th Rhode Island Infantry was reorganized as the 5th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery on May 27, 1863.  Stationed at New Berne, North Carolina, Colonel George W. Tew commanded the reorganized regiment.

Though not organized, we can trace the story of another heavy artillery regiment back to June 1863.  In response to the emergency developing in Pennsylvania, the governor of Rhode Island authorized Colonel Nelson Viall (formerly of the 1st Rhode Island Infantry) to form a six-month regiment.  Designated the 13th Rhode Island, recruitment was slow due to the war situation, small bounties, and the draft.  By July, the War Department decided no more six-month regiments would be accepted and insisted on a three-year enlistment standard.  With that, the 13th was disbanded and in its place the 14th Rhode Island was authorized.  That formation, which began organization in August, was a US Colored Troops Regiment of heavy artillery.


“6,000 bayonets flashed in the rays of the departing sun”: Seymour’s Charge on Battery Wagner

Let’s talk memory for a moment. I suspect this is what most readers recall when the July 18, 1863 assault on Battery Wagner comes up in conversation:

The other day Kevin Levin refered to this action as “the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry’s unsuccessful assault at Battery Wagner.” While I certainly agree with Kevin’s broader point in regard to the aspects of the commemoration, I can’t help but draw a “memory” parallel here with respect to his “high water-mark” label. Somewhat as the “high-water mark” of the Confederacy at Gettysburg was long associated with just one of the participating divisions, we’ve linked, for good measure to be sure, the July 18th assault with just one of the participating regiments. Don’t get me wrong. I say this not to take away from the heroic deeds of the 54th Massachusetts, but rather to offer context. We have recast, for accuracy’s sake, the Confederate assault of July 3 as the “Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Charge.” Perhaps we should consider the term “Seymour’s Charge” for July 18:


Civil War Trust offered this Steve Stanley map in 2008 to support the effort to preserve the remaining sections of Morris Island (the yellow section in the middle of the map). The map depicts the column of regiments from the First and Second Brigades, Second Division, of the Tenth Corps under Brigadier-General Truman Seymour. All told around 6000 men attacking through a narrow corridor. And Seymour’s name isn’t even on the map!

Department commander Brigadier-General Quincy Gillmore (who’s name is on the map, but who was not nearly that far forward), shifted brigades and regiments within the Tenth Corps in order to meet mission obligations. After Brigadier-General Alfred Terry’s division fell back from James Island, Gillmore reorganized the two divisions. The 54th Massachusetts left Terry’s division and joined Brigadier-General George Strong’s brigade (First Brigade of Seymour’s division) alongside five veteran regiments most recently tested on July 11 in an assault on Battery Wagner. Brigadier-General Haldimand Putnam commanded Second Brigade in Seymour’s division with three regiments moved over from Brigadier-General Israel Vogdes’ briagde, rounded out with a fourth pulled from Terry’s division. The brigade of Brigadier-General Thomas Stevenson moved out of Terry’s division, picked up the 2nd South Carolina Infantry, and became the Third Brigade of Seymour’s division. Stevenson’s is not depicted on the map and remained back near the First Parallel (off the map to the south) as the exploitation reserve. This reorganization, done between July 16 and 18, touched every brigade in the assault force. Confusing on paper, and even more so in the ranks. The movements also meant that several regiments arriving from James Island were going into line without rest or even a chance to catch a meal.

Recall Gillmore’s original plan called for a siege of Battery Wagner as the second phase of operations. And I would say “short siege.” However events on July 10 gave the impression the Confederate fort might be taken short of a formal siege. Strong’s infantry assault failed to dislodge the Confederates, but Gillmore still held to the modified plan. What he failed to realize was the Confederate garrison, under Brigadier-General William Taliaferro, increased to about 1,300 men while all the preparations were being made.

Starting on July 13, he focused on silencing the Confederate guns in preparation for another infantry assault. Engineers prepared several battery positions on Morris Island and the Navy moved more gunboats offshore. The position of the land batteries and the firing instructions best illustrate Gillmore’s intent. The guns and mortars were to focus fires on the fortification to “dismount the enemy’s guns.” The fires were not concentrated against any single point in the works to break down the walls, as one might do for a siege (say like… Fort Pulaski).


Gillmore wanted to start this bombardment on July 16, but bad weather stalled commencement until on July 18. Following a morning of ranging fires, the bombardment commenced in earnest at around mid-day. In Battery Wagner, Taliaferro estimated 9,000 projectiles struck in and around the fortification. “In a short time,” Gillmore recalled, “the fort was entirely silent on the face fronting the land batteries, and practically so on the sea front….” However, Taliaferro, with only two of his guns out of action by that time, had simply reduced his fire anticipating the infantry attack.

