Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Seventh New Hampshire in the Civil War: The First Charge On Fort Wagner, Morris Island, S.C. July 11, 1863

The Seventh New Hampshire Volunteer Regiment was in the same Brigade as the Seventh Connecticut and so they came to be commonly referred to as the "77th New England" by the troops.  On July 11, 1863, Union General Q. A. Gillmore, having perhaps fatally delayed by not giving chase following the rout of the Confederate forces on the southern two-thirds of Morris Island, began his first assault on Fort Wagner. This attack failed like the better remembered second assault. In the first assault, the Seventh New Hampshire was held in support of the attack, which was led by the Seventh Connecticut. Henry Little's account is therefore brief. We can supplement it with the account by of the Seventh Connecticut's Stephen Walkley, Jr. in his regimental history.  At the coming Second Assault ("Glory"), the Seventh New Hampshire would lead the second wave in support of the 54th Massachusetts.  Both would suffer horrendous losses as did the Seventh Connecticut in the "First Charge' on the fort.
Henry Little's account of the First Assault on Fort Wagner: 
At early dawn on the morning of the 11th, and before the morning mist had lifted itself above those sand-hills, a disposition of the forces comprising the brigade under General Strong was made for an assault upon Fort Wagner. The assaulting column was at once ordered forward and the Seventh was ordered into line for support. The assault was sharp and furious, and lasted less than a half- hour, but the garrison of Morris Island had been considerably reinforced during the night so that the force inside of Fort Wagner numbered about one thousand infantry and two hundred artillerists, about four hundred men more [112] than the effective strength of the garrison the day previous. The assault proved a failure, with a loss of killed, wounded, and captured of about three hundred and thirty.
The Seventh being in the supporting column lost no men in this assault. Then came the order to entrench, and the two months' siege of Fort Wagner at once commenced. In this first assault on Fort Wagner, the assaulting column consisted of four companies of the Seventh Connecticut, the Ninth Maine, and the Seventy-sixth Pennsylvania. The supporting column consisted of the Sixth Connecticut, Forty-eighth New York, Third and Seventh New Hampshire.....  This assault demonstrated to General Gillmore that Fort Wagner, when properly garrisoned, was stronger than he had supposed it to be, and after consultation with Rear-Admiral Dahlgren he concluded to establish counter-batteries against it, and to attempt with the combined lire of the land batteries and gunboats, to drive the enemy from it, or open the way to a successful assault. Batteries were accordingly established and were ready to open fire on the morning of the 18th.
On the night of the 11th, the Seventh was still at the front, and we got a ration of hard bread, the first we had issued to us since leaving Folly Island. As the plunging fire from the guns of Sumter, Wagner, Gregg, and Moultrie, and the enfilading fire of Fort Johnson, the Horseshoe battery, and Battery Bee on James Island had been very annoying, during the day we were directed to strengthen our slight earthworks, this being the first entrenchment of any kind yet made upon this end of Morris Island by our troops.  ---Henry F. W. Little. The Seventh Regiment New Hampshire Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion. Seventh New Hampshire Veterans Association, Concord, N. H., 1896.

This is the obviously fuller account by Stephen Walkley, Jr. of the Seventh Connecticut Volunteers (later a Senator from Connecticut) of the first assault on Fort Wagner, July 11, 1863:
About one mile from Fort Wagner and within range of its guns, the Seventh New Hampshire was stationed under cover of the sand hills ; two companies were thrown out as a picket line within four or five hundred yards of the fort.

