“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)

The stalemate of April outside Charleston, Part 2

First off, let me update the map provided in part 1 of this set (looking at the situation outside Charleston in late April 1863):

I’ve added the place-names for the islands held by the Federals.  Also depicted the units deployed to James, Morris, and Folly Islands.

Second, let me better describe Brigadier-General Vogdes’ command.  The brigade  consisted of 6th Connecticut, 36th Illinois, 4th New Hampshire, 100th New York, 62nd Ohio, 67th Ohio, and 85th Pennslvania infantry regiments.  The Third Battalion of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry (Companies I, K, L, and M) accompanied the brigade.  Also attached to Vogdes’ command was one company of the 3rd New York Light Artillery, two companies of the 3rd Rhode Island Artillery, and Battery C, 1st U.S. Artillery.  Rounding out the formation was three companies of the 1st New York Engineers.

On Seabrook Island, just off the map to the left, Brigadier-General Thomas Stevenson had the 10th Connecticut, 24th Massachusetts, 56th New York, and 97th Pennsylvania, along with additional supporting troops.  All told, nearly 7,500 Federals occupied the barrier islands south of Charleston.

On the Confederate side, General P.G.T. Beauregard’s calls for assistance, prior to and after the April 7 ironclad attack, resulted in an increase in troops around Charleston.  On March 21, Brigadier-General Roswell Ripley’s 1st Military District (Charleston, Fort Sumter, James Island, St. Johns Island, and posts to the north of Charleston) numbered 12,345 troops present, up from 8,663 reported at the middle of the month.  On April 7, when the ironclads attacked, that number was roughly the same.  But by April 23, Ripley reported 18,351 present for duty.  But this was a temporary increase in strength.

Although not engaged in any major fighting, the troops were far from idle. In the weeks after the April 7 attack, Beauregard feared a Federal landing at Bull’s Bay might expose the flanks of Sullivan’s Island.  One brigade shifted to Christ Church Parrish in response.  At the same time, Beauregard ordered Brigadier General S.R. Gist to occupy Black Island, behind Morris Island, with field artillery (see the map above for location).  Fear was that Federals might occupy that island and take in flank both the Morris Island defenses and Secessionville (Fort Lamar).  But to fortify these points the Confederates needed time and labor.  As mentioned before, they were coming up short on the later.

By the first days of May, troops were departing Charleston for other threatened sectors.  Among those departing were the brigades of Brigadier-Generals S.R. Gist and W.H.T. Walker. Pressed to send Brigadier-General Nathan Evan’s Brigade on top of that, Beauregard argued with some success to retain at least 13,000 troops in front of Charleston (both 1st and 2nd Military Districts).

Reflecting on the situation and the results of the April 7th engagement, Beauregard offered advice to Colonel John Forsyth, responsible for the defenses at Mobile Bay:

I place great reliance, however, on three things – heavy guns, Rains torpedoes, and, in deep water, rope obstructions.  I have also introduced here Lee’s (one of my officers) spar torpedoes, attached to row-boats, which ought to be used in flotillas on all our large rivers.

In the days after the attack, Beauregard had followed his own advice.  He temporarily held up some heavy guns, including Brooke rifles, moving by rail to Savannah.  But unable to retain those, he looked about for other options.  One was to modify more of the heavy smoothbores into rifled guns – particularly the 8-inch columbiads which had little effect on the ironclads – in a manner similar to the 42-pdrs.  This program eventually expanded to 10-inch columbiads.  But the process took time.  None of the guns would appear in the harbor defenses until mid-summer at the earliest.

The number of rifled guns in Beauregard’s entire command as of the end of April was 113, as indicated on an April 24 report:


The majority of rifled guns were field artillery, and an odd assortment at that (Wiards, Blakelys, Parrotts, James, and Whitworths).  The converted 42-, 32- and 24-pdrs were marginal at best. Of the Brookes, three of those from the report were earmarked for the CSS Atlanta at Savannah.

But the Charleston defenders would receive, as the spoils from the victory on April 7, two additional heavy guns.  With the USS Keokuk sunk in shallow waters (see the blue mark just to the lower right of the map), Confederate engineers deemed it possible to salvage the ship’s XI-inch Dahlgrens.  That work took place between mid-April and the first week of May.  As result, Beauregard added the heaviest guns in all of the South to his defenses. (I promise more details on that operation in posts to follow.)

While working the wreck, the Confederates needed to support the salvage crew from any Federal interference.  At least twice during the salvage, Confederate ironclads moved up to cover the operation.  On April 20, the CSS Chicora exchanged shots with the Federals.  Guns on Morris Island also covered the operation, particularly a Whitworth field gun.  Although of light caliber, the gun could fire a solid bolt accurately to extreme ranges.  Beauregard wanted a second gun of this type, but was denied.

With respect to torpedoes, after the ironclad attack the Confederates wanted to determine the reason for the “big torpedo” failure.  As related earlier, the determination was excess cable played out during the laying of that weapon, thus rendering it incapable of firing.  That issue identified, the defenders soon placed more of the large torpedoes.

But Beauregard was most interested in employing the spar torpedoes.  Writing to Adjutant General Samuel Cooper in Richmond, he lamented that, “The work on the marine torpedo ram is at a stand-still for want of material and money.”  The funding for the project was expended and more was needed. While the Confederate navy provided some materials, much of the needed iron-plating went to the ironclads then under production in Charleston.  Pressing the point, Beauregard added:

Meantime the great value of the invention has been demonstrated so as to secure general conviction, and Captain Tucker, commanding Confederate States naval forces afloat on this station, declares unhesitatingly that this one machine of war, if finished, would be more effective  as a means of defense and offense than nearly all the iron-clads here afloat and building, a fact of which I am and have been fully assured.  Had it been finished and afloat when the enemy’s iron-clads entered this harbor several weeks ago but few of them probably would have escaped.

In early May, Confederates in Charleston received reports of “400-500 tons of iron mailing plates” in Nassau.  Circulars went out offering up to $1,500 per ton to blockade runners transporting the iron.  Beauregard went to the extreme measure of denying cotton to any runner who refused to carry the iron.

During the lull through the end of April, Confederates angled for an opportunity to mount a row-boat spar torpedo attack on the Federal vessels anchored in the Stono River near Folly Island. But these efforts came to naught.  Naval crews sent to Charleston in anticipation of capturing a monitor were soon sent back to Richmond.

As April closed, both sides maintained a stalemate outside Charleston.  Yet as both sides shouldered for leverage on the coastline, particular points gained prominence for future operations.  Folly Island would be the toe-hold needed to secure Morris Island.  Morris Island would thence become the key to reducing Fort Sumter.  Beauregard’s spar torpedoes would indeed succeed in damaging the Federal ships outside the harbor.   And the stationary torpedoes would keep the fleet out of the harbor.  The stalemate in April was but a brief respite before the next round of operations.  There would be few such respites in the next two years of war as Charleston became a very active theater.

(Citations and table from OR, Series I, Volume 14, Serial 20, pages 906, 917, and 927.)