At the Center of a Circle of Fire: A Confederate View of the Fight for Battery Wagner
The following account of the July 18th, 1863, assault on Battery Wagner was written by Felix Gregory DeFontaine, then working as the war correspondent for the Charleston Daily Courier.
DeFontaine, a native of Boston, was the first reporter to dispatch the attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861 and enamored with Charleston and its people, he cast his allegiances with the new Southern Confederacy. He married a Charleston belle named Georgia Vigneron Moore, the daughter of Reverend George Washington Moore who would die just a few weeks after DeFontaine wrote his account.
Writing under the pen name of “Personne,” DeFontaine’s riveting account is reproduced below from three dispatches published in the July 20th, July 21st, and July 22nd editions of the Charleston Daily Courier. Personne’s articles were widely copied throughout the Confederacy and represent some of the finest war reporting of the conflict.
Until Saturday morning, the columns of the Courier have described the steady, unremitting fire from the enemy that has been maintained since their occupation of Morris Island. It has long been suspected that this was but the precursor of something more terrible, and that as soon as they could affect a foothold and erect batteries with heavy guns, a desperate attempt would be made to sweep Battery Wagner and Morris Island of every Confederate occupant. That attempt was made on Saturday.
The Federals had occupied Black Island, a small spot between James and Morris Islands and thrown up a battery; they had erected two or three additional batteries on Morris Island about one-and-three-quarter miles from Fort Wagner, and they had concentrated their fleet consisting of four monitors, the Ironsides, a frigate, and four gunboats, some of which threw shells from mortars. Altogether the circle of fire embraced not far from 70 guns. At daylight these opened, first deliberately, but as the morning wore on, the fire increased murderously. Two monitors, two mortar boats, and the Ironsides had by 10 o’clock formed a line nearly in front of Battery Wagner and about noon two additional monitors joined these.
“We were landed on James Island, a little before dawn on the 18th, and were just getting comfortably settled in the village then existing at that point, when a tremendous cannonading began against the fort we had just left. All day long it continued, exceeding in fierceness and rapidly anything we had yet witnessed. The noise was terrific, great clouds of smoke hung over the devoted battery, and huge columns of sands rose high in the air, as shell after shell rent the parapets, while only an occasional shot in return gave any sign that there was life left in the garrison. With mingled feelings we watched the bombardment, full of anxiety for the ultimate result, and for the safety of our comrades in the fort, there was, also, it must be confessed, a profound complacency at the thought that we were well out of it ourselves.” Colonel Charles Hart Olmstead, 1st Georgia Infantry
From this time until say 6 o’clock, the firing was almost incessant. The sound was like a long-continued reverberation of thunder, peal following peal in succession, so rapid that one could scarcely discern an interval. The shock of the rapid discharges trembling through the city called hundreds of citizens to the Battery, wharves, steeples, and various lookouts where, with an interest never felt before, they looked on a contest that might decide the fate of their fair city. The picture was one not soon to be forgotten. Gray old Sumter lay like a half-aroused monster midway of the scene, only occasionally speaking his part in the angry dialogue. Far in the distance were the blockaders taking no part in the fray. To the right on Cumming’s Point was a little mound of earth and every now and then we could see a band of artillerists gathered around the guns, a volume of smoke, and far to the right exploding in the vicinity of the enemy’s batteries its well-aimed shells.
Still to the right of this was Battery Wagner clustered above which, now bursting high in the air and letting loose their imprisoned deaths, now striking the sides of the work, and anon plunging into the sand on the beach and throwing up a pillar of earth or dashing into the march and ricocheting across the water could be seen the quickly succeeding shells and round shot of the enemy’s guns abreast of Battery Wagner. Scattered at short intervals were a portion of the Federal fleet, and from these we could distinctly observe almost every second the bright flashes of flame that told of the earnest purpose in which they were engaged. Still further to the right but concealed from view by the trees on James Island were the land batteries of the enemy whose location we only knew from the heavy puffs of smoke that shot suddenly into the air then drifted away towards the dense clouds that had already gathered over the field of conflict.
|Felix Gregory DeFontaine|
To this heavy fire, our response was but seldom, probably not oftener than once in ten minutes, and there were times when the strange rumor ran through the crowd in the city that the fort had been disabled. We little knew then the indomitable spirit of its brave defenders who had determined to die in their places rather than yield up the noble trust that had been confided to their keeping, or how bravely they were keeping their pledge. Through all this terrible ordeal, our artillerists consisting of Tatum’s and Adams’ companies of the South Carolina Regulars along with Buckner’s and Dixon’s companies of the 63rd Georgia and the Charleston Battalion of infantry bravely maintained their positions in the fort. It is estimated that 9,000 shot and shell fell around them, killing some and maiming others, but they never flinched.
