Fort Johnston Photo Analysis, Part VI: A look across the front of the fort, keys to the interior

This morning, let us continue the virtual walk in front of Fort Johnson, as it stood in the spring of 1865.  Our next, and last stop outside the fort, is here:


I have labeled this photo’s location as FJ5 on the diagram below:


This perspective gives us a wide view of the entire front of Fort Johnson, from the epaulement to the left of the water battery all the way over to the howitzer in front of the far right of the line.  As this is an “end of war” view, might be good to offer perspective of the alterations done over the four years.  While I don’t have a photo to reference, we can look back at the diagram produced by Captain Truman Seymour (later Major-General, and someone very much connected to the operations around Charleston during the war) in February 1861.


This drawing, from the perspective of Fort  Sumter, shows the east end of James Island.  I’ve included the wharf and other structures in this snip of the original to demonstrate that James Island was a “happening” place before the war.  Many buildings associated with the fort, to include barracks.  And a lot of other structures standing behind.  Later wartime photos and drawings show that area devoid of buildings, as they were soon replaced by earthworks.

Before the war, Fort Johnson was more of a barracks than fort.  But at the onset of the secession crisis, state authorities ordered works established there to confront Fort Sumter.  By February of 1861, this is what Seymour saw through the glasses:


The barracks is to the far left.  The white building in the center of this crop is, if my memory serves, a quarantine hospital.  There were also some customs related buildings at the point.  The main focus here would be the battery.  Seymour plotted a work with three embrasures.  As he noted, and as we discussed regarding the arrangement in 1865, those guns faced Charleston’s inner harbor and not directly at Fort Sumter.

Seymour also provided a plan of the fortifications around Fort Johnson, as he saw them in 1861.


Compare this to the survey from 1865.  Speaking of that survey, since the FJ5 photo gives a wide view of the fort, consider the perspective as related to the profiles in the 1865 survey:


The location of the camera would be to the left, just above the high water mark, on Section 1.  On Section 2, the camera would be on the right of the profile, also near the high water mark.

We can also triangulate the location of the photographer for FJ5 based on items seen in the photo, compared to FJ4.  One of the mortars seen in FJ4 appears at the foot of the camera stand in FJ5:


My suspicion is this particular mortar is among several shipped from Richmond to Charleston during the war.  So I’ve looked all over the photograph for anything that might be a mark associated with Tredegar.  But in vain… had only the photographer been kind enough to catch a better glimpse of the trunnion.  A reference line, running between the vent and ear, is plain to see:


But not a single weight stamp or foundry number visible.

Other items that aid with location identification are the beams near the wharf:


So we should be able to sort out where the camera stood for FJ4, by looking back at the fort.  My guess, since FJ4 was slightly elevated, is that the photographer placed the camera on the ammunition chest behind the siege howitzer, or at least over it:


Of course that would require the photographer to be tripping all over the howitzer while servicing the camera.  The least he could have done is write down the registry number, you think?

The perspective of FJ5 allows us to take in Fort Johnson’s outer works as a whole.


We can still see the “bricks” that made up the works.  But those now appear somewhat sharper than in the other, closer, photos.

The United States flag flies over the fort, after its four year absence.  We’ll narrow down the location of the flag pole based on views of the interior later in this series.


The last berm, or epaulement, protected the battery from flanking fire from the left.  That protection was in place should Federal ironclads gain the harbor or Federal land forces get behind the works on James Island or even to the neck of Charleston.


We see the fort was designed to stand firm even if the situation collapsed elsewhere.

The only time the fort was directly tested by the Federals was on the nights of July 3 and 10, 1864.  Those were not in strength and repulsed.

Looking to the extreme foreground, we see a mix of gravel, dirt, wood, and shells that made up the fill in front of the fort:


This artificial bluff was improved during the war, adding to the fort’s defensive arrangements.

Before leaving this view, let me focus for one shot on the Brooke Rifle:


Notice the wooden barrel that sits in front of and to the right of the gun.   We’ll see that barrel again … as we step inside Fort Johnson in the next series of photo analysis posts.

