Archive for August, 2010

August 31-September 3, 1863

Emilio describes appoaching climax of the Ft. Wagner siege ( [BBR] pp.116-119):

With our capture of the ridge on the 26th the last natural cover was attained. Beyond for two hundred yards stretched a strip of sand over which the besiegers must advance. It seemed impossible to progress far, as each attempt to do so resulted in severe losses. Every detail at the front maintained its position only at the cost of life. So numerous were the dead at this period of the siege that at almost any hour throughout the day the sound of funeral music could be heard in the camps. Such was the depressing effect upon the men that finally orders were issued to dispense with music at burials. The troops were dispirited by such losses without adequate results. That the strain was great was manifested by an enormous sick list. It was the opinion of experienced officers that the losses by casualties and sickness were greater than might be expected from another assault.

Success or defeat seemed to hang in the balance. Under no greater difficulties and losses many a siege had been raised. General Gillmore, however, was equal to the emergency. He ordered the fifth parallel enlarged and strengthened, the cover increased, and a line of rifle trench run in front of it. New positions were constructed for the sharpshooters. All his light mortars were moved to the front, and his guns trained on Wagner. A powerful calcium light was arranged to illumine the enemy’s work, that our fire might be continuous and effective. Changes were also made in the regiments furnishing permanent details in the trenches and advanced works, and an important part, requiring courage and constancy, was now assigned to our regiment. It is indicated in the following order: —

MORRIS ISLAND, S. C, Aug. 31,1863.
Special Orders No. 131.

II. The Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteers, Col. M. S. Littlefield, Fourth South Carolina Volunteers, commanding, are hereby detailed for special duty in the trenches under the direction of Maj. T. B. Brooks, A. D. C. and Assistant Engineer. The whole of the available force of the regiment will be divided into four equal reliefs, which will relieve each other at intervals of eight hours each. The first relief will report to Major Brooks at the second parallel at 8 A. M. this day. No other details will be made from the regiment until further orders.

By order of
Captain, and Assistant Adjutant-General.

Major Brooks, in his journal of the siege under date of August 31, thus writes, —

” The Third United States Colored Troops, who have been on fatigue duty in the advance trenches since the 20th inst., were relieved to-day by the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteers (colored), it being desirable to have older troops for the important and hazardous duty required at this period.”

Throughout the whole siege the First New York Engineers held the post of honor. Their sapping brigades took the lead in the advance trench opening the ground, followed by fatigue details which widened the cut and threw up the enlarged cover. These workers were without arms, but were supported by the guard of the trenches. Upon this fatigue work with the engineers, the Fifty-fourth at once engaged. During the night of the 31st work went on rapidly, as the enemy fired but little. Out of a detail of forty men from the One Hundred and Fourth Pennsylvania, one was killed and six were wounded. One of the guard was killed by a torpedo. A man of Company K, of our regiment, was mortally wounded that night.

Early on September 1 our land batteries opened on Sumter, and the monitors on Wagner. Four arches in the north face of Sumter with platforms and guns were carried away. Lieut. P. S. Michie, United States Engineers, was temporarily in charge of the advance works on the right. Much work was done in strengthening the parapets and revetting the slopes. Our Fifty-fourth detail went out under Lieutenant Higginson that morning, and had one man wounded. Rev. Samuel Harrison, of Pittsfield, Mass., commissioned chaplain of the regiment, arrived that day.

September 2 the land batteries were throwing some few shots at Sumter and more at Wagner. Capt. Jos. Walker, First New York Engineers, started the sap at 7 P. M. in a new direction under heavy fire. Considering that the trench was but eighty yards from Wagner, good progress was made. The sap-roller could not be used, because of torpedoes planted thereabout. Our fire was concentrated upon Wagner on the 3d, to protect sapping. But little success resulted, for the enemy’s sharpshooters on the left enfiladed our trench at from one hundred to three hundred yards. At this time the narrowest development in the whole approach was encountered, — but twenty-five yards; and the least depth of sand, — but two feet. Everywhere torpedoes were found planted, arranged with delicate explosive mechanism. Arrangements were made to use a calcium light at night. From August 19 to this date, when the three regiments serving as guards of the trenches were relieved by fresher troops, their loss aggregated ten per cent of their whole force, mainly from artillery fire.

On the night of the 3d, Wagner fired steadily, and the James Island batteries now and then. Our detail at the front had George Vanderpool killed and Alexander Hunter of the same company — H — wounded. Throughout the 4th we fired at Wagner, and in the afternoon received its last shot in daylight. Captain Walker ran the sap twenty-five feet in the morning before he was compelled to cease.