Assuming bombardment produced the desired effect, Gillmore set the time for the infantry assault at sunset – a rare, for the Civil War, night attack. Initially, Gillmore only wanted to commit Strong’s brigade. But after consulting with Seymour, he agreed the entire division should move. The hope was the twilight would provide just enough light for the infantry to see their way down the beach, but not enough light the defenders could focus fire upon them during the advance. The attackers would go in with bayonets fixed, intending for close quarters combat. No engineers supported the assault. And none of the infantry brought forward equipment to deal with obstacles. As for the lead of this assault, Seymour explained:

The Fifty-fourth Massachusetts, a colored regiment of excellent character, well officered, with full ranks, and that had conducted itself commendably a few days previously on James Island, was placed in front.

Seymour went on to say that while the other regiments could easily form into column, the 54th, with 600 men, was too large and formed into two lines of columns. Indeed, one of the reasons the 54th was posted to the van of this column it’s strength in numbers. Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Hallowell recalled for the 54th’s official report of the action, “General Strong presented himself to the regiment and informed the men of the contemplated assault upon Fort Wagner and asked them if they would led it. They answered in the affirmative.”

Shortly after that, Colonel Robert Shaw ordered the 54th forward to commence the assault. The other regiments in the two lead brigades formed up behind. Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Abbott, of the 7th New Hampshire, waiting in the second brigade line, observed:

Each of these brigades thus stood upon the beach in close column, and thus, while twenty standards opened their folds, and 6,000 bayonets flashed in the rays of the departing sun, they moved up in solid mass toward the batteries, where a hundred pieces of artillery still continued to thunder.

As the men advanced, Confederate canister, grapeshot, and musketry bore upon the ranks. By Hallowell’s account, the 54th crossed the ditch of the fort and reached the parapet. There Shaw and two of the regiment’s captains fell dead. The 54th held that position on the parapet for about an hour, by Hallowell’s estimate.


Behind the 54th Massachusetts, the 48th New York and 6th Connecticut swung to the right. Those regiments reached a section of the parapet which happened to be lightly manned. The 31st North Carolina was assigned that sector. But, as Taliaferro recorded, the North Carolinians “could not be induced to occupy their position, and ingloriously deserted the ramparts….” This allowed the two Federal regiments to gain the parapet and gain a lodgement in the works. But they needed reinforcement to secure the footholds gained by the initial assault.

In addition to Shaw, Strong and Colonel John Chatfield of the 6th Connecticut also fell mortally wounded. Further injuring the command structure, all but one of Strong’s regimental commanders went down with wounds. Command of the 54th Massachusetts went to Captain Luis Emilio as the last line officer standing. And Seymour himself was wounded.

Problem was Putnam’s second brigade did not follow closely as planned. After Strong’s advance, Putnam held his position claiming he was simply complying with orders from Gillmore (recall the original plan for advance). Seymour did mange to convince Putnam to move forward but the delay proved costly. Into this confusing night battlefield, Putnam’s regiments pressed towards the works. One of his regiments fired on a body of troops which turned out to be the 3rd New Hampshire and part of the 48th New York. But at best Putnam’s troops could only maintain what was gained by the first wave. As he directed his troops, Putnam was struck in the head and killed.

With the operation reaching a crisis, Seymour called for the Third Brigade. But at that point, Gillmore sent word to hold off committing the brigade. This halted any remaining momentum in the Federal attack. By midnight, the fighting began to fall off. The assault now turned into a retrograde. Captain Emilio managed to rally a large group of the 54th Massachusetts at a trench line 700 yards from the fort. That line served as a rally point for troops falling back from the failed assault. Going in and coming out, the 54th had furthered their reputation.

