Fortification Friday: Crows-foot, Small Pickets and Entanglements could put you on the disabled list

A fine point about the functional nature of obstacles – determent value is measured in both the ability to impede and injure.  You might call it a philosophical nuance, in context of the military art, but the distinction is important when considering the application of obstacle types.  In practical terms, recall how the abattis and palisade were employed. These were designed, first and foremost, to slow the attackers’ forward progress, if not bar such entirely, by standing on the line of advance.  Granted, if the obstruction were oriented properly and the attacker approaches with a high rate of speed, there could be injuries.  An abattis is all fun and games until someone looses and eye!  But even with a chevaux-de-frise, with the specified iron points, an attacker would need to do something really… well… awkward to induce a blood-letting injury.  Their chief value lay in slowing or stopping the attacker just by being in the way.

On the other hand, there were obstacles that by nature were designed to draw blood.  One of those was the crows-foot.  Mahan described this obstacle as such:

The crows-foot is formed of four points of iron, each spike about two-and-a-half inches long, and so arranged, that when thrown on the ground one of the points will be upwards.  They are a good obstacle against cavalry, but are seldom used.

Crows-foot are called caltrop among audiences which prefer Latin.  Being an American, I eschew those fancy European terms where possible. Crows-foot sounds more “country.”  Any rate, here’s what we are referring to:


Despite Mahan’s lack of enthusiasm for the crows-foot, the obstacle type remains in use today.  The term is used to describe large concrete and steel obstacles designed to deter armored vehicles.  Or on the beach to stop landing craft.  To some degree it is an “offensive” obstacle… and in both senses of the word.  And for emphasis here, the crows-foot doesn’t actually block movement, it injures so as to debilitate – be that a horse, a man, or, in the modern sense, a vehicle.

The downside to crows-feet was the nature of emplacement.  Being sown, or basically scattered, and not pinned down, the crows-feet were not easily delineated for the defender’s convenience.  An alternative was a simple field expedient:

Boards, with sharp nails driven through them, may supply the place of crows-feet.  The boards are imbedded in the ground, with the sharp points projecting a little above it.

This, readers, is why soldiers need tetanus shots.  Embedded in the ground, the boards could be arranged in a pattern, identified for the defender, but with the nails concealed in the dirt or surface debris.  Junius Wheeler added another alternative in his post-war manual, mentioning the farmer’s harrow.


Buried upside down, the spikes of the harrow would likewise injure an unwary foot.

We don’t see many references to crows-foot or similar obstructions in the Civil War.  Not to say these were not used, but rather their use was not deliberately noted.  On the other hand, we see many references to small pickets with added entanglements.  We should start by explaining small pickets:

Small Pickets. This obstacle consists of straight branches of tough wood cut into lengths of two-and-a-half, or three feet.  They are driven into the ground, in quincunx order, about twelve inches apart, and project irregularly above it, not more than eighteen inches.

We have Figure 26 from Mahan’s manual to illustrate where the small picket might be used in the ditch:


Better yet, let us turn to Wheeler’s illustration:


The key point to latch on to here is the arrangement.  Unlike the stakes in military pits, these are arranged in close order with the aim to force the attacker to think about where his foot is placed, lest the small picket pierce the foot.  One might say the intent of the small picket was to discourage.  But the threat behind that discouragement was that of a skewered foot.   In function, the small picket was much like the punji stake from the Vietnam War:


So again we see the obstacle could be “offensive” in application.  But in the Civil War context, booby-traps of this nature were not widely used.  The need was for an obstacle that would stop a massed attack, not a trail patrol.  So we read in many accounts of an enhancement to the small pickets:

Interlaced with cords, grape-vines, brambles, prickly shrubs, &c., they form an excellent entanglement.

And in the 1860s, engineers would add one readily available material to that list – wire. Wheeler described the arrangement as, “… made by driving stout stakes into the ground from six to eight feet apart and connecting them by stout wire twisted around the stakes.”  This was an easy obstacle to set up, with materials easily obtained.


Fine point of observation here – Mahan’s entanglements were offered as a means to enhance the small pickets.  Basically, the intent was to trip the attacker onto the small pickets.  In Wheeler’s entanglements, which reflected wartime experience, the tripping on the wire itself was sufficient deterrent.  Thus the pickets could be spread out more. An excellent description of such comes from Major Thomas Brooks in his extensive journal of operations on Morris Island in 1863:

This obstacle was made by setting stout stakes, 3½ feet long, 2 feet in the ground and 7 feet apart, in quincunx order, and in three lines.  Around the top of these stakes, from 12 to 18 inches from the ground, in notches prepared to receive it, No. 12 wire was securely and tightly wound, and extended from one to the other.

