Posts Tagged Charleston Harbor
Mercury, October 8, 1863 [OAF]
Morris Island, Sept. 26, 1863
—Since my last epistle to the “elect in Bedford,” there has nothing very eventful transpired. How long we are doomed to this monotonous state of affairs, I can’t presume to say; the army has done about all in its power to do in this mode of attack on Charleston and are now putting the captured works in a state of defence. Whether it is the intention to inaugurate any further offensive operations from Gregg or Wagner seems to be uncertain. One thing has been clearly demonstrated in this campaign. It is almost useless to undertake to drive an enemy out of sand works at long range. We have tried it on the rebels, and they in turn have tried it on us, with about the same effect. Sand works will stand too, a close bombardment, unless you pitch shell right into them; so if the approaches to Charleston are to be taken before the city lies at our mercy, it will be necessary to bring the iron fleet to close quarters. If there is not enough of them, send for more; for the more vessels we have engaged, the worse for the rebels. The monitors and iron boats were expected to revolutionize naval warfare radically. We have boastingly intimated that the strongest fortified cities were no longer a bugbear and scare to our invulnerable fleets; but we have yet to hear of one stronghold on the sea, or gulf coasts at least, laid low by their prowess. I believe the iron fleet is all that is claimed for it. But we don’t expect the monitors to go up Charleston harbor of themselves. We want a Nelson or Perry, or some one like the Commodore who was determined to “go up to New Orleans, or sink every ship he had.” When we have some one of that stamp we may expect to see Charleston fall, or else by the long and tedious mode of mapping them out, by way of James or Sullivan’s Islands. The first cry was, Fort Sumter is in the way; — now, Fort Sumter is worse than useless, so far as being a defence to the city is concerned. But still the “Webb-feet” are holding on — to their anchors. Then it was, if Forts Wagner and Gregg are put out of the way, then what: why move the fleet up a little nearer and look on the wharves of Charleston, see the boats land and put off for Sullivan’s Island, within gun range of even the land batteries on our side, and the monitors lying right in the mouth of the harbor and letting the rebel boats run from one point to another, not three miles from them, without making an effort to cripple them. Of course they must wait for orders to fire, and if the “great ram” itself came down I suppose ‘twould be the same way.
Whether the government has sagely considered the quotation from Vattel, as interpreted by the Charleston Courier, remains to be seen. But I can’t help thinking, as a great many others think, that if the government exhibits so much needless humanity in deference to Mons. Vattel’s played out theories, compiled two centuries since, as to restrain Gen. Gillmore from laying the nest of treason in her unhallowed dust now that he has the opportunity, we deserve to be beaten.
Does any man suppose that if the rebels had batteries planted, for instance on Long Island, or any where near New York on the Jersey side, they would have any scruples about burning New York with Greek fire if it did not surrender? Suppose the New Yorkers should say, “By the law of nations and all the standard authorities in such matters, you cannot burn or shell our city until you have reduced and passed Fort Hamilton, the floating batteries, and every battery and gun outside the city limits for three miles.” I think the rebels would be pretty apt to say, we are after the city. We don’t want your forts and batteries if we can get your city without them, and if you burn the city yourselves, why the forts are then practically useless. The treasure they were built to protect will be gone, and the forts will have to succumb in a short time, for the city will be no more a base of supply to them. That is about the position Charleston is in now, and we must see to it that the traitors shall learn the cost of warring against their country. What if the London Times does work itself into a fume, and call on the “whole civilized world to witness the inhuman barbarity of the Americans.” Don’t America belong to us? or at least that part which causes England so much anxiety. We have never lashed a rebel to a gun and blown him to pieces, however richly some of them have deserved it; neither have we banished a great warrior and sovereign to an almost desolate island, and left him to die with scarcely a friend to close his eyes. We treated Vallandigham better, who should have been ducked and gagged.
