U.S. Civil War History & Genealogy

Coastal War

Submitted by Kathy Dahl

What would become known as the "Siege of Charleston" began in earnest in August of 1863. On June 12th, Union Major General Quincy A. Gillmore succeeded General David A. Hunter as commander of the Department of the South. Gillmore was a West Point Engineer who had masterminded the successful siege on Fort Pulaski in Georgia.

Immediately after assuming his duties, Gillmore ordered the building of batteries on the north end of Folly Island (opposite Morris Island). This work was to be completed under cover of darkness and once finished, would give the Federals the capability of dismounting all the enemy's guns on the south end of Morris Island.

Each night the Yankee infantry and Engineers were kept busy building gun positions on Folly. They had to work quietly as they were only a few hundred yards away from the Confederates, separated only by Lighthouse Inlet. Once daylight arrived, all traces of work had been removed and the troops were returned to their camps to sleep during the day for the following night's duty.

Once the batteries were completed, an assault on the south end of Morris Island was planned. To accomplish this, over 6,500 additional troops were secretly landed on Folly Island during the early part of July. In addition to these actions, Gillmore had planned two diversionary tactics: one was a demonstration on James Island which was designed to draw Confederate troops from Morris Island, and an attack on the Charleston and Savannah Railroad at Jacksonboro. Both were miserable failures.

Meanwhile, the main attack was underway. Troops were loaded into rowboats during the night of July 8th, but bad weather forced them to postpone their action until the following night. At 5 a.m. the next morning, the newly built batteries on Folly opened a heavy fire on Confederate position across the inlet. After two hours of shelling, the attack signal was passed and the rowboats full of Union troops made their way from the marshes behind Folly and Morris. They bumped the sands of Morris and immediately left the boats and formed ranks on the beach. Some swept forward to overrun infantry in the rifle pits. Others took over single-gun artillery positions driving out and filling the Confederate defenders.

One of the first Brigades to land was under the command of Brigadier General George C. Strong, a West Pointer. Strong was so eager to join in the fray, that he had leaped in the water over his head and had to be fished out, minus boots and hat.

At 9 a.m., the attack was stopped within musket range of Fort Wagner. This fortification, located less than a mile from the northern end of Morris Island, served as the outer defense of Fort Sumter. It was manned by 1,300 Rebels - the 51st and 31st North Carolina Regiments, the Charleston Battalion and several companies of South Carolina Artillerymen under the command of Brigadier General William B. Taliaferro.

The Federal assault had been supported by four Navy monitors. The assault force totaled approximately 2,000 men and sustained only 15 dead and 91 wounded, while Confederate losses were listed as 294 killed, wounded and captured. Had the Federals troops continued with their assault that day, it is possible they could have captured Fort Wagner and had an even closer toe-hold on Charleston.

Early at daybreak on July 10th, Gillmore ordered his men forward one more time...this time to attack and capture Fort Wagner. Strong's Brigade was once again in the lead - the 7th Connecticut, followed next by the 76th Pennsylvania and the 9th Maine.

The 7th began their assault and even though they were under heavy fire, many gained the moat and parapet of the fort. The men of the 76th Pennsylvania and 9th Maine meanwhile raked by musket fire, were unable to advance to assist the 7th. Isolated and pinned down by small arms fire, many of the 7th decided to retreat. All totaled, the Federals lost 339 men with the 7th Connecticut losing about half of its men. The Confederates suffered about 12 casualties.

If Gillmore had taken heed, he might have realized that Wagner was impregnable to direct assault. However, such was not the case. This time he decided to bring up the heavy artillery in an attempt to weaken the fort and the men inside.

Forty-two guns and mortars opened on Wagner during the morning of July 18th. About noon, the guns of the Naval fleet joined in and a concentrated bombardment was poured into the fort until nightfall. Unknown to Gillmore, the shot and shell had little effect on the fort. All it ended up doing was throwing sand about, leaving the bulk of the fort undamaged. The bombproof protected the men within the fort and during the day's bombardment they lost only 8 killed and 20 wounded.