Looking at the casualty figures by regiment, Strong’s brigade felt the heaviest loss:

  • 54th Massachusetts – 34 killed, 136 wounded, 92 missing – Total 272
  • 48th New York – 54 killed, 112 wounded, 73 missing – Total 242
  • 6th Connecticut – 15 killed, 77 wounded, 46 missing – Total of 138
  • 9th Maine – 4 killed, 94 wounded, 19 missing – Total 177
  • 76th Pennsylvania – 2 killed, 20 wounded, 2 missing – Total 24
  • 3rd New Hampshire – 2 killed, 38 wounded, 6 missing – Total 46

But Putnam’s brigade suffered considerable loss too:

  • 7th New Hampshire – 41 killed, 119 wounded, 56 missing – Total 216
  • 100th New York – 49 killed, 97 wounded, 29 missing – Total 175
  • 62nd Ohio – 26 killed, 87 wounded, 38 missing – Total 151
  • 67th Ohio – 19 killed, 82 wounded, 25 missing – Total 126

The artillery batteries reported six wounded during the fighting on July 18. That brought the total casualties to 1,515 men. The assault stands up as one of the bloodiest division-size attacks of the war.

There’s a lot to focus upon that went wrong regarding the July 18 attack on Battery Wagner – hasty reorganization, failure to rest and feed the troops, insufficient artillery bombardment, deviations from the original plan of action, lack of engineering support at the point of attack, and absence of any contingency plans. The severe loss among Federal leaders, from division commander down to the line officers, further hindered the operation. But perhaps most felt was the very narrow corridor which prevented the Federals from fully developing the assault. Say what you will for the failure, Gillmore would not repeat it on Morris Island. He would now return to his original plan – a siege of Battery Wagner.

From the broader context, the assault of July 18 was a rare example where battlefield failure turned into political success. The actions of the 54th Massachusetts received widespread attention in the northern papers.


The Emancipation Proclamation had spawned a weapon of battle.

(Citations and primary sources: OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 15, 201, 210-1, 345-8, 362, 364-5, 417-19; Secondary sources: Burton, E. Milby. The Siege of Charleston 1861–1865. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1970; Kennedy, Frances H., ed. The Civil War Battlefield Guide. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998; Reed, Rowena. Combined Operations in the Civil War. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1978)

“…steadiness and soldierly conduct” of the 54th Massachusetts at Grimball’s Landing

Earlier I wrote of Brigadier-General Alfred Terry’s diversion launched on July 9, 1863 which occupied the southwest corner of James Island. Terry’s command held there for nearly a week, all the while distracting Confederate troops that would otherwise be thrown into the fray at Morris Island.


The earlier post detailed Terry’s three brigades. But I would add that the 56th New York joined the Second Brigade (Davis’s) on July 13th, bringing the entire force up to around 3,600 men. During their stay, Terry’s men were primarily engaged in picket duty and repairs of the causeway to Cole’s Island (in the case of a withdrawal).

On the Confederate side, Brigadier-General Johnson Hagood took command of the 1st Subdivision, 1st Military District, succeeding Colonel Charles Simonton, as the force there grew. By June 15, Hagood had a brigade under Brigadier-General Alfred Colquitt consisting of a mix of the James Island garrison and recently arrived reinforcements. The regiments included the 25th South Carolina, 6th Georgia, 19th Georgia, 54th Georgia, and 61st North Carolina. Four batteries of artillery, including some from the siege trains, and three companies of the 5th South Carolina Cavalry, under Lieutenant-Colonel R.J. Jeffords, also fell under Hagood’s command.

On June 15, Confederate headquarters in Charleston asked Hagood to draw up plans to deal with the Federals on James Island. Hagood responded with two plans – one a limited push against the skirmish line and the other an envelopment to cut off Federal troops at Grimball’s Landing. The more aggressive of the two gained approval. The approved plan called for three columns:

General Colquitt was ordered with about 1,400 infantry and a battery of artillery to cross the marsh dividing Legaré’s plantation from Grimball’s at the causeway nearest Secessionville, drive the enemy as far as the lower causeway (nearest Stono), rapidly recross the marsh at that point by a flank movement, and cut off and capture the force encamped at Grimball’s. Colonel Way, Fifty-fourth Georgia, with about 800 infantry, was directed to follow, en êchelon, on the Grimball side of the marsh the advance of General Colquitt and co-operate with him. A reserve of one section of artillery, supported by a company of infantry and a squadron of cavalry, under Lieutenant-Colonel Jeffords, Fifth South Carolina Cavalry, was held in hand near Rivers’ house. On the right, a battery of four rifled 12-pounders and one of four Napoleons, under Lieutenant-Colonel Kemper, supported by Colonel Radcliffe [61st North Carolina] with about 400 infantry, was ordered to engage the gunboats lying highest up the Stono.

