Archive for July, 2010

July 17, 1863

Emilio describes the immediate overnight march from James Island to Morris Island and the preparations for the assault on the 18th ( [BBR] pp.63-72):

General Terry was ordered to evacuate James Island that night. At about five o’clock P. M., the Fifty-fourth was relieved by the Fifty-second Pennsylvania, and returned to the bivouac. While awaiting the marching, orders, several officers and men of the Tenth Connecticut came to express their appreciation of the service rendered by the Fifty-fourth companies attacked in the morning, by which they were enabled to effect a safe retreat. Afterward, upon Morris Island the colonel of that regiment made similar expressions.

… the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts was given the advance, moving at 9.30 o’clock that night, followed by the other regiments, the route being pointed out by guides from the engineers, who accompanied the head of column.

All stores, ammunition, and horses of the Fifty-fourth were put on board the steamer “Boston” by Quartermaster Ritchie, who, with his men, worked all night in the mud and rain. Surgeon Lincoln R. Stone of the Fifty-fourth and Surgeon Samuel A. Green of the Twenty-fourth Massachusetts saw that all the wounded were properly cared for, and also embarked.

It was a stormy night, with frequent flashes of lightning, and pouring rain. Colonel Davis, at the proper time, saw to the withdrawal of the Fifty-second Pennsylvania, which held the front lines. So silently was the operation accomplished that the enemy did not discover our evacuation until daylight. When the Fifty-sixth New York, the rear-guard, had crossed the bridge leading from James Island, at 1A. M., on the 17th, it was effectually destroyed, thus rendering pursuit difficult.

That night’s march was a memorable one, for the difficulties of the way were exceptional, and only to be encountered upon the Sea Islands. After passing the bridge, the road led along narrow causeways and paths only wide enough for two men to pass abreast; over swamps, and streams bridged for long distances by structures of frail piling, supporting one or two planks with no hand-rail. A driving rain poured down nearly the whole time, and the darkness was intense. Blinding flashes of lightning momentarily illumined the way, then fading but to render the blackness deeper.

Throughout most of the march the men were obliged to move in single file, groping their way and grasping their leader as they progressed, that they might not separate or go astray. Along the foot-bridges the planks became slippery with mire from muddy feet, rendering the footing insecure, and occasioning frequent falls, which delayed progress. Through the woods, wet branches overhanging the path, displaced by the leaders, swept back with bitter force into the faces of those following. Great clods of clay gathered on the feet of the men.

Two hours were consumed in passing over the dikes and foot-bridges alone. In distance the route was but a few miles, yet it was daybreak when the leading companies reached firmer ground. Then the men flung themselves on the wet ground, and in a moment were in deep sleep, while the column closed up. Reunited solidly again, the march was resumed, and Cole’s Island soon reached. The regiments following the Fifty-fourth had the benefit of daylight most of the way.

Footsore, weary, hungry, and thirsty, the regiment was halted near the beach opposite Folly Island about 5 A. M. , on the 17th. Sleep was had until the burning sun awakened the greater number. Regiments had been arriving and departing all the morning. Rations were not procurable, and they were fortunate who could find a few crumbs or morsels of meat in their haversacks. Even water was hard to obtain, for crowds of soldiers collected about the few sources of supply. By noon the heat and glare from the white sand were almost intolerable.

In the evening a moist cool breeze came; and at eight o’clock the regiment moved up the shore to a creek in readiness to embark on the ” General Hunter,” lying in the stream. It was found that the only means of boarding the steamer was by a leaky long-boat which would hold about thirty men. Definite orders came to report the regiment to General Strong at Morris Island without delay, and at 10 p. M. the embarkation began. By the light of a single lantern the men were stowed in the boat. Rain was pouring down in torrents, for a thunderstorm was raging. Throughout that interminable night the long-boat was kept plying from shore to vessel and back, while those on land stood or crouched about in dripping clothes, awaiting their turn for ferriage to the steamer, whose dim light showed feebly in the gloom. The boat journey was made with difficulty, for the current was strong, and the crowded soldiers obstructed the rowers in their task. It was an all night’s work. Colonel Shaw saw personally to the embarkation; and as daylight was breaking he stepped in with the last boat-load, and himself guided the craft to the “Hunter.” Thus with rare self-sacrifice and fine example, he shared the exposure of every man, when the comfortable cabin of the steamer was at his disposal from the evening before.

On the “General Hunter” the officers procured breakfast; but the men were still without rations. Refreshed, the officers were all together for the last time socially; before another day three were dead, and three wounded who never returned. Captain Simpkins, whose manly appearance and clear-cut features were so pleasing to look upon, was, as always, quiet and dignified; Captain Russel was voluble and active as ever, despite all fatigue. Neither appeared to have any premonition of their fate. It was different with Colonel Shaw, who again expressed to Lieutenant-Colonel Hallowell his apprehension of speedy death.

Running up Folly River, the steamer arrived at Pawnee Landing, where, at 9 A. M. [on the 18th], the Fifty-fourth disembarked. Crossing the island through woods, the camps of several regiments were passed, from which soldiers ran out, shouting, ” Well done! we heard your guns! ” Others cried, “Hurrah, boys! you saved the Tenth Connecticut!” Leaving the timber, the Fifty-fourth came to the sea beach, where marching was easier. Stretching away to the horizon, on the right, was the Atlantic; to the left, sand hillocks, with pine woods farther inland. Occasional squalls of rain came, bringing rubber blankets and coats into use. At one point on the beach, a box of water-soaked hard bread was discovered, and the contents speedily divided among the hungry men. Firing at the front had been heard from early morning, which toward noon was observed to have risen into a heavy cannonade. After a march of some six miles, we arrived at Lighthouse Inlet and rested, awaiting transportation. Tuneful voices about the colors started the song, “When this Cruel War is Over,” and the pathetic words of the chorus were taken up by others. It was the last song of many; but few then thought it a requiem. By ascending the sand-hills, we could see the distant vessels engaging Wagner. When all was prepared, the Fifty-fourth boarded a small steamer, landed on Morris Island, about 5 P. M., and remained near the shore for further orders.

