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

As Union infantrymen successfully scale the southeast bastion of Fort Wagner on Morris Island after dark on Saturday, July 18, 1863, a color bearer unfurls the American flag (right). Counterattacking Confederates swarm on the fort’s parapets (center) and fire on the Union soldiers. Among the Federal regiments participating in the charge was the 9th Maine Infantry, commanded by Col. Sabine Emery. This lithograph adequately depicts the furious fighting that took place at Wagner that night; the attack ended in a Union defeat. Fort Wagner blocked Union access to Charleston, S.C. (Library of Congress)

For the brave Union soldier who won the Medal of Honor at Fort Wagner, the day started off with a bang on Saturday, July 18, 1863.

Charles E. Smith and his companions from the 9th Maine Infantry Regiment listened all day as land- and sea-based Union artillery shelled Wagner to damage its walls, unseat its guns, and hurt its garrison. Maneuvering perhaps 300 yards offshore, several Navy ironclads hurled their heavy shells at pointblank range; the bombardment continued for eight hours.

Union infantry would attack at dusk. Scrub brush narrowed the approaches to a 60-yard width across the beach; only one regiment could advance at a time, and the lead regiment could catch hell.

Earlier the 9th Maine’s brigade commander, Brig. Gen. George Crockett Strong, had fielded a surprise request made by a fellow officer from Massachusetts. After landing recently on Folly Island, this colonel’s regiment had fought Confederate troops on nearby James Island on Thursday, July 16.

The 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment sought the honor of leading the Fort Wagner assault, said Col. Robert Gould Shaw.

His request presented Strong and ultimately division commander Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour with a ticklish situation. Among the first “black” or “colored” regiments to reach a combat zone, the 54th Massachusetts encompassed black enlisted soldiers led by white officers. Strong commanded five “white” regiments; because he could not personally approve Shaw’s request, Strong sent it up the line to Seymour.

He approved, not because he valued the almost untried 54th Massachusetts; the racist Seymour figured the regiment would be shot to pieces during the attack, thus ridding him of his black troops.

Yet of Strong’s now six colonels, only Shaw gained historical immortality for what would happen this night on Morris Island.

The Union troops faced a daunting task in simply reaching their target. About 5 p.m. “the heavy sea fogs from the Atlantic” slid across Morris Island and obscured “the continuous flash of artillery directed against Fort Wagner,” recalled Capt. Garth James of Co. F, 54th Massachusetts.

“A long stretch of beach lay between” the Union artillery for Wagner, he wrote. “For a stretch of thirty yards or so the beach was level, then alternate drifts and mounts of sand confronted the passage onward.”

About 6 p.m. “our line of battle stretched itself across the sandy beach, in column by division closed in mass,” James remembered. The sea breeze stirred the American and Massachusetts flags; peering through “the shifting fogs,” Confederate gunners targeted the 54th.

In a map published by the Civil War Trust, outstanding mapmaker Steven Stanley has indicated that the regiments following the 54th Massachusetts were, in order, the 6th Connecticut, the 48th New York, the 3rd New Hampshire, the 76th Pennsylvania, and the 9th Maine. The four-regiment brigade commanded by Col. Haldimand S. Putnam would follow Strong’s regiments into battle.

James recalled that “the 6th Connecticut marched into line behind us; in their rear filed the 9th Maine Infantry,” and “to the rear of these regiments closed in the whole available force of our army on Morris Island …variously estimated from 5000 to 7000 in number.”

If James was correct — and he charged with his men — then the 9th Maine boys charged third in line, not sixth. Other sources do place Emery’s regiment at the rear of the brigade.
No matter their position, the Maine boys paid for their courage.

“Mounted on a superb gray charger” and clad “in full dress, white gloves, a yellow bandana handkerchief coiled around his neck,” Strong rode to the 54th Massachusetts and spoke to Shaw’s black soldiers, according to James. With both hands Strong thrust the regiment’s national and state flags “aloft as a presage of a victory near at hand.”

Soldiers “about to plunge themselves into the fiery vortex of Hell” responded with “deafening cheers,” James recalled.