At half past 3, the flag of Battery Wagner was shot away a second time and then it was in imitation of Sergeant Jasper of Revolutionary memory that Major David Ramsay of the Charleston Battalion, assisted by Sergeant Flynn of Captain Lord’s company and Sergeant Shelton of Captain Ryan’s company lashed the bunting to a mast and in the face of fearful fire from sharpshooters and heavy guns, planted the Confederate banner one more in sight of the foe. In the meantime, Lieutenant Reddick of the 63rd Georgia had mounted the parapet and fastened there the battle flag.
During the whole of the bombardment until 6 o’clock in the evening our casualties, strange to say, only numbered eight killed and 20 wounded. After this hour, the fire increased to a fourfold intensity. Nothing like the rapid discharge from heavy artillery has been before seen or heard on this continent. Battery Wagner was almost silent. The artillerists, consisting of the South Carolina Regulars and two companies of a Georgia regiment, stubbornly maintained their place at the guns while great fragments of iron were dropping on every side of them. Battery Gregg at Cumming’s Point and Fort Sumter, taking part in the thundering chorus, were now firing with greater rapidity than at any previous time during the day. The entire horizon seemed to be lit up with the fitful flashings of the lurid flames that shot out from the monster guns on land and sea.
During this critical period, many of our troops were driven to shelter beneath our bombproofs and other works erected for their protection. But it was known to the officers commanding that such a demonstration on the part of the enemy was not without its object. An assault had been apprehended all day. The enemy had hoped by this terrible fire not only to destroy our battery, but to demoralize our troops. In both, they failed.
|General William B. Taliaferro|
As the shades of night began to fall, the bombardment was measurably relaxed. General William B. Taliaferro, one of Stonewall Jackson’s veterans, now promptly ordered every man to the parapet and they were hardly in the places before word was received that the columns of the enemy were advancing to the attack. Cooped up as our troops had been all day and breathing the impure air of the crowded bombproof, the summons met with a cheerful response and they quickly repaired to their respective positions.
On the right were three companies of the Charleston Battalion under Lieutenant Colonel Gaillard; next on the left was the 51st North Carolina regiment 687 men strong under Colonel Hector McKethan which extended to the bombproof. The line was continued still to the left by the 31st North Carolina regiment. A portion of the latter regiment was also held in reserve on the parade ground. Outside of the fort on the left holding that wing were two more companies of the Charleston Battalion. The artillerists, under the general command of Lieutenant Colonel John C. Simpkins of the 1st South Carolina Regulars, consisted of the companies already named in addition to the light battery of Captain DePass and a section of howitzers under Lieutenant T.D. Waties.
The lines of the Federals several hundred yards distance could now be descried advancing through the gloom bearing towards the beach as if to make an attack on that side of Battery Wagner. It was a quarter to 8 o’clock. Five minutes more and the column was plainly in sight, appearing to be seven lines deep. The Yankee officers believed that the troops in Battery Wagner were perfectly exhausted from the bombardment and that a bold, sudden assault or coup de main would affect its capture.