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August 30, 1863

This is Gooding’s 26th letter to the Mercury

Mercury, September 15, 1863 [OAF]
Morris Island, Aug. 30, 1863

Messrs. Editors:

—The past week has developed nothing very stirring that I am aware of, though there may be a number of manufactured “tales” in the mail gleanings, or “the very latest by telegraph.” But for the information of those who feel anxious, I will merely state that Morris Island is bounded on one side by the Atlantic Ocean, and a number of bogs and quagmires on another, and last, though not least, by numerous rebel guns on “tother side.” Of course the siege is progressing finely; how could it be otherwise? For don’t you all know that Charleston was to have fallen the next day surely, for the last month and more! (Vide New York Herald.) Query. What has become of the barque Growler, cleared from Boston with a cargo of “cooling material for Charleston Bar”? This hot weather makes us feel solicitous for her safety. We fear something awful has happened, such a sad casualty perhaps as the ice melting away — in tumblers sitting on high official tables.

Last Thursday night our pickets were successful in assaulting and carrying the rebel rifle pits, close under Wagner, say within 270 yards.  Among the captured prisoners, amounting in all to 63, are 5 black men; two were fully armed and equipped, as REBEL SHARPSHOOTERS. They had the very best pattern of rifle, “neutral” make, and are represented by the “trash” as unerring shots. The other three were at work in the trenches. One of these sable rebels is represented to be a reb at heart; he is a large owner of chattels himself, and does not seem to exhibit any of that humble or cowering mien, to indicate that he thinks himself inferior to the “Great Jeff” himself. He holds himself aloof from the other “misguided brethren,” the same as my Lord of the olden time did from his vassals. There may be many more such men as that in the South; but the idea of Mr. Davis relying on his attached and docile SERVANTS to recuperate his wasted armies is all moonshine. In the first place HE knows better than to try any such experiment. The slaves would very likely be glad to get arms, but Mr. Davis probably is certain they would USE them on the “kind and indulgent upholders of the peculiar institution” instead of the “marauding Yankees.” And if he takes the chattels to fill the army, who is to raise the “wittles?” Patriotism and dreams of a Great Southern Empire may sustain the SPIRIT of treason, but the rebels are not Joves nor wizards; they must eat. But I hope Mr. Davis may so far forget himself as to call on every able negro in his so called Confederacy, for it is plain to be seen that they would only be ready to fall into Uncle Sam’s ranks at the first opportunity, with the advantage of coming to us armed and equipped, at the expense of the Confederacy, and —”Neutral Britain.”

Last Sunday we had a grand review of troops. The 54th was the only colored regiment in the column, sandwiched between the white troops.  No one on the ground seemed to perceive any signs of danger arising from such close proximity. The regiment was highly complimented by the Commanding General on its cleanliness of dress, good conduct and proficiency in drill. So you see the 54th is bound to five down all prejudice against its color, by a determination to do well in any position it is put. If it is to wield the shovel and pick, do it faithfully; if it is to haul siege guns, or load and unload transports, our motto is, work faithfully and willingly. The regiment has been on guard and picket very little since coming here, as it gained a reputation of being a good working regiment; so we have been pretty well worked out for the last month, but the most of us are yet living.

J. H. G.

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August 25-29, 1863

Emilio describes the grinding advance down the beach to Ft. Wagner ( [BBR] pp.114-116):

Captain Partridge about August 23 applied for sick leave and shortly went north. In consequence Captain Emilio again became the senior officer and was at times in charge of the regiment until the middle of October. On the 23d the brigade was reviewed on the beach by General Gillmore, accompanied by General Terry. The latter complimented the Fifty-fourth on its appearance. That evening Captain Emilio and Lieutenant Higginson took one hundred and fifty men for grand guard, reporting to Col. Jos. R. Hawley, Seventh Connecticut, field-officer of the trenches. This was the first detail other than fatigue since July 21. The detachment relieved troops in the second parallel. During the night it was very stormy, the rain standing in pools in the trenches. But few shots were fired. Charleston’s bells could be heard when all was still. At midnight the Swamp Angel again opened on the city. About 10 A. M., on the 24th, Wagner and Johnson both opened on us, the former with grape and canister sweeping the advanced works. In the camp, by reason of rain and high tides, the water was several inches deep in the tents on lowest ground. A new brigade — the Fourth — was formed on the 24th, composed of the Second South Carolina, Fifty-fourth Massachusetts, and Third United States Colored Troops (the latter a new regiment from the north), under Colonel Montgomery.

