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.”
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):
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