Background and Plan
The nasty battle for Morris Island, South Carolina in the summer of 1863 was highlighted by the failed attempt of the 54th Massachusetts and other regiments on 18 July. The bold attempt, depicted in the film Glory, is most of what people know about the lengthy fight for control of this island at the head of Charleston Harbor. Sandwiched around the famous attack was a well planned and a well executed amphibious operation, a desperate defense and a successful, if not miserable siege operation. Lost on a stage that was dominated by the great battles occurring at the same time this campaign has been under represented.
Charleston was prominent, and remained prominent throughout the war, in the minds of Union leaders and soldiers as the symbolic seat of the rebellion. To capture the city would have been a coup for the Federals. They, however, never quite dedicated the necessary forces to accomplish that goal. Nevertheless, an effort was made with what was available. The hardships and sacrifices made by the soldiers on both sides during this campaign were incredible in the blistering hot, windswept sands and marshland of South Carolina coast. Seen as the key to controlling the entrance to the harbor and its defenses Morris Island became the focus of operations there.
Many places on the southern Atlantic seaboard either remained in Union control at secession or fell under Union control shortly thereafter. This was true on the South Carolina coast. In November 1861 a combined operation seized Port Royal and Beaufort. Expansion of this success northward to Folly Island by MG David A. Hunter was made possible by the Confederate abandonment of the Cole Island defenses at the mouth of the Stono River. To control the water traffic at the river and to defend his position on the island a series of works were built at the southern end of Folly Island. These works were manned by soldiers from a brigade of infantry, commanded by BG Israel Vogdes.
The threat to Charleston Harbor should Union troops move northward to James and Morris islands was obvious. It prompted the Confederate command to increase measures to defend these areas. On the northern end of Morris Island at Cumming’s Point Battery Gregg was constructed to guard the ship channel into the harbor and to add protection for Fort Sumter. Additionally Battery Wagner was added at the narrowest part of the island to protect the southern approaches to Battery Gregg. The southern end of the island was fortified by order of MG Beauregard starting March 10th.
A failed attempt to run the guns into Charleston Harbor in April led to a period of stagnation for the Department of the South and the Navy. In the Union high command there was a growing impatience toward the lack of progress being made in the effort to capture Charleston. The local Union commanders had both gone a long way to promote their exit from the theater. The army commander, Hunter, had embarrassed the administration with a local emancipation proclamation designed to increase recruiting in the black regiments he was forming from escaped slaves. Coupled with a failed program of interdiction based on raids on the transportation infrastructure to the city the administration saw fit to relieve him in May of 1863. The naval commander, Samuel Du Pont, also condemned himself. No advocate of operations against Morris Island, he stated;
“I pity the poor soldiers if they ever land there.”
An open blast at administration and navy policies regarding the use of armored monitors completed his departure. He was also excused on June 3, 1863.
To replace the departed Hunter the army turned to the man who had been so successful in the reduction of Fort Pulaski, BG Quincy Gillmore. Gillmore openly campaigned for the position and was rewarded for his enthusiasm by being named commander of the Department of the South. The Navy choice, Admiral Andrew Foote, was a bit less committal towards the mission but nevertheless was named by Secretary of the Navy Welles. Foote’s health almost immediately became an issue. When it was obvious that Foote would be incapable of taking part in an active campaign naval command fell to his hand selected second, John A. Dahlgren. Five days later on June 26, Foote died from complications arising from the infection of a leg wound suffered at Fort Donelson. Dahlgren would arrive to replace DuPont in early July. With the commands in place all that remained was the formation of a plan.
MG Gillmore’s success at Fort Pulaski translated into a similar concept in South Carolina. He viewed Fort Sumter as the cornerstone of the Charleston defenses. Gillmore believed that no operations against Charleston could be successful while the fort controlled the entrance to the harbor. He meant to remove the fort by use of massed firepower. Morris Island was an obvious target for his efforts. He wanted batteries placed on Cumming’s Point.