The number of casualties have been very small the past week, when we consider the persistent fire from the rebels. Our men at work up at Gregg and Wagner are most frequently admonished to “cover” from Johnson, or “he low” from Moultrie. The shell and shot come screaming through the air, as though thirsting for a victim; nearing the work they explode, scattering the fragments around, and the pieces hum and buzz like a shoal of maddened wasps. It sounds very inspiriting, providing you are in a position of comparative safety. But I notice that some men won’t cover; the consequence is they soon have someone to do it for them.
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.
Morris Island, Sept. 5, 1863 [OAF]
—As there is nothing to record the past week, other than the (insignificant?) death of a dozen pickets, or as many more laborers in trenches, of course you must expect a dull letter. We had hoped the weather would continue cool, as it had been the last week, but the thermometer is now up to the old numbers, 112 to 98; but the nights are very chilly. We have been so unfortunate as to lose three men during the week, who were at work at the front, besides five severely wounded. One of the men killed, George King, last place of residence, Toledo, Ohio, was once a slave, belonging to Gen. [John Cabell] Breckinridge, rebel army, and his mother and one sister are yet slaves, now in Richmond, Va. The others killed were Alexander Vanderpoel, of Coxsackie, N.Y. and Geo. Hunter, of Cleveland, O.10 It is now an ordinary spectacle to see stretchers passing, with blood trickling through the canvass, with some poor fellow who was wounded on picket or assisting the engineers. That is the last we ever hear or know of it; they are borne to the grave, and all the news-devouring people think is, “Oh that’s nothing, why don’t they have a great big battle, so we shall have a respectable list of killed, mangled and missing?” But the relatives and friends of the patriot soldier who is killed or wounded by a chance fragment of a shell, or a sharpshooter’s deadly aim, are apt to feel as bad as though the victim died on the ramparts, waving a battle flag before an assaulting column. A man dies none the less gloriously, standing at his post on picket, or digging in the trench; his country needs him there, and he is as true a soldier as though he were in the thickest fray. We should like to know from the North how the siege is progressing; we are pretty close to the work, but we know nothing as regards the news. I saw one of our boys brushing his dress-coat very carefully the other day, and asked him what he was so particular for. He said he wanted to have his clothes look nice, because he “guessed we would soon march into Charleston!” Of course, I hope he will be gratified in his wish, and do not doubt him in the main, if he will ignore “soon.” It is pretty generally believed that Sumter is evacuated, for it does not seem possible for men to stay in it, in its present dilapidated condition. There appears to be no signs of work going on in the fort, neither has there been a gun fired these three weeks from her. But there are “other fish to fry” besides Sumter, and you may depend upon it that they will be done brown by the fire the Chef de Cuisine will put under them. Time works wonders, and time is needed to take Charleston.
Mercury, September 15, 1863 [OAF]
Morris Island, Aug. 30, 1863
—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.
Mercury, August 29, 1863 [OAF]
Morris Island, Aug. 16, 1863
—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.
Mercury, August 16, 1863 [OAF]
Morris Island, August 3, 1863
The latest news from this department is the capture of a blockade runner having on board heavy Whitworth guns. The guns captured are now in course of erection on the north end of the Island to bombard the fort, which they were intended to defend. The planting of siege guns steadily progresses, but is necessarily slow, as the guns have to be hauled through a marsh, and that too in the night, so the enemy cannot see what we are about, and to avert their constant rain of shells, they thinking of course we can’t work when they are shelling us; but they may find out their mistake before this week is out. Every available man on the Island is constantly at work, so as to bring things to a speedy issue. Some are throwing up breastworks, some hauling guns, others loading shells, or carting ammunition from the wharf to the magazines, and every one is confident of success, helping cheerfully in the great amount of work, which must be done before the “grand ball” comes off. It is evident the Commanding General intends to make a sure thing of it this time, and not make the assault till he has got everything ready. One noticeable feature is Gen. Gillmore is supervising the preparations himself, and I do not think any man in the department works more than he does. The consequence is the men has confidence in him, and the rebels a corresponding degree of fear of the “intrepid engineer,” as they term him. As I write, the rebels are vainly blazing away, while our men both white and black are steadily pursuing their work right in their very teeth. When they see the flash from Fort Sumter they merely slip into their caves, dug already for the purpose, and after the shell has exploded, out they come and go to work again, till old Sumter gives them another salute. I have been up to the front three times this week, but “I still live,” and all the others who have been up there.
