New York, Aug. 24, 1863
Brigadier-General Gillmore, Commanding Department of the South.
Sir,–I take the liberty to address you because I am informed that efforts are to be made to recover the body of my son, Colonel Shaw of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment, which was buried at Fort Wagner. My object in writing is to say that such efforts are not authorized by me or any of my family, and that they are not approved by us. We hold that a soldier’s most appropriate burial-place is on the field where he has fallen. I shall therfore be much obliged, General, if in case the matter is brought to your cognizance, you will forbid the descecration of my son’s grave, and prevent the disturbance of his remains or those buried with him. With most earnest wishes for your success, I am, sir, with respect and esteem,
Your obedient servant,
Francis George Shaw
Posts Tagged siege of Ft Wagner
Mercury, September 7, 1863 [OAF]
Morris Island, Aug. 23, 1863
—Supposing a detailed account of the operations now in progress in this quarter would prove interesting to your readers, I have taken the pains to jot them down as they occur, trusting to the leniency of the commanding officer to let the MSS. pass. On Monday morning, the 17th, the bombardment commenced. Such a roar of heavy cannon I greatly doubt has been heard since the art of war has been known; for the heaviest guns ever cast in the known world are now banging away at the doomed citadels of rebellion, Forts Wagner and Sumter. Shot after shot tears up the bricks and mortar of Sumter’s walls, but still her flag floats defiantly from the battlement. Battery Gregg, a little to the right of Sumter, has been silent the greater part of the day, as the rains of the Yankee Pandemonium are a little too hot for such small fry as herself. The clouds of sand which anon rise up around Fort Wagner give the surest indication that our gallant artillerists are unerring marksmen. To give you any information concerning the number, kind or position of guns would be violating a strict and necessary order; but suffice it to say that the work goes on in a manner assuring success. Slow, but sure, is the policy evidently pursued now, and it is fair to anticipate the fall of secession’s mother before the genial days of September are gone.
At evening, after the first day’s work, the firing ceased on the side of the rebels, and it being very dark and hazy, our side ceased also, with the exception of a shell now and then, probably to let the rebels know that folks were awake this side of Sumter. The next morning the ball reopened with renewed vigor and Sumter now began to show symptoms of rough usage. The mortar schooners keep up a slow shelling of Wagner,9 but from the look of things, the navy appear at present to hold faith in the poet’s line, “Distance lends enchantment to the view.” There was one casualty this day; one man of the 3d R.I. battery was almost instantly killed by a fragment of shell. On Wednesday the siege was progressing the same as the two days previous, with a steady diminution in the height and architectural beauty of the walls of Sumter and the regularity of the lines of Wagner’s parapet. Thursday morning; again the contending guns are belching forth their sheets of flame, reminding us that these are war times. The rebels are very active this morning, if judged by the number of shells they are throwing so promiscuously over the north end of the island; but these do not appear to scare Gen. Gillmore; he means to go ahead, and go he will. Friday may be considered about the same as the days preceding it, and we expect it will continue so for some time yet, though the rebels are evidently hard pushed, when judged by their slow fire from Wagner and Sumter, indicating scant resources in ammunition, at least, if not in provisions.
There was a very impressive cortege passed by our camp this morning, which is one of the inevitable concomitants of soldier life. There is a queer mixture of joy and sorrow in an army. Lieut. Holbrook, of the 3d R.I. battery, was followed to his last resting place by a detachment of his regiment, a large number of officers and a company of infantry, with two field pieces, escorted by the band of the 6th Conn, regiment. Lieut. Holbrook was a Massachusetts officer, and formerly was one of the 10th Mass. battery. He was struck by a piece of shell while training a gun, of which he was in charge. He lingered two days in the most intense agony. He was an officer beloved and respected both by his fellow officers and men, and his death is one more sacrifice, on the altar of freedom, of a brave and patriotic son of New England.
J. H. G.
Shortly after daybreak, August 17, the first bombardment of Sumter began from the land batteries, the navy soon joining in action. The fire of certain guns was directed against Wagner and Gregg. Sumter was pierced time, and again until the walls looked like a honeycomb. All the guns on the northwest face were disabled, besides seven others. A heavy gale came on the 18th, causing a sand-storm on the island and seriously interfering with gun practice… [on the 19th] The water stood in some of the trenches a foot and a half deep. Our sap was run from the left of the third parallel that morning.
An event of the 20th was the firing for the first time of the great three-hundred-pounder Parrott. It broke down three sling-carts, and required a total of 2,500 days’ labor before it was mounted. While in transit it was only moved at night, and covered with a tarpaulin and grass during the daytime. The enemy fired one hundred and sixteen shots at the Swamp Angel from James Island, but only one struck. Sumter’s flag was shot away twice on the 20th. All the guns on the south face were disabled. Heavy fire from land and sea continued on the 21st, and Sumter suffered terribly.