About dark on the 25th a force was again advanced against the enemy’s picket, but was repulsed. It was found that a determined effort must be made to carry the sand ridge crowned by the enemy’s rifle-pits. Just before dark the next day, therefore, a concentrated fire was maintained against this position for some time. Col. F. A. Osborn, Twenty-fourth Massachusetts, with his regiment, supported by the Third New Hampshire, Capt. Jas. F. Randlett, then advanced and gallantly took the line in an instant, the enemy only having time to deliver one volley. They captured sixty-seven men of the Sixty-first North Carolina. Cover was soon made, a task in which the prisoners assisted to insure their own safety. The Twenty-fourth lost Lieut. Jas. A. Perkins and two enlisted men killed, and five wounded. Upon this ridge, two hundred yards from Wagner, the fifth parallel was immediately opened. Beyond it the works, when constructed, were a succession of short zigzags because of the narrow breadth of the island and the flanking and near fire of the Confederates.

… Our own mortar-shells, on the 27th, in the evening killed seven men, and wounded two of the Eighty-fifth Pennsylvania. That night there was a severe thunder-storm drenching everything in camp and leaving pools of water in the tents. A warm drying sun came out on the 28th. …  In the approaches work was slow by reason of the high tides and rain. Moonlight nights interfered also, disclosing our working parties to the enemy. Colonel Montgomery, commanding the brigade, on the 29th established his head-quarters near the right of our camp. It was learned that a list of prisoners recently received from the enemy contained no names of Fifty-fourth men. On the 30th Lieut.-Col. Henry A. Purviance, Eighty-fifth Pennsylvania, was killed by the premature explosion of one of our own shells.

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August 24, 1863

In this letter to General Gillmore, Shaw’s father halted the attempts to retrieve Shaw’s body for reburial elsewhere:

New York, Aug. 24, 1863
Brigadier-General Gillmore, Commanding Department of the South.

Sir,–I take the liberty to address you because I am informed that efforts are to be made to recover the body of my son, Colonel Shaw of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment, which was buried at Fort Wagner. My object in writing is to say that such efforts are not authorized by me or any of my family, and that they are not approved by us. We hold that a soldier’s most appropriate burial-place is on the field where he has fallen. I shall therfore be much obliged, General, if in case the matter is brought to your cognizance, you will forbid the descecration of my son’s grave, and prevent the disturbance of his remains or those buried with him. With most earnest wishes for your success, I am, sir, with respect and esteem,

Your obedient servant,

Francis George Shaw

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August 23, 1863

This is Gooding’s 25th letter to the Mercury:

Mercury, September 7, 1863 [OAF]
Morris Island, Aug. 23, 1863

Messrs. Editors:

—Supposing a detailed account of the operations now in progress in this quarter would prove interesting to your readers, I have taken the pains to jot them down as they occur, trusting to the leniency of the commanding officer to let the MSS. pass. On Monday morning, the 17th, the bombardment commenced. Such a roar of heavy cannon I greatly doubt has been heard since the art of war has been known; for the heaviest guns ever cast in the known world are now banging away at the doomed citadels of rebellion, Forts Wagner and Sumter. Shot after shot tears up the bricks and mortar of Sumter’s walls, but still her flag floats defiantly from the battlement. Battery Gregg, a little to the right of Sumter, has been silent the greater part of the day, as the rains of the Yankee Pandemonium are a little too hot for such small fry as herself. The clouds of sand which anon rise up around Fort Wagner give the surest indication that our gallant artillerists are unerring marksmen. To give you any information concerning the number, kind or position of guns would be violating a strict and necessary order; but suffice it to say that the work goes on in a manner assuring success. Slow, but sure, is the policy evidently pursued now, and it is fair to anticipate the fall of secession’s mother before the genial days of September are gone.

At evening, after the first day’s work, the firing ceased on the side of the rebels, and it being very dark and hazy, our side ceased also, with the exception of a shell now and then, probably to let the rebels know that folks were awake this side of Sumter. The next morning the ball reopened with renewed vigor and Sumter now began to show symptoms of rough usage. The mortar schooners keep up a slow shelling of Wagner,9 but from the look of things, the navy appear at present to hold faith in the poet’s line, “Distance lends enchantment to the view.” There was one casualty this day; one man of the 3d R.I. battery was almost instantly killed by a fragment of shell. On Wednesday the siege was progressing the same as the two days previous, with a steady diminution in the height and architectural beauty of the walls of Sumter and the regularity of the lines of Wagner’s parapet. Thursday morning; again the contending guns are belching forth their sheets of flame, reminding us that these are war times. The rebels are very active this morning, if judged by the number of shells they are throwing so promiscuously over the north end of the island; but these do not appear to scare Gen. Gillmore; he means to go ahead, and go he will. Friday may be considered about the same as the days preceding it, and we expect it will continue so for some time yet, though the rebels are evidently hard pushed, when judged by their slow fire from Wagner and Sumter, indicating scant resources in ammunition, at least, if not in provisions.