Brooks reported laying 300 yards of wire entanglement on Morris Island, requiring 13 coils of wire (length unspecified) and an additional 890 feet of loose wire.

The function of Brooks’ entanglement obstacle was to deter by the threat of injury – lest the attacker be bruised and banged up from tripping.  Perhaps a little nicer than Mahan’s little impaling stakes.  But still an obstacle designed to injure.  And of course, with the perspective of history, we recognize Brooks wire entanglement as an evolutionary step towards barbed wire of World War I and later concertina wire. In those forms, we see the obstacle designed not just to trip and bruise but to draw blood.  Either way around, bruised, banged, cut, or impaled, the soldier was thus a casualty… and if lucky just placed on the disabled list.

(Citations from Dennis Hart Mahan, A Treatise on Field Fortifications, New York: John Wiley, 1852, page 48;  Junius B. Wheeler, The Elements of Field Fortifications, New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1882, page 173; OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, page 304.)

“Necessitated from the untenable condition of Battery Wagner,” Confederates evacuate

In the early morning hours of September 7, 1863, a deserter stumbled into the Federal siege lines.  Immediately captured, the deserter offered welcome news –  The Confederates abandoned Morris Island during the night. Instead of one final assault on the works, the Federals could simply walk into the fortifications.  The siege of Battery Wagner was over.

Major Thomas Brooks summarized the last few days of the siege in his journal of operations:

In this bombardment, which lasted forty-two hours, four distinct lines of batteries were used, each firing over those in advance of it. Mortars were fired from the fifth, third, and first parallels, and heavy rifled guns from the second parallel and left batteries. The practicability of this method of using guns, into which we were forced by our narrow front, was demonstrated.

Brooks also provided a complete assessment of Battery Wagner, as only an experienced military engineer might, recording the damage at the time of capture. As one might expect, he found substantial damage.  But in regards to the bombproof shelter inside the sea-facing bastion, he observed:

Considerable earth, which covered the south end of the main bomb-proof shelter, and the magazine just east of it, was removed by our fire. About 7 feet was left, however, which was enough to make both structures secure against a much longer continued fire.

I’ve seen this part of Brooks’ report used as evidence the Confederates abandoned Battery Wagner for other reasons.  Matching this with diary entries from Captain (later Lieutenant Colonel) H.D.D. Twiggs who served as a staff officer at times during the siege, some have claimed it was the lack of potable water which triggered the withdrawal.  As if the Confederates might have held out a week, perhaps, since the Federal efforts had not rendered the fort itself untenable. (One example where this notion about bad water surfaces is in a Wikipedia article citing an article from North & South magazine.  See reference 2.)

Nothing could be further from the truth. With respect to the water, I would further point out that the Confederates were in the habit of sending a water boat on the routine runs to Morris Island.  And placing Brooks’ statements in context, the assessment was to the structural integrity of the bombproof, not the overall status of the works.

On more than one forum I’ve seen Colonel Lawrence Keitt’s dispatch (sent at 3:15 p.m. on September 6) stating “And if our sacrifice be of benefit, I am ready.  Let it be said so, and I will storm the enemy’s works at once, or lose every man here.”  That was a statement of bravado, aimed more at his superiors than an assessment of reality.  What is often left out from the citation is the preceding questions in Keitt’s message: “Will boats be here to-night for garrison? If so, at what time?”   Leave no doubt, Keitt wanted to evacuate the island, but he had to be careful how that idea was floated.

Within an hour of Keitt’s inquiry, orders came to evacuate the island.  In his final report as commander of the Morris Island garrison, Keitt related the state of the defenses prior to evacuation:

[The evacuation] was authorized by a dispatch sent by signals from district headquarters, and received by me between 4 and 5 p.m., and directed in detail by a special order from department headquarters, which was received from Captain [W. G.] McCabe, of General [Roswell] Ripley’s staff, at dark, and was necessitated from the untenable condition of Battery Wagner, the greatly exhausted condition of the garrison, and constant artillery and sharpshooting fire of the enemy, which prevented repairs. The gradual approaches of the enemy had passed the front of the battery, and the termination of their sap was not over 50 yards from the parapet of the sea face, enabling them to throw a mass of troops upon this flank when our men were mostly in the bomb-proofs, where I was forced to keep them by the unceasing fire of mortars and rifled guns on land, with an enfilading fire from the fleet during most of the day. The salient on the left of the battery had been swept by such a terrible cross-fire as to breach the parapet and throw it into irregular shapes, rendering the ascent from the moat easy, and moreover, men could not be kept there during this cross-fire without the certainty of most of them being wounded or stunned. This salient is the part of the work gained by the enemy in the assault of July 18.

