Object of the Month

Fort Wagner Falls, 7 September 1863

View of Morris Island from Fort Wagner Watercolor

View of Morris Island from Fort Wagner

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In this view from within Fort (Battery) Wagner, part of the outer defenses of Charleston, South Carolina, during the Civil War, Henry G. Webber, an officer serving in the 7th New Hampshire Infantry Regiment, illustrates the open beach flanked by ocean and swamp over which Union forces advanced in two desperate attacks on the Confederate lines on 11 and 18 July 1863, followed by a fifty-eight-day siege that ended on the night of 6-7 September when the Confederate garrison evacuated the island.

The 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment

The second Battle of Fort Wagner, on the night of 18 July 1863, has become famous because of the part played by the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the first African American unit raised in the North during the Civil War. The extraordinary courage shown by the 54th Regiment vindicated the enlistment of black soldiers in the Union cause and encouraged the recruitment of more than 150 other African American units. In Boston, the 54th is commemorated by the Shaw Memorial on Boston Common where sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens depicted Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, who died on the parapet of Fort Wagner, with men of his regiment. The battle also was popularized by the 1989 film Glory, where fact and fiction are woven together in the service of movie making. Ironically, the role of the 54th Regiment often is all that is remembered of the 18 July battle which was--in spite of the extreme bravery shown by the 54th and other Union regiments--a bloody fiasco in which more than 1,500 of 5,000 attackers were killed, wounded, or captured. The failure of direct frontal attacks on Fort Wagner was only the beginning of a terrible siege that would continue for eight more weeks.

Fort Wagner or Battery Wagner—what is in a name?

During the Civil War, the North and South often adopted different names for the same places, events, or battles, focusing on the names of topographical features or local cities and towns: the Battle of Bull Run (in the North) was referred to as “Manassas” in the South; “Antietam” for Union soldiers was “Sharpsburg” for their Confederate opponents. Sometimes differences in names reflect more subtle distinctions. During the siege of Charleston, Confederates almost always described the 1100-foot-long earthworks that guarded the southern flank of their artillery positions on Morris Island as Battery Wagner—implying in the name its purpose as one of a series of outlying positions that protected the city’s inner harbor and the approaches to Fort Sumter. Northern soldiers tended to refer to this outer work as Fort Wagner, giving it a name that reflected its great defensive strength.

Fort/Battery Wagner had been constructed during the summer of 1862 to guard the main ship channel at the entrance of Charleston Harbor and block the threat of a Union advance from the south along Morris Island that would bring Fort Sumter within the range of Northern siege artillery. The fort was located very close to the site where on 8 January 1861, South Carolina forces fired the first shots of the Civil War when they turned back the Star of the West, a chartered vessel that was attempting to reinforce the federal garrison at Fort Sumter. It was named for Lt. Col. Thomas M. Wagner, a Confederate artillery officer who had been killed in an accidental explosion shortly before construction began.

Modern siege warfare comes to Morris Island

In the aftermath of the 18 July attack, the Union army began a systematic siege of what soldiers on both sides had begun to refer to simply as “Wagner.” Zigzagging lines of trenches approached the fort, while batteries of modern heavy artillery, including the super-heavy gun known as the “Swamp Angel,” were emplaced to bombard Wagner, the Confederate batteries north of it on Morris Island, and the more distant Fort Sumter. In turn, Confederate artillery at Fort Sumter dropped shells at fifteen-minute intervals into the Union lines.

The siege took on aspects of modern warfare that usually are associated with the First World War. The attackers used precursors of machine guns—multi-barrel “Requa” guns. They illuminated the Confederate positions with calcium lights to reveal night movements and experimented with incendiary (”Greek Fire”) artillery shells. Their opponents fought back with sniper rifles equipped with telescopic sights; “torpedoes”—land mines—buried in front of their redoubts; and torpedo boat attacks on the Union fleet. The Fish Boat, the submarine which would be renamed the CSS Hunley, arrived in Charleston during the Morris Island siege, but did not have an impact until it attacked the USS Housatonic the following winter, an attack which also proved fatal for the Hunley and all aboard her.