As night approached, the intensity of the shelling increased until about 7:45 p.m., when the firing slowed down and the lines of Union troops could be seen advancing. Approximately 6,000 men had been assembled in three Brigades. The 1st Brigade, under General Strong was composed of 5 regiments: the 54th Massachusetts, 6th Connecticut, 48th New York, 3rd New Hampshire, 9th Maine and 76th Pennsylvania. The 54th Massachusetts was given the position of lead regiment during the attack. The 2nd Brigade under Colonel Haldimand S. Putnam consisted of the 7th New York, 100th New York, 62nd and 67th Ohio. The 3rd Brigade under Brigadier General Thomas G. Stevenson consisted of the 24th Massachusetts, 10th Connecticut, 97th Pennsylvania and the 2nd South Carolina (34th U.S.C.T.).

Under heavy fire the 1st Brigade started forward. The 2nd Brigade was ordered up but was delayed in responding because of a mix-up in orders. This 20 minute delay was all that was needed to devastate the initial Brigade. It was during this charge that Colonel Robert Gould Shaw of the 54th was shot and killed while storming the fort's parapet.

Although many of the 1st Brigade retreated, several members of the various regiments had gained the inside of the fort. While members of the 2nd Brigade advanced, they found themselves disrupted by elements of the 1st streaming through their lines in retreat.

Like the 1st Brigade, portions of the 2nd also made it into the fort but without much order. The battle raged on for almost 3 hours, much of it hand to hand combat. When it became apparent that the 3rd Brigade was not to be committed to the fight, a quiet withdrawal was ordered. Union forces suffered a total loss of 1,515: 246 killed, 890 wounded and 391 missing / captured.

Besides Shaw, the following commanders were also killed or mortally wounded: Colonel John L. Chatfield of the 6th Connecticut; Colonel Putnam, Brigade Commander; and General George C. Strong. Wounded were Colonel George B. Dandy of the 100th New York, General Truman Seymour, Commander of the Attacking Column and Colonel John H. Jackson of the 3rd New Hampshire.

The 54th suffered 42% casualties, the 48th New York, more than 50%. The 7th New Hampshire lost 18 officers...the most of any regiment in the war for a single battle. The Confederacy's losses were light: only 222. Six were listed as prisoners. The fort did sustain some critical deaths among its officers, including Lieutenant-Colonel John Simkins, Major William M. Ramsey, and Captains William T. Tatum and William H. Ryan.

After these two terrible defeats, Gillmore decided that another plan of operation would be necessary. It was then that the "siege" concept came into fruition. By using "sap rollers," a cylindrical object of basketwork rolled ahead of men, zig-zag trenches would be methodically dug before Wagner and in turn, large Parrot guns would be brought in to fire upon the fort. As the trenches progressed closer and closer to the walls of the fort, so too did the big guns. This work was done 24 hours a day under all types of conditions...one being the constant fire from Rebel sharpshooters. The bulk of this work was completed by the black troops on duty during that time. As a result of this heavy fatigue duty, these units (3rd, 33rd and 34th U.S.C.T and the 54th and 55th Massachusetts) suffered extensively from disease and physical ailments.

Another tool used by Gillmore to exhaust the enemy was the "calcium light," a brilliant white beam produced by playing a very hot flame on line. The use of this light enabled the Federals to blind their enemy so that they could not return fire accurately. It also allowed Gillmore's forces to continue their bombardment on the fort while the digging of the trenches went on.

In August, Gillmore began the bombardment of the City of Charleston. Prior to this, a marsh battery known as the "Swamp Angel" was constructed in the marsh behind Morris Island. On August 22nd, at about 1:30 a.m., the battery began its horrendous fire down on the people of Charleston. The gun used was a standard 8-inch Parrott rifle which lofted a 150 pound projectile into the city roughly 7,900 yards away. The gun burst on the 36th round, blowing out the breech just behind the vent and hurling the weapon off its carriage and onto the parapet in front. Sea coast mortars were moved in first, then later a 30-pounder Parrott rifle which continued the assault on Fort Sumter.

