Review In Brief: Gate of Hell: Campaign for Charleston Harbor, 1863

Books on the Campaigns for Charleston

Gate of Hell: The Campaign for Charleston Harbor, 1863
by Stephen R. Wise
312 pp., 27 maps

The 1863 summer Campaign for Charleston has been completely overlooked in the history of the war. The twin major Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg dominated the news scene and the imagination of civilians. Before reading Wise’s account, I had only been exposed to the campaign through the movie Glory and the excellent Civil War @ Charleston web site. I would venture to guess that this applies to a lot of other Civil War buffs as well. Brigadier General (later Major General) Quincy Gillmore, the commander of the Army of the South and in charge of the Union land forces in the campaign, was an engineer who excelled in the use of artillery and in siege operations. Gillmore had pummeled the brick walls of Ft. Pulaski, guarding Savannah, Georgia, into dust with new rifled artillery. He planned to do the same to Ft. Sumter, guarding Charleston Harbor. The Union South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, containing quite a few monitors and the massive ironclad frigate New Ironsides, was under Flag Officer John A. Dahlgren. Dahlgren had not been Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles’ first choice to command. That man was Rear Admiral Andrew H. Foote, but Foote died that summer before he could take command. These two men were destined to have problems with each other, and since neither was in command, cooperation between the Army and Navy was less than perfect. P. G. T. Beauregard was in charge of the Confederate defenses, and he had fewer and fewer men to work with as the year went on. Demands were made for reinforcements elsewhere, and Beauregard often had no choice but to acquiesce to these demands and soldier on. The Confederates were banking on the use of the Charleston & Savannah Railroad to shuttle troops quickly to threatened areas, and this is what eventually happened in the campaign.

The campaign began in earnest in early July, as the troops gathered for the operation set sail from Port Royal, South Carolina. Gillmore planned several diversions, including one on James Island, though his main attack would be against Morris Island in order to gain a good position to bombard Sumter. On July 10, 1863, Gillmore launched an assault that took the southern portion of Morris Island, but the Confederates held the northern part in force with Battery Wagner and Battery Gregg. The Confederates launched a disruptive attack against the Union on James Island, thinking it was the main threat, on July 16, 1863. They had planned to cut off part of the force making demonstrations there, but three companies of the 54th Massachusetts managed to delay them enough to allow the stranded unit to escape. After these initial attacks, Gillmore decided to launch an assault on Battery Wagner. On July 18, this assault was made, with the 54th Massachusetts in the lead. The Union forces lost heavily, and Gillmore determined to conduct a formal siege. The Union soldiers constructed six parallels and forced the Confederates to evacuate in early September. At this point, Morris Island belonged to the Federals, and they used it to launch an abortive attack against Ft. Sumter which effectively ended the campaign. By that point, since Ft. Sumter had been wrecked as an artillery platform, Gillmore and the Army believed it was now the job of the Navy to enter Charleston Harbor. However, the Navy was unwilling to risk it without control of Ft. Sumter, which still held a Confederate infantry detachment. Troops were detached and sent to other areas the next spring, and Charleston did not fall until the winter of 1864-1865, after General Sherman’s March to the Sea made holding on to the city impossible for the Confederates.

The fight for Charleston in 1863, despite the lack of exposure to modern readers and despite the way it fizzled to an ending, is interesting for quite a few reasons. As mentioned, Quincy Gillmore had made the brick bastions guarding the United States coastline obsolete with his destruction of Ft. Pulaski in 1861. The siege warfare on Morris Island prefaced modern trench warfare to a degree, even before the actions around Petersburg a year later. And the newly designed and created rifled artillery was proving to be far more destructive than anything seen previously. Black troops were used in large numbers here for the first time as well, and the 54th Massachusetts especially proved that these men could and would fight well for the cause.

Wise concludes that the campaign failed because the design was flawed from the beginning. Gillmore had wished to seize both Morris Island (at the southern entrance of Charleston Harbor) and Sullivan Island (at the northern entrance), but he had not been given enough troops to accomplish both and he had settled for Morris Island. He also chronicles the disputes between Gillmore and Dahlgren and shows why a good working relationship was vital in order to successfully complete the campaign with the capture of Charleston. The author relates that little changed on the Confederate side. They had lost Morris Island, but as long as they held Ft. Sumter the Union Navy refused to enter Charleston Harbor. He does point out that this was a Confederate moral victory. They had held off a Union assault at a time when disasters were spring up in other parts of the Confederacy. If Charleston had fallen too that fall, Southern morale would have taken a massive hit.

I was very pleasantly surprised with the number and quality of maps in this study. The reader at first gets the overall picture along the South Carolina coast, and then the maps are gradually zoomed in to the action surrounding Ft. Sumter, Battery Wagner, and James and Morris Islands. There are numerous sketches of Battery Wagner and the armament present on given dates. The siege lines and parallels are shown in great detail as well. In addition, there is an excellent appendix of regimental level troop strengths throughout the campaign at the back of the book. Wargamers will find plenty of useful information in this one.

Gate of Hell is a well-done study on an obscure campaign that was nevertheless important for quite a few reasons. The use of African-American troops on a large scale for the first time and the demonstration of the power of rifled artillery were by far the two most important of these. Wise writes in an enjoyable style and presents the facts in an interesting way. In browsing through the bibliography, I found that the author uses a wide range of sources, but seems to focus on primary accounts such as manuscript collections, diaries, and the like. This was not your typical campaign as far as the Civil War goes. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in coastal operations, naval operations, siege warfare, or the use of Black troops during the war.

Check out Beyond the Crater: The Petersburg Campaign Online for the latest on the Siege of Petersburg!





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