A brave Union soldier wins the Medal of Honor at Fort Wagner – Part I

Time and tides have not been kind to Morris Island, which borders the western approaches to Charleston Harbor in South Carolina. The island extended farther to seaward in midsummer 1863, when Union troops attempted to capture Fort Wagner near the island’s north shore. Today even the Morris Island Lighthouse stands some distance from shore; the lighthouse once stood on the sandy island. Erosion has accomplished what Union guns could not: literally eliminate Fort Wagner. (Brian Swartz Photo)

For his incredible bravery during the “Glory” assault on Fort Wagner near Charleston, S.C., a Union foot soldier later won the Medal of Honor.

And when he died at age 72 on Thursday, Aug. 8, 1912 — more than 49 years after 10 Federal regiments attacked the Confederate fort blocking access to Charleston Harbor — the local newspaper extolled this courageous hero.

Born in Liberty, Charles E. Smith joined Co. I, 9th Maine Infantry Regiment in Bangor on Sept. 9, 1861. Known as the “Bangor Tigers,” Co. I traipsed across the Southeast as the 9th Maine served in Florida, South Carolina, and Virginia.

Smith fought in various battles, including the bloody attempt to capture Fort Wagner after dark on Saturday, July 18, 1863, a man-killing fight depicted in the 1989 movie “Glory.” Wounded a year later in Virginia, he rejoined the 9th and finally doffed his uniform in late July 1865.

Afterwards Smith returned to Bangor and “has lived here ever since,” a “Bangor Daily News” reporter reminded readers in a tributary obituary published on Aug. 9, 1912. The old soldier “died Thursday morning at his home on the Fuller road, after a long decline.”

Among his possessions was the physical evidence that “Smith, a veteran of the Civil War,” had been “awarded the Congressional medal [of honor] for bravery,” the paper reported. “It was at Fort Wagner … that the battle came wherein he performed the service which won for him the recognition of Congress rarely given.”

Smith had apparently treasured that medal and had often told his wives (he “was married twice”) and his children (he was “survived by four sons and three daughters”) about that wild night action on the flame-belching ramparts of Fort Wagner. That fight had taken place so long ago and so far away …

Left undeveloped, the “modern” north shore of Folly Island, S.C. probably resembles nearby Morris Island in 1863: grass-covered sand (above) that “moves” easily with strong winds and seas. Union troops landed on Folly Island in early July 1863, then crossed Lighthouse Inlet on July 10 to attack Confederate defenses on southern Morris Island. (Brian Swartz Photo)

Located a few miles southeast of Charleston city, Morris Island separates the Atlantic Ocean and Charleston Harbor; the Atlantic’s swirling tides meet the harbor’s quieter waters at Cummings Point on the island’s northern tip. To prevent Union troops from seizing Morris Island and erecting artillery batteries there to shell Fort Sumter, Confederate engineers built Battery Gregg at Cummings Point and Fort Wagner (also known as Battery Wagner) some 1 to 1½ miles south.

Here Morris Island narrowed sharply between the ocean on the east and the swampy Vincent’s Creek on the west; the creek drained the scrub brush covering the slightly higher terrain away from the beach. Using available materials — dirt, palmetto logs, sand, and sand bags — and black slave labor, Southern engineers created a fort measuring 250 yards from creek to beach and 100 yards from south to north.

The walls rose 30 feet above the surrounding terrain. Reinforced with abatises cut from palmetto logs, a moat measuring 10 feet wide and 5 feet deep surrounded the fort.

Commanded by Brig. Gen. William Taliaferro (pronounced “Tauliver“), about 1,700 Confederate soldiers defended Wagner. Drawn from the Charleston Battalion, the 1st South Carolina Artillery, and 31st and 51st North Carolina infantry regiments, the defenders held an almost impregnable post.

Despite its impressive dimensions, Fort Wagner’s strength lay in its artillery and its narrow land approaches. Fourteen cannons targeted potential attackers.

A Civil War woodcut depicts Confederate troops evading Union artillery shells being hurled at Fort Wagner on Morris Island in South Carolina in mid-July 1863. Federal artillery and naval cannons bombarded the fort from Saturday, July 11 to Saturday, July 18 in preparation for an infantry assault launched about 7:45 p.m., July 18. The attack failed, and Fort Wagner continued blocking Union attempts to capture Charleston, S.C. The 9th Maine Infantry Regiment participated in two assaults on Fort Wagner. (Library of Congress)

Seaward faced two 12-pound howitzers, a 32-pound carronade, and a 10-inch Columbiad that threw a 128-pound shell. The Charleston Battalion and 31st North Carolina crewed these four guns.

Landward faced, from the beach-facing wall to the creek-abutting wall:
• An 8-inch seacoast howitzer and a 42-pound carronade manned by the 31st North Carolina;
• Two 8-inch shell guns, two 32-pound howitzers, and two 32-pound carronades manned by the 51st North Carolina;
• A 32-pound carronade and a 10-inch seacoast mortar crewed by the Charleston Battalion.
Representing the 1st South Carolina Artillery was its Co. A, which manned two cannons placed outside Fort Wagner’s southwest corner to enfilade attackers reaching the south wall.

With its inferior four-gun seaside punch, Wagner had the sole purpose of stopping Union infantry from marching to Cummings Point and attacking Battery Gregg. From that position Federal gunners would enjoy an unfettered view of Confederate-held Fort Sumter.

