Thursday, July 11, 2013

July 11, 1863: The First Battle of Fort Wagner

Brigadier General George C.  Strong, U.S. Army

On this day 150 years ago, the brigade of Brigadier General George C. Strong launched an assault on the fortification known to the Union as Fort Wagner and to the Confederacy as Battery Wagner. Battery Wagner was constructed of earth, sand, and palmetto logs and spanned a narrow neck of land between the Atlantic Ocean and an impassable marshland.  The fortification was about 250 yards wide and 100 yards deep. The fort was armed with 14 cannon of widely varied type and caliber.

HEADQUARTERS U. S. FORCES,
Morris Island, S. C., July 11, 1863.

GENERAL: Pursuant to instructions from department headquarters, a column of assault was formed before daybreak, this morning, for an attack upon Fort Wagner. This column consisted of four companies of the Seventh Connecticut Volunteers, the Seventy-sixth Pennsylvania, and the Ninth Maine Regiments. The Third and Seventh New Hampshire Regiments formed the reserve.

The assault was made at daybreak, the Seventh Connecticut deployed in the advance, supported by the Seventy-sixth Pennsylvania and Ninth Maine, in the order named, and each in close column of divisions.

The leading battalion had received orders to dash forward with a shout when the enemy should open fire, and the other battalions were directed to maintain their respective intervals.

These orders were most faithfully observed by Lieutenant-Colonel Rodman, of the Seventh Connecticut, who led a portion of his command, under a very heavy fire of artillery and musketry, to the top of the parapet, where two of the enemy's gunners were bayoneted by his men.

But, unfortunately, when the enemy opened simultaneously along his whole line, and within a range of 200 yards, the Seventy-sixth Pennsylvania halted and lay down upon the ground. Though they remained in this position but a few moments, and afterward moved gallantly forward, some of them even to the ditch, that halt lost the battle, for the interval was lost and the Seventh, unsupported, were driven from the parapet. The whole column, including the Ninth Maine, which had reached the ditch on the left, gave way and retreated from the field. We lost in killed, wounded and missing, 8 commissioned officers and 322 non-commissioned officers and privates. Lieutenant-Colonel Rodman, Seventh Connecticut Volunteers, the bravest of the brave, is among the wounded.

The Seventy-sixth Pennsylvania Regiment, heretofore bearing the reputation of a most gallant and thoroughly disciplined organization, will have another and early opportunity to efface the remembrance of their involuntary fault. The causes of their failure, and hence the failure of the assault, were, first, the sudden, tremendous, and simultaneous fire which all encountered, and, second, the absence of their colonel, who was taken ill before the column was put in motion.

I am, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

GEO. C. STRONG,

Brigadier-General, Commanding.

Brigadier General TRUMAN SEYMOUR,

Commanding U. S. Forces on Morris and Folly Islands, S.C.
The largest cannon in the fort was a 10-inch smoothbore columbiad capable of firing a 128-pound explosive shell. The fort had several anti-personnel howitzers of various sizes and a total of four carronades (three 32 pounders and one 42 pounder). These carronades are an interesting footnote: they probably came from the arsenal of weapons captured by the Confederacy at the Gosport Navy Yard. These carronades were completely obsolete and were being used as nothing more than giant shotguns, firing canister rounds filled with hundreds of bullets. No doubt these weapons contributed to the awful carnage and the terrible disparity in casualties: the Confederate forces suffered 12 casualties versus a total of 339 killed, wounded, or missing for the Union attackers.  Strong's brigade suffered such severe losses that the decision was made to reinforce it with a Black regiment: the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.

Detail of a map of Fort Wagner.

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