Battery Wagner, the Assault of July
In early July, an amphibious federal force landed at Lighthouse Inlet at
the Southern end of Morris Island and overran two thirds of the island
before being stopped at Battery Wagner, a point which kept Federal guns
just beyond range of Charleston, SC.
On July 18, 1863 General Quincy Gilmore threw an assault against Battery
Wagner on Morris Island, which guarded the Southern approaches to
Charleston Harbor. His goal was to capture the Battery and the remainder
of the low, sandy, flea infested island (know locally as coffin island due
to its use as a Lazzaretto and leper colony prior to the war). The fort
was held by a small garrison of Confederate Infantry and Artillery and
protected by a narrow approach up the beach, constricted by a marshy creek
which funneled the soldiers onto a strip of sand a few hundred feet wide.
After a heavy naval and land bombardment, as assault force led by the
54th. Massachusetts, an experimental black regiment of free men from the
North went in with fixed bayonets to storm the fort. The bombardment had
failed to destroy the sandbagged gun emplacements of the Fort and the
assault column marched into a heavy artillery barrage and massed musketry.
Much of the Fort's garrison consisted of troops from the Charleston area,
including the Charleston Battalion. The 1st. S.C. Artillery was positioned
on the right flank of the fort, in the sand dunes so as to sweep the front
wall of the Fort with Canister. Fighting was fierce. The Federals were
able to occupy a small portion of the fort and the 54th. planted its
colors atop the parapet. After lengthy hand to hand fighting, the Federal
troops were ordered to withdraw, leaving Wagner in Confederate hands.
Losses were heavy.
Gen. Gilmore decided to attempt to take Wagner by siege, digging zig zag
trenches towards the fort and moving his large guns to into ever closer
range. The Navy also pounded Wagner from the sea, using a large calcium
light at night to prevent to Confederates from rebuilding the fort. On
some days a shell was thrown into Wagner every 30 seconds for hours at a
time. The Fort held out another 58 days under heavy bombardment before
being abandoned in September. During this period the shelling of
The July 18 Assault was featured in the movie Glory.
While portions of Morris Island still exist, most of the island eroded
away after the war and the site of the Fort is today underwater. (The site
of the Star of the West Battery/Battery Gregg on the North East end of the
island has survived. The Swamp Angel Battery behind the island has been
preserved.) The island's appearance now, however, is similar to that it
had during the war, low, sandy and covered with scrub growth. Relics are
occasionally found there.
Fort Wagner (also called Battery Wagner) was a fortification on Morris
Island, South Carolina, that covered the southern approach to Charleston
harbor. It was the site of two American Civil War battles in the campaign
known as Operations Against the Defenses of Charleston in 1863.
The first engagement, the Battle of Fort Wagner or the First Assault on
Morris Island, occurred on July 11, 1863. The second is better known. The
Battle of Fort Wagner/Morris Island, was the Union attack on July 18,
1863, led by the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first major
American military unit made up of black soldiers. Colonel Robert Gould
Shaw led the 54th Regiment on foot while they charged and was killed in
The Confederate fortifications, garrisoned by around 1,800 men, extended
across the northern quarter of the low and sandy island. The main wall ran
for 630 feet from the eastern ocean to salt marshes on the west. The wall
was up to 30 feet high and a wide, but shallow, trench stretched in front.
Much of the fort was earth barriers and sandbagged emplacements. The site
of the fortifications is currently underwater.
The approach to the fort was constricted to a strip of beach 60 yards
(55 m) wide. After a bombardment from both land and sea, the Union
infantry moved in. The assault force was headed by the 54th Massachusetts
and included five other brigades, around 5,000 men in total. Unfortunately
for the assault force, the prior bombardment failed to seriously damage
the fighting power of the fort. Consequently, the Union infantry suffered
considerable casualties in the rush towards the fort.
As the Union troops reached the parapets, the fighting proved intense.
Three brigades managed to occupy a portion of the walls, but they were
forced to withdraw after an hour of fierce hand-to-hand combat where
almost every officer was killed. The Union forces suffered around 1,600
casualties and the Confederate garrison under 200.
Although a tactical defeat, the battle proved to be a political victory
for the Union since the valor of the 54th against hopeless odds proved the
worth of black soldiers. It spurred additional recruitment that gave the
Union Army a further numerical advantage in troops over the South.
The Union besieged the fort after the unsuccessful assault. After enduring
almost 60 days of heavy shelling, the Confederates abandoned it on
September 7, 1863.
The July 18 assault on the fort is dramatized in the Academy Award winning