Battery Wagner was the principal fortification on Morris Island during the Civil War. It was constructed during the summer of 1862 and named for Lieutenant Colonel Thomas M. Wagner. The powerful earthwork stretched across the island and was designed to keep the enemy from Cummings Point, the closest land to Fort Sumter. In the summer of 1863 it thwarted a Union attack against Charleston.
In the spring of 1863, the Federals planned a joint operation that called for a quick seizure of Morris Island, the erection of breeching batteries on Cummings Point, the bombardment and capture of Fort Sumter, and the removal of harbor obstructions to allow ironclads to enter the harbor and capture Charleston. On July 10, 1863, a combined Federal force commanded by General Quincy A. Gillmore and Rear Admiral John Dahlgren attacked from Folly Island and captured most of Morris Island. At dawn on July 11, 1863, Wagner’s garrison of 1,800 men under Colonel Charles Olmstead stopped a 1,230-man Union brigade. The Federals then constructed siege batteries and on July 18 opened a daylong land and naval bombardment of Battery Wagner. A Union division commanded by General Truman Seymour was drawn up to attack Wagner. It was spearheaded by the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts, a regiment of black soldiers led by Colonel Robert Shaw. Some 1,600 men under General William B. Taliaferro defended Wagner. The attack commenced at dusk, and though part of Wagner was overrun, the Federals were thrown back, suffering 1,515 casualties of the 5,000 men engaged. Among the dead was Colonel Shaw. The Confederates suffered 222 casualties.
The attack showed the ability of earthen fortifications to absorb bombardments and retain their ability to resist attacks. The fine performance of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts troops sparked an increase in the recruitment of African Americans and demonstrated that they could be used as frontline troops. For his actions in the attack, Sergeant William Carney became the first black soldier to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The battle also forced the Confederacy to revise its laws that required the reenslavement or execution of captured black troops and instead to accept them as legitimate Union soldiers.
After the failed assaults, the Federals opened siege operations against Wagner. They also began constructing heavy breeching batteries. On August 17, 1863, these batteries, which contained the largest rifled guns ever used in combat in the United States, opened on Fort Sumter. In less than two weeks the masonry fortification was reduced to rubble, but as long as the Confederates held Wagner, the Federals could not capture Sumter. By September 6 the Union siege lines had reached Wagner, and that evening the battery and the rest of Morris Island was evacuated. A subsequent Union amphibious assault against Sumter was defeated, and the campaign ended. The tenacious defense of Battery Wagner had given the Confederates enough time to rework their defensive scheme and thwart the Union attack, temporarily saving Sumter and Charleston from capture. Total casualties for the campaign were 2,318 Federals and 1,022 Confederates.
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Jervey, Theodore D. “Charleston during the Civil War.” In Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1913, vol. 1. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1915.
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