Posts Tagged   James Island combat

July 24, 1863

Gooding’s 21st letter to the Mercury describes the aftermath of the assault:

Mercury, August 4, 1863 [OAF]
Morris Island, July 24

Messrs. Editors: —

Since my letter of the 20th last, our forces have been busily engaged, preparing for the grand sortie on Wagner and Sumter. When everything is complete, you may expect to hear of decisive results. It is very probable that Fort Wagner would have been in our possession now, had the rebels not sent a flag-of-truce boat out on the 22d inst. to exchange prisoners. The monitors, gunboats and batteries were blazing away on her (Wagner) that forenoon, and from the look of things, it seemed as though they were in a pretty tight place. I do not think, with the vast preparations now being made, that Wagner can hold out 48 hours if our side push matters a little when they do begin. Ere this meets the eyes of the readers of the Mercury, the Union troops may garrison both forts, Wagner and Sumter; but the people at home must not expect Charleston to be taken in two minutes, for even if Forts Wagner and Sumter are soon reduced, there is still a few miles between Sumter and the city, backed by heavy batteries on each shore.  Winning victories by theory, in easy chairs at home, and fighting to win them on the field, are different things.

We have since learned by the flag-of-truce boat that Colonel Shaw is dead—he was buried in a trench with 45 of his men! not even the commonest respect paid to his rank. Such conduct is in striking contrast to the respect paid a rebel Major, who was killed on James Island. The Commander of the 54th regiment had the deceased rebel officer buried with all the honors of war granted by the regulations; and they have returned the compliment by tossing him into a ditch.  We hope the London Times will make note of that fact. They did not say how many of our men they had buried, beyond the 45 with the Colonel, nor how many of them they have as prisoners; they merely said they would not exchange them then, but should hold them for future consideration. So we can give no definite news of those who are killed or prisoners. We have never been allowed to approach near enough to hold any parley with them since the night of the assault. It seems though, from the proceedings since the truce, that there might have been some “kid glove handling” of the negro volunteer question, as the two boats were side by side nearly three hours; though I may be wrong in my surmises. But since that day our regiment has not been out on picket duty, either as outposts or reserves; and this may be prompted by a desire of those in charge not to place a regiment of black men in an exposed position under such peculiar circumstances, until they know definitely what is to be the fate of those in the hands of the rebels. If such be the case I think it is for the best. The regiment is hardly fit for service in the field at present for want of officers. Capts. Russell and Simpkins have never been heard of since the memorable night of the 18th. All the other company commanders are so severely wounded that it is feared some of them will never be able to resume the field again, and it is to be hoped that the steps for reorganizing the regiment will be speedily taken. It is due to what few officers we have left with us, to reward them with a step higher up the ladder. Col. Littlefield, of the 3d S.C. Regiment, has temporary charge of the 54th. I did intend to give you an account of our evacuation of James Island; but as we may have occasion to “play it over again,” for strategic reasons, I’ll keep dark on it.

In my last letter I put down Abram P. Torrance as killed. I have subsequently learned that he is wounded, and is in the hospital at Beaufort. The rest of the list is, I think, correct. The total number of men now killed, wounded and missing, is 357. It is estimated that about 70 of the wounded will be again fit for service.

J. H. G.

P.S. — Two more monitors arrived this afternoon, ready to take a part in the combat. The men of the regiment are raising a sum to send the body of the Colonel home, as soon as Fort Wagner is reduced. They all declare that they will dig for his body till they find it. They are determined this disgrace shall be counteracted by something noble.

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July 22, 1863

This letter from Lieutenant James W. Grace describing the combined action appears in [OAF] pp.39-40:

To: Brigadier General R.A. Pierce, Readville
July 22

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

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July 21, 1863

Stephens describes the James Island action and the assault on Ft. Wagner in his fifth letter to the Weekly Anglo-African:

Morris Island, S.C., [VT]
July 21,1863.

Mr. Editor:

The month of July has been an eventful one for the 54th. We left our camp at St. Helena on the—inst., and landed at James Island on the—, fought the second battle of James Island1 on Thursday, 16th, escaped the snare which eight thousand rebels had prepared to entrap us with, by silent midnight retreat through bogs, marshes, and dense woods, reaching Morris Island beach on Saturday morning, 18th; marched directly to the front, and made (what has been conceded by every one to be) a heroic charge on Fort Wagner.