General Gillmore, on the 13th, began constructing four batteries, mounting forty-two guns and mortars, to damage the slopes and guns of Wagner, which were completed under the enemy’s fire, and in spite of a sortie at night, on the 14th. He expected to open with them on the 16th; but heavy rains so delayed progress that all was not prepared until the 18th. Beyond this siege line, which was 1,350 yards south of Wagner, stretched a narrow strip of land between the sea and Vincent’s Creek, with its marshes. At low tide, the beach sand afforded a good pathway to the enemy’s position; but at high tide, it was through deep, loose sand, and over low sand hillocks. This stretch of sand was unobstructed, until at a point two hundred yards in front of Wagner, the enemy had made a line of rifle trenches. Some fifty yards nearer Wagner, an easterly bend of the marsh extended to within twenty-five yards of the sea at high tide, forming a defile, through which an assaulting column must pass.

Nearly covered by this sweep of the marsh, and commanding it as well as the stretch of sand beyond to the Federal line, was “Battery Wagner,” so named by the Confederates, in memory of Lieut.-Col. Thomas M. Wagner, First South Carolina Artillery, killed at Fort Sumter. This field work was constructed of quartz sand, with turf and palmetto log revetment, and occupied the whole width of the island there, — some six hundred and thirty feet. Its southern and principal front was double-bastioned. Next the sea was a heavy traverse and curtain covering a sally-port. Then came the southeast bastion, prolonged westerly by a curtain connected with the southwest bastion. At the western end was another sally-port. An infantry parapet closed the rear or north face. It had large bombproofs, magazines, and heavy traverses.

Wagner’s armament was … Wagner’s garrison, on the 18th, consisted of … a total force of seventeen hundred men. Such was the position, armament, and garrison of the strongest single earthwork known in the history of warfare.

About 10 A. M., on the 18th, five wooden gunboats joined the land batteries in shelling Wagner, lying out of the enemy’s range. At about 12.30 P. M., five monitors and the ” New Ironsides ” opened, and the land batteries increased their fire. A deluge of shot was now poured into the work, driving the main portion of its garrison into the bombproofs, and throwing showers of sand from the slopes of Wagner into the air but to fall back in place again. The enemy’s flag was twice shot away, and, until replaced, a battle-flag was planted with great gallantry by daring men. From Gregg, Sumter, and the James Island and Sullivan’s Island batteries, the enemy returned the iron compliments; while for a time Wagner’s cannoneers ran out at intervals, and served a part of the guns, at great risk.

A fresh breeze blew that day; at times the sky was clear; the atmosphere, lightened by recent rains, resounded with the thunders of an almost incessant cannonade. Smoke-clouds hung over the naval vessels, our batteries, and those of the enemy. During this terrible bombardment, the two infantry regiments and the artillery companies, except gun detachments, kept in the bombproofs. But the Charleston Battalion lay all day under the parapets of Wagner, — a terrible ordeal, which was borne without demoralization. In spite of the tremendous fire, the enemy’s loss was only eight men killed and twenty wounded, before the assault.

General Taliaferro foresaw that this bombardment was preliminary to an assault, and had instructed his force to take certain assigned positions when the proper time came….The tide turned to flow at 4 p. M., and about the same time firing from Wagner ceased, and not a man was to be seen there. During the afternoon the troops were moving from their camps toward the front. Late in the day the belief was general that the enemy had been driven from his shelter, and the armament of Wagner rendered harmless. General Gillmore, after calling his chief officers together for conference, decided to attack that evening, and the admiral was so notified. Firing from land and sea was still kept up with decreased rapidity, while the troops were preparing.

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July 16, 1863

The Confederates attacked on James Island today, and the men of the 54th distinguished themselves by their steadfastness. Here is Emilio’s description of the battle ( [BBR], pp.57-63):

In the gray of early dawn of July 16, the troops in bivouac on James Island were awakened by dropping shots, and then heavy firing on the picket line to the right. Clambering to the top of a pile of cracker-boxes, an officer of the Fifty-fourth, looking in the direction of the firing, saw the flashes of musketry along the outposts. In a few moments came the sharp metallic explosions from field-guns to the left by the river-bank. Wilkie James, the adjutant, rode in post-haste along the line, with cheery voice but unusually excited manner, ordering company commanders to form. “Fall in! fall in!” resounded on all sides, while drums of the several regiments were beating the long-roll. But a few moments sufficed for the Fifty-fourth to form, when Colonel Shaw marched it to the right and some little distance to the rear, where it halted, faced to the front, and stood in line of battle at right angles to the Secessionville road. Rapid work was going on at the outposts. Before dawn the pickets of the Fifty-fourth had heard hoarse commands and the sound of marching men coming from the bank of darkness before them. Soon a line of men in open order came sweeping toward them from the gloom into the nearer and clearer light.

Colquitt, with six companies of the Eutaw Regiment (Twenty-fifth South Carolina), skirmishing before his infantry column, crossing Rivers’s causeway, was rapidly advancing on the black pickets.