A letter from Gillmore to Beauregard was sent on the 21st, demanding the surrender of Morris Island and Sumter, under penalty, if not complied with, of the city being shelled. The latter replied, threatening retaliation. Our fourth parallel was opened that night 350 yards from Wagner, and the One Hundredth New York unsuccessfully attempted to drive the enemy’s pickets from a small ridge two hundred yards in front of Wagner. The Swamp Angel opened on Charleston at 1.30 A. M. on the 22d. By one shell a small fire was started there. Many non-combatants left the city. … Wagner now daily gave a sharp fire on our advanced works to delay progress.
… Although almost daily the Fifty-fourth had more or less men at the front, it had suffered no casualties. The men were employed at this period in throwing up parapets, enlarging the trenches, covering the slopes, turfing the batteries, filling sand-bags, and other labors incident to the operations. In the daytime two men were stationed on higher points to watch the enemy’s batteries. Whenever a puff of smoke was seen these ” lookouts ” called loudly, ” Cover!” adding the name by which that particular battery was known. Instantly the workers dropped shovels and tools, jumped into the trench, and, close-covered, waited the coming of the shot or shell, which having exploded, passed, or struck, the work was again resumed. Some of the newer batteries of the enemy were known by peculiar or characteristic names, as ” Bull in the Woods,” ” Mud Digger,” and ” Peanut Battery.” At night the men. worked better, for the shells could be seen by reason of the burning fuses, and their direction taken ; unless coming in the direction of the toilers, the work went on. Becoming; accustomed to their exposure, in a short time this ” dodging shells” was reduced almost to a scientific calculation by the men. Most of all they dreaded mortar-shells, which,, describing a curved course in the sky, poised for a moment, apparently, then, bursting, dropped their fragments from directly overhead. Bomb or splinter proofs alone protected the men from such missiles, but most of the work was in open trenches. Occasionally solid shot were thrown, which at times could be distinctly seen bounding over the sandhills, or burying themselves in the parapets.
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.
… No rain fell from July 18 until August 13, which was favorable for the siege work, as the sand handled was dry and light. This dryness, however, rendered it easily displaced by the wind, requiring constant labor in re-covering magazines, bombproofs, and the slopes. The air too was full of the gritty particles, blinding the men and covering everything in camp.
By this date [8/13] twelve batteries were nearly ready for action, mounting in all twenty-eight heavy rifles, from thirty to three hundred pounders, besides twelve ten-inch mortars. … These works had been completed under fire from Sumter, Gregg, Wagner, and the James Island batteries, as well as the missiles of sharpshooters. Most of the work had been done at night. Day and night heavy guard details lay in the trenches to repel attack. The labor of transporting the heavy guns to the front was very great, as the sinking of the sling-carts deep into the sand made progress slow. Tons of powder, shot, and shell had been brought up, and stored in the service-magazines.
Mercury, August 21, 1863 [OAF]
Morris Island, Aug. 9, 1863
—Since my last weekly melange, the situation remains about the same in this department. The 55th regiment, Col. N. P. Hallowell commanding, arrived here from Newbern last Monday, and on Tuesday the regiment was introduced to Messrs. Shovel and Spade, a firm largely interested in building rifle pits, breastworks and batteries. The men appear to be in splendid physical condition, and take the two regiments in the aggregrate, I think the 55th is superior in material to the 54th. But the hardships incident to a soldier’s life may equalize them in a month or two.
Last Wednesday night, as a party of men on a fatigue expedition were approaching Fort Johnson, a little too near, they narrowly escaped being captured. The party were in boats containing lumber, for the purpose of building a bridge across the creek which divides this island from James Island. The tide falling, near morning they were discovered by the rebel pickets, who commenced firing on them. Had not our own sharpshooters been near, the rebels would no doubt have captured some of our men; as it was, however, the fatigue party scrambled out of the boats, and made tracks through the mud and mire for camp. The rebels did succeed in capturing a captain and five men, but they escaped.
The sickly season has now about commenced; daily we hear the muffled drum, accompanied by the shrill, shrieking tones of the fife, which tells us that the “fell destroyer, Death,” is near. Three times yesterday the plaintive notes of Bonaparte crossing the Alps were played passing our camp, followed by some noble son of New England in each instance. Our own regiment, too, lost one yesterday. His name was John Pieere, of Philadelphia; his complaint was fever.3 About noon yesterday there was sudden cessation of firing; the cause of it was the rebels sent out a flag of truce, and after that some of the general officers rode to the front and met those bearing it. What the result was is not known; but there were many rumors afloat during the afternoon in regard to it; some even hinting that Fort Wagner’s defenders wished to sue for conditional terms; others to the effect that the “populace” of Charleston, not unlike their confreres in New York, were becoming clamorous for peace, threatening Jeff, Beauregard & Co. with violence if they persisted in holding on to Charleston, in view of the vast preparations the “Yankees” were making for their destruction; and that Beauregard came to make some treaty for the surrender of the city. But the news manufacturers didn’t hit the nail on the head, I guess, for by 6 o’clock they were blazing away at each other nicely, with every prospect of —”to be continued.”
