Thursday, August 1, 2013

July 18, 1863

July 18, 1863

---Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s extended raid in Ohio continues, with exhaustion beginning to take its toll.  Straggling becomes rampant and discipline begins to erode.  The Rebels’ horses are giving out, and their ride is slowed by the necessity to requisition fresh horses from local farms and towns.  Ohio militia is waiting for them at every bend in the road. 

---Col. Basil Duke, one of Morgan’s commanders, notes in his memoirs the zeal of the raiders to pillage and spoil the countryside:

The Provost guard had great difficulty in restraining the men from pillaging, and was unsuccessful in some instances. . . . This disposition for wholesale plunder exceeded any thing that any of us had ever seen before. The men seemed actuated by a desire to ‘pay off’ in the ‘enemy’s country’ all scores that the Federal army had chalked up in the South…. They did not pillage with any sort of method or reason — it seemed to be a mania, senseless and purposeless.

---President Lincoln spends most of the day closeted with Judge Advocate General James Holt, studying death sentences given to deserting soldiers.  Lincoln is opposed to the death sentence as a punishment for this military crime, and usually commutes as many of these sentences as possible.

Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment

---Second Battle of Fort Wagner, South Carolina – Gen. Gillmore, commander of the Federal troops in coastal South Carolina, orders an assault to go forward that will capture or destroy Battery Wagner, the principal fortification on the southern lip of the mouth of Charleston Harbor.  Gen. George Strong’s brigade being the tip of the spear, the task falls to him again.  This time, the all-black 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment is selected to lead the attack.  

Auguste St. Gaudens' monument to Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts in Boston

After shelling the fort for several days with 41 guns on land, the Navy moves in a half dozen monitors, and they pound the fort, even knocking the large 32-pounder there off of its carriage.  In the bombardment, however, only 8 Rebels have been killed.  Inside the fort are 1,300 infantry under Gen. William Taliaferro.  At dusk, as the 54th moves forward down the beach, 650 strong, the remaining troops in the brigade also move forward in support, including the 6th Connecticut.  At 100 yards, the Confederate artillery opens up with canister, and the Rebel infantry open fire.  

The 54th endures horrendous losses, but reaches the moat, splashes its way across, and surges up the outer slope of the fort.  The troops gain the wall and parapet and hold it for a while, although no supports are advancing to assist.  Shaw is killed while scaling the fort walls, and his men falter.  

Part of the 54th assists the 6th Conn. as it moves forward, but this force withdraws as well.  The rest of Strong’s brigade surges forward and take heavy losses, including the commanders of each regiment and Gen. Strong himself, who is killed.  Another brigade under Putnam was supposed to advance, but Putnam claims that Gen. Gillmore told him not to go forward after all.  Putnam is finally convinced to charge, and like Strong’s brigade, his troops lose high numbers: every regimental commander is shot, as is Putnam himself.  The Rebels lose 222 total casualties, but the Federals lose 246 killed, 890 wounded, and 391 csaptured.  Confederate Victory.

Gen. Seymour, whose division was assigned to make the attack, wrote about this action in his report:

General Strong was to take the advance. I had informed him that he should be promptly supported if it were necessary. . . . Half the ground to be passed over was undulating, from small sand-hills, affording some shelter, but not so rough as to prevent free movement of troops. That part of it next the fort was quite smooth and unobstructed to the very ditch.

The Fifty-fourth Massachusetts, a colored regiment of excellent character, well officered, with full ranks, and that had conducted itself commendably a few days previously on James Island, was placed in front. . . .

Once in advance of our batteries, a few encouraging words were given to the men and the First Brigade launched forward. It had not moved far before the fort, liberated somewhat from the pressure of our fire, opened with rapid discharges of grape and canister, and its parapet was lit by a living line of musketry. More than half the distance was well passed, when, present myself with the column, I saw that to overcome such resistance, overpowering force must be employed. . . . Fragments of each regiment, however-brave men, bravely led-went eagerly over the ditch, mounted the parapet and struggled with the foe inside. But these efforts ere too feeble to affect the contest materially. . . . By a combined and determined rush over the southeast angle of the fort, the enemy was driven from that portion of the work. Some hundred men were now inside, with Colonel Putnam at their head. The bastion-like space between the bomb-proof and the parapet was fully in our possession. Some of our officers and men mounted the bomb-proof itself, which completely commanded the interior of the fort. Strong efforts were made by the enemy to drive our brave fellows out, but unsuccessfully, and rebel officers and men were captured and sent to the rear.  . . . And now Colonel Putnam, while waiting patiently for expected succor, and urging his men to maintain the advantage that had been gained, was shot, dead, on the parapet, as brave a soldier, as courteous a gentleman, as true a man as ever walked beneath the Stars And Stripes.

General Strong had long since been wounded. Colonel Chatfield, Sixth Connecticut; Colonel Barton, Forty-eighth New York; and Colonel Shaw, Fifty-fourth Massachusetts, had fallen, after the most gallant efforts, in front of their commands; and during the advance of the Second Brigade I had been struck by a grape-shot and was compelled to retire. . . .

Finally despairing, after long waiting, of further assistance, the senior officers at the fort withdrew our men (with exception of about 100, who could not be reached, and who were soon after captured), and what had been so dearly bought was abandoned to the enemy. . . .

Unsuccessful as we were, the highest praise is due to those noble men who did their full duty that night. Who can forget, while courage and generosity are admired by man, that glorious soldier, Strong, or the heroic Putnam, or Chatfield, the beloved, or Shaw, faithful and devoted upon death. Many more than these deserve lasting record, of the rank and file as well as of officers, but the loss of those of high command, and the scattering of the many wounded who were prominent actors in this scene, with the difficultly of procuring sufficient information otherwise, compel me to but a meager outline. On every inch of the sands in front of Fort Wagner will be forever traced in undying glory the story of the determination and courage of these men.

The 54th Massachusetts suffers about 42% casualties or more.  Shaw is buried in a mass grave with the bodies of his men, which is meant to be an insult.  In response to this act, Col. Shaw’s father, George Shaw, issues this public statement:

We would not have his body removed from where it lies surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers....We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company. – what a body-guard he has!

Col. Robert G. Shaw

Although the 54th Massachusetts is not the first black regiment formed, it is the first black outfit to be involved in a high-profile battle under the eye of an avid press.  As the story of the desperate attack on Fort Wagner hits the newspapers, and captures the public imagination, Northern support for black units strengthens, when it is clear that these troops are the equal of  white soldiers in every respect.

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