No doubt about it, the damage done to the battery and the proximity of the Federal lines prompted the evacuation.  Bad water and other situational factors made further defense of Batteries Wagner and Gregg difficult.  But it was those fellows in blue uniforms which forced the evacuation.

I think it significant that Keitt mentioned the July 18th assault in his report.  He was alluding to a particular portion of the battery which was the most exposed to assault.  And that salient had been the target of Federal efforts starting with the July 11th assault.  Yet Keitt’s memory focused on the later assault.  Some of the men who had reached that salient on July 18 were advancing the siege lines forward on September 6.  The 54th Massachusetts, as you may recall, was on fatigue detail in those final days.

(Citations from OR Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 302 and 483.)

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.)

“Bright, silvery rays upon our front”: Use of the Calcium Light against Battery Wagner

Recording the activities on the night of September 5-6, 1863, Colonel Lawrence M. Keitt, of the 20th South Carolina, commanding the Morris Island garrison, wrote, “Throughout the night, the enemy’s calcium light threw its bright, silvery rays upon our front.”  The employment of this artificial light greatly aided Federal efforts in the closing days of the siege of Battery Wagner.

I mentioned the calcium lights briefly in relation to support of naval operations around Charleston. We know these devices as “limelights” today, even though they are long gone from the stage.  Since this isn’t a science blog, I’m allowed to pull up a Wikipedia illustration and definition:


In brief, compressed hydrogen and oxygen feed a flame directed at a lime stick (or as the illustration indicates, “calcium oxide”).  When heated to a point just before melting (4,662 °F), the line glowed brightly.  Before the Civil War, Robert Grant, of New York City, promoted the use of these calcium lights to illuminate streets and other outdoor areas.  Using a parabolic mirror, he demonstrated the ability to signal ships over ten miles out to sea.  At the onset of the Civil War, Grant offered his calcium light as a means to enable night combat.  Towards that end, in 1862 Company E, 102nd New York Infantry trained to operate with the light.  But like many other fringe ideas, this one fell by the wayside. (John Lockwood offered a good summary of Grant and his light for the Washington Times in 2004.)

The idea of turning night into day came up again as the Federals contemplated operations on Morris Island in July 1863.  Early on, Brigadier-General Quincy Gillmore and Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren hoped the lights would illuminate targets at night or give the engineers greater visibility while constructing the works.  The lights proved less than perfect for these tasks.  But with the siege lines closing on the battery in late August, the Federals turned on the calcium lights again.  And this time, the intent was to place the Confederates directly in the limelight!

On September 3, Major Thomas Brooks reported placing a calcium light “on the left of the second parallel.”  The Federals began using the light that night.  At least two lights were used, thought it is unclear if these were both on the second parallel or in separate positions.  On September 6, Brooks noted, “The whole of the superior and the upper portion of the exterior slopes of the south face of Wagner were plainly seen this night from the effect of the calcium light….”  In addition to focusing on Battery Wagner, the calcium lights also illuminated the ironclads anchored off shore, to aid detection of spar torpedo craft.

In Battery Wagner, the effects of this light hindered operations. Any movement on the parapets, or even opening embrasures to fire, was visible from Federal lines.  Not only did this hinder defensive fires, but also repairs to the battery.  September 6, Colonel D.B. Harris, chief engineer, complained:

The covering to the bomb-proof and magazine also need repair. We have been thus far able not only to repair damages at night, but to add from day to day to the strength of the battery; but now that the enemy’s sap is in such close proximity to the battery, and he has contrived to throw a calcium light upon the parapets at night, it is impossible to do so without a heavy loss of men. In the efforts last night to repair damages, the commanding officer of the fort reports a loss in killed and wounded of 60 to 80 men of the working party alone. Without our ability to repair damages at night, the battery would become, under the incessant fire of the enemy’s land batteries and fleet, untenable, say, in two days.  (Emphasis added)

In reaction, Confederates attempted to extinguish the lights with long range artillery fire.  In the early morning hours of September 6, Major Edward Manigault commanding artillery at Legare’s Point on James Island directed fires from Battery Haskell, including an 8-inch columbiad, a 24-pdr rifle, a 24-pdr smoothbore, and a 4.62-inch rifle, on the calcium light on the second parallel.  Neither Federal or Confederate accounts indicate Manigault’s gunners met with any success.