“There are many thousands confined at southern points”: Messages from the prisoners in Charleston

On July 1, 1864, Major-General Samuel Jones, commanding Confederate forces across South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, forwarded a pair of letters to his Federal counterpart, Major-General John Foster, through the lines at Hilton Head, South Carolina.  Theses were forwarded messages from the five generals being held in Charleston at that time.  The first of these messages, signed by Brigadier-Generals Henry W. Wessells, Truman Seymour, Eliakim P. Scammon, Charles A. Heckman, and Alexander Shaller and addressed to the Adjutant-General of the US Army in Washington, read:

We desire respectfully to represent through you to our authorities our firm belief that a prompt exchange of prisoners of war in the hands of the Southern Confederacy, if exchanges are to be made, is called for by every consideration of humanity. There are many thousands confined at southern points of the Confederacy, in a climate to which they are unaccustomed, deprived of much of the food, clothing, and shelter they have habitually received, and it is not surprising that from these and other causes that need not be enumerated here much suffering, sickness, and death should ensue. In this matter the statements of our own officers are confirmed by Southern journals. And while we cheerfully submit to any policy that may be decided upon by our Government, we would urge that the great evils that must result from any delay that is not desired should be obviated by the designation of some point in this vicinity at which exchanges might be made–a course, we are induced to believe, that would be acceded to by the Confederate authorities.

Initially, Jones placed these men in Charleston specifically to deter further bombardment of the city by the Federals.  Foster’s response was, simply put, Charleston was a legitimate target.  And the Federal response was not to stop sending shells into Charleston, but to place a like number of Confederates under the guns on Morris Island.  The Federal response now prompted a secondary objective to the foreground – an opportunity to resume prisoner exchanges.

And, while I don’t have the space on this post to explore the reasons for the breakdown of prisoner exchanges in 1864, let me mention briefly the root causes – Confederate handling of USCT prisoners and Confederate practices regarding parolees.  It’s not the “row I work” normally for this blog, but if the readers would like, I’ll spin up an open post to discuss the topic more.  But I’d ask that before commenting, folks consider  the report of Major-General Ethan Hitchock (OR, Series III, Vol. 8, Serial 121, pages 799-809) and the eight volumes from the ORs on the subject.

The second, signed also by the five generals, addressed to Foster:

The journals of this morning inform us, for the first time, that 5 general officers of the Confederate service have arrived at Hilton Head, with a view to their being subjected to the same treatment that we are receiving here. We think it is just to ask for these officers every kindness and courtesy that you can extend to them, in acknowledgment of the fact that we, at this time, are as pleasantly and comfortably situated as is possible for prisoners of war, receiving from the Confederate authorities every privilege that we could desire or expect, nor are we unnecessarily exposed to fire.

Jones endorsed these two letters, adding:

I fully concur in opinion with the officers who have signed the letter that there should be an exchange of prisoners of war, and, although I am not instructed by my Government to enter into negotiations for that purpose, I have no doubt that it is willing and desirous now, as it has ever been, to exchange prisoners of war with your Government on just and honorable plans. Our difficulty in the way of carrying out the cartel of exchange agreed on between the two Governments would not exist, that I am aware of, if the exchange was conducted between you and myself. If, therefore, you think proper to communicate on the subject with your Government I will, without delay, communicate with mine, and it may be that we can enter into an agreement, subject to the approval of our respective Governments, by which the prisoners of war now languishing in confinement may be released.

Jones did not reiterate a call to cease the bombardment of Charleston.  He dropped that objective, seeking resumption of the prisoner exchanges.

Foster dutifully forwarded all these messages to Washington, while at the same time crafting his own response.  In the short term, Foster acknowledged receipt of the messages and requested more information from Jones:

I would respectfully request information as to what portion of the city these officers are now confined. If this question cannot be answered for military reasons, will you inform me of the degree of exposure to which they are subjected; whether in the part of the city most, or in that least, exposed, or that exposed in a medium degree. I would also request you to allow one general officer and one field officer of the said prisoners to subscribe to and send me a statement giving me the kind and quantity of food dealt out to them, also the comforts afforded them in the way of beds, bedding, blankets, &c. The object of these requests is simply to ascertain the exact manner in which these officers are treated, that I may treat in the same manner a like number of your officers of equal rank that are now placed in my hands by the Government.