The movie “Glory” depicts just one glaring error in the climatic assault on Fort Wagner. Played by Matthew Broderick, Robert Gould Shaw leads his men toward the fort (a reasonable facsimile of the original) with the Atlantic Ocean rolling ashore to their left.

Union infantry actually advanced with the ocean to their right.

Shaw and his men stepped off at approximately 7:45 p.m.; Emery, Charles E. Smith, and the 9th Maine followed a short time later. The plans called for the 54th Massachusetts to strike the fort’s southeast bastion; Strong’s five remaining regiments and then Putnam’s four regiments would pile into the breaches carved by Shaw’s men.

As his black soldiers from the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment scale the low parapet of Fort Wagner on Morris Island near Charleston, S.C., Col. Robert Gould Shaw thrusts his sword skyward as he is shot and killed beside the regimental flag bearer. The 9th Maine Infantry participated in the same assault. This fanciful lithograph contains several errors; the most egregious places the attack in the daytime. The actual assault took place after sunset. (Library of Congress)

Sheltering in “bomb proofs” during the long bombardment, Confederate troops listened as the shelling lessened at nightfall. Some brave gunners already targeted the massed Federal infantry obscured by darkness, gun smoke, and fog.

“The bugle sounds the advance,” and James “turned to cheer the men.” Wagner gunners patiently waited until the 54th Massachusetts reached a point about 150 yards from the south wall.

As “we reached the first obstruction to our passage, the first chevaux-de-frise,” enemy cannons “shotted with grape and canister” shredded Shaw’s men, James recalled. “Gathering together a knot of men” from the shattered ranks, “I waved my sword for a further charge toward the living line of fire above us.”

Suffering a foot wound, James did not reach the Wagner parapet. Other 54th Massachusetts boys did so and fought frenziedly with the opposing North Carolinians, as depicted in the savage fighting that occurs while “Charging Fort Wagner” resounds during “Glory.”

Confederate artillery just to the east on Wagner’s walls fired almost pointblank into the attacking white regiments. Some soldiers, especially from the 6th Connecticut and 48th New York, reached the southeast bastion’s parapets, but most died there.

Behind them Strong’s three remaining regiments (including the 9th Maine) went belly to beach where a slight sandy ridge provided scant protection against canister and grapeshot. Here regiments intermingled as wounded men staggered away from the Wagnerian charnel house. Officers tried to rally their men and push onward.

Strong organized a desperate charge and suffered a mortal wound for his effort. As his regiments swept across that sandy ridge (and apparently inspired some 9th Maine boys to charge with them), Putnam led his men as far as Wagner’s southeast bastion.

Confederate carronades kept firing — and men kept dying.

Union boys from several regiments crouched wherever they found shelter in the southeast bastion. Confederate infantry counterattacked at least twice; Putnam was shot dead in the wild fighting. Shaw died climbing the steep wall in Wagner’s midsection, and the 6th Connecticut lost its colonel, John Lyman Chatfield, to a mortal wound.

The gallant attack ultimately failed, and Union casualties totaled an estimated 1,515 men killed, wounded, captured, or missing. Confederate casualties amounted to 174 men.

The 9th Maine paid dearly for participating in both assaults on Fort Wagner. “The entire loss to the Regiment in killed and wounded in the capture of the [Morris] Island and the assaults on Wagner will not be far from two hundred,” Emery informed Coburn.

Dozens of Maine boys who had crossed Lighthouse Inlet with Emery on July 10 now lay buried in individual or mass graves dug in the sand. Other Maine boys suffered from agonizing wounds, yet their comrades settled into the subsequent 60-day siege of Fort Wagner and locked away in the deep recesses of their minds the memories of friends now dead or shattered.

Emery asked Coburn to commission “Orderly Sergeant Geo. S. Colbath, Co. A” as a “2nd Lieut. in that Company for gallant conduct in the [July 18] assault on Fort Wagner … The Company is now without a commissioned officer — Capt. Brooks being severely wounded and Lieut. Goodwin having died from the effects of his wounds.”

