“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.)