Simpkins’s right was the first point of contact; and the men, thus suddenly attacked by a heavy force, discharged their pieces, and sullenly contested the way, firing as they went, over rough and difficult ground, which obstructed the enemy’s advance as well as their own retirement. Soon the enemy gained the road at a point in rear of Russel’s right. Some of the men there, hardly aware of their extremity, were still holding their positions against those of the enemy who appeared in the immediate front. It seemed to Sergt. Peter Vogelsang of Company H, who had his post at a palmetto-tree, that in a moment one hundred Rebels were swarming about him. He led his comrades to join men on his left, where they advanced, firing. With effect too, for they came to the body of a dead Rebel, from whom Vogelsang took a musket.

Russel’s right posts, thus cut off, were followed by a company of the Nineteenth Georgia, and after the desultory fighting were driven, to escape capture, into the creek on the right of the line, where some were drowned. Those most courageous refused to fall back, and were killed or taken as prisoners. Sergt. James D. Wilson of Company H was one of the former. He was an expert in the use of the musket, having been employed with the famous Ellsworth Zouaves of Chicago. Many times he had declared to his comrades that he would never retreat or surrender to the enemy. On that morning, when attacked, he called to his men to stand fast. Assailed by  five men, he is said to have disabled three of them. Some cavalrymen coming up, he charged them with a shout as they circled about him, keeping them all at bay for a time with the bayonet of his discharged musket, until the brave fellow sank in death with three mortal besides other wounds.

Captain Russel, finding that the enemy had turned his flank before he could face back, had to retire with such men as were not cut off, at double-quick, finding the foe about the reserve house when he reached it. A mounted officer charged up to Russel, and cut twice at his head with his sword. Preston Williams of Company H caught the second sweep upon his bayonet and shot the Confederate through the neck, thus saving his captain’s life. From the reserve house Russel and his men retired, fight-ing as they could.

Captain Simpkins’s right, as has been told, first bore the force of the attack. By strenuous efforts and great personal exposure that cool and gallant officer collected some men in line. With them he contested the way back step by step, halting now and then to face about and fire, thus gaining time, the loss of which thwarted the enemy’s plan. Of his men, Corp. Henry A. Field of Company K especially distinguished himself. Captain Willard at the reserve house at once sent back word, by a mounted orderly, of the situation. To the support of his right he sent Lieutenant Appleton with some men, and to the left First Sergeant Simmons of Company B with a small force, and then looked for aid from our main body. He endeavored to form a line of skirmishers, when the men began coming back from the front, but with little success. The men could not be kept in view because of the underbrush nearly as high as a man. As the expected succor did not come, the officers and the remaining men made their way back to the division.

It will be remembered that with the first musket-shots came the sound of field-guns from the Stono. The enemy’s four Napoleons had galloped into battery within four hundred yards of the gunboats, and fired some ten rounds before they were replied to; their shots crashed through the “Pawnee ” again and again, with some loss. It was impossible for the gunboats to turn in the narrow stream, and their guns did not bear properly. To drop down was dangerous, but it was done; when out of close range, the “Marblehead,” “Pawnee,” and “Huron ” soon drove their tormentors away from the river-bank.

To capture the Tenth Connecticut, the enemy, after dealing with the Fifty-fourth, sent a portion of his force; but the resistance made by Captain Simpkins had allowed time for the Tenth Connecticut to abandon its dangerous position at the double-quick. None too soon, however, for five minutes’ delay would have been fatal. A correspondent of ” The Reflector,” writing from Morris Island a few days later, said: —

“The boys of the Tenth Connecticut could not help loving the men who saved them from destruction. I have been deeply affected at hearing this feeling expressed by officers and men of the Connecticut regiment; and probably a thousand homes from Windham to Fairfield have in letters been told the story how the dark-skinned heroes fought the good fight and covered with their own brave hearts the retreat of brothers, sons, and fathers of Connecticut.”

The valuable time gained by the resistance of the Fifty-fourth pickets had also permitted the formation of Terry’s division in line of battle. Hardly had the Fifty-fourth taken its position before men from the front came straggling in, all bearing evidence of struggles with bush and brier, some of the wounded limping along unassisted, others helped by comrades. One poor fellow, with his right arm shattered, still carried his musket in his left hand.

Captain Russel appeared in sight, assisting a sergeant, badly wounded. Bringing up the rear came Captains Willard and Simpkins, the latter with his trousers and rubber coat pierced with bullets. As the pickets and their officers reached the regiment, they took their places in line.

A few minutes after these events, the enemy, having advanced to a position within about six hundred yards of the Federal line, opened fire with guns of the Marion Artillery, making good line shots, but fortunately too high.

It was a supreme moment for the Fifty-fourth, then under fire as a regiment for the first time. The sight of wounded comrades had been a trial; and the screaming shot and shell flying overhead, cutting the branches of trees to the right, had a deadly sound. But the dark line stood stanch, holding the front at the most vital point. Not a man was out of place, as the officers could see while they stood in rear of the lines, observing their men.

In reply to the enemy’s guns the Connecticut battery fired percussion-shells, and for some time this artillery duel continued. To those who were anticipating an attack by infantry, and looking for the support of the gunboats, their silence was ominous. Every ear was strained to catch the welcome sound, and at last it came in great booms from Parrott guns. Very opportunely, too, on the night before, the armed transports “John Adams” and “Mayflower” had run up the creek on our right flank, and their guns were fired twelve or fifteen times with good effect before the enemy retired.

