Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Union Descent Upon Morris Island, S.C., July 9-10, 1863. - The Seventh New Hampshire Volunteers

Colors of the Seventh New Hampshire, 1865
Capt. Paul Whipple and the Seventh New Hampshire Volunteers in the Civil War:
The Descent Upon Morris Island - Mobilization, Assault, and Missed Opportunities in the days before the Assaults on Fort Wagner.

On July 9th and 10th, the Seventh New Hampshire participated in the Union's successful occupation of the lower two-thirds of Morris Island, putting them "within 600 yards" of Fort Wagner.  Henry Little notes that the reluctance of the commanding officer to push forward and attack Fort Wagner was a major blunder, allowing the Confederate forces to be reinforced during the night and thus resulting in the carnage that would follow during the first and second assaults on Fort Wagner.  

We believe had an assault at once been made on Wagner that we should have had the island by sunset wholly in our possession, but for some unaccountable reason this was not done, and was undoubtedly a grave mistake on the part of our commanding general, which was afterwards more fully demonstrated in all our minds, and all Confederate authorities on the subject unite in the opinion that the Union Army lost a great opportunity in not assaulting Fort Wagner that evening.(Little, 1896:109)
What follows are accounts of the action by Henry Little, Medal of Honor recipient and historian of the Seventh New Hampshire Volunteer Regiment,  John Johnson,  Chief Confederate engineer at Fort Sumter, and Episcopal clergyman of Charleston, South Carolina, and Quincy Adams Gillmore, Commander of the Union 10th Corps, which included the forces on Folly and Morris Islands.

Henry F. W. Little
Henry F. W. Little. The Seventh Regiment New Hampshire Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion. Seventh New Hampshire Veterans Association, Concord, N. H.,
John Johnson

John Johnson. 1890.  The defense of Charleston harbor, including Fort Sumter and the adjacent islandsCharleston, S.C., Walker, Evans & Cogswell co.

 General Quincy Adams Gillmore with his horse and tent at Morris Island, South Carolina, 1863.

 Henry Little's account:
During the afternoon of the 9th, the company cooks brought up our rations, and a detail was sent back for our rubber blankets, and during the early hours of the morning of the loth, the brush in front of our masked batteries was carefully removed and the embrasures were carefully shoveled out, long before the early dawn. Major John- [108] son, in his book entitled, "The Defense of Charleston Harbor," says, "some cutting away of brushwood from the front of the concealed works had already been heard by the Confederates, but as there was no removal of the brush, the batteries continued to be undiscovered up to the last moment." And he further says, "Capt. Charles T. Haskell, Jr., of the Twenty-first S. C. Volunteers, scouting from Morris Island, in a small boat, made discovery of the barges moored in the creek back of Folly Island, and that even this discovery failed to alarm the defenders of Morris Island as it should have done," which shows how securely the secret of our work had been kept, and how well the suspicions of the garrison and pickets of the Confederates on Morris Island had been allayed.