There was a very impressive cortege passed by our camp this morning, which is one of the inevitable concomitants of soldier life. There is a queer mixture of joy and sorrow in an army. Lieut. Holbrook, of the 3d R.I. battery, was followed to his last resting place by a detachment of his regiment, a large number of officers and a company of infantry, with two field pieces, escorted by the band of the 6th Conn, regiment. Lieut.  Holbrook was a Massachusetts officer, and formerly was one of the 10th Mass. battery. He was struck by a piece of shell while training a gun, of which he was in charge. He lingered two days in the most intense agony. He was an officer beloved and respected both by his fellow officers and men, and his death is one more sacrifice, on the altar of freedom, of a brave and patriotic son of New England.

J. H. G.

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August 17-22, 1863

Emilio describes the next stage of the siege ( [BBR] pp.111-113):

Shortly after daybreak, August 17, the first bombardment of Sumter began from the land batteries, the navy soon joining in action. The fire of certain guns was directed against Wagner and Gregg. Sumter was pierced time, and again until the walls looked like a honeycomb. All the guns on the northwest face were disabled, besides seven others. A heavy gale came on the 18th, causing a sand-storm on the island and seriously interfering with gun practice…  [on the 19th] The water stood in some of the trenches a foot and a half deep. Our sap was run from the left of the third parallel that morning.

An event of the 20th was the firing for the first time of the great three-hundred-pounder Parrott. It broke down three sling-carts, and required a total of 2,500 days’ labor before it was mounted. While in transit it was only moved at night, and covered with a tarpaulin and grass during the daytime. The enemy fired one hundred and sixteen shots at the Swamp Angel from James Island, but only one struck. Sumter’s flag was shot away twice on the 20th. All the guns on the south face were disabled. Heavy fire from land and sea continued on the 21st, and Sumter suffered terribly.

A letter from Gillmore to Beauregard was sent on the 21st, demanding the surrender of Morris Island and Sumter, under penalty, if not complied with, of the city being shelled. The latter replied, threatening retaliation. Our fourth parallel was opened that night 350 yards from Wagner, and the One Hundredth New York unsuccessfully attempted to drive the enemy’s pickets from a small ridge two hundred yards in front of Wagner. The Swamp Angel opened on Charleston at 1.30 A. M. on the 22d. By one shell a small fire was started there. Many non-combatants left the city. … Wagner now daily gave a sharp fire on our advanced works to delay progress.

… Although almost daily the Fifty-fourth had more or less men at the front, it had suffered no casualties. The men were employed at this period in throwing up parapets, enlarging the trenches, covering the slopes, turfing the batteries, filling sand-bags, and other labors incident to the operations. In the daytime two men were stationed on higher points to watch the enemy’s batteries. Whenever a puff of smoke was seen these ” lookouts ” called loudly, ” Cover!” adding the name by which that particular battery was known. Instantly the workers dropped shovels and tools, jumped into the trench, and, close-covered, waited the coming of the shot or shell, which having exploded, passed, or struck, the work was again resumed. Some of the newer batteries of the enemy were known by peculiar or characteristic names, as ” Bull in the Woods,” ” Mud Digger,” and ” Peanut Battery.” At night the men. worked better, for the shells could be seen by reason of the burning fuses, and their direction taken ; unless coming in the direction of the toilers, the work went on. Becoming; accustomed to their exposure, in a short time this ” dodging shells” was reduced almost to a scientific calculation by the men. Most of all they dreaded mortar-shells, which,, describing a curved course in the sky, poised for a moment, apparently, then, bursting, dropped their fragments from directly overhead. Bomb or splinter proofs alone protected the men from such missiles, but most of the work was in open trenches. Occasionally solid shot were thrown, which at times could be distinctly seen bounding over the sandhills, or burying themselves in the parapets.