Our batteries remained silent until the enemy reached the vicinity of the rifle pits when grape and canister was thrown into their ranks with fearful precision and execution. Checked for an instant only, they closed up the ragged gaps in their lines and moved steadily on until within less than 80 yards. Barely waiting for the federals to get within a destructive range, our infantry opened their fusillade and from a fringe of fire that lined the parapet leaped forth a thousand messengers of death. The enemy advanced and were received with a terrible fire of grape, canister, and small arms from the long line of the 51st North Carolina and the Charleston Battalion, the latter by reason of their position pouring on the advancing columns an enfilading fire.
|Private William Henry, Co. B, 31st North Carolina State Troops|
Staggering under the shock, the first line seemed for a moment checked, but pushed on by those in the rear, the whole now commenced a charge at a double quick. Our men could not charge back, but they gave a Southern yell in response to the Yankee cheer and awaited the attack. On they came over the sand hills, tripping and stumbling in the huge pits their own shells had dug until they reached the ditch of the battery, then it was but a moment’s work for those who survived our terrible fire of musketry to clamber up the sloping sides of the fortification and attempt to affect a lodgment. But the men who met them on the parapet were as desperate as themselves and the contest that ensued was brief and bloody. The antagonists were breast to breast, and Southern rifles and Southern bayonets made short work of human life. We could stop to take no prisoners then. The parapet was lined with dead bodies, white and black, and every second was adding to the number. It was one of those encounters in which one side or the other must quickly yield or fly. The enemy took their choice.
In less than five minutes probably, the first line had been shot, bayonetted, or were in full retreat, rolling into the ditch or dragging their bloody bodies through the sand hills on their hands and knees. But another line came, and another, and another, each reinforcing its predecessor, until the battle waxed hot, fierce, and bloody. Finally, however, the whole was driven back either into the broad trench at the base of the battery out of reach of our guns or scampering out of view in the darkness of the night.
“Leaving our places of shelter, we rushed to our battered down breastworks. The advance line of the enemy, which was a Massachusetts regiment of Negro troops, had advanced to within 100 yards and the artillery fire suddenly ceased. We poured into the advancing columns a deadly fire which soon drove them back with heavy loss. Among the killed was Colonel Shaw of the regiment who fell a short distance in front of our works. There were seven bullet holes in his hat which was worn for some time afterwards by a boy who had lost his hat a day or two before.” ~ Private Stephen J. Cobb, Co. D, 51st North Carolina State Troops
There was now a comparative lull in the firing but in 15 or 20 minutes, a second column of the Federals filed down the beach towards the left of the fort in much the same manner as that pursued by the first. These repeated the experiment that had just before terminated so disastrously to their companions and with a bravery that was worthy of a better cause dashed upon the work.
The first assault failed utterly, but with the reinforcements that joined the defeated party, they came again with such strength and impetuosity that between the extreme darkness of the night which had now enveloped the entire scene, the difficulty of distinguishing between friend and foe, and the confusion incident to such an occasion, some 200 or 300 affected a lodgment in the vicinity of the chambers occupied by two of our guns. Other clambered to the top of the magazine and bombproof while still others clustered around a Federal flag flying on the ramparts. This position the Federals held for certainly upwards of an hour.
During this period and subsequently, the howitzers of Lieutenant Waties, the 51st North Carolina, and the Charleston Battalion were sweeping the ditch and slope of the battery with spattering showers of grape and musketry, the effect of which was to prevent the enemy from either receiving support or retreating to their lines. The remainder of the column was driven back and materially assisted in their retrograde progress by our own artillery and that of Fort Sumter and Battery Gregg.
|Adjutant Edward K. Bryan|
31st North Carolina State Troops
The object now was to dislodge the enemy in the fort. We were at first comparatively ignorant of their strength or exact location, but General Taliaferro with the cool courage for which he is distinguished, made a close personal reconnaissance, and soon had measures effected for driving them from the work. Colonel Harris, the engineer in charge, placed a howitzer on the left of the fort on the outside and General Taliaferro called for volunteers. On General Taliaferro’s call for volunteers to charge the enemy who occupied the southeast angle of the work, every man heartily and promptly responded. Major McDonald with a portion of the 51st North Carolina responded but selecting Captain Ryan’s detachment of the Charleston Battalion, the General directed them to charge into the salient. The order was obeyed and advancing upon the enemy, they had not charged ten steps before the lion-hearted officer was shot through and through by one of the Yankees standing on the slope above his head. The direction of the fire will be better understood when it is added that the ball entered immediately under the left collar bone and passed over the right hip. The loss of the brave Ryan caused a hesitation among the men, and in a moment, the opportunity was lost.