Softening the response, slightly, Foster followed that request with another indicating he also desired an exchange of prisoners…. But Foster demanded that first all Federal prisoners be withdrawn from Charleston.  And it should be known that Foster had not yet, at that time, placed any Confederates under the guns on Morris Island.  Those fifty men were still relatively safe on board a transport, pending the construction of holding areas on Morris Island.

The question about the propriety (not to mention legality) of bombarding Charleston was, as of July 1, 1864, thrown out.  The pressing question became, “can we swap prisoners?”

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 161-4.)

“Five generals and 45 field officers” held in Charleston: Sam Jones employs a human shield

Ever since the  late days of August 1863, Charleston was “under the guns” in the true since of the expression.  The bombardment of the city ceased after the Swamp Angel burst on August 23, and the Federals concentrated on finishing the work on Morris Island.  But the Federals resumed the bombardment that fall, with the occasional incendiary shell, even dropping shells into the city on Christmas Eve of 1863.  The bombardment continued, sometimes increased to serve a point, through the winter and spring of 1863.

General P.G.T. Beauregard, of course, had lodged protests to no avail.  And he had pursued designs to counter the Federal bombardment, by his own incendiary shells, also to no avail.  Now Major-General Sam Jones had decided to pursue a different course.  On June 13, 1864, he sent over this message, addressed to Major-General John G. Foster, under a flag of truce:

Five generals and 45 field officers of the U.S. Army, all of them prisoners of war, have been sent to this city for safekeeping. They have been turned over to Brigadier-General Ripley, commanding the First Military District of this department, who will see that they are provided with commodious quarters in a part of the city occupied by non-combatants, the majority of whom are women and children. It is proper, however, that I should inform you that it is a part of the city which has been for many months exposed day and night to the fire of your guns.

Among the five generals was Brigadier-General Truman Seymour, who’d served prominently on Morris Island the year before, led operations in Florida the during the winter, and was captured in the Wilderness on May 6.  Sort of a plot twist in his life, you think?

On this day (June 16) in 1864, Foster responded to Jones’ message.  After acknowledging the content of the message, Foster proceeded to lay out the justification, and legalities, of the continued bombardment of Charleston:

Many months since Major-General Gillmore, U.S. Army, notified General Beauregard, then commanding at Charleston, that the city would be bombarded. This notice was given that non-combatants might be removed and thus women and children be spared from harm. General Beauregard, in a communication to General Gillmore, dated August 22, 1863, informed him that the non-combatant population of Charleston would be removed with all possible celerity That women and children have been since retained by you in a part of the city which has been for many months exposed to fire is a matter decided by your own sense of humanity. I must, however, protest against your action in thus placing defenseless prisoners of war in a position exposed to constant bombardment. It is an indefensible act of cruelty, and can be designed only to prevent the continuance of our fire upon Charleston. That city is a depot for military supplies. It contains not merely arsenals but also foundries and factories for the manufacture of munitions of war. In its ship-yards several armed iron-clads have already been completed, while others are still upon the stocks in course of construction. Its wharves and the banks of the rivers on both sides of the city are lined with batteries. To destroy these means of continuing the war is therefore our object and duty. You seek to defeat this effort, not by means known to honorable warfare, but by placing unarmed and helpless prisoners under our fire.

Concluding this message, Foster outlined his response to Jones’ human shields:

I have forwarded your communication to the President, with the request that he will place in my custody an equal number of prisoners of the like grades, to be kept by me in positions exposed to the fire of your guns so long as you continue the course stated in your communication.

Another chapter in the siege of Charleston was about to open.  And due up – another lesson in “hard war.”

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 132 and 134.)

Another “Truman Seymour plan”: Close Cape Fear soon!

Brigadier-General Truman Seymour strikes me as an “idea man.”

In an earlier blog post, we saw his proposal to disable the Confederate rail system by advancing behind Charleston.  A few weeks later, Seymour and Captain C.B. Reese, an engineer, conducted a reconnaissance of the Wilmington, North Carolina area.  Of course Wilmington was a bit outside of Major-General Quincy Gillmore’s Department of the South.  But only a bit.