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August 16, 1863

This is Gooding’s 24th letter to the Mercury:

Mercury, August 29, 1863 [OAF]
Morris Island, Aug. 16, 1863

Messrs. Editors:

—As stringent orders have been recently issued relative to giving information in regard to military matters here, which is a very proper course and necessary, the amount of news is rather meagre, so I will violate no “General Orders” in expressing the general feeling of the regiment in respect to our late commander, Col.  qualities, as a friend, commander and hero, and, I might add, without any extravagance, a martyr—for such he has proved himself to be.  Who would dare ascribe a selfish motive to a man whose position in life bade fair to be a high one, without the prestige of military fame? He seemed to have taken the position more in the light of a reformer, or one to put in practice a system of order and discipline among a people sadly deficient in these respects, not in a military sense alone, because the seed of discipline sown among us as soldiers would ripen into fruit when the time arrived to become citizens. We, as a people, would know the value of obedience and the meaning of law and order; but I am off the point. When the raising of this regiment was first mooted I doubt if there could have been found a dozen men in the North, holding as high a position and with prospects of bettering themselves by another channel, as our respected Colonel, who would have accepted the unenviable position as commander of the first colored regiment organized in the North. There was then a great doubt among skeptical persons of our raising 500 men; and doubts, too, of colored men conforming to the restraint of camp life, and predictions that the men would run away in a week after being brought to camp; with these doubts and predictions before them, men were afraid to risk their reputations and name on what too many deemed a chimera; they did not care to stand a chance of being the laughing stock and butt of cynical persons. But Col. Shaw, from the beginning, never evinced any fear of what others thought or said. He believed the work would be done, and he put his hands, his head, and heart to the task, with what results you all know. It has been conceded by many that he carried through Boston one of the best drilled regiments ever raised by the State. The discipline of the regiment was perfect; not a slavish fear, but obedience enacted by the evidence of a superior and directing mind.

Col. Shaw was not what might be expected, familiar with his men; he was cold, distant, and even austere, to a casual observer. When in the line of duty, he differed totally from what many persons would suppose he would be, as commander of a negro regiment. If there was any abolition fanaticism in him, he had a mind well balanced, so that no man in the regiment would ever presume to take advantage of that feeling in their favor, to disobey, or use insolence; but had any man a wrong done him, in Colonel Shaw he always found an impartial judge, providing the complaint was presented through the proper channels. For he was very formal in all his proceedings, and would enforce obedience merely by his tones which were not harsh, but soft and firm. The last day with us, or I may say the ending of it, as we lay flat on the ground before the assault, his manner was more unbending than I had ever noticed before in the presence of his men; he sat on the ground, and was talking to the men very familiarly and kindly; he told them how the eyes of thousands would look upon the night’s work they were about to enter on; and said he, “Now boys I want you to be MEN!” He would walk along the entire line and speak words of cheer to his men. We could see that he was a man who had counted the cost of the undertaking before him, for his words were spoken so ominously, his lips were compressed, and now and then there was visible a slight twitching of the corners of his mouth, like one bent on accomplishing or dying.  One poor fellow, struck no doubt by the Colonel’s determined bearing, exclaimed as he was passing him, “Colonel, I will stay by you till I die,” and he kept his word; he has never been seen since. For one so young, Col. Shaw showed a well-trained mind, and an ability of governing men not possessed by many older and more experienced men. In him, the regiment has lost one of its best and most devoted friends. Requiescat in pace.

J. H. G.

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August 14-15, 1863

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August 13, 1863

Frederick Douglass served as a recruiter for the 54th and for other units in several regions of the country. Here is a letter to him regarding this:

War Department
Adjutant Generals Office
Washington DC Augt 13, 1863


I am instructed by the Secretary of War to direct you to proceed to Vicksburg, Mississippi, and on your arrival there to report in person to Brig’r General L. Thomas, Adjutant General, U. S. Army, to assist in recruiting colored troops.

Enclosed please find copy of order for your transportation at public expense.

I am Sir,
Very respectfully
Your Ob’t Servant,

C.W. Foster
Assist Adjt General

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August 10-12, 1863

Emilio describes the tedious work of building for the siege( [BBR] p.110):

… No rain fell from July 18 until August 13, which was favorable for the siege work, as the sand handled was dry and light. This dryness, however, rendered it easily displaced by the wind, requiring constant labor in re-covering magazines, bombproofs, and the slopes. The air too was full of the gritty particles, blinding the men and covering everything in camp.

By this date [8/13] twelve batteries were nearly ready for action, mounting in all twenty-eight heavy rifles, from thirty to three hundred pounders, besides twelve ten-inch mortars. … These works had been completed under fire from Sumter, Gregg, Wagner, and the James Island batteries, as well as the missiles of sharpshooters. Most of the work had been done at night. Day and night heavy guard details lay in the trenches to repel attack. The labor of transporting the heavy guns to the front was very great, as the sinking of the sling-carts deep into the sand made progress slow. Tons of powder, shot, and shell had been brought up, and stored in the service-magazines.

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