Charleston at mid-war

Charleston, early summer 1863: The hot and humid weather surely matches the surly mood among senior Union officers attempting to capture this port where the Civil War began … at least where the actual shooting began some 26 months ago.

Like moths drawn to the Charlestonian flame, Federal authorities cannot resist Charleston, a haven for blockade runners and a reminder that despite two bloody years of war, no end lies in sight. The Navy has blockaded the port and has attempted to shell Fort Sumter into submission; a Confederate flag still flies defiantly above the fort’s ruins.

In early summer 1863, Union authorities decided to attack Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor by land via nearby Morris Island (horizon, right). To capture the island and erect artillery batteries to pound Sumter at almost pointblank range, Union troops first had to capture the strongly held Fort Wagner on Morris Island. (Brian Swartz Photo)

Just last April 5 the Navy sent nine ironclads — including the “New Ironsides” — steaming past Morris Island to attack Sumter. The ironclads navigated a shipping channel that, with Charleston Harbor’s vagarious tides and sand bars, might not actually “run” where naval charts said it did.

The ironclads intended to target Sumter, but every available Confederate cannon targeted them. As Maj. Richard Anderson had learned to his chagrin on April 12, 1861, Confederate fortifications ringed the harbor:

• Fort Moultrie on Sullivans Island lay only a mile east across the main channel from Fort Sumter;

• Battery Gregg occupied Cummings Point on Morris Island, which lay only a short cannon shot south of the ironclads’ intended target;

• Other cannons and their crews stood elsewhere, with the guns already tracking the Union ironclads as they neared Sullivans Island.

Two cannons rise above the seaward ramparts of Fort Moultrie on Sullivans Island, which guards the eastern approaches to Charleston Harbor. (Brian Swartz Photo)

The shooting lasted about 150 minutes and resulted in Sumter remaining in Confederate hands and the shot-riddled USS Keokuk sinking off Morris Island on April 6. Confederate salvagers quickly recovered the Keokuk’s massive cannons; one still stands at The Battery in Charleston.

Frustrated by their failure, Union officials sought another approach to capturing Fort Sumter and, possibly, Charleston. Sullivans Island and the adjacent Isle of Palms were too strongly held; Morris Island and nearby Folly Island remained in Confederate hands, and the sand-and-palmetto-log Fort Wagner on Morris Island precluded a direct assault on Battery Gregg.

The distance from Fort Moultrie (foreground) across Charleston Harbor to Fort Sumter is about a mile. Even if Union troops had captured Fort Sumter, Confederate gunners on Sullivans Island could easily hit the fort. (Brian Swartz Photo)

But Wagner did not deter Union fingers from tracing the Morris Island shore to Cummings Point. From there Federal gunners could fire almost pointblank at Fort Sumter; battered into submission, that post must fall, and with its capture, Union troops would have their collective hands on Charleston’s throat.

A tourist walks through the ruins of Fort Sumter. Standing three stories tall on April 12, 1861, the fort was reduced to rubble by summer 1863. (Brian Swartz Photo)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But Fort Wagner was in the way. Wagner must be taken, not by smoke-belching Navy ironclads, but by hard-fighting Army infantry. In early July orders went to Brig. Gen. Thomas Seymour to land his division on relatively undefended Folly Island, cross the channel to Morris Island, and capture Fort Wagner.

Navy ironclads and Army artillery would provide fire support for Seymour’s move against Wagner and its exterior defenses. Seymour’s three brigades should suffice to capture Wagner.

Among the brigade commanders participating in the campaign against Morris Island was Brig. Gen. George Crockett Strong, a Massachusetts soldier commanding five regiments. A sixth regiment’s commander would ask Strong for permission to join and even lead the second assault on Wagner; Seymour would acquiesce to the request simply to get rid of this particular regiment, which he did not want.

Strong’s five original regiments included the 9th Maine Infantry, commanded by Col. Sabine Emery of Eastport. This hard-fighting regiment would participate in both attacks against Wagner.

And during the second attack, a brave soldier would win the Medal of Honor.

Stay tuned.