By early September, conditions inside Fort Wagner became unbearable. Besides the continued shelling (from the trench guns and Dahlgren's Naval Brigade), the heat and stench from the buried dead within the bombproof (where the Confederates were confined), and lack of fresh drinking water and supplies, took a considerable toll on the men therein. On the night of September 6th, under dark of night, the remaining number of Rebels within the walls of Fort Wagner (approximately 400 total), quietly climbed into small boats and fled the island, leaving Fort Wagner and Battery Gregg, at the north tip of Morris Island (nearest Sumter) to the Federals. Although Morris fell to the Union, the Confederate batteries and defensive works on Sullivan's Island, Fort Johnson on James Island and the interior defenses of Charleston Harbor were still intact.

While the siege of Fort Wagner and Morris Island was taking place, General Gillmore used the opportunity to increase his bombardment of Fort Sumter. This began at dawn on August 17, 1863 and continued without let-up for 7 days. During the first 24 hours, the Federals threw 948 shells at the fort, 678 reaching their target. Once more, the Naval Brigade added its fire power and by August 23rd, the once mighty stronghold and pride of the Confederacy was reduced to a pile of rubble.

CSA General P.G.T. Beauregard, realizing that the fort was on its last legs, removed as many of the guns as he could by boat, leaving only one 32-pounder Parrott and replacing the artillerymen with infantrymen to keep the harbor and the fort in Confederate hands.

In an attempt to keep the Fort's defenders from mounting any more guns, the Naval ironclads, along with the newly acquired Federal batteries on Morris Island, opened a 41 day bombardment, pouring over 18,000 rounds at the fort. The remainder of 1863 and the start of 1864 were relatively quiet. Then on January 28th, a new bombardment of Sumter began. This lasted through the 31st, with firing mainly taking place during the daylight hours.

February and early March brought limited shelling. Then on March 15th, the Federals opened another bombardment...but it lasted only the one day. Between April and June of 1864, bombardments came at irregular intervals and for a varying number of days...the longest period being 6 days. On July 7th, the Federals began an 81 day shelling of Sumter. This eventually stopped in early September and then picked up again on September 6th, but lasted for another 6 days. The end to the heavy bombardments came due to the shortage of ammunition. However, intermittent shelling continued throughout the remainder of the war, up until the evacuation of the fort in mid February.

In early 1864, a band of brave Confederates in a rickety submarine made the last attempt to break the Federal blockade of Charleston. The Confederate Navy had previously experimented with mines and torpedoes and the invention of the first submarine was another example of the South's relentless pursuit to outdo the North.

Named after her builder H.L. Hunley, the "Hunley" was basically a tube of iron approximately 3-40 feet long. If properly handled, it could submerge, travel underwater for a short distance and then rise again. But, lack of oxygen, cramped quarters and internal darkness had taken its toll on at least three crews during test dives. Included in this loss of life was its builder.

On what would be her final dive, the "Hunley" equipped with a torpedo affixed to a long pole at her bow, took off from Charleston Harbor on the night of February 17th and headed for the sloop "U.S.S. Housatonic." Shortly after 9 p.m., an officer on the deck of the sloop, saw what looked like a "log," coming toward the ship's starboard quarter. But before a warning could be sounded, a horrendous explosion rocked the sloop causing severe damage. Five crew members lost their lives that night and the ship sunk in about 30 feet of water. The fate of the "Hunley" wasn't much better. When she didn't return to shore that night, it was assumed that she and her crew were lost.

With the fall of Wagner, Gregg and all of Morris Island, Gillmore found his land forces largely unemployed and so conceived a scheme for an expedition into Florida. Gillmore entrusted this task to Brigadier General Truman Seymour, whose duty it would be to: 1). Procure an outlet for cotton, lumber, naval stores, etc.; 2). cut off one of the principal sources of the confederacy's Commissary Department; 3). Secure recruits for the colored regiments, and 4). To further along the restoration of Florida's former allegiance to the Federal Government. With a strength of between 6,000 and 7,000 troops, it was believed that little or no resistance would be met and that the desired goals could be achieved accordingly.