The battalion of the Seventh Connecticut, utterly exhausted by two sleepless nights and the battle of the morning, was halted under cover of the hills and the sound of bursting shells over the heads of the men was more terrifying than dangerous. That night, the first one out of three, they lay down to sleep. [74]
Stephen Walkley, Jr.
About 2.30 on the morning of July 11th, General Strong came and called Lieutenant Colonel Rodman out for a short consultation. When he returned, he said to the officers, "Turn out, we have a job on hand." They well knew what that meant. The men were aroused from sleep, formed into line, pieces loaded and primed and bayonets fixed. Silently and quietly they moved up to our advanced picket line. General Strong was there. He informed them that the fort was to be assaulted, that they were chosen as the "Forlorn Hope," and that there were but three guns that looked this way. He directed them to move quietly forward until the enemy's pickets fired, then follow them close and rush for the work, and they should have prompt support. "If you fire, aim low, but don't stop to fire ; trust in God and give them the bayonet."* "Forward the Seventh" was the order, and forward they went. Soon the enemy's pickets opened fire, and scarcely waiting for the order the Seventh took up the double quick step with a cheer and rushed for the works. Before reaching the outer work, a murderous fire of musketry met them and a few men fell, temporarily checking the advance.
Hiram L. Barrett, Seventh Connecticut Volunteers
Captured at Fort Wagner, July 11, 1863.
"Each comrade can best describe his individual hardships and occasional pleasures. These stories tell of devoted men who left their peaceful firesides to aid in subduing a wicked rebellion. I enlisted without hope of winning rank or glory. I touched elbows with comrades in every engagement credited to Company K until my capture at Fort Wagner, S. C., July 11th, 1863. Then followed ten months of starvation in prison pens as follows: Three days in Charleston jail, thirty-two days in Libby prison, one hundred twenty-seven days on Belle Isle and eighty-nine days in the small-pox hospital, being exchanged May 8th, 1864."
An encouraging word from the officers restored order, and right gallantly they sped to the outer work, over it with a will, down into and across the moat, through water about a foot deep, and scrambled up the slope of the [75] parapet where they lay down so near the crest that one had but to raise his head, and rest his gun upon the parapet to kill his man. There they lay busying themselves with picking off sharpshooters and gunners while anxiously awaiting the promised support. All were doing their best to keep down the fire of the o-arrison and a few cases of individual bravery were specially noticed and reported.
Quite a number of the garrison were killed or wounded, while our men were in that position. Captain Gray said to private William DeWitt of Company A, who lay by his side, "Shoot that gunner." He rose, took deliberate aim and fired. At the same time a bullet hit him in the head and he fell with his gun across the parapet.

In the meantime what had become of the supporting column? These were the Seventy-sixth Pennsylvania in close column, and after them the Ninth Maine. When the Seventy-sixth Pennsylvania had come within range of 200 yards the enemy opened simultaneously along his whole line, and the column halted and lay down. Though they remained but a short time in that position, that halt was fatal, for the interval was lost and the garrison filing out of the bomb-proof gathered in the flank of a bastion and poured an enfilading fire along the parapet, while others threw hand grenades from within the fort.

The Pennsylvanians soon rose and moved gallantly up to the ditch on the right and the Ninth Maine on the left, but only to a useless sacrifice, for the 1,200 men in the fort with their three cannon were by this time mowing them down, and nothing was left for them but to join the retreat. Their mistake cost them dear; their casualties were in that short period 180.

Of them. General Strong said in his official report:

"The Seventy-sixth Pennsylvania Regiment, heretofore bearing the reputation of a most gallant and thoroughly [76] disciplined organization, will have another and early opportunity to efface the remembrance of their involuntary fault. 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."
Before the support came on "the forlorn hope" had quickly to choose whether to surrender, to rush down into the fort to certain annihilation, or to run the gauntlet of fire from the cannon and musketry of the garrison. The last was chosen.

Reluctantly Lieutenant Colonel Rodman gave the order to retreat. Down the slope, across the moat and along the beach they ran, with a strong enfilading fire of musketry, besides three cannon from the fort pouring out grape and canister. This cut them down on all sides. Lieutenant Colonel Rodman was shot first in the side ; then a grape shot plowed through his left leg. This was about 150 yards from the fort. Lieutenant Green stopped to help him and
he was shot in the leg. Others went to his assistance and four men carried him to camp, dodging down their heads every time a charge of grape or canister came along. This so added to the colonel's suffering that he said, "Stand up, they can't hit you." General Strong, who met them on their return, said with tears in his eyes : "Ah, my brave fellows, you deserved a better fate ; you have covered yourselves with glory."

About fifteen minutes after reaching camp, the roll was called and only eighty-eight men responded. The whole number who went into the fight were eleven officers and 185 men. Capt. Theodore Burdick, Lieut. John H. Wilson and twenty-five enlisted men were killed, two officers and forty-two enlisted men wounded, and four officers and fifty- [77] four men captured. Of the fifty-four captured, eighteen were wounded and sixteen afterward died in prison from wounds or privation, so that though the official report of casualties gives an aggregate loss of 103 in killed, wounded and missing, the actual loss of life in consequence of the charge was forty-three, more than one-fifth of those who were engaged.