So reaching just outside his “sandbox” Gillmore sent Seymour to investigate the approaches to the Cape Fear River on November 13-14, 1863.  Seymour not only provided the required assessment, but also a detailed, color map:


Seymour started the assessment with a description of Confederate defenses.  Starting with the Old Inlet, or what he called “the southern entrance,” Seymour noted Fort Caswell, an unnamed fort he simply called “A,” and another set of works on Bald Head of Smith’s Island.


Fort Caswell was an old masonry fort of the Third System.  Seymour noted improvements included a “glacis of sand” to protect the brick walls.  “Work A” as indicated on the map, stood a mile west of Fort Caswell, and compared favorably to Fort Wagner.  (“Work A” may have been Fort Campbell, an 18-gun enclosed fort built in that area.)

On Smith’s Island, Seymour described “Work B” and “Work C,” the latter was close to the channel’s lighthouse. These were open batteries, with no defenses to the rear, but covered the channel.   “Work B” was unfinished, but “Work C” was described as a mound battery 60 feet high with three guns.  (These works later evolved into Fort Holmes.) However, uncovered was a “fine beach, smooth and open” about three miles from those works.  Seymour elaborated:

Good anchorage is found by the Cape Fear Shoals, which extend south several miles, giving shelter from northerly and easterly storms, but open to southeast and south.  This is the only good anchorage, and the beach of Cape Fear the only sure ground for disembarking troops.  As yet both are unoccupied by the enemy.

Turning to the northern entrance, better known as New Inlet, Seymour found a two- or three-gun battery on Zeek’s Island (center of this close up of the map).


He described Fort Fisher on Federal point as “very strong” with five timber and sand casemates.  Between the fort and the end of the point, a two gun battery labeled “Work D” and a large mound battery were being built at the time of Seymour’s survey.  In addition to these works, Seymour noted that field guns were brought out from the Confederate garrison to cover blockade runners.

Overall, Seymour lamented a lost opportunity here. “Smith’s Island was entirely unoccupied until within two or three months [ago]; a few regiments thrown upon it by us would have led to the perfect closing of the blockade.”


But he suggested a bold operation might still gain the prize:

The fact that Cape Fear is undefended as yet, and that the only shelter for vessels is to be found directly under it, seems to point out the only method, without the employment of a large force, by which any decided effect can be produced upon blockade-running. A few thousand men, landed upon Cape Fear at night, would certainly surprise the fort at Bald Point, particularly if they could be landed before the completion of that work. Should Bald Bluff not be fortified meanwhile, its possession alone would involve the fall of the fort, and if it be fortified a line of investment could be drawn around both, from the light-house to the sea beach. A few heavy rifles at the light-house would close the river. A gun or two on a point or spit farther north would forbid vessels lying at or near Smithville, and the Light-House Battery would prevent access to the fort on Bald Point, which should consequently be easy of conquest. The possession of this island would greatly facilitate any operations on Oak Island against Fort Caswell, but it is believed that the moral effect of the possession of Smith’s Island and a few guns opposite Caswell would effectually prevent blockade-running by this entrance.

With Smith’s Island occupied and the Old Inlet blocked by guns, the Federals would need to occupy Zeek’s Island, connected to Smith’s by a breakwater.  However, Seymour believed a few rifled guns could cover the New Inlet from the northern end of Smith’s Island, should Zeek’s not fall.  Seymour estimated “five or eight thousand men can easily accomplish this operation…” and once complete, “3,000 men should be able to hold it with perfect ease.”

Seymour added:

Whatever is done near Cape Fear toward the closing of the blockade must be done soon,  or the advantages now offered of a quiet anchorage at and occupation of the cape itself must soon pass away, and all operations by any moderate force will be virtually impracticable.

Gillmore sent this report to Major-General Henry Halleck in Washington with very favorable endorsement.   But Halleck was too busy with other pressing needs offer support for another operation.  So put this down in the “what if” missed opportunity category.  As with the railroad offensive proposed earlier, the Federals could not mass and allocate the troops for what Seymour proposed.  Events that fall left the Federals off balance, strategically speaking.  So the Confederates had more time to perfect the defenses of the Cape Fear River.  Not coincidentally, around this time Wilmington took on added importance for blockade-running activities.  Federal activity on Morris Island had all but shut the door on Charleston.