Hagood’s plan assumed the Federals held their strongest force near the Stono with only a light guard on the causeways. The actual dispositions were almost reverse. Terry held most of his command back in camps on Sol Legare Island. The 10th Connecticut maintained a skirmish line at Grimball’s Landing. Colonel William Davis’s Second Brigade maintained a line across Sol Legare with the 104th Pennsylvania on the right of his line. To their left were the two attached regiments of the 3rd Brigade – 2nd South Carolina and the 54th Massachusetts. The USS Pawnee, USS Marblehead, and USS Huron remained on station in the Stono protecting the infantry.

The map below depicts, generally, the respective dispositions and the Confederate lines of advance.


Colquitt sent out skirmishers from the 25th South Carolina before dawn on July 16. These men encountered the outposts of the 54th Massachusetts. The opening shots alerted all. Colonel Robert Shaw ordered the 54th into line to confront this advance. Meanwhile the 10th Connecticut, with the sound of fire to their rear, moved out of their advanced position, seeking safety on Sol Legare. A Confederate battery under Captain E.L. Parker fired upon the 104th Pennsylvania, keeping that unit in place for about an hour.

The Confederates closed on Shaw’s line and attempted to brush the 54th aside, and this “rookie” regiment was at a critical position. If they gave ground, Colquitt might move up to Grimball’s Causeway and cut off three regiments. Wait… we have a movie clip….

I lack the space here to break down the action of the 54th in detail. For a written in Glory blog has an account by Luis Emilio, from A Brave Black Regiment, which I’d recommend for reference. Emilio’s account has the 54th engaged in an organized delaying action. But Colquitt wrote in his report, “the enemy’s line gave way and retreated in confusion.” However to be fair, even an organized withdrawal might appear, from across the battle line, as confusion. And to Emilio’s account, the 10th Connecticut did reach safety before Colquitt and Way closed off the causeway. We can at least say the 54th held Colquitt’s advance for more than an hour.

Meanwhile, Colonel James Radcliffe likewise moved his column forward in the pre-dawn darkness. His troops reached the open ground around Grimball’s Landing after the 10th Connecticut fell back. The Confederate gunners deployed four 12-pdr rifles and four Napoleons to confront the gunboats anchored in the river. Commander George Balch on the Pawnee reported taking 33 hits on the hull, 3 hits on the smokestack, 6 in the rigging, and 3 to the ship’s boats. But thanks to chain cables covering the engine compartments, the damage did not disable the ship. And the Pawnee gave as good as she got, firing 80 times that day. With the infantry withdrawal, Balch ordered the gunboats to retire.


On Sol Legare, Colquitt advanced to within 500 yards of the Federal camps. “His force, I think, did not exceed 1,500 infantry and a battery of artillery. They could, I think, easily have been routed…” After a short artillery duel, the Confederates took stock of the position and pulled all forces back across the causeways. Terry ordered his brigades forward at least to the original picket lines, but neither side reopened the engagement.


That night, Terry withdrew his division to Cole’s Island, using the recently repaired causeways. As they retreated, the Federals destroyed those same causeways to prohibit Confederate pursuit. The “demonstration” was done. After a long night marching, the Federals arrived at Cole’s island hungry and tired. Many, including the 54th, waited in the rain for transport to Morris Island.


During the actions of the 16th, Federal casualties numbered 46 killed, wounded and captured. The bulk of those were suffered by the 54th Massachusetts. The Confederates reported 18 casualties. Terry singled out the 54th for special recognition in his official report:

I desire to express my obligations to Captain Balch, U.S. Navy, commanding the naval forces in the river, for the very great assistance he rendered to me, and to report to the commanding general the good services of Captain Rockwell and his battery, and the steadiness and soldierly conduct of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment, who were on duty at the outposts on the right, and met the brunt of the attack.

Yet three of the Confederate commanders involved were less impressed. Hagood noted, “The enemy’s infantry fought badly. They were chiefly colored troops, and 14 of the captured. These belonged to the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts.” With this first use of colored troops in a major engagement (not raids as on the St. Mary’s, Combahee, or Edisto Rivers and at Darien) in the Department of the South, came the question about handling prisoners. Reports of Confederates bayoneting wounded or surrendering soldiers of the 54th came to light.

There’s a lot I can’t fit into this already lengthy post. But I chose to focus here on the troop dispositions and the flow of the battle to illustrate a point. There is a reason this little skirmish occupied valuable screen space in the movie.

The 54th Massachusetts would not have to wait long for their second combat action. Brigadier-General Quincy Gillmore had a revised plan to deal with Battery Wagner and the regiment would feature prominently in that action.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 584, 586, 587, and 755.)