This position contained, a Confederate work, Battery Gregg, which supported Fort Sumter at the mouth of the harbor. If the island could be seized this battery could not only be negated as a defensive asset but reversed for bombardment of the fort. Once the fort was removed then the naval assets of Admiral Dahlgren could be turned loose in the harbor. Of course, this would require land based positions within effective range of the fort for the plan to succeed. This would be the first phase of the operation for possession of Morris Island.
Gillmore resolved to turn Folly Island’s northern end into an artillery platform for the support of an invasion of Morris Island. He ordered the construction of batteries to cover the intended target. To maintain a level of secrecy regarding his intentions Gillmore insisted that the new batteries remain masked until they opened. Construction under these circumstances posed a number of difficult problems. The selected location on the very tip of the island became separated from the rest of the island at high tide. Troop rotations and material transportation had to be coordinated with the tidal flows. LT Patrick Maguire of the 1st New York Engineers supervised the development of the works which was done exclusively at night. All work had to be done noiselessly to avoid being detected. The batteries were within easy range of the Confederate batteries on Morris Island and to be detected meant not only the end of secrecy concerning the impending invasion but extreme danger to the work parties. Remarkably ten batteries were built without revealing the Union presence. When the time came they would add the weight of 32 guns and 15 mortars to the operation.
In the second phase Gillmore had to assemble the necessary forces to conduct the attack. The Department of the South had approximately 22,000 men to cover their entire area of responsibility. More than half of these would be called together to execute the operations against Charleston Harbor. These men were formed in two divisions under the leadership of BG Alfred Terry and BG Truman Seymour . Although heavily weighted in favor of the infantry branch the task force also contained 750 engineers and artillery soldiers. Nearly all were veterans.
The intervening water obstacle mandated the cooperation of the Navy. The Union forces gathered boats and barges while Gillmore pleaded with a reluctant DuPont for assistance. For his part DuPont was fearful of pitting his monitors against the Confederate land based batteries. Fortunately his replacement, Dahlgren, arrived to replace the reluctant sailor. With just days to prepare Dahlgren ordered the tugs Dandelion and O. M. Petit to tow the assembled fleet of launches, cutters, and barges north from Port Royal.
Finally a design for the assault had to be generated. Using information about Confederate defenses gathered by chief scout CPT Lewis Payne (100th New York) on several boat trips to Morris Island as a basis Gillmore assembled his plan. Confidential instructions bearing date 8 July 1863, were as follows:
An attack upon Morris Island will be made at the rising of the moon tonight, by Brig. Gen. Strong’s brigade, of Brig. Gen. Seymour’s division.
1.This force will be embarked in small boats immediately after sunset, and will pass through Folly Island Creek to and across Light-House Inlet. A small detachment from this force will enter the creek to the west of Morris Island, and will land just north of the old lighthouse, seize the batteries there, and if possible turn them upon the enemy’s encampment north of them. The main column will land from Light-House Inlet, carry the batteries on the south end of Morris Island, and advance to the support of the detachment above mentioned. Two regiments and some field artillery will be held in readiness on the extreme north end of Folly Island, to be pushed over as reinforcements. To this end, Gen. Strong will send his boats back as soon as he has disembarked his command.
2. At the same time. Gen. Terry, with all his division except the One Hundredth New York Volunteers, will ascend the Stono under convoy of the navy, and make a strong demonstration on James Island, but will not unnecessarily hazard any portion of his command. Perhaps one or two regiments only need be disembarked. These should be pushed forward as skirmishers, under cover of the navy.
3. A naval force is expected to enter the main channel abreast of Morris Island, by or before sunrise tomorrow morning, to co-operate with the land forces.
4. Should the night attack fail from any cause, the assaulting column will withdraw to Folly Island, sending their boats to Folly Island Creek. In that event the batteries at the north end of Folly Island will open at daybreak or as soon thereafter as practicable. Brig. Gen. Seymour will arrange all the details.Gaining a Foothold on Morris Island (Campaign Series)