In March 1865 George Barnard photographed these civilians after they landed their rowboat on a sand bar adjacent to the battered Fort Sumter at Charleston, S.C. The camera angle is toward the northeast. Union troops had recaptured Fort Sumter a month earlier, more than 20 months after the bloody “Glory” Battle of Fort Wagner on nearby Morris Island. (Library of Congress)

Throughout the war senior Union officials, including President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, fixated on recapturing Sumter. In early summer 1863, the direct route apparently lay across Morris Island’s sandy and swampy wastes.

“Capture Wagner” summarized the order given Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour, whose division went ashore on nearby Folly Island on Friday, July 3. Assigned to that division were brigades commanded by Brig. Gen. George Crockett Strong and Col. Haldimand S. Putnam.

Strong’s brigade included five infantry regiments: the 6th Connecticut, the 3rd New Hampshire, the 48th New York, the 76th Pennsylvania, and the 9th Maine, led by Col. Sabine Emery. A teacher in Eastport when the war began, he had joined the 9th as a captain.

Before Seymour could capture Fort Wagner, he had to land on Morris Island. At 4 a.m. on Friday, July 10, Rear Admiral John Dahlgren sent four Navy ironclads monitors — the Montauk, Nahant, Weehawken, and Catskill, which flew his flag — across the Charleston [sand] Bar to bolster Seymour’s impending attack. At 5 a.m. Union artillery on Folly Island started shelling Confederate defensive positions strung from Fort Wagner south to Lighthouse Inlet separating Folly and Morris Islands.

“As soon as the Monitors could get sufficiently near to fire with effect, they opened with shell upon the Confederate works,” wrote Admiral David Dixon Porter in “The Naval History of the Civil War.”

By 8 a.m. Strong’s men started crossing Lighthouse Inlet in small boats to land on Morris Island. There they energetically pitched into enemy positions. “The two columns … moved forward, under a lively discharge of shell, grape[shot], and canister, converging toward the works nearest the southern extremity of” Morris Island, Strong reported.

His men advanced “along its commanding ridge and eastern coast” to capture “eight batteries, of one heavy gun each … besides two batteries” containing between them “three 10-inch seacoast mortars.”

“As the troops moved rapidly along the beach, the iron-clads steamed parallel” to the shore and hurled “shells in every direction … to clear away any bodies of [enemy] troops” that might threaten the Union advance, Porter wrote. The monitors kept firing until noon, “dropped down out of range” so the crews could enjoy dinner, then resumed firing until 6 p.m.

The ironclads came under heavy fire from Fort Wagner and other Confederate posts, including Fort Moultrie on Sullivans Island. The USS Catskill received particularly nasty attention; some 60 shells struck the monitor.

Ashore, the 9th Maine boys plunged into the thick of the fighting. “I have to speak to you in the highest terms of both officers and men of my Regiment in the various engagements on Morris Island,” Emery wrote Maine Gov. Abner Coburn on Monday, Aug. 10.

“At the capture of the southernmost point” of the island, “two companies of the 9th drove the 21st South Carolina Regiment from their Rifle pits — taking a number of them prisoners and capturing their colors — the only stand of [enemy] colors taken on the island,” Emery stated.

The honor of taking the South Carolinian flags fell to Co. I, commanded by Lt. Billings Brastow of Brewer. Charles E. Smith participated in the fighting and, along with his comrades, cheered when the Confederate flags fell into Maine hands.

Emery planned to ship the flags to Augusta, but Seymour diverted them to his tent. As portrayed in “Glory,” his character could be accurate; he stole from the 9th Maine boys their battle-won trophies.

Advancing about three miles north after landing on Morris Island, the Union troops camped for the night — and Strong attacked Fort Wager on Saturday, July 11. “A column of assault was formed before daybreak, this morning, for an attack upon Fort Wagner,” he wrote Seymour later that day.

Followed by the 76th Pennsylvania and the 9th Maine “in the order named,” four 7th Connecticut Infantry companies led the attack, with the 3rd and 7th New Hampshire infantry regiments serving in reserve.

The Connecticut boys intended “to dash forward with a shout when the enemy should open fire, and the other battalions were directed to maintain their respective intervals,” Strong wrote. A heavy fog initially obscured the attackers, and the Connecticut men reached and scaled Fort Wagner’s walls while “under a fire heavy fire of artillery and musketry.”

The Union troops reached “the top of the parapet” and bayoneted “two of the enemy’s gunners,” Strong informed Seymour.

Behind the 7th Connecticut and “within a range of 200 yards“ of Fort Wager, “the Seventy-sixth Pennsylvania halted and lay down upon the ground” after “the enemy opened simultaneously along his whole line,” Strong wrote. “A few moments” later the Pennsylvanians “moved gallantly forward, some of them to the ditch (moat),” but the brief “halt lost the battle, for the interval was lost.”

Defenders ejected the Connecticut boys from Wagner’s parapet. “The whole column, including the Ninth Maine, which had reached the ditch on the left, gave way and retreated from the field,” Strong reported.

The Union troops suffered 339 casualties: 49 killed, 123 wounded, and 167 missing.

Confederate troops reportedly lost 12 men killed.

Fort Wagner would be a tough nut to crack.

Next week: A brave Union soldier wins the Medal of Honor at Fort Wagner – Part II

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.