Early on the 5th the land batteries,” Ironsides,” and two monitors opened1 a terrific bombardment on Wagner which lasted forty-two hours. Under its protection our sap progressed in safety. Wagner dared not show a man, while the approaches were so close that the more distant batteries of the enemy feared to injure their own men. Our working parties moved about freely. Captain Walker ran some one hundred and fifty yards of sap; and by noon the flag, planted at the head of the trench to apprise the naval vessels of our position, was within one hundred yards of the fort. The Fifty-fourth detail at work there on this day had Corp. Aaron Spencer of Company A mortally wounded by one of our own shells, and Private Chas. Van Allen of the same company killed. Gregg’s capture was again attempted that night by Major Sanford’s command. When the boats approached near, some musket-shots were exchanged ; and as the defenders were alert, we again retired with slight loss.
Daylight dawned upon the last day of Wagner’s memorable siege on September 6. The work was swept by our searching fire from land and water, before which its traverses were hurled down in avalanches covering the entrances to magazines and bombproofs. Gregg was also heavily bombarded. As on the previous day our sappers worked rapidly and exposed themselves with impunity. The greatest danger was from our own shells, by which one man was wounded. Lieutenant McGuire, U. S. A., was in charge a part of the day. He caused the trenches to be prepared for holding a large number of troops, with means for easy egress to the front. Late that evening General Gillmore issued orders for an assault at nine o’clock the next morning, the hour of low tide, by three storming columns under General Terry, with proper reserves. Artillery fire was to be kept up until the stormers mounted the parapet. At night the gallant Captain Walker, who was assisted by Captain Pratt, Fifty-fifth Massachusetts, observed that the enemy’s sharpshooters fired but scatteringly, and that but one mortar-shell was thrown from Wagner. About 10 p. M. he passed into the ditch and examined it thoroughly. He found a fraise of spears and stakes, of which he pulled up some two hundred. Returning, a flying sap was run along the crest of the glacis, throwing the earth level, to enable assailants to pass over readily.
A picket detail of one hundred men went out from the Fifty-fourth camp at 5 p. M. on the 6th. Our usual detail was at work in the front under the engineers. It was not until two o’clock on the morning of September 7 that the officers and men of the regiment remaining in camp were aroused, fell into line, and with the colored brigade marched up over the beach line to a point just south of the Beacon house, where these regiments rested, constituting the reserve of infantry in the anticipated assault. Many of the regiments were arriving or in position, and the advance trenches were full of troops. Soon came the gray of early morning, and with it rumors that Wagner was evacuated. By and by the rumors were confirmed, and the glad tidings spread from regiment to regiment. Up and down through the trenches and the parallels rolled repeated cheers and shouts of victory. It was a joyous time; our men threw up their hats, dancing in their gladness. Officers shook hands enthusiastically. Wagner was ours at last.
Just after midnight one of the enemy, a young Irishman, deserted from Wagner and gained our lines. Taken before Lieut.-Col. 0. L. Mann, Thirty-ninth Illinois, general officer of the trenches, he reported the work abandoned and the enemy retired to Gregg. Half an hour later all the guns were turned upon Wagner for twenty minutes, after which Sergeant Vermillion, a corporal, and four privates of the Thirty-ninth Illinois, all volunteers, went out. In a short time they returned, reporting no one in Wagner and only a few men in a boat rowing toward Gregg. On the receipt of this news the flag of the sappers and the regimental color of the Thirty-ninth Illinois were both planted on the earthwork. A hasty examination was made of Wagner, in the course of which a line of fuse connecting with two magazines was cut. Every precaution was taken, and guards posted at all dangerous points.
A few moments after our troops first entered Wagner two companies of the Third New Hampshire under Captain Randlett were pushed toward Gregg. Capt. C. R. Brayton, Third Rhode Island Heavy Artillery, and some Fifty-fourth men started for the same point. Amid the sand-hills the Third New Hampshire men stopped to take charge of some prisoners, while Captain Brayton kept on, and was the first to enter Gregg, closely followed by the Fifty-fourth men. In Wagner eighteen pieces of ordnance were found, and in Gregg, seven pieces. All about the former work muskets, boarding-pikes, spears, and boards filled with spikes were found arranged to repel assaults. Inside and all around, the stench was nauseating from the buried and unburied bodies of men and animals. The bombproof was indescribably filthy. One terribly wounded man was found who lived to tell of his sufferings, but died on the way to hospital. Everywhere were evidences of the terrific bombardment beyond the power of pen to describe.
About half a dozen stragglers from the retiring enemy were taken on the island. Our boats captured two of the enemy’s barges containing a surgeon and fifty-five men, and a boat of the ram ” Chicora ” with an officer and seven sailors.
Wagner’s siege lasted fifty-eight days. During that period 8,395 soldiers’ day’s work of six hours each had been done on the approaches; eighteen bomb or splinter proof service-magazines made, as well as eighty-nine emplacements for guns, — a total of 23,500 days’ work. In addition, forty-six thousand sand-bags had been filled, hundreds of gabions and fascines made, and wharves and landings constructed. Of the nineteen thousand days’ work performed by infantry, the colored troops had done one half, though numerically they were to white troops as one to ten. Three quarters of all the work was at night, and nine tenths under artillery and sharpshooters’ fire or both combined.
Regarding colored troops, Major Brooks, Assistant Engineer, in his report, says, —” It is probable that in no military operations of the war have negro troops done so large a proportion, and so important and hazardous fatigue duty, as in the siege operations on the island.”
The colored regiments participating were the Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth Massachusetts, First North Carolina, Second South Carolina, and Third United States Colored Troops. Officers serving in charge of the approaches, when called upon by Major Brooks to report specifically upon the comparative value of white and colored details under their charge for fatigue duty during the period under consideration, gave testimony that for perseverance, docility, steadiness, endurance, and amount of work performed, the blacks more than equalled their white brothers. Their average of sick was but 13.97, while that of the whites was 20.10. The percentage of duty performed by the blacks as compared with the whites was as fifty-six to forty-one.
Major Brooks further says, —” Of the numerous infantry regiments which furnished fatigue parties, the Fourth New Hampshire did the most and best work, next follow the blacks, — the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts and Third United States Colored Troops.”
General Beauregard [opposing Confederate commander] reports his loss during the siege as a total of 296, exclusive of his captured. But the official ” War Records ” show that from July 18 to September 7 the Confederate loss was a total of 690. The Federal loss during the same period by the same authority was but 358.
Despite the exposure of the Fifty-fourth details day and night with more or less officers and men at the front, the casualties in the regiment during the siege as given by the Adjutant-General of Massachusetts were but four killed and four wounded.
September 6-8, 1863
Comments are closed.