The expected attack on Terry’s line by infantry did not take place, for after about an hour the enemy retired in some confusion. By General Terry’s order, the Fifty-fourth was at once directed to reoccupy the old picket line. Captain Jones with two companies advanced, skirmishing; and the main body followed, encountering arms and equipments of the enemy strewn over a broad trail. At the reserve house the regiment halted in support of a strong picket line thrown out. Parties were sent to scour the ground, finding several wounded men lying in the brush or in the marsh across the creek. They also brought in the body of a Confederate, almost a child, with soft skin and long fair hair, red with his own blood. This youthful victim of the fight was tenderly buried soon after.

Some of our dead at first appeared to be mutilated; but closer inspection revealed the fact that the fiddler-crabs, and not the enemy, did the work. It was told by some of those who lay concealed, that where Confederate officers were, the colored soldiers had been protected; but that in other cases short shrift was given, and three men had been shot and others bayonetted.

Colonel Shaw had despatched Adjutant James to report that the old line was re-established. He returned with the following message from General Terry:

“Tell your colonel that I am exceedingly pleased with the conduct of your regiment. They have done all they could do.”

During the afternoon a mail was received. After reading their letters Colonel Shaw and Lieutenant-Colonel Hallowell conversed. The colonel asked the major if he believed in presentiments, and added that he felt he would be killed in the first action. Asked to try to shake off the feeling, he quietly said, “I will try.”

General Beauregard reported his loss as three killed, twelve wounded, and three missing, which is believed to be an under-estimate. We found two dead Confederates, and captured six prisoners representing four regiments. The Adjutant-General of Massachusetts gives the Fifty-fourth loss as fourteen killed, eighteen wounded, and thirteen missing. Outside our regiment the casualties were very light.

General Terry in his official report says : —

“I desire to express my obligations to Captain Balch, United States Navy, commanding the naval forces in the river, for the very great assistance rendered to me, and to report to the commanding general the good services of Captain Rockwell and his battery, and the steadiness and soldierly conduct of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment who were on duty at the outposts on the right and met the brunt of attack.”

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July 15, 1863

A letter from Shaw to his wife Annie; it will turn out to be his last to her:

James’ Island, S.C. [BCF]
July 15,1863

My Dearest Annie,

Your letters of June 3d, 14th, and 28th, and July 3d, 4th, and 5th, came to-day, and I felt horridly ashamed of myself for having blamed you for not taking care to post your letters. Do excuse it. It will show you how much I value your dear letters.

You don’t know what a fortunate day this has been for me and for us all, excepting some poor fellows who were killed and wounded. We have at last fought alongside of white troops. Two hundred of my men on picket this morning were attacked by five regiments of infantry, some cavalry, and a battery of artillery. The Tenth Connecticut (of Stevenson’s Brigade) were on their left, and say they should have had a bad time, if the Fifty-fourth men had not stood so well. The whole Division was under arms in fifteen minutes, and after coming up close in front of us, the enemy, finding us so strong, fell back. The other regiments lost in all, three men wounded. We lost seven killed, twenty-one wounded, six missing, supposed killed, and nine unaccounted for. These last are probably killed or captured.  All these belonged to the four companies which were on picket. The main body, excepting artillery, was not engaged at all.

All this is very gratifying to us personally, and a fine thing for the coloured troops. It is the first time they have been associated with white soldiers, this side of the Mississippi. To make my happiness and satisfaction complete, the afternoon brought your and Mother’s letters… .

I have just come in from the front with my regiment, where we were sent as soon as the Rebels retired. This shows that the events of the morning did not destroy the General’s confidence in us.

We found some of our wounded, who say the Rebels treated them kindly. Other men report that some prisoners were shot. It is very common for frightened men to tell fearful stories of what they have seen; the first report comes from the wounded men themselves; the second from the stragglers. . . .

Good bye, darling, for the night. I know this letter will give you pleasure, because what we have done to-day wipes out the remembrance of the Darien affair, which you could not but grieve over, though we were innocent participators. You will have some satisfaction in telling it to your father, your Uncle Charles, and Aunt Fanny, to all of whom please give my sincere regards. Whenever you see your grandfather and grandmother, do not forget to give them my respects. To our Mamma, and Clem. I needn’t say I send my warmest love. I got my horse, India-rubber tube, and some clean clothes to-day.

Cole’s Island (opposite Folly Island) [RGS]
July 17th, 4 P.M.

James Island was evacuated last night by our forces. My regiment started first, at 91/2 P.M. Not a thing was moved until after dark, and the Rebels must have been astonished this morning. Terry went there originally only to create a diversion from Morris Island, and it was useless to stay and risk being driven off, after Morris was taken. It thundered and lightened, and rained hard all night, and it took us from 10 P.M. to 5 A.M. to come four miles. Most of the way we had to march in single file along the narrow paths through the swamps. For nearly half a mile we had to pass over a bridge of one, and in some places, two planks wide, without a railing, and slippery with rain— mud and water below several feet deep—and then over a narrow dike so slippery as to make it almost impossible to keep one’s feet. It took my regiment alone nearly two hours to pass the bridge and dike. By the time we got over, it was nearly daylight, and the Brigade behind us had a pretty easy time. I never had such an extraordinary walk.

We are now lying on the beach opposite the southern point of Folly Island, and have been here since five this morning. When they can get boats, they will set us across, I suppose.

There is hardly any water to be got here, and the sun and sand arc dazzling and roasting us. I shouldn’t like you to see me as I am now; I haven’t washed my face since day before yesterday. My conscience is perfectly easy about it, though, for it was an impossibility, and every one is in the same condition. Open air dirt, i.e. mud, & is not like the indoor article.

… I have had nothing but crackers and coffee these two days. It seems like old times in the army of the Potomac.