The rebels are evidently getting scared. Last Tuesday we could see a balloon hovering over Charleston for over an hour; they were doubtless reconnoitering, but I think it is likely they could see they would be warmly received, should they take a notion to visit us. We were enlightened by the New York or Boston press, of the 18th to 20th ult. We were informed that the Monitors had reduced Forts Wagner and Sumter on the 11th, and Beauregard had evacuated and burned Charleston! And another yarn, of two regiments planting a flag on Fort Wagner, and holding it two hours! which would have been, but for the cowardice of a Pennsylvania regiment — all of which stories are sell, and must be compared with the Commanding General’s official report. The fact is, “our own special correspondents travelling with Gen. So-and-so’s division” are a good deal like the “highly intelligent contraband,” or the “gentleman of undoubted veracity”— they write of what they hear, rather than what they see. In a conversation with one of the men of the 6th Conn, regiment, which was in the charge first made, he said if any one got in the fort it was more than he knew, and he said the regiment which had been mentioned as acting cowardly had been wronged.
There is one name I omitted in the two last letters. Nathan L. Young of New Bedford, was wounded on the night of the 18th, and died on board the steamer before arriving at Hilton Head. According to Lieut. Grace’s official report from the Surgeon General at Beaufort, Corp. Torrance is not there, and the men who have arrived from there corroborate the statement. So he is among the killed or prisoners, as I intimated in my first letter. I am unable to give you any account of how the wounded are getting along, as I have received no communication from any of them since they have been there. Our boys have got over their depression of spirit somewhat, caused by the fall of so many of their companions, in the dawning of a speedy victory. They are all in hopes of another “good time” before going into Charleston, but they would a leetle rather have it on a fair field, with no odds. Charging is good when you have a fair sight; but they all agree that Wagner is a hot place.
J. H. G.
Executive Order – Retaliation
It is the duty of every government to give protection to its citizens, of whatever class, color, or condition, and especially to those who are duly organized as soldiers in the public service. The law of nations and the usages and customs of war, as carried on by civilized powers, permit no distinction as to color in the treatment of prisoners of war as public enemies. To sell or enslave any captured person on account of his color, and for no offense against the laws of war, is a relapse into barbarism and a crime against the civilization of the age.
The Government of the United States will give the same protection to all its soldiers, and if the enemy shall sell or enslave anyone because of his color the offense shall be punished by retaliation upon the enemy’s prisoners in our possession.
It is therefore ordered, That for every soldier of the United States killed in violation of the laws of war a rebel soldier shall be executed, and for every one enslaved by the enemy or sold into slavery a rebel soldier shall be placed at hard labor on the public works and continued at such labor until the other shall be released and receive the treatment due to a prisoner of war.
To: Brigadier General R.A. Pierce, Readville
Knowing your deep interest in the officers and men of the Regiment, I thought I would let you know how we are after our Skirmish and retreat from James Island and Fight at Morris Island.
We were on the move three days and nights before the Fight on this Island. When we arrived here, we were very much exhausted, tired and hungry, not having any thing to eat for twenty four, hours. I simply speak of this to let you know what condition we were in before the Fight. We arrived on the Island about 3 o’clock, rested a short time, and then moved forward to the upper end of the Island (the Island is about four miles long). When we arrived within one thousand yards of Fort Wagner, we laid down waiting for our support to come up. We laid there about thirty minutes when we were ordered to rise up and charge on the works, which we did at double quick time with a tremendous scream. When we arrived within a short distance of the works, the Rebels opened on us with grape and canister accompanied with a thousand muskets, mowing our men down by the hundreds. This caused us to fall back a little, but we soon made another rush to the works, when we received another tremendous discharge of musketry, and also grape and canister. Such a tremendous fire right in our faces caused us to fall back, which we did in very good order. Our men are highly spoken of by military men as showing great bravery. They did fight when they were in front of the works [and a] good many of our men went on to the works and fought hand to hand with the Enemy.
Lieutenant James W. Grace