On the night of July 9, and about thirty hours after the departure of General Terry's expedition. Brig. Gen. George C. Strong embarked his command in boats or barges at a point near the southwestern extremity of Folly Island, and cautiously proceeded up the creek toward the north end of the island, and near the left of Little Folly Island, and awaited the opening of our batteries.
 Just before 4 o'clock on the morning of the loth, the regiment was ordered to move back a short distance from the batteries, when we were formed in line, and were ordered to support the batteries. The morning dawned pleasant and beautiful, but the atmosphere was close and sultry; a little after 4 o'clock the forty-seven guns and mortars opened from our batteries on Little Folly Island, and were shortly afterward joined by the guns from the monitors, in the harbor, which made a formidable crossfire on the rebel works; and the music of these heavy guns in support of the land batteries was terrific. The rebel forces on Morris Island were so taken by surprise at so heavy an onset that it was some little time before they could get their batteries at work, and then came the fire [109] from Forts Gregg and Wagner at the north end, and from all the guns in the batteries at the south end of Morris Island that the rebels could bring into use, and for nearly three hours this heavy bombardment was kept up. About 7 o'clock General Strong's brigade, awaiting patiently for orders to cross, quickly rowed their barges from the cover of Little Folly Island, and at once pulled for the Morris Island shore, crossing Lighthouse Inlet near the left of Little Folly Island, and under. a heavy infantry lire and the fire of the batteries on the south end of Morris Island a landing was made, line formed, and the rifle-pits and batteries at once charged and taken ; this success was at once followed by the crossing of the Seventh in barges, immediately in front of our batteries, and with other troops who came after us we were formed in support of General Strong's brigade. The batteries on the south end of Morris Island were captured with about two hundred of the rebel garrison, the remainder of their forces were soon skedaddling up the island towards Fort Wagner, and our advance followed them up and a little beyond the Beacon House, and at 9 o'clock two thirds of the island was ours. We believe had an assault at once been made on Wagner that we should have had the island by sunset wholly in our possession, but for some unaccountable reason this was not done, and was undoubtedly a grave mistake on the part of our commanding general, which was afterwards more fully demonstrated in all our minds, and all Confederate authorities on the subject unite in the opinion that the Union Army lost a great opportunity in not assaulting Fort Wagner that evening.
The rebels in their haste to get out of harm's way were obliged to leave almost everything behind, and we found a great variety of articles in their camps, including equipments, arms, ammunition, clothing, muster-rolls, and the personal baggage of the officers and men. We found this [110] island to be more of a sand haste than the one we had just left, with scarcely a half-dozen trees, and very few shrubs upon it; but we were nearer Charleston.

Early in the afternoon First Lieutenant Worcester, of Company H, with a detail from the regiment, advanced as skirmishers and established a picket line where the first parallel was afterwards located. These pickets were under a constant fire of musketry from Fort Wagner, but the distance was so great that the force of the bullets was nearly spent before reaching us. A ten-inch mortar shell fell during the afternoon, within a few yards of the pickets stationed on the beach, which fortunately did not explode, and consequently did no harm.

The fleet followed up the advantage gained by the land forces and the ironclads steamed in close to Fort Wagner, and firing occasional shells helped to keep the rebels from establishing a heavy- picket line in our immediate front during the day.

About 4 o'clock p. m. the Seventh was ordered to the front and took its station near the Beacon House, which was only about four thousand yards from Fort Sumter, from which fort a halt-dozen guns had been firing upon our advancing troops since 10 o'clock a. m., including two powerful Brooke rifles, one of which was fractured five day's after. The day was intensely hot and the men suffered for water. Small details of men were sent back to Folly Island with loads of empty canteens, and we got a small amount of food from the bags of those rebels who were forced to drop them in their hurry to get back to Wagner. The average Confederate haversack as we found it on Morris Island, consisted of a meal sack with a long string tied around the mouth and fastened to the roundabout belt in front, and slung back over the left shoulder, which was easily got rid of by cutting the string at the roundabout, letting the bag fall off over the shoulder [111] behind. We remember to have personally captured one of these bags, and found a conglomeration of uncooked rice, corn meal, and a small piece of plug tobacco, which we eagerly divided with another comrade, who in return gave us a graham pilot biscuit, some black beans, and a piece of bacon which he had taken from another bag.