Good bye again, darling Annie.


July 18th. Morris Island—We are in General Strong’s Brigade, and have left Montgomery, I hope for good. We came up here last night, and were out again all night in a very heavy rain. Fort Wagner is being very heavily bombarded. We arc not far from it.

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July 14, 1863

The run-up to the Confederate attack is described by Emilio ( [BBR], pp.55-56):

Between the 10th and 16th there had arrived for the enemy from Georgia and North Carolina two four-gun batteries and six regiments of infantry. Beauregard also reduced his force on Morris Island and concentrated on James, under command of Brig.-Gen. Johnson Hagood. Gillmore still kept Terry there, inviting attack, although the purpose of the diversion had been accomplished. On the 15th the enemy demonstrated in front of the Tenth Connecticut pickets. It was rumored that two scouts had been seen about our lines. Some thought had been given to securing a line of retreat; for the engineers were reconstructing the broken bridge leading from James Island, and repairing causeways, dikes, and foot-bridges across the marshes along the old road to Cole’s Island, formerly used by the Confederates.

Companies B, H, and K, of the Fifty-fourth, under command of Captain Willard, were detailed for picket on the 15th, and about 6 P. M. relieved men of Davis’s brigade. Captain Russel and Lieutenant Howard, with Company H, held the right from near a creek, over rolling ground and rather open country covered with high grass and thistles. Captain Simpkins and Lieut. R. H. L. Jewett held the left of the Fifty-fourth line with Company K and a portion of Company B. It was over lower ground, running obliquely through a growth of small timber and brush. There was a broken bridge in the front. A reserve, consisting of the remainder of Company B, under Lieut. Thomas L. Appleton, was held at a stone house. Captain Willard’s force was five officers and about two hundred men. From Simpkins’s left to the Stono the picket line was continued by men of the Tenth Connecticut, holding a dangerous position, as it had a swamp in rear. Frequent showers of rain fell that evening. All night following, the enemy was uneasy. Lurking men were seen, and occasional shots rang out. Captain Willard, mounting the roof of the house, could see great activity among the signal corps of the enemy. He sent word to his officers to be vigilant, and prepared for attack in the morning.

About midnight the men were placed in skirmishing order, and so remained. Sergeant Stephens of Company B relates that George Brown of his company, a ” dare-devil fellow,” crawled out on his hands and knees and fired at the enemy’s pickets.

An attack was indeed impending, arranged on the following plan: Brig.-Gen. A. H. Colquitt, with the Twenty-fifth South Carolina, Sixth and Nineteenth Georgia, and four companies Thirty-second Georgia, about fourteen hundred men, supported by the Marion Artillery, was to cross the marsh at the causeway nearest Secessionville, “drive the enemy as far as the lower causeway [nearest Stono] rapidly recross the marsh at that point by a flank movement, and cut off and capture the force encamped at Grimball’s.” Col. C. H. Way, Fifty-fourth Georgia, with eight hundred men, was to follow and co-operate. A reserve of one company of cavalry, one of infantry, and a section of artillery, was at Rivers’s house. Two Napoleon guns each, of the Chatham Artillery, and Blake’s Battery, and four twelve-pounders of the Siege Train, supported by four hundred infantry, were to attack the gunboats “Pawnee ” and “Marblehead ” in the Stono River.

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July 13, 1863

A (fragment) of a letter from Shaw to his wife Annie:

July 13,1863 [BCF]

My Dearest Annie,

I sent the family letter to Father, to this date, and you will get it very soon after this. You will see from it what we have been doing lately.

I should have been Major of the Second now if I had remained there, and lived through the battles. As regards my own pleasure, I had rather have that place than any other in the army. It would have been fine to go home, a field-officer in that regiment. Poor fellows, how they have been slaughtered! Our mail came to-night, but was taken away by mistake.

My warmest love to Mamma and Clem. . . . That country place of ours is often before my eyes in the dim future. .. .

[fragment printed]

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July 10-12, 1863

Emilio describes ( [BBR], pp.51-55) the lead-up to the 54th’s first major action:

Heavy cannonading was heard in the direction of Morris Island, at 5 A. M. on the 10th. Before night word came that all the ground south of Fort Wagner on Morris Island was captured with many guns and prisoners. This news was received with rousing cheers by Terry’s men and the sailors. At dawn Colonel Davis’s men crossed to James Island, his skirmishers driving a few cavalry. At an old house the main force halted with pickets advanced. While this movement was taking place, a portion of the other troops landed. That day a mail brought news of Vicksburg’s capture and Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg. Lieut. Edward B. Emerson joined the Fifty-fourth from the North.

About noon of the 11th, the regiment landed, marched about a mile, and camped in open ground on the furrows of an old field. The woods near by furnished material for brush shelters as a protection against the July sun. By that night all troops were ashore. Terry’s division consisted of three brigades, —Davis’s, of the Fifty-second and One Hundred and Fourth Pennsylvania and Fifty-sixth New York; Brig.-Gen. Thomas G. Stevenson’s, of the Twenty-fourth Massachusetts, Tenth Connecticut, and Ninety-seventh Pennsylvania; and Montgomery’s, of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts and Second South Carolina.

James Island is separated from the mainland by Wappoo Creek. From the landing a road led onward, which soon separated into two: one running to the right through timber, across low sandy ground to Secessionville; the other to the left, over open fields across the low ground, past Dr. Thomas Grimball’s house on to the Wappoo. The low ground crossed by both these roads over causeways formed the front of Terry’s lines, and was commanded by our naval vessels. Fort Pemberton, on the Stono, constituted the enemy’s right. Thence the line was retired partially behind James Island Creek, consisting of detached light works for field-guns and infantry. Their left was the fortified camp of Secessionville, where, before Battery Lamar, General Benham was repulsed in the spring of 1862.