(Seymour’s report is from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part II, Serial 47, pages 118-120.)

“delay is annoying, failure would be more so.”: Secretary Wells weighs in on Charleston

November 2, 1863 was an active day around Charleston by any measure.  The Confederate President gave a speech in the city.  The Federals continued their bombardment of Fort Sumter.  One of the Navy’s ironclads suffered a premature explosion during the bombardment.  And just into the evening, a naval officer made a small reconnaissance of Fort Sumter, resulting in the rattle of muskets in the dark … and little else.

And while all that was going on, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren and Major-General Quincy Gillmore conferred on the north end of Morris Island.  Gillmore had hailed Dahlgren around mid-morning as the army commander was on the way to observe Fort Sumter from the batteries on Morris Island.  The two then met Brigadier-General Truman Seymour, commanding the batteries then engaged.  After observing the fires, the three went to Seymour’s tent where they discussed options for future operations.  Dahlgren recorded in his journal:

Seymour was up and down against attacking the city or going farther. Gillmore was not so positive, but could not see what was to be gained.  Could not muster more than 10,000 men, which would not hold the ground west of Johnson.  I said I could go in with seven monitors when read, which would be about the 15th, or with eleven monitors about the 10th of December. The former was a risk, the latter was not.  Gillmore was doubtful about an assault; might be repulsed, and finally concluded to pound away for a day or two.  The guns nearly used up.  Was going to mount one or two smoothbores at Gregg.

The same day Dahlgren and Gillmore passed around suggestions, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells addressed a response to Dahlgren’s earlier dispatchs.  The dispatch, along with details of a counsel of captains, was carried to Washington by Commander Daniel Ammen.  And Ammen would now carry the response back.  The Secretary acknowledged receipt of Dahlgren’s reports, summary of the consultation with the captains, and other documents.  He repeated the list of obstructions enumerated by Dahlgren: rope obstruction line, torpedoes, inclined timbers, and Confederate ironclads.  From that the Secretary responded:

… So far as your information extends, or that of your officers, including also that received from General Terry and Colonel Hawley, these comprise all the water defenses of Charleston. There is little doubt that the hawsers can be easily removed.

The torpedoes hitherto encountered during the war have not proved dangerous or serious preventatives to naval operations.

The ironclads of the rebels are so much inferior to our own that there is reasonable ground to believe they would be disabled before they could close.

The preparation of timber, inclined downstream and sunk across the channel, seems the most formidable obstacle to an advance upon the city.  If this work of the enemy is already established, and can not to some extent be removed or overcome by the means which you possess, or the ingenuity or skill of yourself or your command, it would be unwise and dangerous to press the monitors against it.  These iron-bottomed vessels are not fit to run at or upon fixed obstacles under water.

The Department has sent you a side-wheel wooden steamer to be used at your discretion, pioneering the way and overcoming any of these obstacles.  Not improbably this vessel may be damaged or destroyed in this attempt, but the sacrifice of one or more vessels must not stand in the way of accomplishing a great result.

It is believed that if you can secure a position for the ironclads near the city, the exterior seaward defenses will be evacuated. You will consult with the general commanding, show him this dispatch, and ask him if he concurs in this opinion.  To go up to the city at great risk to vessels, whose loss can not easily nor immediately be supplied, even were there no personal casualties, for the mere purpose of firing into it and then immediately retiring, would not accomplish the object and purpose of the Government.

If you do not consider there are reasonable hopes of success with your present force, the Onondaga, the Canonicus, and the Tecumseh are promised us in six weeks and will, with the Sangamon, now at Hampton Roads, be sent to you.

Although delay is annoying, failure would be more so.  Success is the great paramount consideration, and the Department will acquiesce in any reasonable delay to insure it.

Wells thus came off short of ordering any naval assault, but framed the response to demonstrate what was expected. This response assured Dahlgren he had room, waiting for the perfect, or nearly perfect, situation. But to setup that perfect situation, the Federals could not repeat the respite given in September-October. They had to keep pressure on Fort Sumter. With many heavy guns wearing out, Gillmore turned to captured columbiads to throw shells at the Rebel bastion. So the bombardment would continue into December.

(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 85-86, 96-97.)