As the shades of evening settled down around us. Lieutenant Worcester's men were relieved by a new detail, and the picket line was advanced further to the front, the line extending across the island. We occupied with our reserve the line of ground which had been occupied by our pickets during the day, and where was afterwards constructed the first parallel, beyond the Beacon House, which all who were present at the siege of Morris Island will well remember. At dark the firing almost wholly ceased, and the men who were weary and worn with the severe fatigue of the day, after throwing up a slight breastwork, lay down on the sand-hills in line, and soon forgot their hardships and were dreaming of their homes far away, and no one could foretell what the morrow might bring forth. Our pickets were now within six hundred yards of Fort Wagner, and a line of pickets was established by the rebels during the night, immediately in our front, and occupying a ridge extending entirely across the island. -- 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, pages 107-111)
 Johnson's (Confederate) account, from John Johnson. 1890.  The defense of Charleston harbor, including Fort Sumter and the adjacent islands
The Union batteries on Little Folly Island were reported ready for attack on the 6th of July, and orders were issued by [88] Brigadier-General Gillmore, commanding, to open fire and advance on the night of the 8th, barges being collected for the purpose; but no attack was made at that time. It was on this night of the 8th-9th that Captain Charles T. Haskell, Jr., scouting from Morris Island in a small boat, made discovery of the barges moored in the creek back of Folly Island. Even this discovery failed to alarm the defender's of Morris Island, as it should have done; for Brigadier-General Ripley, as already mentioned, reported none but light defensive works across the inlet" up to the 8th or 9th of July."
 Another time set for the attack was the morning of the 9th,but bad weather and other unfavorable circumstances caused a second postponement. Some cutting away of brushwood from the front of the concealed works had already been heard by the Confederates, but as there was no removal of the brush, the batteries continued to be undiscovered up to the last moment.
On this day, however, the 9th, a division of troops, supported by gunboats, began the movements, demonstrating on James Island by way of the Stono River, and an expedition set out from Beaufort to cut the Savannah Railroad at the Edisto. Of these more will be said farther on.
Soon after daybreak, about five o'clock, on the 10th day of July, a close, sultry morning, the batteries were finally unmasked and opened upon Morris Island. Some attack was looked for by the Confederates, but not such a furious and overwhelming cannonade as now began and continued for three hours. It was made with more than four times their number of guns and troops.  Forty-seven guns and mortars were afterward, in an hour's time, joined by eight more gums of the heaviest calibre from the monitors, assisting with their formidable cross-fire. The land attack was commanded by Brigadier-General T. Seymour.
The reply of the Confederate batteries was not immediate, as they were taken much by surprise; nor was it effective against such odds. Guns were disabled and casualties were very frequent. The infantry supports occupied the main line of rifle-pits to the rear of the works, with only a picket-guard at Oyster Point. But when the troops of Strong's brigade appeared in boats coming from the cover of Folly Island into the inlet and [90] advancing on Morris Island, the Confederate batteries were put to better use than before, firing upon the flotilla and sinking a
launch ; then the infantry, under Major G. W. Mclver, moved forward to meet the attack by occupying the advanced rifle-pits near the water. This was about seven o'clock.
On came the boats, using their howitzers and aided by a fire from the left of the Folly Island batteries specially directed by the officer in command, Lieutenant-Colonel R. H. Jackson, upon the infantry forming to dispute the landing. One division of the boats, led by four companies of the Seventh Connecticut, under Lieutenant-Colonel D. C. Rodman, made gallantly for Oyster Point, and carried, after a short resistance, the rifle-pits in that vicinity. Another division, with the Sixth Connecticut, Colonel J. L. Chatfield commanding, kept on down the inlet to the south-eastern point of the island, where it landed under cover of high ground in perfect safety, as the Confederate guns could not be depressed sufficiently to bear on the spot. (Lieutenant-Colonel L. Meeker's report.) With a charge from this point, and but little loss, the Sixth Connecticut captured the nearest batteries, while, converging toward the middle of the island, the other (the main) column, led by the Seventh Connecticut and comprising also the Forty-eighth New York, Ninth Maine, Third New Hampshire, and Seventy-sixth Pennsylvania, took battery after battery, and drove the infantry support out of their main line of rifle-pits in full retreat up the sandy length of the island toward Fort Wagner.
The Confederates fought their batteries as long as they could under Captain Mitchel and Captain Macbeth, the latter being wounded and captured; but the extreme heat of the day, combined with the overpowering fire of the enemy's guns, told disastrously on the small force both of artillery and infantry, so that Colonel Graham could do nothing but give the order to retreat. 150 wounded or exhausted' men, with Captain Macbeth and Lieutenants Bee and Guerard, were made prisoners, the total loss, killed, wounded, and missing, being reported by
General Ripley at 294. Among the killed or mortally wounded were Captain Charles T. Haskell, Jr., First South Carolina Infantry, Lieutenant John S. Bee, First South Carolina Artillery, [91] Lieutenant T. H. Dalrymple, Twenty-first South Carolina volunteers, and Assistant Engineer Langdon Cheves. The Union loss was 107, Captain L. H. Lent, of the Forty-eighth New York volunteers, being among the killed.
The retreat of the Confederates over the heavy sand toward Fort Wagner, nearly three miles of toilsome effort under a broiling sun was at length covered by that work and the arrival of seven companies from Lieutenant-Colonel P. H. Nelson's Seventh battalion of South Carolina volunteers, under Major James H. Rion; the retreat being followed up by the four monitors, close in to the beach, as far as Wagner itself.