General Beauregard, the Confederate Department commander, considered an attack on Charleston by way of James Island as the most dangerous to its safety. He posted his forces accordingly, and on July 10 had 2,926 effectives there, with 927 on Morris Island, 1,158 on Sullivan’s Island, and 850 in the city. Few troops from other points were spared when Morris Island was attacked on the 10th; therefore Terry’s diversion had been effective. Had Beauregard’s weakness been known, Terry’s demonstration in superior force might have been converted into a real attack, and James Island fallen before it, when Charleston must have surrendered or been destroyed.

Captain Willard, on the 11th, with Company B, was sent to John’s Island at Legareville to prevent a repetition of firing upon our vessels by artillery such as had occurred that morning.

In the afternoon the Tenth Connecticut and Ninety-seventh Pennsylvania, covered by the “Pawnee’s” fire, advanced the picket line. Word was received of an unsuccessful assault on Fort Wagner, with considerable loss to us. Abraham F. Brown of Company E accidentally shot himself to death with a small pistol he was cleaning. Late that afternoon Lieutenant-Colonel Hallowell, with Companies D, F, I, and K, went out on picket in front of our right, remaining throughout a dark and stormy night. During the night of the 13th, Captain Emilio, with Company E, picketed about Legareville. Capt. A. P. Rockwell’s First Connecticut Battery arrived from Beaufort on the 14th.

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July 9, 1863

A letter from Shaw to his wife Annie, begun today, extended on the 11th, and completed on the 13:

Stono River, S.C. [RGS][BCF]
July 9,1863 (James’ Island)

My Darling Annie,

Just after closing my last, on the envelope of which I said we were ordered away from St. Helena’s Island, we embarked on board the “Chasseur.” We sailed at about 3 P.M., without anything but India-rubber blankets and a little hardbread, and arrived off Stono Inlet, near Charleston Harbour, at about one o’clock this morning. We lay off the bar until i P.M. waiting for the flood-tide. The sea was running very high all the time, so that the men were very sea-sick, and we had a decidedly uncomfortable day. In the night it rained hard, and we all got a good soaking, as it was too hot to stay below. At about 2 P.M. we came to an anchor at the southern point of Folly Island, and Colonel Montgomery reported to General Terry. We then steamed up the Stono River, in company with the Monitor “Nantucket,” the gunboat “Pawnee,” two other little gunboats, and seven transports containing General Terry’s Division.

We now lie off the place where General Hunter’s troops landed last year in the attack on Charleston. The sail up the river was beautiful, the sun just sinking as we reached our anchorage.

July 10th—Still on board our transport. Last night, two regiments landed, but encountered nothing but a few outposts. General Terry’s part is only to make a feint, the real attack being on Morris Island from Folly. That began this morning, and the news from there is, that General Gillmore has got all his troops on Morris Island, and has possession of nearly half of it.

This afternoon I went inland about two miles, and from a housetop saw Fort Sumter, our Monitors, and the spires of Charleston. Just now the news of the fall of Vicksburg, and of Lee’s defeat has reached us. What an excitement there must be through the North! For my part, though, I do not believe the end is coming yet, and the next mail will probably tell us that Lee has got away with a good part of his army; there is too much danger of our government making a compromise, for peace to be entirely welcome now. I am very glad that McClellan was not restored to command, for such vacillation in the government would have been too contemptible. Every one can rejoice at Meade’s success, as he is as yet identified with no party. I hope the prisoners will not be paroled, for they will be in the army again in a month, if they are.

I found a classmate, to-day, on board the “Nantucket,” surgeon there, and George Lawrence, of the class above me, paymaster on board the “Pawnee.”They are both very nice fellows; particularly so, because they have invited me to dinner; having had hardly anything but hard-bread and salt-junk since we left camp, a good dinner is to be desired.

July 11th—This morning I got a paper from General Terry of July 7th, giving an incomplete list of the killed and wounded in the Second and Twentieth Massachusetts Regiments at Gettysburg. Poor Mudge is dead, I see. It will be a terrible blow to his family. You know he was my captain when we first went out. But every one must expect to lose their friends and relatives, and consider themselves as particularly favoured by Providence if they do not. General Gillmore made an attack on Ft. Wagner this morning, and was repulsed. He will probably begin a regular siege now. Fort Wagner is half-way down Morris Island.

Saturday evening — We landed at noon to-day, and are now about two miles inland. There are two Brigades in line in advance of us. I don’t think anything will be done on this side.

13th — Yesterday I dined with Lawrence on board the “Pawnee,” and met some very pleasant men among the officers. It has been very fortunate for me to have found so many old acquaintances here, as it has been the means of my meeting a great many people who would have otherwise been disinclined to make the acquaintance of an officer commanding a black regiment.

Our men are out on picket with the white regiments, and have no trouble with them. One of my companies was driven in by a small force of Rebels last night, and behaved very well indeed. The Rebel pickets call to us, that they will give us three days to clear out.

… There is a letter from Father a month old at Beaufort, and perhaps your missing ones are there. I shall send this to Father, as our conveniences for writing are very few, and I cannot write another letter in time for this mail.

We have not had out clothes off since we left St. Helena, and have absolutely nothing but an India-rubber blanket apiece. Officers and men are in the same boat. I sent down to-day to get a clean shirt and a horse. They will not allow any accumulation of luggage here.

The general feeling is that Gillmore will get Charleston at last. . . .

