Gaining a Foothold on Morris Island – July 10-11, 1863 Part 3

Success, Failure, and Reconsideration

Although the flanking move by the 6th Connecticut was in large part responsible for the collapse of the Confederate defense south of Battery Wagner they paid an unexpected price for their success. They had surprised the enemy and their own troops as well. As the 3rd New Hampshire moved around the extreme right of the Confederate works they spotted unidentified troops across the field. The new line of troops “was supposed to be the enemy and a fire was opened on them.” The mistake was soon realized and “cease fire” was ordered. In the chaos of battle the order went unheard. One officer, understanding the danger of the situation, ran down the parapet waving his sword and “kicking their rifles right and left.” The firing stopped and no mention of casualties resulting from the incident was made. Credit for the rout was claimed by every regiment but the 7th Connecticut promoted its case in the official report of CPT Sylvester H. Gray who wrote:

“the Seventh Connecticut Volunteers were first to land, the first in their batteries, and sent their card after Mr. Secesh in the shape of a few 8-inch shells, from a gun which they had just left in good working order.”

Whoever was responsible the result could not be questioned. Taken were 11 pieces of mixed ordnance and 127 prisoners. The troubles for the fleeing defenders were not over. As they neared the relative safety of Battery Wagner the retreating men ran head long into reinforcements that had been sent to their aid. Men from the 7th South Carolina Battalion and 20th South Carolina were dispatched to Morris Island at the first sign of the attack. Landed at Cumming’s Point these men had run nearly the full length of the island. Exhausted they were caught up in the stampede towards Battery Wagner. The entire force became a retreating mob seeking the shelter of Wagner’s walls. Inside the fort at least one Confederate viewed the disorganized men and felt that “only a little dash on the part of the union army would have given them the whole island; all they had to do was press on.”

But press on they could not. The unexpected ease of their initial victory had worked against that aim. The assaulting troops were exhausted by two consecutive nights with little or no sleep and the mad dash after the routed enemy and also disorganized by the rapid turn of events. Although their close proximity to Battery Wagner and thus the enemy put them in harm’s way from further shelling the naval bombardment was stopped the guns at Fort Sumter now had them in range. Night was falling and the lengthy trip by the boats to get fresh troops over from Folly Island precluded any further action. Any assault would wait for reinforcements.

July 11th Assault on Battery Wagner

While Gillmore struggled to get his reinforcements involved in the fight the Confederate command was succeeding.  The Federal diversions had failed to influence the flow of enemy troops into the area. The Terry’s James Island incursion had not tied up a significant number of Confederate forces. The second Union diversion, a raid by the 1st South Carolina (US), failed to destroy the railroad bridge connecting Savannah to Charleston.  Reinforcements came in the shape of a mixed command of Georgians, under Col. Charles Olmstead. Around midnight this command was being ferried to Morris Island. More than 450 men of the 1st Georgia, 18th Georgia Battalion, and the 12th Georgia Artillery Battalion were added to Battery Wagner’s defense.  Outside the walls 150 men of the 7th South Carolina Battalion and 20th South Carolina manned the rifle pits as pickets awaiting the anticipated Federal attack. They would not have long to wait.

At 0230 BG Strong ordered a sunrise attack on Battery Wagner.  Four companies of the 7th Connecticut, under LTC Daniel Rodman, were selected to lead the assault. As the Union skirmishers moved forward the Confederate pickets, rather than contest the advance, retired down the beach behind a couple of scattered volleys. The well planned move cleared the fields of fire for the batteries in Wagner. The lead companies of the 7th Connecticut were allowed to enter the moat before the guns released a massed barrage. Two fresh follow on regiments, the 76th Pennsylvania and the 9th Maine, were stopped short. The 76th was driven to the ground while the 9th struggled to regain organization after the stunning blasts. The 7th was left unsupported to be devastated by the flood of rifle fire coming from the fort. Col Rodman searched in vain for the expected relief. Caught in the moat they could not move forward and retreat posed no great hope of relief. Grenades and small arms fire continued to pour in on his command. Finally, wounded and seeing no chance for assistance Rodman gave the every man for himself order.  Of the 185 men he led into the moat only 88 answered a roll call conducted after the assault.. Total Union casualties exceeded 335 men.

A tearful Strong met the retreating survivors with the cry of “Ah, my brave fellows, you deserved a better fate.” The assault had been a miserable failure and the 76th Pennsylvania became the scapegoats. Major J. W. Hicks, in temporary command of the regiment, was accused of directing his attack at the wrong location and losing control of the men under the intense fire. Driven to the ground the unit was slow to recover and never advanced. BG Strong did not hesitate to place blame in his official report of the attack.  Writing of the 76th Pennsylvania;

“The causes of their failure, and hence the failure of the assault, were, first the sudden, tremendous and simultaneous fire which all encountered, and second, the absence of their colonel, who was taken ill before the column was put in motion.”

The Confederates were in firm control of the narrow corridor to the northern part of the island. Another 56 days would elapse before Gillmore would have his prize.

The amphibious assault on the 10th was a complete success. The Confederate defenses were caught by surprise and routed from the southern end of Morris Island. Only the inability to quickly support the attack prevented the Union troops from seizing the entire island. Given the chance to reinforce the Confederate command made the most of a tactically superior position at Battery Wagner. After the unsuccessful attack on Fort Wagner on the 11th an order to put breaching batteries and mortar batteries in place on the Island was issued.  A set of works in front of the Confederate position defending the northern end of the island, Battery Wagner, was improved.  On the night of the 12th the first parallel was started.  This original position was used as the starting point for the failed assault led by the 54th Massachusetts.

Following the massacre of the 18th Gillmore decided that the advantageous position of Battery Wagner made a successful assault impossible. Already strapped for troops, and denied further reinforcement by Stanton, the losses of the 11th and 18th convinced Gillmore to enter into a siege. To comply with his order 482 engineers of the 1st New York began a line of works against the fort, assisted by 200 members of the 3rd New Hampshire Infantry. Before the end of the campaign thousands would see duty in the trenches of Morris Island. The work here proved slow and more dangerous than expected. It also created an opportunity for the enemy to conduct operations of their own.

The Confederates also suffered a lack of troops and a July 12th leader conference determined that they lacked the necessary resources to drive the Union forces from Morris Island. This however did not preclude operations in other areas. While Federal units and equipment were massed for the effort against Morris Island MG Terry’s forces on Sol Legare became increasingly isolated and vulnerable. On July 16th a Confederate counter-strike drove them from the island and eventually from James Island as well. Nevertheless the siege work and placement of batteries on the southern half of Morris Island continued. On September 7th, realizing the futility of further resistance the island was abandoned by Confederate troops. The fall of Morris Island did not, as anticipated by Gillmore, lead to the collapse of the Charleston defenses.
Gaining a Foothold on Morris Island (Campaign Series)


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