General Gilmore's account:

Gilmore begins with a lengthy footnote responding to the criticism that an attack on James Island would have directly threatened Charleston and therefore would have been more efficient.  Gilmore replies that his forces were no match for the larger and fortified Confederate forces.  Henry Little will later argue in his book that the construction of the Swamp Angel battery and the arrival of longer range artillery, as well as the USS New Ironsides, would have ultimately made Wagner indefensible, which indeed was ultimately the case.

  * The question has been asked why the route across James Island from Stono River, the same that Brigadier-General Benham attempted, was not selected to operate upon.  The answer is simple. The enemy had more troops available for the defence of Charleston than we had for the attack. The general in-chief in the preliminary discussions of the project, had mentioned ten thousand men as the approximate number that could be collected in the department of the South for this operation. The force actually got together there did not vary much from eleven thousand five hundred men, including engineers and artillerists. Upon Morris Island, on account of its narrowness, this force was ample, and it was not until the command had been reduced one-third by sickness and casualties that reinforcements were asked for. But James Island presents a different case. There our progress would soon have been arrested by the concentration of a superior force in our front. Upon Morris Island both parties had all the force that could be employed with advantage. Our superiority in artillery, ashore and afloat-particularly in the use of mortars in the trenches—the successful application of new devices, tlie energy and skill of our engineers, and a steadily maintained initiative, gave us the controlling elements of success. Moreover, according to the programme of joint operations, the demolition of Fort Sumter was what the land forces had to accomplish, and that could be done with more easy and certainty from Morris Inland than from any other position. James Inland was too wide to operate upon, with a fair promise of success, with our small force.—Q. A. G. (1865:23-24).
Gilmore's account follows, including his Confidential Orders for July 9 and 10, 1863:
54. The storming of a fortified position, except when preceded by the slow operations of a regular siege, which, besides partially or entirely silencing the fire of the enemy's works, will also enable the attacking column to get very near the enemy under cover before the final assault is made, is always an operation attended with imminent peril in its execution, and great uncertainty in its results. The best troops can seldom be made to advance under the fire of even a few well-served pieces of artillery. The hazard of such an undertaking, great as it is under ordinary circumstances, when both parties operate on firm ground, becomes immeasurably augmented when the assaulting column has to approach in small boats from a distant point, exposed to full view and constant artillery fire, disembark and form upon an open beach in the presence of the enemy, and finally advance to the attack under the combined fire of artillery and small-arms.
55. Yet these were the difficult conditions of the problem so successfully solved in the descent upon Morris Island on the 10th day of July. 
56. It was known from deserters and fugitives that the enemy had there in position from ten to twelve guns of various calibres, and that these were so arranged in batteries of single pieces, that they each covered with their fire, not only the north end of Folly Island held by our advanced pickets, and the main ship-channel abreast of Morris Island, but could be so traversed as to sweep the entire length of Lighthouse Inlet, which separates the two islands.
57. Three methods of conducting the assault suggested themselves:

First, To place the men in small boats in Stono River, tow them out to sea, and land them in the surf at daybreak on the sea front of Morris Island;
Second, To accumulate on the north end of Folly Island the boats required for the assaulting column, keep them concealed there until the moment of attack, and then launch them under fire, embark the men, and cross over;

Third, To embark the men in Folly River, and pass in the night-time, during high tide, through the shallow creeks into Lighthouse Inlet and make the assault from that direction. This last-named method of attack was adopted.

