Secessionville, Part 6

by Brett Schulte on September 14, 2005 · 0 comments

Secessionville: Assault On Charleston by Patrick Brennan

Chapter 7
1. The beginning of the Union Assault on the Tower Battery from 4-4:50 A.M. on June 16 is described. Isaac Stevens’ approximately 3000 officers and men were to lead the way, while Wright’s Division provided support. Defending the Tower Battery at this time were only Lamar’s artillersists, serving four guns and a mortar.

2. “Premonitions of Death”: One thing you see a lot in Civil War battle histories is the “premonition of death”, where a soldier, convinced he is going to die that day, gives up his wordly possessions and makes other provisions before going into combat. I wonder if this is just coincidence, and that the men who had premonitions and DIDN’T die were forgotten, while the ones who did die were remembered for obvious reasons. A lot of people were obviously going to die in a battle, so any premonitions had a much greater likelihood of coming true in these situations. I am also somewhat of a fan of horror movies and novels, and also of things that go bump in the night. You have to wonder if some tangible “sixth sense” led these men to know of their death before it happened. The incident which led me to post this little paragraph happens on page 185 of the book. Private Gustavus Poznanski, Jr. of the Charleston Bn. felt he was going to die, and he did on the ramparts of the Tower Battery.

3. The 8th Michigan was the leading regiment in the Union attack, and they faced only Lamar’s artillerists manning the guns of the Tower Battery plus only 100 men of the 22nd South Carolina. The 8th Michigan’s first two compnaies, the “forlorn hope”, managed to sneak in amongst the cannoneers and started gunning them down. Just as the rest of the Michiganders reached the Battery, the Pee Dee Battalion arrived and stabilized the situation on the Confederate left. The Charleston Battalion arrived not too long after and stabilized the right. The Michigan men had almost won the battle barely after it started, but the men from South Carolina arrived in the nick of time, possibly saving Charleston from the Yankees in the process.

4. Brennan says the 28th Massaschusetts again performed poorly, as almost the entire regiment broke not too long after they entered the fight. I was again surprised that a future regiment of the famed Irish Brigade had done so poorly in its early combat, so I went to a web site of 28th Massaschusetts reenactors. In the Historical Research section, I found a history of the 28th in 1862. On this page I found the following regarding Secessionville:

On May 30, the 28th Massachusetts was sent to James Island as part of the Col. William Fenton’s 1st Brigade of Maj. Gen. Isaac Stevens’ Division. Numbering some 520 men, all ranks, the regiment came under hostile fire for the first time on June 1 and 2 in skirmishes on James Island, losing 5 men wounded. More severe combat lay ahead as the regiment took part in the assault on Fort Johnson (better known as the Battle of Secessionville) on June 16. Bogged down in an impassable swamp during the charge, the regiment suffered 67 casualties which included the death of Sgt. John J. McDonald who was killed carrying the colors. Afterwards, they were commended for their poise and bravery under the severe fire they faced from enemy forces firing behind entrenched positions.

At the end of this inconclusive engagement, the regiment returned back to Hilton Head. At this time, Col. Monteith, who had been separated from his command since May 20 when he was placed under arrest by Gen. David Hunter, resigned and was subsequently discharged from the army on August 12 at Newport News, Virginia. For the moment, he was superseded by Major George W. Cartwright, a capable subordinate who had resigned from the 12th New York State Militia to take the post of Adjutant back in 1861. Henceforth, Cartwright would provide steady and able leadership for the regiment for the next two years.

Throughout the first several months in the field, the 28th Massachusetts had suffered from internal dissension and inadequate leadership. Part of the difficulty lay in an ongoing conflict between a number of New York Irishmen like Montieth and those from Boston. From the beginning, Gov. Andrew had faced a continual onslaught of patronage requests from the powerful Irish political community and used his authority to provide appointments to Bay State regiments to assuage factional battles among rival Irish-American politicians and newspapermen. In addition, although the regiment was touted as an ethnic Irish unit, it never was of 100% Irish-American composition. Because of this, many additional problems stemmed from stress and strain that existed between Irish and American soldiers in its ranks.

When Monteith faced a possible court martial for his excessive drinking and numerous violations of army regulations, Gen. Isaac Stevens tried to persuade Gov. Andrew to appoint his son to lead the 28th, arguing that an American was needed to command an Irish regiment properly. When Monteith was eventually dismissed, however, Andrew named Lt. Col. Maclelland Moore as his replacement. Soon after, Moore himself resigned, unable to cope with the feuding officers. Despite all of this, the 28th Massachusetts performed well in its first baptism of fire at Secessionville, and for all intents and purposes, its fighting qualities seemed unaffected by these internal squabbles.

So which is it? Did the 28th break to the rear almost in its entirety, or did they deserve to be “commended for their poise and bravery”? It appears to me that Brennan is closer to the truth. Col. Richard Byrne was ordered in late 1862 to “fix” the “broken” 28th Massachusetts, according to the very same site.

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