When Beauregard got word of the Federal movements South, he ordered a deployment of regiments from South Carolina and Georgia to bolster the small Confederate forces already there. He was able to concentrate a force of perhaps 4,500 men near Olustee, Florida...also known as Ocean Pond. This position was chosen as it provided the best protection to the Confederate defense. The only direct approach was by railway track and the wagon road running parallel with each other over causeways constructed between Ocean Pond on the one hand and the swamp on the other. The Confederates built earthworks between the railway station at Olustee and this crossing and it was here that the Southerners planned to hold their ground. But, as we shall see, these well devised plans would be slightly interrupted. Meanwhile the Union forces were being shipped down the St. John's River and disembarked at Jacksonville, where they met very little resistance and set up Headquarters.

By the 19th of February, the Confederate Army at Olustee consisted of the 1st Georgia Regulars; the 6th, 19th, 23rd, 27th, 28th, 32nd and 64th Georgia Infantry units; Bonaud's Battalion of Georgia Infantry; the 2nd and 6th Battalions of Florida Infantry; Clinch's Regiment of Georgia Cavalry; Smith's Regiment of Florida Cavalry; Wheaton's Georgia Light Battery (the Chatham Artillery) of four guns; one section of Gamble's Florida Light Battery of two guns and one section of Geurard's Georgia Light Battery of two guns.

The Federal Army composed of the 47th, 48th, and 115th New York Regiments; the 7th New Hampshire; the 7th Connecticut; the 40th Massachusetts and a black Brigade consisting of the 54th Massachusetts, the 1st North Carolina and the 8th U.S.C.T. Also included was Steven's Battalion of Cavalry; Elder's Battery of Horse Artillery of four guns; Langdon's Light Battery of four guns and a section of the 3rd Rhode Island Light Artillery of two guns.

On February 20th at about 9 a.m., the Union forces set out in three columns, moving almost parallel with the railroad. When some four miles of Olustee, these columns met up with a Cavalry regiment sent out as skirmishers. Once the firing started, the Federals stopped and began drawing up in line. As well, the Confederates hastened to move up the 64th Georgia to meet the threat. When they realized that the Union forces were larger than previously thought, the remaining Rebel forces were advanced on the double-quick from Olustee.

The ensuing battle raged in an open, flat field...filled with pine trees. At all times, both sides were in full view of each other and the fight continued until nightfall. It was a stubborn fight, at short range, but on equal ground. Neither side had the advantage of earthworks to protect themselves. The continued pounding from the Confederate Artillery and the advancing Confederate line, repeatedly forced the Union soldiers to fall back. Although the Federals had the larger number of forces, many of them were recruits and had never been in battle. As they retreated, they fell into groups like frightened animals and it was into these groups that the Rebels poured the bulk of their shot and shell. What started as a retreat ended up in a veritable rout. The Federals didn't stop running until they had reached Jacksonville. Even though they had forced the Union to withdraw and run, the Confederates took no real action in pursuing them for any great distance.

Many of the Union soldiers who survived the battle held General Seymour personally responsible for the devastation that occurred that day. He had been under explicit orders from General Gillmore, not to advance into the interior until instructed to do so. But, Seymour blatantly ignored his superior's orders and with this, the failure of his poorly planned expedition became inevitable.

As a veteran of the 7th New Hampshire put it: "Seymour was the same General who commanded a division in the unfortunate assault on Fort Wagner, Morris Island, S.C., some seven months before, and who later commanded a brigade in the Wilderness campaign and was taken prisoner with his whole brigade. There was greater safety for the Union soldier while he figured as a prisoner of war."

General Seymour had also committed several other bad decisions--Just prior to the battle, the 7th New Hampshire had been armed with the Spencer carbine, considered to be the most effective weapon of the day. The men had been drilled and were extremely proficient in its use. Many of these men were recruits and did not possess the knowledge of using any other type of weapon. Seymour ordered that the 7th exchange their new Spencer's with a mounted unit, forcing them to take their old Springfield muskets. These muskets had no bayonets and at an inspection following the exchange, 13 of these muskets were found in one company that could not be fired.