58. In the mean time, between the middle of June and the Gth of July, ordnance and ordnance stores were quietly accumulated at Folly Island.

59. The following armament was secretly placed in position on the north end of Folly Island, completely masked from the enemy's view by sand ridges and undergrowth. The object to be secured by this powerful array of guns was threefold, viz., First, To operate against and, if possible, dismount the enemy's guns nearest the place where the landing would have to be made; Second, To cover the debarkation of the troops; and, Third, To protect their retreat to the boats in case of repulse. This last-named condition was considered by far the most important of the three.

Battery. No. of Guns. Kind of Guns.

60. The duty of constructing these batteries was assigned to Brigadier-General L. Vogdes. The task was by no means easy, and to its successful execution our subsequent triumphs were due in no small degree.

61. It was necessary that the attack on Morris Island should be a surprise in order to insure success. Secresy was therefore an essential element in the preparations. Most of the work on the batteries, and all the transportation to them, was accomplished at night, and in silence. Moreover, all signs of work had to be carefully concealed by day. One fortunate circumstance favored these operations. A blockade-runner had been chased ashore just south of the entrance to Lighthouse Inlet, within point-blank range of our batteries, and while the enemy on Morris Island were industriously engaged in wrecking this vessel night and day, (an operation which we could easily have prevented,) our batteries were quietly and rapidly pushed forward to completion. They were ready to open fire on the 6th July.

62. The fact that forty-seven pieces of artillery, with two hundred rounds of ammunition for each gun, and provided with suitable parapets, splinter-proof shelters, and magazines, were secretly placed in battery in a position within speaking distance of the enemy's pickets, exposed to a flank and reverse view from their tall observatories on James Island, and to a flank view at pistol range from the wreck, furnishes by no means' the least interesting and instructive incident of this campaign.

63. Meanwhile, during the week ending July 8th, additional troops, comprising Brigadier-General Terry's division, about four thousand strong, and Brigadier General Strong's brigade, about two thousand five hundred strong, were quietly accumulated on Folly Island under cover of darkness.

64. The buoys at the entrance to Stono River, where the channel was narrow and crooked, with but five feet of water at low tide, were lighted up at night, and all transports carrying troops were ordered to enter after dark, land their men, and depart before daylight in the morning. Sutlers' schooners were ordered away, and all appearance of preparations for offensive operations was carefully suppressed. Upon General Vogdes' defensive works on Folly Island a semblance of great activity was conspicuously displayed. Everything being in readiness, the following order was issued:


Headquarters Department Of The South,
Folly Island, July 8th, 1863.

I. An attack upon Morris Island will be made at the rising of the moon to-night, by Brigadier-General Strong's brigade of Brigadier-General Seymour's division. This force will be embarked in small boats immediately after sunset, and will pass through Folly Island Creek to and across Lighthouse Inlet.

A small detachment from this force will enter the creek to the west of Morris Island, and will land just north of the old lighthouse, seize the batteries there, * and, if possible, turn them upon the enemy's encampment north of them. The main column will land from Lighthouse Inlet, carry the batteries on the south end of Morris Island, and advance to the support of the detachment above mentioned. Two regiments and some field artillery will be held in readiness on the extreme north end of Folly Island to be pushed over as reinforcemeuts. To this end General Strong will send his boats back as soon as he has disembarked his command.

II. At the same time General Terry, with all his division, except the One Hundredth New York Volunteers, will ascend the Stono River under convoy of the navy, and make a strong demonstration on James Island, but will not unnecessarily hazard any portion of his command. Perhaps one or two regiments only need be disembarked. These should be pushed forward as skirmishers under cover of the navy.