While there were plenty of examples where combatants had employed light to distract or disorient an enemy going back to ancient times, the use of calcium lights in September 1863 was novel to some degree.  These were artificial lights, not reflected natural light, and to a higher magnitude.  My pal XBradTC is likely composing a comment right now about how this foreshadowed the INTENDED use of the Canal Defense Lights in the European Theater during World War II.

I would add the use of calcium lights were a function of the night combat on Morris Island…unusually common night combat, for the Civil War, that is.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 90, 301, and 491.)

“long expected and anxiously hoped for”: Federals make last push towards Wagner

Ever since the disastrous attack on July 18, the Federals had worked to close the distance between their trenches and the ditch in front of Battery Wagner. By a few feet here and yards there, they had advanced a siege line, placed heavy guns, and buttressed the trenches to allow staging an assault force. After seizing the “ridge” in late August, the Federals held, waiting on the moon and stacking the deck, prior to making that last 200 yard dash. Now, 150 years ago today (September 5, 1863), they were ready to make that push. From Major Thomas Brooks’ journal:

This morning the long-expected, and, by the sappers, anxiously hoped for, bombardment of Wagner by all the land batteries and the Ironsides began, and with it ended all the difficulties in sapping against the work, for the enemy’s fire, sharpshooters and all, is completely subdued, and his distant batteries dare not fire at our advance for fear of injuring their friends in the fort.

In the past two and one-half days, at considerable sacrifice, not more than 25 yards of sap have been executed, and it, from its direction, brought us no nearer the fort. To-day more than 150 yards, most of it by the flying sap, have been built without loss of life. The head of the sap is now opposite the ditch of Wagner; from it fragments of shell can be easily thrown by hand into the work.

The trace of the approach executed to-day is a succession of short zigzags made necessary by the narrow front. Captain [Joseph] Walker was in charge of this work.

Looking to Brooks’ map, here’s the measure of that advance:


The advancing trenches continued the zig-zag arrangement of boyaux, offering no flank openings to either Battery Wagner or James Island. The trenches followed the same basic profile as those constructed since the fourth parallel. Substantial amounts of excavated sand formed the parapet facing the Confederates (see profile on line w-w’ from the map).


To the left side of the first turn of the boyaux, the Federals constructed a rifle trench (seen as line u-u’ on the map):


Nothing more elaborate than a step for the sharpshooters when drawing a bead on their opposite numbers in Battery Wagner.

On the other side of the line, Colonel Lawrence Keitt, commanding the Confederate garrison on Morris Island, recorded:

The dawning revealed a United States flag planted on the enemy’s work, 300 to 400 yards in front, this morning, and their main line strengthened, with probably a small advancement of the parallel which they have to run from about the termination of their main approach. Our riflemen opened early, and a field piece fired 2 shots, out the enemy opened slowly just before 5 with large Parrott guns, first at flank curtain and then at center curtain, with a few shots at the elevated points used by our sharpshooters. The Ironsides soon drew up to about 1,500 yards at, say, 5.20 a.m.; opened fire rapidly. I ordered one-fourth the infantry to remain on the lines, balance to seek shelter in the bomb-proof and passages.

Federal fire, early in the day, had effectively silenced the Confederate defenders. Furthermore, the rain of shells caused several casualties and made considerable damage to the traverses and other structures. Normally the Confederates would wait for night and repair the damage. But now the Federals were too close for comfort and mortar fire made long stays outside the bombproofs unhealthy. Later in the day, Keitt sent a desperate message to Fort Johnson:

I had about 900, and not 1,400, men. About 100 of these to-day were killed and wounded. The parapet of salient is badly breached. The whole fort is much weakened. A repetition to-morrow of today’s fire will make the fort almost a ruin. The mortar fire is still very heavy and fatal, and no important work can be done.

Is it desirable to sacrifice the garrison? To continue to hold it is to do so. Captain [Thomas B.] Lee, the engineer, has read this and agrees. Act promptly and answer at once.