A bold plan against the Confederate railroads: Seymour looks towards Branchville

When South Carolina seceded, Truman Seymour was a thirty-seven year old captain at the start of the war, stationed at Fort Moultrie.  He was among those who manned Fort Sumter during the opening battle of the war.  In the fall of 1862, he returned to serve as Major-General David Hunter’s Chief of Staff.  He’d taken field command and lead troops during the initial assaults on Battery Wagner in July 1863.  So you might say, for a Vermonter, he was very familiar with the area around Charleston.

In the last days of October, Seymour assumed temporary command of the troops on Morris Island, as Brigadier General Alfred Terry took leave.  Seymour took that opportunity to advance an idea about where to strike next in a memorandum addressed on October 31, 1863:

The Southern Confederacy consists of Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, forming a line from Richmond to Mobile. Originally there were three great lines of communication through these States, but one has been lost by the permanent occupation of Chattanooga, and the value of the two remaining is, necessarily, greatly enhanced. Our permanent seizure of them would severely paralyze the Confederacy.

Now, attacks upon the flanks or extremities of this line, from Rich-mend to Mobile, even if perfectly successful, must be indecisive, if not futile, since the defeated armies are driven upon the center of this line, where they would concentrate their strength and avail themselves of interior lines.

Offensive movements, therefore, that can give us this advantage are greatly to be preferred, particularly if they place our armies upon the enemy’s communications.

Such movements cannot advantageously be made from Chattanooga. An advance from that point involves a march of 120 miles to Atlanta, and thence 80 more to Macon, in the face of a powerful army, holding strong defensive positions, by roads almost impracticable during winter, and with lines of supply so extended that even now they cannot be considered as perfectly secure. But these two routes approach very closely to the Atlantic coast between Charleston and Savannah.


The occupation of Charleston is, however, unessential, since it still leaves open the route by Kingsville, Branchville, and Augusta, and the swampy defiles in rear of Charleston would not easily be forced.

Between Charleston and Savannah are several excellent harbors from which deep streams penetrate far inland, and numerous “sea islands” that would serve as depots and bases. The Edisto, Ashepoo, Combahee, and Broad Rivers are navigable up to the Charleston and Savannah Railroad. A force suddenly thrown upon this road–which is rather watched than guarded–would appear to be with a view to an attack upon one or both the cities named. An advance of two days would suffice to reach Branchville. This point fortified, with communications protected by the Edisto and Combahee (or Savannah) Rivers, with the Ashepoo between navigable nearly to Walterborough, based upon the railroad from Jacksonborough to Coosawhatchie and the islands already in our possession, and all free communication ceases between the extreme States of the Confederacy.


Forty or fifty thousand men should commence such a movement, and as many more rapidly support it. The northern armies could supply that force as soon as winter forbids active operations. Volunteer and drafted troops would defend the Potomac meantime. If necessary, such detachments could return in the spring, although in all probability the battle would be fought entirely in South Carolina, and Lee’s army, if not a portion of Bragg’s, would be immediately withdrawn to oppose such permanent occupation of these vital lines of communication.

Large numbers of blacks would be enabled to enter our lines, and the country is at all seasons of the year exceedingly healthy, being “pine land,” and the roads excellent winter and summer, so that operations need never be hindered by the seasons.

These suggestions, affecting a projected theater of operations within this department, are therefore respectfully submitted.

Major-General Quincy Gillmore enthusiastically indorsed Seymour’s proposal, forwarding it along to Major-General Henry Halleck for consideration.

Halleck, however, had to consider other theaters and their pressing requests at the time Seymour’s suggestion arrived.  The situation at Chattanooga remained a tense knot.  The Army of the Potomac faced its traditional foe across the Rappahannock, and would within a few days cross and launch a short campaign of its own.  And General Nathaniel Banks had something up in Louisiana.  The Department of the South was, in the fall of 1863, returning to its place as a less active theater, with a commensurate reduction in forces due before the winter was over.

But Seymour’s proposal is good fodder for a game of “what if?”  Worth noting, the proposal did point to some of the same weaknesses considered by Confederates earlier in the month.

(Seymour’s memorandum is from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part II, Serial 47, pages 112-115.)

“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)