In the engagement at James Island we lost 45 killed, wounded and missing. Among the killed are Corporal Holloway, a nephew of Bishop Payne—a brave, intelligent, Christian soldier. Also Sergeant Wilson, Company H, of Chicago. He fought four rebel cavalrymen, slew three, but the fourth gave him a mortal wound. Sergeant Vogelsang of the same company was ordered by a party of rebels to surrender. His answer was, “Never!” and received, it is feared, a mortal wound. The battle commenced at daylight. Companies B, H and K were thrown out about two miles on picket. During Wednesday night and Thursday morning the rebels made repeated advances on our picket line, but were kept at bay by our unerring rifles. At the peep of day all was activity among them. Their long, dark line of battle could barely be discerned. Capt. Russell of Co, H ordered us to fall back on our reserve, at the same time, deploying as skirmishers, the whole rebel line advanced full eight hundred strong. Our picket line retired slowly and reluctantly, delivering their fire as if on a skirmish drill. The rebels yelled and hooted, but they could not drive us, and advanced only as our picket line retired.

The 10th Connecticut regiment was encamped on our extreme left. Had our pickets retired precipitately, as pickets generally do, this regiment would have been captured; but they were enabled to take shelter under the gunboats. When our picket line reached the reserve it had all skedaddled, and we were forced to withstand this attack of superior numbers until we reached the main body of our regiment drawn up in a line of battle, supported by the 1st Connecticut artillery.  On the rebels came. Volley after volley was poured into them, and after a contest of two hours they fled precipitately. They must have suffered terribly. They carried cart loads of dead off the field.

Although there were a great many other troops on the Island, none but the black regiment of Massachusetts fired a gun. The 54th stood between the foes and our white comrades. A great many of the white soldiers were killed and wounded by the enemies shells. Sergeant Merriman of Co. B was shot in the leg. He says the rebels bound it up for him, and gave him water to drink and to bathe his wound. This seems to ill accord with some of the atrocities they are known to have been guilty of.  On that day many of the wounded were killed, and Sergeant Vogelsang was pursued and shot like many others on the banks of an adjoining creek, which is very marshy. The only way that we could secure their bodies after the fight was by boat up the creek. Many of our wounded were shot while lying on the ground. Albert Walls, one of the missing or killed, did not hear the order to fall back and remained at his post and fought until killed or taken prisoner!

It is rumored that the enemy lost a general in the fight. They are known to have an officer killed, but his rank cannot be ascertained. We took eight rebel prisoners. One of our spies penetrated their lines, and found their force to be upwards of eight thousand men. They anticipated inflicting on us another James Island disaster, but our retreat saved us and disappointed them. They did not know that our forces had evacuated the Island until ten o’clock Friday morning. The official report of the killed, wounded and missing has already reached you. Capt. Simpkins1 of Co. K, a brave officer, had his life saved in the engagement. He was attacked by two rebel cavalrymen, when one of his men shot one dead and bayoneted the second one. Every man that fell, fell fighting with his face to the foe.

We left the lower end of Morris Island Saturday morning, and marched slowly and steadily to the front until in sight of Fort Wagner. We had heard of the previous attempt to take it by storm, and knew that nothing but hard fighting, with great sacrifice of life, could result in a successful storming of it. Gen. Strong, the hero of the attack of Saturday, when our regiment reached within range of the shells of the fort, rode out bravely a hundred yards in advance of us and reconnoitered the fort and its surroundings. Rode back to us and briefly addressed us, and asked, “Massachusetts men, are you ready to take that fort ?” The universal answer was, “We will try.” “They are nearly played out. They have but two effective guns,” said he. About sundown we were ordered to advance at the double quickstep, cheering as if going on some mirthful errand. The rebs withheld their fire until we reached within fifty yards of the work, when jets of flame darted forth from every corner and embrasure, and even Fort Sumter poured solid shot and shell on our heads. The 54th, undaunted by the hellish storm, pushed up to the work, down into the moat, and like demons ascended the parapet, found the interior lined with rebels soldiers who were well sheltered and fought them one hour before we were re-enforced; and when the regiment reached us, the 3d New Hampshire, which was presumed to be our re-enforcements, they, to a man, emptied their rifles into us. Thus we lost nearly as many men by the bullets of our presumed friends as by those of our known enemies.

Some few entered the fort, and when they got in, it was so dark that friends could not be distinguished from foes, and there is no doubt but that many a Union soldier was killed by his comrades.

On the whole, this is considered to be a brilliant feat of the 54th. It is another evidence that cannot now be denied, that colored soldiers will dare go where any brave men will lead them. Col. Shaw,is our noble and lamented commander, was the bravest of the brave. He did not take his thirty paces to the rear, but led the column up to the fort, and was the first man who stood oh the parapet of the fort. When he reached it he said, “Come on, men! Follow me!” and he either received a mortal wound and fell over the wall, or stumbled into the Fort and was killed. If he still lives, it is miraculous, for he must have fell on glistening bayonets. One of the rebel prisoners says that he is wounded and still lives, but for my part I do not believe it.