After the rout, Seymour sent for the black Brigade to cover his retreat. The 54th Massachusetts was ordered out on the left flank and remained there while the rest of the regiments retired. They stood there alone holding back the enemy...waiting for their chance to retire to safety. However, no orders were received. Seymour had totally forgotten that he had sent them out there in the first place and when the oversight was finally discovered, the remainder of the regiment retreated in good fashion.

But, was it an oversight on Seymour's part? During and after the war, he was accused of having a very low opinion of black units but it could never be proven if this attitude was from ignorance or from deliberate lack of concern for black troops. After the battle, information was received that black soldiers who had been taken prisoner had been terribly mistreated by their Southern captors. As well, it was reported that many of the wounded left upon the battlefield after the Union's quick retreat were either shot and killed or bayoneted by the Rebels. In the weeks following the battle, Seymour corresponded with several Confederate commanders in Florida, requesting information on the status of the Union prisoners in their custody. Because these Southern commanders were quick in responding to his requests for lists of all the wounded prisoners, Seymour became convinced that the black prisoners had received humane treatment. Either he was naive, or he really didn't care.

In the Spring of 1864, the Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War investigated the Florida campaign. During these hearings, the military tended to downplay these stories as they feared such information would restrict black enlistment and turn Northern public opinion against the continued recruitment of black soldiers. However, in September 1864, General Ethan Allen Hitchcock, Commissioner for the Exchange of Prisoners received a letter from General Jonathan Hatch, the new commander of the District of Florida stating that: "Soon after the battle of Olustee...a list of wounded and prisoners in the hands of the enemy was forwarded to our lines...The very small number of colored prisoners attracted immediate attention, as it was well known that the number left wounded on the field was large...It is now known that most of the wounded colored men were murdered on the field. These outrages were perpetrated, so far as I can ascertain, by the Georgia regulars and the Georgia Volunteers in Colquitt's Brigade."

All totaled, the casualties from Olustee were higher than those of Fort Wagner. 55 officers and 1,806 men were killed, wounded or missing. The Olustee defeat ended the Union's attempts to reconstruct the Florida government prior to the Presidential election of 1864. Public criticism of the expedition was severe and northern papers blamed the loss on politics...specifically Lincoln's re-election bid. This setback for the Federals would only be temporary and before too long, Sherman would begin his infamous march to the sea...but that is another story for another time.

For this lecture I used the following sources: 1). Gate of Hell, by Stephen R. Wise, 1994, Univ. of S.C.; 2). The Civil War at Charleston, by Arthur M. Wilcox and Warren Ripley, The News and Courier and The Evening Post; 3). The Civil War: "The Coastal War, Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande," Time-Life Books, 1984; 4). The Battle of Olustee: "The Civil War in Florida, A Military History, Volume II, by Lewis G. Schmidt, published by Lewis G. Schmidt, Allentown, Pa., 1989; 5). Thesis: A Fight, A Licking, and a Footrace: "The 1864 Florida Campaign and the Battle of Olustee," plus several articles from The National Tribune, various years, published in Washington, D.C., 1877---.

You might want to check out a page on the web. It was placed there by William J. Hamilton, III, a reenactor and a member of the Board of Trustees of the South Carolina Battleground Preservation Trust. You can either hit Keyword: Civil War Charleston or directly connect by using:

It's worth the trip, believe me!!! You'll find information on the Trust's work toward preserving Civil War and Revolutionary War sites in and around the coast of S.C. You'll also be able to find out about the reenactment groups out of that area and the Civil War events planned for 1996. There's also historical pages pertaining to battles fought in the Charleston area, including information about the 54th Massachusetts, Fort Wagner, the Swamp Angel and Olustee. It's a wealth of information. Check it out. I highly recommend it.

Well, that's it for this night's fireside chat. We'll end this formal portion and get on with the real important stuff...chewing the fat. Pour yourself another cup of that cider or coffee that's been warming on the fire and let's get down to business.

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