Having demonstrated their raw courage in the charge on 18 July, the survivors of the 54th Regiment proved themselves again, wielding shovels as well as rifles and working side-by-side with white soldiers in the trenches before Wagner, where they found themselves with the ghastly duty of digging their way through the remains of the Union and Confederate dead who had been buried in mass graves in front of the Confederate bastion. African American military service quickly became more than an experiment. By September, the Union army before Charleston included men from seven black regiments.

Having battered Wagner into a ruin and turned their large cannon on Fort Sumter and the city of Charleston, the besiegers prepared for a final assault on Morris Island, only to have the defenders escape during the course of the night of 6-7 September 1863. Union commanders believed that they had captured the key to Fort Sumter and therefore to Charleston—to many Northerners the symbol of Southern resistance—but the long battle for the “Holy City” of the Confederacy had just begun.

Who was Henry Webber?

Henry Green Webber, who drew this view of Morris Island from Fort Wagner, was born on Christmas Day 1830, in Charlestown, New Hampshire, a son of Dr. Samuel and Anne Winslow Green Webber. Young Henry excelled at painting and drawing and once offered Herman Melville illustrations for a story. During the Civil War, Webber enlisted in the 7th New Hampshire Infantry and became the regimental adjutant with the rank of lieutenant. His sketch of the approaches to Fort Wagner includes many details of the 11 (“12” in the picture caption) and 18 July battles and the siege that followed, but focuses on the gallant part played by his own regiment. He was wounded—almost all the officers of the 7th were killed or wounded—in the 18 July attack. His Civil War service ended unhappily; in 1864 he was court martialed and dismissed from his regiment. After the war he worked as a draftsman and engraver in Cincinnati, where he died of “intemperance” in 1873. According to Owen F. Bryant, who donated this view to the Historical Society in 1908, Webber’s other drawings were stolen at the time of his death. Most of the terrain in Webber’s view, including all of Fort Wagner and much of Morris Island, also has disappeared, swallowed by the encroaching Atlantic Ocean.

“Tell It with Pride”: An exhibition on the 54th Massachusetts Infantry at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston

On Sunday, 15 September 2013, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., will open its new exhibition Tell It with Pride: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment and Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Shaw Memorial. The exhibition features the National Park Service’s casting of the Shaw Memorial, on long-term loan to the National Gallery, along with images and artifacts that portray the black soldiers of the 54th, including photographs and documents on loan from the Massachusetts Historical Society. The exhibition will be on display in Washington until 20 January 2014, and then will travel to the Massachusetts Historical Society where it will be on display from 21 February through 23 May 2014, together with other Civil War materials from the Historical Society’s collections, including Henry Webber’s sketch of Fort Wagner. Visit the National Gallery website to learn more about the exhibition. Click here to find out more about 54th Regiment materials at the MHS.

Further reading

Burton, E. Milby. The Siege of Charleston, 1861-1865. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1970.

Emilio, Luis F. History of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-1865. 2d ed., enl. Boston: Boston Book Company, 1894.

Johnson, John. The Defense of Charleston Harbor, including Fort Sumter and the Adjacent Islands. 1863-1865. Charleston, S.C.: Walker, Evans, Cogswell, Co., 1890.

As a Confederate engineering officer who supervised the construction of fortifications that guarded Charleston, Johnson had unparalleled, but hardly unbiased knowledge of the attacks on “Battery Wagner.” His history includes detailed illustrations, as well as copies of official correspondence and reports.

Little, Henry F. W. The Seventh Regiment New Hampshire Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion. Concord, N.H.: Ira C. Evans, 1896.

Reed, Rowena. “The Siege of Charleston: The City that Fathered Secession Suffers the War’s Longest Siege.” Fighting for Time, volume 4 of The Image of War, 1861-1865. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1983, 166-230.

War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion. Volume 28, parts 1 and 2. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1890. Volume 28 includes reports and correspondence from the operations of both the Union and Confederate armies on Morris Island between 12 June and 31 December 1863.

Wise, Stephen R. Gate of Hell: Campaign for Charleston Harbor, 1863. Columbia, S. C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1994.