Gen. Strong, seeing that the rebels were in too great a force, ordered the retreat, and now comes another chapter which I would fain pass, but my duty tells me that I must advert to it. There were large quantities of whiskey to be had, and the guard placed to guard the line of retreat and to prevent straggling imbibed rather freely. Some of the men of the skedaddling white regiments were fired on and killed, and when some of our wounded were passing to the rear they were murdered by these drunken wretches. One of our Sergeants was shot dead by a private of this guard in the presence of an officer of our regiment who immediately shot the private dead. Dozens of our wounded were drowned. The only good approach to the fort is by the beach. The tide was low when we made the charge, and before we could secure our dead and wounded the tide came up, and such as could not crawl away were drowned.

Our total loss cannot be positively ascertained. It is placed at about 300 killed, wounded and missing: 75 killed, 125 wounded, 100 missing.  It is supposed that Sergeant R. J. Simmons of your city is among the killed. Major Hallowell is badly wounded.

G. E. S

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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):

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.”

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July 15, 1863

A letter from Shaw to his wife Annie; it will turn out to be his last to her:

James’ Island, S.C. [BCF]
July 15,1863

My Dearest Annie,

Your letters of June 3d, 14th, and 28th, and July 3d, 4th, and 5th, came to-day, and I felt horridly ashamed of myself for having blamed you for not taking care to post your letters. Do excuse it. It will show you how much I value your dear letters.

You don’t know what a fortunate day this has been for me and for us all, excepting some poor fellows who were killed and wounded. We have at last fought alongside of white troops. Two hundred of my men on picket this morning were attacked by five regiments of infantry, some cavalry, and a battery of artillery. The Tenth Connecticut (of Stevenson’s Brigade) were on their left, and say they should have had a bad time, if the Fifty-fourth men had not stood so well. The whole Division was under arms in fifteen minutes, and after coming up close in front of us, the enemy, finding us so strong, fell back. The other regiments lost in all, three men wounded. We lost seven killed, twenty-one wounded, six missing, supposed killed, and nine unaccounted for. These last are probably killed or captured.  All these belonged to the four companies which were on picket. The main body, excepting artillery, was not engaged at all.

All this is very gratifying to us personally, and a fine thing for the coloured troops. It is the first time they have been associated with white soldiers, this side of the Mississippi. To make my happiness and satisfaction complete, the afternoon brought your and Mother’s letters… .

I have just come in from the front with my regiment, where we were sent as soon as the Rebels retired. This shows that the events of the morning did not destroy the General’s confidence in us.

We found some of our wounded, who say the Rebels treated them kindly. Other men report that some prisoners were shot. It is very common for frightened men to tell fearful stories of what they have seen; the first report comes from the wounded men themselves; the second from the stragglers. . . .

Good bye, darling, for the night. I know this letter will give you pleasure, because what we have done to-day wipes out the remembrance of the Darien affair, which you could not but grieve over, though we were innocent participators. You will have some satisfaction in telling it to your father, your Uncle Charles, and Aunt Fanny, to all of whom please give my sincere regards. Whenever you see your grandfather and grandmother, do not forget to give them my respects. To our Mamma, and Clem. I needn’t say I send my warmest love. I got my horse, India-rubber tube, and some clean clothes to-day.

Cole’s Island (opposite Folly Island) [RGS]
July 17th, 4 P.M.

James Island was evacuated last night by our forces. My regiment started first, at 91/2 P.M. Not a thing was moved until after dark, and the Rebels must have been astonished this morning. Terry went there originally only to create a diversion from Morris Island, and it was useless to stay and risk being driven off, after Morris was taken. It thundered and lightened, and rained hard all night, and it took us from 10 P.M. to 5 A.M. to come four miles. Most of the way we had to march in single file along the narrow paths through the swamps. For nearly half a mile we had to pass over a bridge of one, and in some places, two planks wide, without a railing, and slippery with rain— mud and water below several feet deep—and then over a narrow dike so slippery as to make it almost impossible to keep one’s feet. It took my regiment alone nearly two hours to pass the bridge and dike. By the time we got over, it was nearly daylight, and the Brigade behind us had a pretty easy time. I never had such an extraordinary walk.

We are now lying on the beach opposite the southern point of Folly Island, and have been here since five this morning. When they can get boats, they will set us across, I suppose.

There is hardly any water to be got here, and the sun and sand arc dazzling and roasting us. I shouldn’t like you to see me as I am now; I haven’t washed my face since day before yesterday. My conscience is perfectly easy about it, though, for it was an impossibility, and every one is in the same condition. Open air dirt, i.e. mud, & is not like the indoor article.

… I have had nothing but crackers and coffee these two days. It seems like old times in the army of the Potomac.

Good bye again, darling Annie.


July 18th. Morris Island—We are in General Strong’s Brigade, and have left Montgomery, I hope for good. We came up here last night, and were out again all night in a very heavy rain. Fort Wagner is being very heavily bombarded. We arc not far from it.

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