Previous to this, Major David Ramsay had placed himself at the head of the Sumter Guards and was in the act of advancing on the enemy when they were met by a volley from one of the North Carolina regiments who, in the darkness, had mistaken them for the enemy. It was in this manner that Major Ramsay was shot, and nearly all the casualties in Captain Hopkins’ company occurred. It was an accident liable to take place in any night attack and the North Carolinians ought not to be unjustly censured for their unlucky display of vigilance.
Meanwhile, the Federals maintained their position, keeping up and receiving a desultory dire for upwards of an hour. Just as the preparations to attack the enemy holding the angle of the battery were completed, one or two companies of the 32nd Georgia, a portion of a fresh command that had arrived on the ground, mounted the bombproof and were about charging when the Federals surrendered. Many Yankees escaped over the sides of the battery, but others preferred a voluntary surrender to the risk of being shot in the back. Both the Federal land batteries and our own at Sumter and Gregg were firing at intervals during the engagement, and during the retreat which greatly facilitated the change of base.
Of white prisoners we have taken six commissioned officers and 94 privates. Of blacks, it is said that we have over 20 of whom several at severely wounded. A wounded Negro is to be put into every ward of the white Yankees. The latter kicked at the base alliance, but the surgeons have plainly told them that if they put themselves on a par with the Negroes as soldiers, the same relation must be maintained under all circumstances while they are in our hands.
|South Carolina Militia button (Army of Tennessee Relics)|
Probably no battlefield in the country has ever presented such an array of mangled bodies in a small compass as was to be seen Sunday morning. The ground in front of the battery was thickly strewn but in the ditch around the work the dead and wounded, white and black, were literally piled together. Blood, mud, water, brains, and human hair matted together; men lying in every conceivable attitude with every conceivable expression upon their countenances, their limbs bent into unnatural shapes by the fall of 20 or more feet, the fingers rigid and outstretched as if they had clutched at the earth to save themselves. Pale, beseeching faces, looking out from among the ghastly corpses with moans and cries for help and water, and dying gasps and death struggles- these are some of the details of the horrible picture which the night of Saturday had left to be revealed by the dawn of a peaceful Sabbath.
Our men secured from the field on Sunday about 1,000 rifles consisted of Sharps, Enfields, and those of Harper’s Ferry manufacture. Clothing and other articles were picked up in abundance and as is usual among our soldiers everywhere, I am sorry to confess it, the pockets of the dead and many of the wounded were rifled of every article of value.
The work of removing the wounded and burying the dead was commenced at once, but it was until far into the night of Sunday that it neared completion. The wounded were brought into the city on steamers, the surgeons operating on board. The dead were buried in pits, the number reported is over 600. Within the lines of the enemy, a considerable number of dead were buried by the Federals, probably not less than 100, while scores of the more slightly injured had doubtless made their way back to camp.
|Colonel Haldimand S. Putnam of the 7th New Hampshire Volunteers led the Second Brigade of the Federal attack and was killed in action July 18, 1863 at Battery Wagner.|
On Sunday, the enemy sent a flag of truce for the body of Colonel Haldimand S. Putnam of the 7th New Hampshire, acting brigadier general in the assault on Saturday, and asked permission to bury their dead. The latter request was refused as the dead had been nearly all already buried. The body of Colonel Putnam which was identified was delivered into their hands. Among the dead on the field, identified by the prisoners, was the body of Colonel Robert G. Shaw, commander of the 54th Massachusetts. The body of Colonel Shaw was also sent for on Sunday but he had been buried in a pit under a layer of two of his own dead Negroes.
A chief point of attraction in the city yesterday was the Yankee hospital on Queen Street where the principal portion of the Federal wounded, Negroes, and whites, have been conveyed. Crowds of men, women, and boys congregated in front of the building to speculate on the novel scenes being enacted within or to catch glimpses through the doorways of the long rows of maimed and groaning beings who lined the floors of the two edifices, but this was all they could see. The operations were performed in the rear of the hospital where half a dozen or more tables were constantly occupied throughout the day with the mutilated subjects. The wounds were generally of a severe character, owing to the short distance at which they were inflicted, so that amputations were almost the only operations performed. Probably not less than 70 or 80 legs and arms were taken off and more to follow today. The writer saw eleven removed in less than an hour; the Yankee blood leaks out by the bucket full.
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