As the clock ticked past midnight on September 5, 1863, the Federals were within 50 yards of Battery Wagner. They had not stood that close to the works since the night of July 18, and with heavy casualties to show for the effort. In the weeks since that failed assault, the use of shovels instead of the musket had closed the 1,300 yards to Battery Wagner.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 300 and 481-2.)

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.)

On Labor Day, let’s talk about labor on Morris Island

Here in the US we celebrate Labor Day in honor of American workers and their contributions to the country.  A century and a half ago, there was a lot of labor contributed to the campaign on Morris Island.  And as one might expect, the ever diligent Major Thomas Brooks recorded the details on this aspect of the operation as Note 18 to his official report:

The total number of soldiers’ day’s work of six hours each expended in the execution of the work herein described is 23,500. This does not include about 3,900 days’ work expended at the engineer depot and elsewhere in the preparation of material employed in these operations, only a small portion of which was under my direction. Of the first number, 5,500 were by the New York Volunteer Engineers, and 18,000 by infantry troops from various regiments; 9,500, or more than half the infantry, were furnished from colored troops. About two hundred and twenty tours of duty were performed by the officers of the New York Volunteer Engineers in the direction of this labor. The day’s work of the infantry soldier above mentioned is about one-fifth that which is ordinarily accomplished by a citizen laborer on civil works.

Brooks went on to break down the objectives of that labor.  Efforts against Battery Wagner received 40% of the work.  Some 35% went to building defensive lines.  And the remaining 25% was expended building the batteries that battered Fort Sumter. He estimated the level of effort for each type of structure constructed, in terms of “man-days of work”:

  • A siege gun (20- or 30-pdr Parrot for example) emplacement – 40 days
  • A heavy breaching gun (6.4- or 8-inch Parrott) emplacement – 100 days
  • A bomb-proof magazine – 250 days
  • Repairs of a yard of approach, with splinter-proof parapet – 2 days
  • Linear yard of narrow splinter-proof shelter – 4 days
  • Linear yard of wide splinter-proof shelter – 8 days
  • One yard of inclined palisading – 2 days

The majority of this work involved the shovel. And the tactical situation deemed it necessary to perform most of that shoveling at night to avoid sharpshooters and accurate artillery fire from the Confederate lines. Brooks considered 35 projectiles per hour a heavy fire, but noted that often twice that were fired against the workers.  Casualties due to this fire, however, were relatively minimal with around 150 killed or wounded in the trenches in front of the second parallel.

To ease the strain on the troops, the Federals kept the camps well in back of the main lines.  However, while out of range from Confederate harassing fires, this meant a two mile walk to work on most days.  One of those roads is seen in the the wartime photo above.  After that six hour shift, then a two mile walk back.  On the other hand, troops assigned to the security details usually remained in the trenches during their rotations, making their work that more tedious and dangerous than that of the fatigue details.

Bear in mind during most of the siege operations, some 10,500 men were living and working on a thin barrier island.  The land there was marginal at best.  This was not a vacation at the beach.  While the ocean breezes offered some respite, still these were hot days exposed on the open beach.  With ammunition given priority of shipping over food, the troops received stale, and often rancid, rations.  Water was unsanitary to say the least.  And the marsh behind the island was oozing with more disease vectors.

That said, disease and sickness were more a problem to the Federals than Confederate shells and bullets.  On average, one fifth of the Federal force on Morris Island was sick at any one given day during the siege of Battery Wagner.  Those manning the artillery were least affected, reporting an average illness rate of 6.2%. The engineers suffered an 11.9% sick rate.  The hardest hit were the infantry units.  Brooks cited three regiments – the 97th Pennsylvania, 24th Massachusetts, and 10th Connecticut – which suffered a 32% illness rate.  Other white regiments reported a 20.1% rate.  Black regiments, which were almost exclusively serving as fatigue detail supporting the engineers suffered a lower 13.9% rate.  The harder the men worked, and the fewer rest breaks, the higher the sick rate.

Given all these considerations, authorities arranged work schedules to reduce the strain on the men.  Normal work periods were eight hours long, with troops then given 24-hours off.  So any given unit would organize into four rotations.  Relief times were at 4 a.m., 12 noon, and 8 p.m. each day.

Such was the cycle of labor on Morris Island 150 years ago.

(Source: OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 326-8.)