The following lines which were read at a reunion of the right flank company are here published by request.
At Morris Isle on a summer night,
Near where the waves flashed phosphor light,
A tired battalion of soldiers lay;
Companies A, B, I and K.
Wean- with waiting on Folly's shore,
Weary with watching the night before.

Weary with fighting from early dawn
Through the sultry hours of a July morn,
Beyond the hilltops' wavy crest,
They laid them down for a needed rest;
And with labored breathing, long and deep,
The red half moon began to glower
Fast were locked in dreamless sleep.

Over Saint Michael's steepled tower,*
When 'mid the sleepers a tumult began
Spreading itself from man to man.
Hark, 'tis the sergeant's muffled voice,
"Fall in ! the Seventh, fall in here boys!"

They spring to their feet with sleepy stare;
They brush the sand from out their hair,
Rifle and cartridge box they grasp.
Around their waists their belts they clasp,
And rolling their blankets with hasty care,
They fall in line; none are missing then.
They march toward Wagner along the beach
Until our picket post they reach;
Then halt and rest the line along.
When out to the front steps General Strong.
"Men, where yon fort's embrasures yawn,
Our flag must float when the day shall dawn
And yours be the honor the charge to lead,
Brave hearts and strong hands your efforts need,
When you fire aim low. and trust in God
And give them the bayonet;" then with a nod
To Colonel Rodman he seeks the rear
And "Forward the Seventh" comes firm and clear.

Many a man when soul is fired
With rage or with battle's zeal inspired
Will face his death with unflinching brow,
But when the pulse is cool and slow,
When brain is still and thought is clear.
None but a hero can conquer fear.

The little band of companies four
Who heard that word upon the shore,
Might well with fluttering heart-beat send
A farewell thought to home and friend,
Or lift to Heaven a silent prayer;
For they knew that Death was in the air.
But as they march to meet their fate
Their step is true and their line is straight,
Elbow to elbow, each to each
They firmly tread the silent beach.

In their faces the guns of the picket flash
"Double Quick ! Charge !" and on they dash
Met by the deafening roar and crash
Of bursting shell and musket's flash.
Quick in the moat their knees are wet:
Quickly they mount the parapet:
They throw themselves upon the fort
To await the arrival of their support,
Loading and firing they hold their place.
Looking thrice their number in the face.
"Now if our comrades were only here
We'd carry the fort with a rush and cheer,
Where linger the regiments in the rear,
Who shoulder to shoulder were marching near."
Alas, the enemy's murderous fire
Has checked their advance, will they retire?
Later they charge, but they charge too late
To save their brothers from adverse fate.
So the little band on the fort who lie
Must choose to surrender, retreat or die.
"Retreat" was Rodman's reluctant word,
"Save himself who can'' and those who heard
Helping the wounded and leaving the dead,
Back, back through the fiery gauntlet sped,
While the roar and whistle and hum and buzz
Of grape and canister around them rose.

One hundred and ninety-six all told
Had taken part in that charge so bold,
But when they returned to their bivouac
Only just eighty-eight came back.
Some in their last long sleep lay low
"With their backs to the field and their feet to the foe"
Some maimed or surrounded by hostile foes
Were compelled to surrender; and out of those
Full many by wounds or privation died.
Where in Southern prisons for home they sighed.
One-fifth of those who joined the strife,
There gave their lives for the nation's life.
All honor to them, and when we meet
Our comrades old of the Seventh to greet.
The Seventh, which faced Confederate lines
From Florida's swamps to Virginia's pines.
Be our hand-clasp warmest, our welcome best
For those who charged upon Wagner's crest.
*General Strong was a fine type of the true Christian soldier. One who was wounded in that charge afterward said to the writer: "When I learned what we were to do my knees shook so that I thought I should drop, but the way General Strong said Trust in God' braced me right up, I never thought of myself after that." 
[*]*St. Michael's Church — a prominent object in Charleston as
seen from Morris Island.