Artist Alfred Waud sketched this drawing of the American flag flying over Fort Wagner about its capture by Union troops. Waud dated the drawing Sept. 6, 1863; the fort actually fell on Sept. 8. (Library of Congress)

Shelled almost constantly for 8½ weeks, Confederate defenders abandoned Wagner on Monday, Sept. 7. Union troops quickly advanced to attack Battery Gregg; according to his obituary, Charles E. Smith “was in the charge upon Fort Gregg and it was in front of Gregg that Capt. Scolly D. Baker of Co. I was killed.”

He “was a Bangor man,” the Bangor Daily News reported. Smith “was beside Capt. Baker when he fell, almost cut in two by a shell.”

After the 9th Maine shifted north to Virginia in 1864, Smith “was … wounded in the breast at Petersburg” during the July 30 Battle of the Crater. Sent home to recover, Smith returned to the 9th Maine in mid-October and “mustered out as orderly sergeant … at Raleigh, N.C.” in mid-July 1865.

According to his August 1912 obituary, “it was in this [Fort Wagner] charge that Col. Shaw was killed and it was in this charge, too, that Mr. Smith had won his medal of honor,” the Bangor Daily News reported. Elsewhere the paper clearly stated that Smith was awarded the Congressional medal of honor.

“The 54th Massachusetts was cut up and put to flight when his (Shaw’s) regimental flag went down. Mr. Smith picked it up and carried it through the battle, finally bringing it to camp safely after the charge,” the “Bangor Daily News” reported.

“Col. Quincy A. Gilmore (sic) … was the corps commander on this day,” the paper told readers. “He happened to see the brave act of Smith in getting the flag and defending it with his life. It was he (Gilmore) who recommended to Congress that a medal of honor be given to Mr. Smith.”

The actual medal in Smith’s (and now his survivors’) possession “is made from a bit of captured bronze [Confederate] cannon, as all Civil War medals are,” the paper’s knowledgeable reporter wrote 49 years after Smith saved the flag.

“On one side appears Fort Sumter in relief, with the words, ‘Fort Sumter as it looked in August, 1863’ and on the reverse, ‘For gallant and meritorious conduct in front of the enemy,’” the reporter detailed Smith’s medal.

For years after the war Smith likely wore his medal when attending meetings of the Beale Post, Grand Army of the Republic. Post members respected the bonafide war hero who had served so well on Southern battlefields.

But there was a problem.

When Confederate ordnance struck down the 54th Massachusetts flag bearer on Wagner’s ramparts, Sgt. William Harvey Carney picked up the flag and thrust its staff deeply into the sand. There the flag stood as fighting raged around it.

As Confederates ejected their black enemies from Wagner, Carney “wound the colors round the staff and made my way down the parapet into the ditch … now filled with water that came up to my waist,” he later wrote. Bleeding from head, hip, and right leg wounds, he navigated his way through the darkness and reached the 54th’s survivors.

Carney became the first black soldier to win the Medal of Honor.

So Charles E. Smith of Bangor did not win the Medal of Honor, as his obituary reported.

But “it will be remembered that after the reduction of Fort Wagner and the demolition of Fort Sumter, last Fall, Gen. GILLMORE announced that medals of honor would be presented to such enlisted men as had especially distinguished themselves by gallant conduct during the [1863] siege” of Charleston, the “Palmetto Herald” reported in late March 1864 and the “New York Times” published on March 30.

Some months after Fort Wagner fell, Gen. Quincy Gillmore ordered this “medal of honor” struck and presented to approximately 500 Union soldiers who displayed particular bravery during the summer 1863 Charleston, S.C. campaign. This medal’s appearance and printed physical description closely resembles that of the Medal of Honor cited in the August 1912 obituary of Charles E. Smith of Bangor.

The “size of the silver dollar,” the bronze Gillmore Medal was engraved in front with “a very accurate representation of Fort Sumter … with the legend ‘Fort Sumter, Aug. 23, 1863’” and in back with the inscription “ ‘For gallant and meritorious service. Presented by Q.A. Gillmore, Major-General.”

Only “about five hundred candidates” were eligible to receive the Gillmore medal of honor — and its recipients clearly understood it to be a medal of honor, according to the NYT.
Charles E. Smith was among those 500 heroes.

So for his incredible bravery during the “Glory” assault on Fort Wagner near Charleston, S.C., this Union foot soldier did win the medal of honor, just not the Congressional version.

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.