Last Wednesday afternoon the companies were all formed in line in their respective streets, when Col. Littlefield addressed each company separately to this effect: “I have been requested by the paymaster to say that if the men are ready to receive TEN dollars per month as part pay, he will come over and pay the men off; you need not be afraid though that you won’t get your THIRTEEN dollars per month, for you surely will.” He then went on explaining how this little financial hitch was brought about, by telling us of some old record on file in relation to paying laborers or contrabands employed on public works, which the War Department had construed as applying to colored soldiers, urging us to take the TEN NOW and wait for some action of the Government for the other three. He then said, “all who wish to take the ten dollars per month, raise your right hand,” and I am glad to say not one man in the whole regiment lifted a hand. He then said, we might not receive any money till after the convening of Congress. We replied that we had been over five months waiting, and we would wait till the Government could frame some special law, for the payment of part of its troops. The 2d South Carolina regiment was paid the ten dollars per month; but we were enlisted under different circumstances. Too many of our comrades’ bones lie bleaching near the walls of Fort Wagner to subtract even one cent from our hard earned pay. If the nation can ill afford to pay us, we are men and will do our duty while we are here without a murmur, as we have done always, before and since that day we were offered to sell our manhood for ten dollars per month.
J. H. G.
P.S. — I have just learned on “undoubted authority” that the flag of truce was for the purpose of returning the letters, valuables and money found on our dead and wounded in the assault of the 18th July. This may seem wonderful, that the rebels should act so honorably, but it is a fact. May be they are putting in practice what Hon. A. H. Stephens undertook to negotiate, thinking we will be magnanimous when we enter Charleston.
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.
Early on the morning of July 19, the men of the Fifty-fourth were aroused, and the regiment marched down the beach, making camp near the southern front of the island at a point where the higher hills give way to a low stretch of sand bordering the inlet. On this spot the regiment remained during its first term of service, at Morris Island.
That day was the saddest in the history of the Fifty-fourth, for the depleted ranks bore silent witness to the severe losses of the previous day. Men who had wandered to other points during the night continued to join their comrades until some four hundred men were present. A number were without arms, which had either been destroyed or damaged in their hands by shot and shell, or were thrown away in the effort to save life. The officers present for duty were Captain Emilio, commanding, Surgeon Stone, Quartermaster Ritchie, and Lieutenants T. W. Appleton, Grace, Dexter, Jewett, Emerson, Reid, Tucker, Johnston, Howard, and Higginson.
Some fifty men, slightly wounded, were being treated in camp. The severely wounded, including seven officers, were taken on the 19th to hospitals at Beaufort, where every care was given them by the medical men, General Saxton, his officers, civilians, and the colored people.
…Capt. D. A. Partridge, left sick in Massachusetts, joined July 21, and, as senior officer, assumed command.
Preparations were made for a bombardment of Sumter as well as for the siege of Wagner. Work began on the artillery line of July 18, that night, for the first parallel, 1,350 yards from Wagner. When completed, it mounted eight siege and field guns, ten mortars, and three Requa rifle batteries. July 23, the second parallel was established some four hundred yards in front of the first. Vincent’s Creek on its left was obstructed with floating booms. On its right was the ” Surf Battery,” armed with field-pieces. This parallel was made strong for defence … In the construction of these works and the transportation of siege material, ordnance, and quartermaster’s stores, the Fifty-fourth was engaged, in common with all the troops on the island, furnishing large details.
Col. M. S. Littlefield, Fourth South Carolina Colored, on July 24, was temporarily assigned to command the Fifty-fourth. The colonel’s own regiment numbered but a few score of men, and this appointment seemed as if given to secure him command commensurate with the rank he held. It gave rise to much criticism in Massachusetts as well as in the regiment, for it was made contrary to custom and without the knowledge of Governor Andrew. Though silently dissatisfied, the officers rendered him cheerful service.
…About 10 A. M., on the 24th, the Confederate steamer ” Alice” ran down and was met by the ” Cosmopolitan,” when thirty-eight Confederates were given up, and we received one hundred and five wounded, including three officers. There was complaint by our men that the Confederates had neglected their wounds, of the unskilful surgical treatment received, and that unnecessary amputations were suffered. From Col. Edward C. Anderson it was ascertained that the Fifty-fourth’s prisoners would not be given up, and Colonel Shaw’s death was confirmed.