Governor Andrew writes that he has urged the Secretary of War to send General Barlow here to take command of the black troops. This is what I have been asking him to do for some time.

We got some ham for dinner to-day, which is an improvement on salt-junk. I hope the mail will be allowed to go this time.

Good bye, dearest Annie.

Your loving Rob

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July 8, 1863

Emilio describes the beginning of the descent on James Island ( [BBR] pp.51-52):

All suspense regarding the employment of the Fifty-fourth ended July 8, with the receipt, about noon, of orders to move at an hour’s notice, taking only blankets and rations. Three hours after, the regiment began to embark, headquarters with seven companies finding transportation on the steamer “Chasseur,” the remaining ones on the steamer “Cossack,” with ColonelMontgomery and staff.

… A start was made late in the afternoon in a thunder-storm, the “Cossack ” stopping at Hilton Head to take on Captain Emilio and a detail of ninety men there. The following night was made miserable by wet clothes, a scarcity of water, and the crowded condition of the small steamers. About 1 A. M. on the 9th, the transports arrived off Stono Inlet; the bar was crossed at noon; and anchors were cast off Folly Island. The inlet was full of transports, loaded with troops, gunboats, and supply vessels, betokening an important movement made openly. General Gillmore’s plans should be briefly stated. He desired to gain possession of Morris Island, then in the enemy’s hands, and fortified. He had at disposal ten thousand infantry, three hundred and fifty artillerists, and six hundred engineers; thirty-six pieces of field artillery, thirty Parrott guns, twenty-seven siege and three Cohorn mortars, besides ample tools and material. Admiral Dahlgren was to co-operate. On Folly Island, in our possession, batteries were constructed near Lighthouse Inlet, opposite Morris Island, concealed by the sand hillocks and undergrowth. Gillmore’s real attack was to be made from this point by a coup de main, the infantry crossing the inlet in boats covered by a bombardment from land and sea. Brig.-Gen. Alfred H. Terry, with four thousand men, was to make a demonstration on James Island. Col. T. W. Higginson, with part of his First South Carolina Colored and a section of artillery, was to ascend the South Edisto River, and cut the railroad at Jacksonboro. This latter force, however, was repulsed with the loss of two guns and the steamer “Governor Milton.”

Late in the afternoon of the 9th Terry’s division moved. The monitor “Nantucket,” gunboats “Pawnee” and “Commodore McDonough,” and mortar schooner “C. P. Williams” passed up the river, firing on James Island to the right and John’s Island to the left, followed by thirteen transports carrying troops. Col. W. W. H. Davis, with portions of his regiment — the One Hundred and Fourth Pennsylvania — and the Fifty-second Pennsylvania, landed on Battery Island, advancing to a bridge leading to James Island.

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July 7, 1863

A letter, dated the 6th, from Shaw to Brigade commander Brig. Gen. George C. Strong:

ST. HELENA ISLAND, July 6, 1863. [BBR],p.49


GENERAL, — I did not pay my respects to you before you left this post because I did not wish to disturb you when making your preparations for departure.

I desire, however, to express to you my regret that my regiment no longer forms a part of the force under your command. I was the more disappointed at being left behind, that I had been given to understand that we were to have our share in the work in this department. I feel convinced too that my men are capable of better service than mere guerilla warfare, and I hoped to remain permanently under your command.

It seems to me quite important that the colored soldiers should be associated as much as possible with the white troops, in order that they may have other witnesses besides their own officers to what they are capable of doing. I trust that the present arrangement is not permanent.

With many wishes for your success, believe me very sincerely and respectfully

Your obedient servant,


Colonel Commanding Fifty-fourth Regiment Mass. Infantry.

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July 6, 1863

A letter from Charles Douglass to his father Frederick Douglass — Charles originally enlisted in the 54th, but transferred to the 55th Mass. as it was forming in May, and later in 1864, transferred to the 5th Massachusets Cavalry (colored), a dismounted unit; together with a long letter from Shaw to his wife:

Readville Camp Meigs
July 6th 1863

Dear Father

I have just returned to camp from Boston where I spent the fourth and fifth.  Yesterday, I went to Mr. Grimes Church and Dr. Rock read a letter that he had rec’d from his wife who is in Philadelphia [ ] and that the Rebels were sending the negroes south as fast as they advanced from our lines and that the colored people were rushing into Philadelphia and that yourself and Stephen Smith and other were doing all you could for them.  I was glad to hear that – only keep out of the hands of the rebels.

This morning as I was about to take the train for camp I saw some returned soldiers from Newbern[?] N.Y. and had just got the news that Meade had whipped the rebels and before me stood an Irishman.  I said that we had some sort of a Gen. now and that made the Irish mad and he stepped in front of me with his fist-doubled up in my face and said ain’t Mr. McLellan a good Gen. you black nigger. I don’t care if you have got the uniform on.  When he got done I was so mad that I sweat-freely and I threw my coat and went at him.  All the time there was a policeman on the opposite side watching our movements.  Just as I went at him (he was heavier than me) the policeman came and stopped me and asked what the matter was.  I told him and he marched the other fellow off and that made all the other Irish mad and I felt better.  Still I felt as though I could whip a dozen Irish. I did not care for them because I had my pistol and it was well loaded.  I’m all right for I got my mind made to shoot the first Irishman that strikes me.  They may talk but keep their paws to themselves.

We are expecting to leave here next week. The men will get their Bounty this week.  We have a full band and drum corp and a good healthy looking set of men.  I would like to see you before I go away.  The flag has not been presented yet.  If your write – direct it – to the care of

Martin Becker,

Comm. Sergeant

55 Reg. Mass Vol

I have written home twice but have received no answer from them.

