Morris Island and the Battle of Fort Wagner

Map of the charge of the 54th Massachusetts. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 100 years or less.
Map of the charge of the 54th Massachusetts. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. Click on image to see larger size.

by Paul Hedden

According to Stephen Wise in his book Gate of Hell, Morris Island was originally three islands : Middle Bay, Morrison Island and Cummings Island. These were separated by marshes and inlets that, through accretion, filled in forming one island. Its name a corruption of Morrison Island.

Morris Island today

Morris Island, on the south side of Charleston Harbor, is about about 3½ miles in length, low, narrow, and sandy, and is separated from the main land adjacent to it toward the interior by soft and impracticable marshes, varying in width from 1½ to 3 miles.

These marshes are submerged by spring tides, and are traversed by numerous streams, that are generally very narrow, deep, and crooked. The inner end of Morris island is within 3½ to 4 miles from the city. The harbor inside is bounded by Charleston and the mainland on the north and by James Island on the south side. The shortest distance between Sullivan’s and Morris Islands is 2,700 yards.

December 1860 military action on Morris Island
Major Robert Anderson. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less.
Major Robert Anderson. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.

With the undercover movement of Major Robert Anderson‘s garrison from Fort Moultrie to the unfinished Fort Sumter the night of December 26, 1860 South Carolinian militia quickly moved to isolate Fort Sumter within Charleston Harbor and separate the Fort from the main ship channel, which was just off shore running parallel to Morris Island.

On Monday December 31, 1860 eighty South Carolina miltia men landed on the northern tip of Morris Island to construct fortifications at and surrounding Cummings Point. Simultaneously the Morris Island Light was extinguished.

The Star of the West and the Neck Batteries

This battery would come to be known as the Star of the West battery when on January 9, 1861 the militia there led the attack against the ship of that name and kept it from successfully resupplying Fort Sumter, then just days into a siege that lasted until April 14, 1861.

On April 12, 1861 after the illuminating shell was first fired over Fort Sumter from Fort Johnson on James Island, the guns on Morris Island participated in the 34 hour bombardment of Fort Sumter that began the American Civil War.

Langdon Cheves and Francis D. Lee, two of General Pemberton’s best engineers, designed a new battery on Morris Island to secure the Star of the West Battery about 1000 yards below Cummings Point. This battery, which stretched across Morris Island from Vincent’s Creek to the open ocean effectively protecting Cummings Point battery, was labeled the “Neck Battery”.

On November 4, 1862 it was renamed in honor of Lt. Colonel Thomas Wagner of the 1st South Carolina Artillery. He was killed when a gun exploded while serving at Fort Moultrie. A popular officer, he had served as an occasional commander of Fort Sumter and had held temporary command at Secessionville after his superiors had been wounded.

Open to attack
General David Hunter. This media file is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1923.
General David Hunter. This media file is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1923.

After a period of “reorganization”, needed because of the collapse of the 1862 invasion of James Island in June through early July, General David Hunter and his, some say, incompetent subordinate troops, were again to be landed on the southern reaches of James Island and Folly Island in early April 1863 to coincide with the naval attack on Fort Sumter.

Charleston was open to attack from three directions: First, through James Island, via the Stono, left open by the abandonment of Coles Island; secondly, by Morris Island, via Folly Island, and third from the North via Bulls Bay.

Leaving a force on Folly Island after the sea attack in April, the Union gave only occasional evidence of any intention to resort to Morris Island as a way of attack until a day or two before the south end of the island was carried. At this time the defenses on Morris Island consisted of Battery Wagner and some Confederate pickets on the southern tip of the island as a defense against an approach by land to Battery Gregg (named after Brigadier General Maxcy Gregg, killed at the battle of Fredericksburg) the former location of the Star of the West battery.

Re-occupying the islands

On the evening of April 6, 1863 Union troops had begun to land on the south end of Folly, which showed no indication of being defended by Confederate forces. Union troops advanced to the northern tip of the island meeting no resistance, though a report from a Confederate signal party consisting of one officer and “ten good men” had alerted defenders at the northern end of Folly to the landing.

General P.G.T. Beauregard. This media file is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1923.
General P.G.T. Beauregard. This media file is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1923.

The successful re-occupation of the islands directly south of Charleston is rarely remembered in light of the magnificent failure of the U.S. Naval attack on Charleston Harbor and the loss of the USS Keokuk.

By the 7th of April, 1863 the number of Union troops estimated to have been landed in the southern approaches to Charleston had been raised to 7,000. The problem for the Confederates was the simultaneous attack by the US Navy on Fort Sumter.

This, the largest frontal assault on Charleston during the war, required General P.G.T. Beauregard to defend the forts and batteries on the periphery of the harbor. No troops were available to defend against the Union army’s attack on the sea and barrier island approaches to Charleston, which Beauregard regarded as a feint.

The Massachusetts 54th

By early July Union forces held all of Folly Island and the southern reaches of James Island and the southern portion of Morris Island. On July 10 an initial attack was launched against Wagner that was successfully repulsed by its defenders.

To disorient and confuse Union forces, on July 16th Confederate forces attacked the Union army at Grimballs Landing and across Rivers Causeway onto Sol Legare Island where the advancing Rebel forces were held at bay by the Massachusetts 54th Infantry, an African-American regiment.

The storming of Ft. Wagner by 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. This media file is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1923.
The storming of Ft. Wagner by 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. This media file is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1923. Click on image to see larger version.

This hand-to-hand combat allowed the 10th Connecticut to fall back to safety. The 54th suffered 43 of the 46 Union losses in this engagement. They were lauded for their bravery and even the Charleston Courier stated the African-Americans had fought better than the whites.

As the forces on James and Sol Legare Islands were withdrawn to Coles Island for respite, the failure of the first attack on Battery Wagner was reported to Colonel Robert Shaw and his second-in-command, Lieutenant-Colonel Edward N. Hallowell who volunteered the 54th to lead the ”forlorn hope” against Wagner in the final attack.

On July 18th, 1863 the 54th Massachusetts led the forces to “Glory”. The rest is history!

Morris Island is much smaller now

Barrier islands are naturally fragile and unstable. Over the years, erosion has reduced the size of Morris Island so much that the ocean now surrounds the walls of the lighthouse. Even so, developers have hoped to establish a private dock for day-trips to a private island. In 2008, the Trust for Public Lands purchased the island on behalf of the City of Charleston to “protect the island’s nationally significant historical and natural resources.”

Paul Hedden has been a resident of James Island for over two decades. He is the author of more than forty articles about the amazing history of James Island, most concerning the Civil War on James Island, which appeared in the James Island Messenger. Paul is an avid researcher and writer about the history and geography of South Carolina’s Lowcountry. His interests have brought him to participation nationally with the Civil War Preservation Trust and notice by the National Trust for Historic Preservation through his work with the Seashore Farmers Lodge on Sol Legare Road. Paul was one of five members of the Concerned Citizens of Sol Legare (pronounced Sol Legree) Seashore Farmers Lodge Museum and Cultural Center restoration committee, which traveled to Buffalo, N.Y. in October of 2011 to accept an honor award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation at its annual preservation conference. He is Chairman Town of James Island History Commission (2015 – present) and a member of Friends of the Old Exchange, the S.C. Historical Society, the Charleston Library Society, Friends of McLeod Plantation, and the Slave Dwelling Project.

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