IIL A naval force is expected to enter the main channel abreast of Morris Island, by or before sunrise to-morrow morning, to co-operate with the land forces.

IV. Should the night attack fail from any cause, the assaulting column will withdraw to Folly Island, sending their boats into Folly Island Creek. In that event the batteries on the north end of Folly Island will open at daybreak, or as soon thereafter as practicable.

Brigadier-General Seymour will arrange the details.
By order of

Brigadier-General Q. A. Gillmore.
W. L. M. Burger,
Assistant-Adjutant- General.

66. Colonel Serrell of the New York Volunteer Engineers had received orders to remove, before daybreak on the 9 th, enough of the piles, which the enemy had previously placed across the creek which connects Lighthouse Inlet with Folly Island Creek, to allow the column in the small boats to pass through.

67. The batteries on the north end of Folly Island were also ordered to be unmasked, by opening out the embrasures and cutting away the brushwood in front of them....
68. About midnight on the 8th it was determined, for various reasons, the principal one of which was the unseaworthy condition of our boats, to defer the attack until the next night. A sufficient number of piles had been removed to afford a passage for the boats, but the work of unmasking the batteries had not progressed far enough to expose them to the view, or attract the attention of the enemy.
 69. In the mean time Brigadier-General Terry's command, of about three thousand eight hundred men, had proceeded up the Stono River on the afternoon of the 8th, and was confronting the enemy on the lower end of James Island. The immediate effect of this demonstration, as subsequently ascertained, was to draw off a portion of the enemy's force on Morris Island.
The following order was then issued on the afternoon of the 9th, and full detailed instructions for the assault given verbally to Generals Seymour and Strong.


Headquarters Department Of The South,
Folly Island, S. C, July 9th, 1863.

I. The attack on Morris Island, ordered for this morning but postponed in consequence of the inclemency of the weather and other unfavorable circumstances, will take place to-morrow morning at break of day, by opening our batteries at the north end of Folly Island.

General Strong's brigade, or so much of it as the small boats can accommodate, will embark to-night and hold itself in Folly Island Creek, ready to move forward and at the proper time occupy the south end of Morris Island.

II. Lieutenant - Commanding Francis W. Bunce, United States Navy, with four navy howitzer launches, will approach Lighthouse Inlet at daybreak, by way of Folly Island Creek, and engage the enemy's rifle-pits and batteries on Morris Island in flank and reverse, choosing his own position. He will cover General Strong's landing.

III. Two regiments of infantry, a battery of light artillery, and five Requa's rifle batteries,* will be held in readiness to reinforce General Strong promptly.

Brigadier-General Seymour will arrange and order all details.

By order of

Brigadier-General Q. A. Gillmore,
Ed. W. Smith,
Assistant-Adjutant- General.

* For a description of the Requa batteries see Report of Major T. B. Brooks, A. D. C. and Assistant Engineer.

71. In pursuance of the above order, nearly two thousand men of General Strong's brigade were embarked in small boats in Folly River on the evening of the 9th, and at daybreak on the following morning the head of the column had reached Lighthouse Inlet, where it was halted. The boats kept close to the east shore of the creek, and were screened by the marsh grass from the view of the enemy on Morris Island.

72. Our batteries on Folly Island opened shortly after daybreak, and were served rapidly for about two hours, when I ordered General Strong to land and make the assault by putting two regiments ashore at Oyster Point, and the balance of his command on the firm land lower down. The landing was promptly effected, under a hot fire of artillery and musketry, under which our troops did not falter for a moment. All the enemy's batteries on the south end of Morris Island were gallantly and successively carried.

73. By 9 o'clock A.m. we occupied three-fourths of the island, and our skirmishers were within musket range of Fort Wagner. The heat being intense, and the troops exhausted, offensive operations were suspended for the day.

74. Brigadier-General Seymour was ordered to carry Fort Wagner by assault at daybreak on the following morning. The attempt failed....
"Genl. Gillmore's works in front of Fort Wagner, July 1863." Library of Congress.