Please write.

From your aff. son,




St. Helena’s Island [BCF]

July 6,1863

My Own Darling Wife,

As I wrote you last week, your long letter of June 5 th to 10th came at last, and to-day I got that of the 23d to 26th. I am so sorry you have been worrying yourself about Montgomery and my connection with him, and I hope that my later letters have put your mind at rest. . . .

When you get this, you will have been a good while without news from me, as the last mail was not allowed to go, on account of the military movements in this Department. I wrote to Father the other day that we were left here, and most of the other troops had gone to Folly Island,—at least we suppose that was their destination. There is no knowing how soon, or in what direction, we may get orders to move. It is my great desire to join the main army, and General Strong was so sorry to leave this regiment, that I think there may be a chance of his getting hold of us again.

… To-day I went on board the “Montauk,” a Monitor lying in the harbour. I met there an officer named Cushman, who took me all over the vessel, and explained everything. In port the cabins are tolerably well ventilated, though very dark; but at sea everything is closed, and in action also; so that the air in the men’s quarters becomes so foul that the lights can hardly be kept going. Forty per cent of their men are on the sick-list, and they have to send some of them home every day. Such a hideous place to live in I never saw. The officers of the navy have by no means as much confidence in the Monitors as the public at large, and say they can be of service only against other iron-clads, or wooden vessels, and brick-and-mortar work. Forts of other descriptions, such as field-works and sand-batteries, they think would get the better of them. It has been necessary to make a great many changes and improvements in them to render them fit for active service; and as this has been done by officers of the navy, they all seem very indignant that Ericsson should have all the credit. They say that, as he turned them over to the navy, they would have been useless. The officers also affirm that the Monitor class or iron-clads was invented by a New York man named Pimbey, four years before Ericsson’s was presented, and that the latter now pays him $30,000 for every Monitor he turns out. In short, they pitch into Ericsson energetically, and think he has appropriated other men’s work and inventions unsparingly. They showed us all the places where the “Montauk” was struck at Charleston, and explained how several of the vessels were disabled by one plate or bolt being forced out of place. The 11-inch gun can be fired once in 2.30 minutes, and the 15-inch not so often. This is very slow. Nevertheless, they are terrible engines, and wonderful in their strength.

I afterwards visited the “Atlanta,” or “Fingal,” the Rebel ram lately captured. She is very powerful, but roughly finished. She had four pieces; two 7-inch and two 61/2-inch rifles, marked “Tredegar Foundry.”4 They were roughly finished on the outside, but terrible-looking guns. This craft would have made great havoc in our blockading fleet, if she had got out, and it was by a piece of good fortune that we captured her. . . .

July 7th — Good morning. You will see in my letter to Mother what I said about your and her coming down here. Of course it depends entirely upon what we do. The last two weeks would have been delightful for you.

I have got you some of the moss, and send you as much as I can in a large envelope, — enough to hang over a small picture.

On Sunday, I rode six miles to the Episcopal church, but it was closed, the clergyman being ill, and I went to the Baptist. . . .

The gentleness and respect for civilized usages in this war have been wonderful, and for that reason Montgomery’s doings seem very horrible. I am not excusing them, but merely giving another side of the picture. He is not the only man who has done so. Foster destroyed three towns in North Carolina without reason, and Blufftown, in this Department, was burnt the other day by white troops. Montgomery’s previous reputation has been such that he attracts attention. Many people here blame him for having had one of his men shot without trial. According to Regulations, it was wrong; but the court-martial in this case would have been a technicality, for the man’s guilt was unquestionable, and before he could have been tried Montgomery’s regiment would have been dissolved. He had lost seventy men by desertion, in two days. Since the execution not one has gone, but thirty or forty have secretly returned in the night. Of course such a power cannot be allowed to a Colonel, as there would be murders without number under the name of execution; and I do not believe Montgomery has heard the last of it. Nevertheless, as to the right and wrong of the matter, he only violated a clause of the Regulations, and the result is extremely beneficial. I think that a Brigadier-General should have power to approve a sentence of death given by a court; but now it has to go to the Department commander.

Colonel Montgomery has told me some fearful stories of his life in Kansas. I will send you one, in order that you may know what a life he has led for ten years past. He had captured five men who had been committing depredations, — shooting men from behind, and taking their scalps. He intended to kill them, but they begged for life so hard, that he let them go, on condition they would not come into Kansas again. Instead of keeping their word, they began their old occupation again, and having captured some of his men, killed them, and took their scalps away with them. Some time after Montgomery took the same five again. This time there was no chance for them. Their courage forsook them entirely, so that they absolutely fell to the earth with fright, and begged and prayed for their lives, and said they should go to Hell, if he killed them.

When they were being taken out to be shot, seeing him somewhat moved by their entreaties, they clung to his knees and his garments, and it required the strength of three men to drag one of them away. As the first fire three were killed, and the other two only mortally wounded; these last kept on moaning, and begging in a weak voice to be allowed to live; but the sergeant in command of the squad of executioners drew his revolver, and blew their brains out!

Scenes like this were common occurences in Kansas at that time, and I wonder that Montgomery has not become a wild beast instead of a reasonable man. He commands the respect of all his superiors, and is undoubtedly a man gifted with some great qualities. You cannot talk with him long without discovering that he is in reality a tender-hearted man. This assertion would probably amuse most people, who only know him by reputation.

Don’t think I am humbugged by Montgomery. I am not often enthusiastic, and what I say of him is not of that kind. . . .

With all the love that I have,

Your attached Husband

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