July 18, 1863
Union Maj. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore was determined to capture the city of Charleston, S.C., and decided the first step was to capture Morris Island at the mouth of Charleston Harbor. Morris Island was protected by a small but stretegically located Confederate earthen fort called Battery Wagner that was manned by 1,300 men under the command of Gen. William B. Taliaferro. Gillmore believed that the shot-torn beach in front of Battery Wagner could be crossed and the fort taken.
Gillmore spent a week positioning 41 cannon to fire on the fort. At noon on July 18 the Union cannon on Morris Island and on seven nearby Union ships began a bombardment of Battery Wagner that lasted for more than seven hours. At 7:30 P.M., 6,000 Union soldiers in two brigades commanded by Gen. G.C. Strong, and Col. H.S. Putnam started forward across the 200 yard wide beach toward Battery Wagner. The Rebel defenders, safely weathering the bombardment in their shelters, quickly manned the works and laid down withering sheets of musket fire. At the forefront of the Union assault was the 54th Massachusetts, the first black regiment recruited in the North. Its white commander, 26 year old Col. Robert G. Shaw, led the attack that carried his regiment onto the parapet of the fort, where he was killed by a bullet through the heart. 600 soldiers of the 54th suffered 272 casualties. The Confederate soldiers, aided by battery fire from Fort Sumter, beat off repeated attacks until the Union soldiers gave up and returned to their trenches.
General Strong was mortally wounded and Colonel Putnam was killed. The Union losses totaled 1,515 against only 174 Confederate casualties. Gillmore spent the next six weeks subjecting the earthen fort to his and the fleet’s battery fire while digging zigzag trenches up to it. On September 6, the Confederates quietly evacuated Battery Wagner, leaving Morris Island to the Union troops.
Fascinating Fact: The capture of Morris Island did little to change the stalemated situation in Charleston Harbor. One Union soldier called the attempts to take Battery Wagner the “most fatal and fruitless campagn of the entire war.”