After the successful amphibious operation against Port Royal and the stunning, long range artillery bombardment that led to the swift capture of Fort Pulaski, Brig. Gen. Quincy Gillmore was assigned to lead the 1863 campaign against the city of Charleston, South Carolina. Gillmore, who graduated first in his West Point class of 1849, was a rising star within the Union ranks.
Gillmore’s plan, supported by a heavy naval presence, was to seize Morris Island so that he could place heavy rifled guns on Cummings Point that would in turn eliminate the Confederate stronghold at nearby Fort Sumter. Once Sumter was reduced, the army and the navy could move swiftly to capture Charleston, the birthplace of the rebellion.
On July 10, 1863, Gillmore’s Federal soldiers landed on the southern end of Morris Island and quickly pushed back the meager Confederate forces holding that part of the island. Unfortunately for the Northerners, this swift amphibious attack had failed to capture all of Morris Island. The Confederate defenders, now reinforced, still occupied Fort Wagner, a stronghold created out of sand, earth, and palmetto logs.
Hoping to finish the capture of Morris Island the next morning, Brig. Gen. George Strong sent forth the 7th Connecticut, 76th Pennsylvania, and 9th Maine in an early morning attack upon Fort Wagner. This precipitous attack against Fort Wagner was driven back with heavy loss.
The undeterred Federals prepared for a new and better coordinated attack upon Fort Wagner. The new plan included a close range land and sea bombardment of the fort, followed by a land assault by 5,000 soldiers.
Facing the Federal onslaught were more than 1,620 Confederate soldiers under the command of Brig. Gen. William Taliaferro. Fort Wagner bristled with 14 heavy guns, mortars, and carronades, and field pieces situated amongst a well laid out fortress, designed to withstand modern rifled artillery fire.
On July 18, 1863, after the heavy land and sea bombardment subsided, Gillmore sent forward his Federal regiments. The assault was led by the 54th Massachusetts regiment; a Boston regiment filled with free African-Americans, and led by the Harvard educated Col. Robert Gould Shaw. The decision to have the 54th Massachusetts lead this dangerous attack was fraught with all sorts of political and military risk, but in the end it was Shaw’s men that led the attack up the narrow beach.
As the Federal soldiers neared the fort they were subjected to artillery and musket fire that shredded the exposed Yankee ranks. Despite their heavy losses, the remnants of the 54th Massachusetts reached and scaled the earthen walls of Fort Wagner. Descending into the fort, the 54th engaged in a bloody hand-to-hand struggle with the Confederate defenders. Col. Shaw, shouting “Onward boys! Onward boys!” was quickly shredded by a number of Confederate bullets and died on the sandy ramparts.
Subsequent assaults by the 6th Connecticut, 48th New York, 3rd New Hampshire, 9th Maine, 76th Pennsylvania, 7th New Hampshire, 100th New York, 62nd Ohio, and 67th Ohio pressed the hard fighting Confederate defenders to their limits, but failed to take the fort. Faced with a stinging defeat, the surviving Federal soldiers streamed back to their positions south of the fort late in the evening of July 18th. Federal casualties reached 1,515, with the 54th Massachusetts losing 42% of its ranks in the attack. General Strong and Colonels Shaw, Putnam, and Chatfield all were killed or mortally wounded in the attack. Light by comparison, Confederate losses numbered 174 men.
After this bloody repulse, Gillmore’s settled into their Morris Island positions for a lengthy and costly siege that finally led to the Confederate abandonment of Fort Wagner on September 7, 1863 – far later than he had hoped.