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.
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):
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