Morris Island, in the south side of Charleston Harbor, seemed to Union Gen. Quincy Gillmore to be the key to capturing the place where the Civil War began. From the northern end of Morris Island, Gillmore reasoned, his rifled cannon could pulverize Rebel-held Fort Sumter — 1,400 yards away in the middle of the harber — and force it and Charleston, the city it protected, to surrender. On July 10, 1863, Gillmore’s 11,000 man army, supported by the guns on Union ships, landed on the southern end of Morris Island and quickly took control of three-fourths of it.
The northern fourth was solidly in Rebel hands and was protected by Fort Wagner, one of the war’s most formidable forts. Fort Wagner stretched 630 feet across the island with the ocean on the east, the impenetrable marsh on the west, 30-foot high sand walls, and a 50 foot wide and 5-foot deep moat. The only approach to the fort was across a long, narrow stretch of open beach that could be thoroughly swept by the fire of the fort’s cannon. Nevertheless, Gillmore sent three regiments racing toward the fort at dawn on July 11 and then watched as they wee bloodily repulsed. Reinforced by the black 54th Massachusetts, Gillmore ordered this regiment to fame and glory — and bloody defeat — as they, too, failed in storming Wagner’s walls.
Giving up on direct assaults, the Union force began siege tactics to force the surrender of Fort Wagner. While their cannon and the Union warships’ guns kept the defenders huddled in fortifications, the soldiers snaked trenches closer and closer to Wagner’s walls. By September 6, 1863, reported a Confederate office, “The enemy had advanced their works so near that the Federal Flag, as I viewed it, appeared to be planted upon the very edge of the ditch of Wagner.” Realizing the Union troops would soon storm the now indefensible fort, the garrison evacuated Wagner by boat during the night. The next morning the Union army walked unopposed into the fort that had held them at bay for 58 days.
Fascinating Fact: The situation in Charleston Harbor was unchanged by Union control of Morris Island. Though reduced by Yankee cannon to a large pile of rubble, Fort Sumter defiantly remained in Rebel control.